Kaszube's Park on Jones Island is the smallest park in the county, perhaps not even as large as a city lot. It is maintained by the City of Milwaukee Department of Public Works and meant to commemorate the people alternatively referred to as Kaszubs, Kaszubes or Kashubes, immigrants who settled on the island after being forced from northern Poland in the 1800s.
The park is located on South Carferry Drive and sits amidst shipping crates alongside a chain link fence. The park's two trees are a stark contrast to the piles of road salt towering nearby. A sign tells passersby that this is a park. A large anchor, currently adorned with the graffiti "S.S. Lisa," rests next to one of the trees and a historical marker has been placed in front of it.
The marker reads, "Designated as a Milwaukee landmark in 1974 in recognition of the unique multi-ethnic fishing village that flourished on this peninsula during the late 19th and 20th centuries and played a significant role in the city's history."
In addition to the Kashubes, some Germans and Norwegians lived on the island, which is actually a peninsula. What's referred to as a "straight cut" was made north of Jones Island, creating an island, as well as Milwaukee's interior harbor where the Milwaukee, Kinnickinnic and Menomonee Rivers meet. The south end of the island later filled with sediment from the rivers, reconnecting it to Bay View.
The Kashubes created a fishing village on Jones Island, building homes and working Lake Michigan for decades. Most of these island residents did not own the land they lived on. When the Illinois Steel Company, which owned the island, threatened to evict them all, the city of Milwaukee came to their aid, only to later force the residents off anyway when the island was designated as the primary location for our waste water treatment facility.
Most of the evictions took place in the 1920s, but sources say people continued to live on the island well into the '40s.
The Kashubes are a Slavic tribe who originally settled on or near the Hel peninsula, which juts into the Baltic Sea, between 1,100 and 1,400 years ago. (Hel is not a bad place, but, rather, named after Helios, the chariot-driving sun god.)
That region is known as Kaszuby and in modern Poland is in the province of Pomerania.
Due to the "reorganization" of Poland by Prussia and Russia in the 1800s, attempts to displace Poles with German citizens and weaken ethnic and cultural ties, many people, including the Kashubes, left Poland.
They settled across North America, including rural Ontario, where there is a historical and cultural association keeping Kashube traditions alive and where many people still speak an ancient language.
Kashubes speak Kashubian (or, in Polish, "kaszubski") which some people call a dialect of Polish but that many linguists classify as its own language. The Polish government classifies Kashubian a "regional language," most likely to keep it politically contained.
Donald Tusk, the current prime minister of Poland, is a fourth generation Kashube. In an interview with linguistics scholars studying the Kashubian language and its repression in Poland, Tusk remarked how there is now a "healthy snobbery" about Kashubian and that many younger Poles are adding it as a third or fourth language.
Kashubes in Milwaukee maintained their traditions for generations as well and many descendants of the Jones Island inhabitants are steeped in family lore that goes back over 100 years.
Julie Anne Mikolajek's grandparents lived on Jones Island. Mikolajek's grandmother Pauline Budzisz and her sister left Kaszuby about the same time John Selin, her grandfather, did. They grew up and were married in Milwaukee and then lived on the island until the city evicted them. They then moved to a house at South 9th Street and Greenfield Avenue.
John Selin lived near and worked on Lake Michigan almost his entire life. One of Mikolajek's fondest memories of her grandfather is when he took her onboard the tug boat he worked when she was about 10 or 11.
"He worked the third shift, so it was very late and exciting. I got a tour of the boat," says Mikolajek.
Mikolajek's sister and cousin have traveled to the Kaszuby region and done extensive genealogical research. As has Rick Petrie, executive director of Urban Anthropology. The organization operates the Old South Side Settlement Museum, 707 W. Lincoln Ave., in which is a room dedicated to the Kashubes of Jones Island.
"Jones Island is a piece of history – where the least-known ethnic group resided," says Petrie. Urban Anthropology used to offer boat tours of Jones Island during which the Kashubes were focused on, but the boat captain the organization chartered with retired.
But Urban Anthropology plans to incorporate the history of the Kashubes on a bus tour called "Lost Milwaukee," which will also cover other historic ethnic neighborhoods such as the Third Ward, Tory Hill (which is now mostly the Marquette Interchange) and Bronzeville.
A trip to the park on such a tour might be in order, especially since it's difficult to find on one's own. Although tour goers will have to take turns sitting at the park's one picnic table.
Mikolajek recently traveled to the park with her husband and she was very happy to see a red tug boat docked behind the park, reminiscent of the one her grandfather worked on. But when asked about an entire park, no matter how small, dedicated to her ancestors, Mikolajek is somewhat less joyous.
"I'm fascinated by the story of the people and the island itself," Mikolajek says. "But a sign or something probably would have been enough."
Royal has taught courses in critical pedagogy, writing, rhetoric and cultural studies at several schools in Wisconsin and Minnesota. He is currently Adjunct Associate Professor of Humanities at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.
Royal lives in Walker’s Point with his family and uses the light of the Polish Moon to illuminate his way home.