Hamtramck: History And Holidays

25 Nov

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Today we’re in Hamtramck for the Polish Art Center open house; the shop is an emporium for all things Polish. The front windows face Joseph Campau, decorated for the holidays they feature beautiful city scenes. On the right are four entries for the Szopki contest, the winner will be announced today. Inside we enter a winter wonderland, small white cones strung together dangle from the decorative tin ceiling creating an indoor snowfall; the mood is festive. Everybody seems to know each other, greetings come in the form of smiles and hugs. A line of customers extends from the register to the back of the store, their arms overflow with merchandise.

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I hear someone playing a harp, we negotiate our way to the other side of the shop, a man sits in the center of the room, the most beautiful music fills the air as his fingers pluck strings effortlessly. We are surrounded by attractive Boleslawiec Polish Stoneware; bowls, cups, tureens, goblets and more all hand-painted in pretty patterns. T-shirts and hats have cute Polish sayings and designs, colorful Polish Folk aprons hang above. The crowd has gathered around the food table, a variety of dishes such as roast pork with winter vegetables, meatballs, bruschetta, smoked salmon with all the toppings, fruit and cheeses are offered to open-house guests; everything is delicious!

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We browse past pretty-painted wooden boxes, serving pieces, figurines, greeting cards, napkins while sipping on champagne and eating homemade truffles. Back in the first room coloring book author Catherine Macaro is busy coloring and signing books. The Christmas ornaments are lovely; snowmen, dolls, snow-covered houses and trees to name a few. Here we have a large selection of Polish cd’s, soup mixes, jams, dried mushrooms, hard candies and my favorite, chocolate. While we wait for the check-out line to die down we check out the Amber jewelry, they have a huge variety from necklaces to rings, the antique wooden display cases are almost as pretty as the jewelry.

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We have made our purchase, earlier I noticed the Hamtramck Historical Museum is open today, that’s where we’re going now. The museum is being renovated in stages so each time we come it’s different; it’s gotten much bigger since our last visit. The building was actually the first department store in the city in the 19-teens, many remember the space as the old barber college, its last incarnation before the museum was a dollar store. All aspects of the city’s history are represented, they have thousands of items ranging from documents, photos and memorabilia to films, medical records and household items. Shelves hold vintage packaging from the Holbrook Ice Cream Company, Swan soap, needles and threader, I like the name of the home permanent: Bu-Tee-Wave, kinda catchy don’t you think?

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Kris automatically gravitates to the Dodge Main display. When the Dodge brothers opened their assembly plant in 1910 immigrants from Poland flooded the area. Dodge Main occupied 67 acres, it was made up of 35 separate  buildings, it included a medical facility, test track and fire department.  Some of the cars built here include Charger, Coronet, Polara, Lancer and Monaco. Display cases are filled with photos, emblems, name badges, key chains, articles, patches, mementos and an actual brick from the factory building. By the mid-20’s factory workers made up 85% of the heads of households in Hamtramck—whoa.

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I wander past photos of the old Village Hall, concert posters, record albums, sheet music, wedding and communion photos, commemorative plates. Business advertisements are found on matchbooks, ashtrays and trinkets. I check out the antique stove, next to it a Westinghouse Electric Roaster, this was a staple in every Polish household back in the day! A cheerleader uniform from St Lads (hey, my dad went to school there), bowling pins and Hamtramck Beer are reminders of the good ol’ days.

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After reading letters, placards and newspaper articles I realize Hamtramck has always welcomed immigrants; from the early days when Detroit Stove Works and the Dodge brothers attracted men from Poland, Syria, and Lebanon continuing to this day.This 2-square-mile city is Michigan’s most internationally diverse. Families from Poland, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Ukraine, Albania, live side by side in peace. 27 native languages are spoken by school children. Polish Catholics, Ukranian Orthodox, Iraqi Chaldean Christians, Muslims, practice their religions in the same neighborhood. Hamtramck has hosted Presidents, the Pope, movies, famous people, the Food Network; it’s home to Kowalski, GM, Detroit City FC and, of course, Paczki. 

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Hunger has gotten the best of us, today we’re eating at Polonia Restaurant on Yemans. This charming restaurant has been around for over 40 years. The decor features art by Polish artists, artifacts, hand painted mural, old-fashioned tin ceiling and indirect lighting, giving it a homey feel.The menu is filled with traditional Polish and Eastern European specialties. Our food arrives on large white plates, the Polish plate is a combo of pierogi, golabki, kielbasa, sauerkraut, mashed potatoes and gravy; all of it quite tasty. The mushroom nalesniki are outstanding; paper-thin crepes stuffed with flavorful mushrooms smothered in creamy gravy and a drizzle of sour cream–wow! It’s been a wonderful day and a great way to kick off the holiday season. na zdrowie!

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