Sunday, September 22, 2013

Hail to the (Winona) Chiefs!

Like all good Kashubian boys and girls, I was raised Roman Catholic. But looking back over the years, I think I could just as easily list my religion as "baseball." Rivers of ink have been spilled and countless electrons slaughtered explaining why baseball is a religion. Some of it makes for pretty good reading, but it's not necessary reading for those of us already "in the know." And being Laura Mae Bambenek's oldest son, I suspect I was born "in the know."

Mom certainly told us kids stories of the Winona Chiefs and their fearless leader, Max Molock. Sad to say, though, I was most impressed that his name rhymed with "Polack." Back in early 1970s Milwaukee, the Chiefs couldn't begin to compete with the Milwaukee Brewers. The Brewers were pretty awful back then, but we all backed our True Blue Brew Crew. They didn't make 'em any truer and bluer than Mom. I mean, I rooted for the Brewers too, but Mom listened to them, watched them, read about them, and even kept score during their games. And talked about them. God, how she talked about them. It was pretty cool being the only one of my friends whose Mom really understood baseball, but it wasn't always easy keeping up with her. I can't even guess how many Brewers games she toted us (and Dad) to, but my favorite memories are of the games she and I attended together.

Reading Kent Stever's wonderful new book, Growing Up on the Mississippi: 1950s Winona, Minnesota, has filled in another part of the picture for me. Stever has a flair for making old Winona stories come alive - even if (like me) you never lived in Winona and (also like me) weren't even alive in the 1950s. I won't try to summarize, because if you are reading this blog, you are interested in Winona - and if you are interested in Winona, you need to own Growing Up on the Mississippi. I couldn't help but be delighted by this description of Gabrych Park:
These were evenings to remember. Thousands of local townspeople and neighboring farmers crowded into Gabrych Park, a high-ceilinged structure built on donated land in memory of a war hero from the East End neighborhood of the park. It was a monument to the ambition and dedication of Polish-Americans who had settled on their “shotgun,” forty-foot lots in the 1870s—not far from the Mississippi River and the logging industry that brought them here. Along with their immense and marvelous St. Stanislaus Polish-Catholic Church a few blocks away, this field of dreams was a major source of pride to all.
This is much more than a mere name-check. Stever clearly appreciates how Winona's Kashubian Polish community was (and remains) part of the fiber of Winona's history. He also points out that the Winona Chiefs were a rebranded version of the PNA (Polish National Alliance) baseball team which had flourished in Winona for decades. Score another one for us Kashubians!

Stever also captures beautifully how passionately Winona felt about the Chiefs.
The Chiefs were our super-stars and heroes of summer. They related to baseball-minded young boys, to wide-eyed local girls of all ages and to fathers and family members who plunked down the 35 cent admission. A night at the ballpark was an escape from day jobs in the factories and processing plants with their ever-so-repetitious tasks. Some slugged cattle or hogs all day in the packing plant, while others watched the continuous welds of links of chain pass by their station in the excessive warmth of the riverside Peerless Chain Factory...
I can very easily see my Mom as one of those "wide-eyed local girls." In fact, Mom was so crazy about the Chiefs, that she and her friends would take the train to watch their heroes play on the road. Here she is (at far left) with some of her pals at the Chicago Great Western station in Dodge Center, MN, circa 1950, on her way to watch the Chiefs somewhere. Even back in the day, Mom took her baseball extremely seriously!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Old Stone Road

Mankato Avenue has an extremely interesting history. The postcard at left shows it as "The Old Stone Road" -  an important intercity arterial, running from Winona's southern boundary along east end of Lake Winona and continuing along the east end of Sugar Loaf up to the prairies beyond. Myself, I think of Mankato Avenue as the "Main Street of Kashubian America" for the numbers of Kashubian Poles and Kashubian Polish businesses to be found along it. But that is another blog post. Today, Mankato Avenue veers southeastward right around the Riverport Inn, as it heads toward the Highway 61 intersection. But this was not always the case. Andrew Munsch, the proprietor of, points out that Mankato Avenue - or "The Old Stone Road" - once headed directly out of Winona along what is now Sugar Loaf Road.

Although "The Old Stone Road" referenced in the picture is now Sugar Loaf Road, you can get a definite idea of what it was like to come into Winona from the south, one hundred years ago. Having come into Winona along Mankato Avenue literally dozens of times as a kid, I find this to be a pretty incredible visual. If you look closely you can see the Wisconsin bluffs to the north. The road just to the left of the carriage is Lake Boulevard. At the bottom of the hill is the Winona and South-Western Railroad, later the Chicago Great Western Railway. As one headed north toward Winona, the road would become somewhat wider and would eventually become paved with bricks. As "The Old Stone Road" passed through the marsh land to the east of Lake Winona, it was more like a causeway, built over a swamp, than it was like a street. After a short and slight jog to the right, the "Old Stone Road" intersected with East Mark Street and, shortly afterward, the Milwaukee Road's Chicago-Twin Cities mainline.

Today, of course, the view is quite different. As this picture by Andrew Munsch shows, one can still look straight down Mankato Avenue from what is now Sugar Loaf Road. But what was once a marsh now contains Winona Health, Target, Wal-Mart, Mills Fleet Farm, the Riverport Inn, and countless other businesses. The Winona and South-Western's right of way along the south end of Lake Winona is long gone: the tracks were pulled up in the 1930s and the four-lane US Highway 61 was built in their place during the 1950s. Next time you are in the vicinity, you might consider a short visit to Sugar Loaf Road and looking down into Winona from the top of that little hill. It was a postcard-quality view at the turn of the 20th century and it is still a nice (and informative) view today!

Special thanks to Andrew Munsch for all of his spectacular work on the history of Highway 61 - the main street of my life.