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White Eagle Society celebrates a century of immigrant support and Polish community

The TRIAD program of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department sponsored a picnic at the White Eagle Polish Picnic Grounds in June. 
(Recorder/Paul Franz)

The TRIAD program of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department sponsored a picnic at the White Eagle Polish Picnic Grounds in June. (Recorder/Paul Franz) Purchase photo reprints »

GREENFIELD — Founded for mutual support by Polish immigrants before World War I, the White Eagle Society celebrates a century of community this year, with slim hopes for a second.

“Originally, the organization was founded to help the Polish immigrants coming over from the old country to help them find a location and help them with the English language,” said society President Bob Gibowicz.

Gibowicz is a third-generation member. His grandfather Alexander was a first-generation American who worked for the town of Greenfield, clearing streets with a horse-drawn plow in the winter.

March 29, 1914 was the first meeting of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Society, which would become the White Eagle Society in the 1940s, according to the society history.

The society will celebrate its centennial July 20, with a Polka mass, chicken barbecue and dancing.

The organization offered sickness and death benefits for its members — many of whom came to the country to work in the local mills — and also helped in finding them jobs.

The Catholic membership of the White Eagle Society helped buy a German beer hall on Deerfield Street and a plot of land on Wisdom Way, creating the Sacred Heart Church and Mater Dolorosa Cemetery for the Polish community.

Move toward entertainment

Immigration slowed but the organization remained, evolving toward social entertainment.

In the early 1930s, the society opened a club bar on Mill Street, in a building later sold to the Artspace Community Arts Center. Before the end of the decade, the society bought a pasture on what is now Plain Road.

“Back in the 1930s, there wasn’t much entertainment for families to get together, so they decided to acquire this pasture land and eventually built this pavilion and they would offer dancing and people would bring up food and they would picnic in the afternoon,” Gibowicz said.

Member Marcy Hoynoski’s father played in a small Polish orchestra that performed every Sunday afternoon.

“People at the picnic grounds came from all over Franklin County because that would be the place all the Polish people could meet. So if you had relatives in Turners or Greenfield, you’d get to see them. People would carpool over and that would be their socializing for the week,” Hoynoski said.

The two agree that the 1960s saw the society’s peak as a social organization.

“We would have a picnic every Sunday from Memorial Day to Labor Day,” Gibowicz said. “Now we’re down to one.”

The picnic ground on Plain Road is the last of the White Eagle Society’s holdings, and rentals to other organizations and events pay the property taxes.

“Unfortunately, membership is dwindling. At one time perhaps the largest membership we had was 120. We’re down to 20 now and 75 percent of them unfortunately are in their 80s,” Gibowicz said. “The future is dim. I hate to say that. There seems to be a lack of interest.”

Both Gibowicz and Hoynoski believe this is true of most local social organizations in the Internet age.

“It’s sad, but without a strong membership it’s just very difficult to continue on what our forefathers started, but we’re grateful to them for all that they have done. They were the ones that worked hard, saved all the money to acquire these assets and turned them over to us,” said Gibowicz.

The society continues the weekend picnics once a year, with a Polka mass, chicken barbecue and dance that typically draws about 300, they estimate.

The Eddie Forman Orchestra of Hadley will provide music this year. The Polka Mass begins at the Picnic Grounds at 11 a.m., followed by a chicken barbecue at 1 p.m. and dancing from 2 to 6 p.m.

The event is open to the public. Tickets for the dinner portion of the festivities are $14 and must be purchased in advance at Butynski Farm Stand, 370 Colrain Road, or, if you know them, from Carol Forman, Dottie Morgan, Ed Kaczenski, Dick Bukowski, Hoynoski or Gibowicz.

You can reach Chris Curtis at: ccurtis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 257

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