As more people arrived and families expanded, they outgrew this small makeshift hall and set out to build a new, bigger Polish Hall. Recycling is not a new concept; the bricks and much of the lumber for the new hall were taken from the dismantled Frank Sanatorium. Because a creek had run through the double lot chosen for the new location before it was rerouted, the cement foundation was poured extra deep and thick. An impressive facade boasted a stained glass window, an arched top, and faceted cement corner decorations. Inside, the high peaked ceiling was lined in the same narrow, varnished shiplap that lined the lower walls. A floor was built for dancing that remains solid and flat to this day. There was a stage at the front with stairs on either side and enough room above to raise background scenes. The Polish Hall was ready for fun. Early in 1928, Mr. Graham, the painter, livened up the interior with murals (some say in exchange for a beer tab) which have survived the passage of time. They represent both the old country and the new one. From Poland there are mysterious castles and forests, and from Alberta, the majestic Rocky Mountains. Decorative brown and gold frames, also painted, set them off. One mural over the stage has the Society's name lettered across it. Though today they are dimmed by layers of varnish and years of coal dust and cigarette tar and though the upper ones are hidden by a false ceiling installed in the 1950s, these murals offer a glimpse into the past and add charm and an old world mystique.
Two types of events are twirled together in people's minds and remembered as "smokers." Actually, there were two separate types of parties. First there were dances and then there were "smokers." They began as quite different occasions. The dance was a family gathering, children included. No alcohol was served, nor was there any food. A live band played and everyone just danced. The "smoker" began as a social gathering for the men at which they would talk, drink beer, and sample the hot food served from the kitchen-a government requirement. Gradually, women began attending "smokers," then bands were added, and by the late 1930s the dances disappeared and "smokers" ruled. My mother, Helen, and her sister, Wilma, as children in the 1930s, remembered the dances. The ladies wore their best dresses, the same ones that would have to do for Sunday at church in most families. "Babka", my grandma, wore a lovely blue satin dress. Mom's earliest memory is of the baby, Alice, wetting through her diapers on to Babka's beautiful dress. Benches lined the sides of the hall and in the winter everyone tossed his coat in a big pile.
There were also other activities going on in the early days: society meetings, a Polish School, and a Polish Dance School. The Polish School was run by Mr. Opulski. Children who had to give up two evenings a week and Saturdays to learn to conjugate Polish verbs, certainly did not consider it an enjoyable time. However, the girls and boys who learned the "krakowiak," the "mazurka," and other traditional Polish dances, remember those days fondly. The students worked hard to learn the intricate steps and even made their own costumes. They performed in concerts at the Hall, lighted by electric bulbs dangling from cords, and even got to travel to Lethbridge to perform-a long trip in those days. Many years later, they still speak glowingly of their teacher, Wanda Murry, who came all the way from Winnipeg to live in the Crowsnest Pass and teach them to dance.
As funds grew, the amateur musicians gave way to established bands. Some of their names are legendary in this area. For their 50 cent admission (25 cents for ladies) locals heard excellent music. Tom Kropinak led the "Pirates" with his accomplished accordion playing. The "Bluebirds" with the "Setlas," and the "Arcadians" with the "Slopaks," could play anything requested. Some of the musicians would walk all the way from Blairmore and, after playing almost non-stop from nine to midnight, they would be lucky to earn $1 for the night. Tradition dictated that the band be served a meal at midnight. Music at the Polish Hall stayed much the same until the war-polkas, waltzes, and an occasional tango. If the orchestra played a foxtrot, everyone just sat there. The most requested song was "Stara Baba," otherwise known as the Bushtown polka.
Reprinted from Polonia in Alberta 1895
-1995: The Polish Centennial in Alberta (Edmonton: Polish
Centennial Society, 1995) eds. Andrzej M. Kobos and Jolanta T.
Pekacz, with permission of the Canadian
Polish Congress Alberta Branch.