Playing was not without its hazards. After a particularly rousing number, Joe Pavlus, a musician, remembers a rather inebriated older patron requesting the same song again and again. When they explained that they could not do it because the other customers would complain, he started throwing the heavy wooden chairs at them. The musicians certainly earned their meagre pay. When the war came, different, more modern dances were added. Everyone was doing the Lambeth walk. Six-foot tall Mrs. Kuchtyn and her diminutive husband led the way with everyone in the Hall, old and young, following. Tag dances let the whole place circulate and lady's choice was a favourite with the young girls who had their eyes on that certain Mr. Right. There was a cardinal rule for women at the dances: "when a gentleman asks you to dance, no matter how
old, ugly or drunk he is, you never say no." To do so would mortally wound his ego in front of the other men. Every woman at the party was fair game. Even though you came with a boyfriend or husband, he shared you and you danced with everyone.
There were adult fights. They happened mostly at the "smokers" where alcohol was available and they were usually about women or territory. The women-related fights were simply based on jealousy-one man danced too many times with another man's date-but the territory battles were about the Pass itself. There always was a horrible rivalry in the Crowsnest Pass among the towns. Coleman hated Blairmore and Blairmore hated Bellevue. The heritage of a fellow did not matter one bit, only the town in which he lived. No one seems to remember why all this started. When a Coleman-Blairmore fist fight erupted at the Hall it involved more and more men and furniture, until it spilled outside and inevitably the police had to sort the whole thing out. The rivalry was especially strong in sports; a hockey game between Coleman and Bellevue was not a mere game, but a war with more fighting occurring in the stands than on the ice.
As the dances slowly disappeared and the "smokers" took over, the Polish population was diminishing, but the parties had become so popular that people from other backgrounds started coming. In 1994, I talked to an elderly gentleman of English background who fondly remembers the Polish Hall "smokers." He had met his wife at one. A stranger's glance across a crowded room-love at first sight, a sort of miracle. In 1995 they celebrated their fifty-fifth wedding anniversary.
The war came and the mines were working full time. Many young men left answering the call of duty and many original members of the Polish Society of Brotherly Aid had died or left the area, but the "smokers" were still held every two weeks on paydays. There was more money to spend, but beer was still only 10 cents a glass. The young girls' scandalously short skirts swung to the occasional jitterbug scattered among the polkas, and the odd Butterfly or "Oh Johnnie, Oh" round dance was requested. Young soldiers on leave, dashing in their uniforms, sometimes
attended.2 The Society had dwindled to alarmingly small numbers. The Polish people of the Pass gladly welcomed the new Poles displaced by the war. Former Polish soldiers, who had served overseas, came to work at CPR and the mines. The newcomers, young, vital, and active, formed the Polish Combatants' Association. In the early 1950s, the depleted older group turned the Hall over to the new Association. Unfortunately, when the old group left, they stripped the Hall of almost everything from the early years. Photographs, books, the stage curtain printed with local ads, and most of the written records were taken away to other areas. The Polish Combatants' started with a building bare of history, but they used their strong membership to preserve Polish culture and improve the Polish Hall.
"Smokers" were revived with a somewhat different format. There were no more family dances. Even though the mines were riddled with shutdowns and strikes, a party made everyone forget for a while and the "smokers" regained their old popularity. The Polish Combatants' Association kept the Hall active until they, too, began to falter. By that time, the Hall was dependent for its upkeep on the hard work and money from the Ladies' Auxiliary to the Polish Combatants'. For the modest sum of about a dollar, one sat down to a plate of cabbage rolls, salad, bigos, or garlic sausage and a bun, with coffee and a plate of squares for dessert, all prepared and served by the ladies. Once a year the Polish Ladies' Auxiliary held a bazaar and a tea party. Afterwards one could purchase craft items, choosing from dozens of knitted, crocheted, and embroidered items like doilies and elaborate pillowcases that the ladies had worked all year to produce.
There were almost no job opportunities in the Crowsnest Pass. The children had left. The Society still had banquets to welcome the new Polish immigrants who were arriving, but the newcomers were not interested in an old hall with the remnants of its old-fashioned paintings and music. There was no one to carry the torch. Extra money was made by renting the facilities to private wedding parties and organizations, so it was no longer used exclusively by Polish people. Slowly, the Polish Hall was becoming a community hall. Finally the Combatants' could no longer meet expenses. A small group was formed-the Polish Hall Society-just to keep the Hall going and to prevent it from being turned into a garage as the Ukrainian Hall across the street sadly had been. In 1989, after years of work, the Polish Hall became a Historic Site. Now the dancing is different, different music is played by different people, different songs are sung at different parties.
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.