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Good Times in the Coleman Polish Hall

by Monica Primrose

The old Coleman Polish Hall is still standing with her date, 1927, emblazoned on the front. Like an old woman, she is showing her age. Plaster is peeling, paint is fading, and the shingles are loose, but inside is her heart of gold. The Hall's life has changed like that of a woman. She started her youth burgeoning with activity. Her supporters, her Polish children, numbered in the hundreds. Their concerns kept her constantly busy. They got older and their families expanded. She hosted "smokers" less frequently but no less joyously. Then the youngsters left home. Her spirit faded. Now she is highly dependent on the kindness of strangers, but memories of this Hall and the good times are not forgotten by the people who danced into her life, however briefly. I remember this place from my childhood in the 1950s. The first thing that always comes to mind is the smell that used to permeate the walls-cigarette smoke and stale beer. Well, they do say that smell evokes the strongest memories. Mom and dad attended some of the "smokers" back then. I remember them dressed up in their party best, dancing shoes polished, mom with her bee-hive hairdo sprayed stiff.

Few people even remember the very beginnings of the Polish Society in Coleman. In the early 1900s, many Poles moved to Coleman, mainly as mine labourers.1 Very often the husband arrived first and worked, sometimes for many years, to earn passage money for his wife and family. Lots of young men came alone seeking their fortunes. The mine work was back-breaking physical labour. Miles underground the darkness is so total it seems like a solid physical presence. With light from small wick lamps, miners toiled long hours, scraping coal off the walls of pitch black tunnels and loading it, with hand shovels, into cars. A man was paid by the amount he loaded. Methane bumps, rock slides, and floods made work hazardous. Unions did not exist then and a miner's pay was tiny, with no benefits. However, in 1916 the Poles led by W. Lisa formed the Polish Society of Brotherly Aid. For a rather substantial fee for those days, men not only had a social club, but, more importantly, they received some sickness and injury benefits of $6 a week, and funeral costs of $100 to the widow.

In Coleman, the Poles had settled in Bushtown, so called because it was a narrow flood plain with the Crowsnest River and Nez Perce creek meandering through it, hence lots of willow and low bush. Across the CPR tracks from Coleman proper, the Poles seemed to want to remain separate from the rest of the townsfolk. In those days, the 1910s, social events were held in a small wooden hall, that was a rather large storage building on Joe Michalski's land. Memories of this place are rather vague, but Polish people did have great fun and lively dances. These were not "smokers" yet, they were family dances. Families brought their children, sang, danced, and had a good time. The music was strictly amateur and old country. My granddad William Michalski played violin, my uncle Joe Michalski was master of ceremonies and jug blower, and Walter Lesniak played the saxophone. Under kerosene lamps, they enthusiastically played the tunes everyone remembered from Poland-polkas, oberkas, and mazurkas for dancing, as well as all the sad songs for singing and crying. They loved "Góralu, czy ci nie zal . . . " whose lyrics in English are: "Oh, Highlander why did you leave your mountains? I left to find bread. . . ." Unless the men slipped outside to sneak a nip, there was no liquor available since it was prohibition until 1924.
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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.
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