Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Flood Damage

Our flooding in Western Massachusetts this week, resulting from Hurricane Irene, is eliciting comparisons to historic storm events.

My father was born in Easthampton, MA on 1 August 1925 of Polish immigrant parents. He and his twin brother were the youngest of seven children who lived to adulthood.

Through my research, I was able to show him a few things that he hadn't known: the house where he was likely born in Easthampton, a death certificate of a brother in Poland, a baptismal certificate for his oldest brother Bennie in Poland.

As is often the case, some family stories were not proven by the record evidence, but there was a kernel of truth. My uncle Henry thought that there was a baby who had died on the voyage to New York. Instead, we learned that the first child of Piotr and Walerya Szymanowicz had been born in their village of Drohiczyn in eastern (Russian) Poland in 1907 and died just short of his second birthday. Their second son, Boniface, was born a few months after the death of the first. It was the second child who took, and survived, the trip aboard the SS Finland, arriving in New York 23 August 1910.

Piotr and Walerya had six American children in Easthampton, MA and both became citizens themselves. Often the case among immigrant families, the oldest son left school early and began working to supplement the family income. Bennie also began the citizenship process as a young man, filing a Declaration of Intent in the Hampshire County Court. We know he worked in a gas station and had shares of Cities Service Company.

In March of 1936 torrential rains fell on the Connecticut Valley, which had seen an unusually large snowfall in previous months. The thaw, the rain and the ice breaking up in the river combined to produce record flooding. The Szymanowicz family had a small neighborhood grocery store adjacent to their home at the corner of Holyoke and Hawley Streets in Northampton, MA. The flood waters rose, filling their basement and the store at street level. Dad remembers eating "mystery meals" from the cans that lost their labels on the shelves.

Pleasant Street, Northampton - Photo from WGBY

When the water receded, river silts were left behind. Bennie developed a skin infection from contaminants that were deposited with the river silts as he attempted to clean up his parents' property. These were the years before common use of penicillin, a wonder drug that we take for granted 75 years later. Bennie died at age 27, on 14 April 1936 in Northampton. His pall bearers were Knights of Columbus, of whom he was a member. He was buried in St. Stanislaus cemetery in Easthampton beneath an Italian marble statue of Immaculate Mary.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, I love how you not only documented the flood, but found that the death was related. And the story about the "mystery cans" is fantastic. I'm glad the stories were passed on to you so the connections could be made.