At the turn of the last century, there was hardly a single non-German name on the New Hanover tax list. However, if we look down the list of graduates of the New Hanover schools for the year 1935, included with the typical German names—Miller , Moyer, Renninger—we find the following: Mary Hrycaj, Mary Bieleski, Olga Kulishoff, John Slobondinck, Jennie Milozanowski, George and Stella Whorczuk, Eugene Kozaliowski, and Joseph Dushkewick.
Most of these children’s parents or grandparents immigrated through Ellis Island with the great waves of Eastern Europeans who were welcomed into this country at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. After first locating in the cities, some immigrants later looked out to the country areas such as New Hanover where they could afford to buy small farms for a few thousand dollars on which to grow their own food. Yet they were still close to the jobs provided by the heavy industry in Pottstown and vicinity which then employed tens of thousands.
Because of this immigration, twentieth century New Hanover was hardly the Germanic enclave that it was in the previous century. Our family farm on Reifsnyder Road had the Budnicks (Ukrainian) to the east; the Sepraskies (Polish) to the west; and the Leuchaks(Russian) to the south. And my father was PA Dutch in all but name; however, his name was “Wood”—English.
Typical of these immigrant families were Conrad and Xenia Budnick who had a forty acre farm accessed by a long lane from Swamp Picnic Road. Their daughter Stella recounts that her father was born in 1880 or ‘81 somewhere in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and came through Ellis Island in 1906. He met Xenia Czorny (Ukrainian) in Philadelphia and married her after only a few months. Six of their ten children were born before they came here in 1918. They paid $1500 for the property and upon arrival found the house was uninhabited for some time and in ruins. It was almost unlivable: no windows, many of the floorboards were missing and cows had been kept on the ground floor. The well had dead animals floating in it.
Soon after they arrived the deadly influenza pandemic of 1918 swept the world. People became ill with the flu and many would be dead in a few days. The Budnicks were stricken with the flu and their neighbors, the Weils, passed food and fire wood in through an open window so as not to be exposed to the contagion. Everyone survived.
He could neither read nor write English, but for the rest of his life Conrad worked on rebuilding and restoring the house, built a barn and out buildings, set out gardens and orchards, worked full time in Pottstown, farmed with horses—corn , wheat, mostly truck, and had four more children. The place became beautiful. In his 80’s he put a new roof on the house.
The Budnicks raised ten children: Mary, Anna, Jennie, Joseph, Stella, Sophie, Olga, Rose, Michael, and John. Sisters Jennie and Olga married brothers, Frank and Nick Hiriak. All the children went to Swamp Creek School and were taught by Miss Hattie Wile. Stella played the school’s pump organ without being able to read music. If she heard a tune she could “copy” it.
Mrs. Budnick tended huge gardens which fed the family during the summer, and she canned hundreds of quarts of vegetables for the winter. She carried buckets and buckets of water from the creek to irrigate a garden during dry spells. The vegetable crops must not fail. There was no option. Stella says they had to work hard. The kids were out there with a hoe at six or seven in the morning, but they were happy. They raised pigs to butcher, had three or four cows, chickens, ducks, and geese.
I asked John Budnick, the youngest of the children, if the native Dutchmen were unfriendly or hostile to them. He said that actually the neighbors were very nice. Before they arrived, Max Wood, knowing that the well was polluted, dug out a spring near the house and lined it with rocks so they had a nearby pool of clear drinking water. John Kulp, another neighbor showed Conrad how to butcher pigs and soon the Budnicks had scrapple and sausage. Charles Rhodes who owned the fields to their north gave Conrad permission to build a lane across his fields so they had access to Swamp Picnic Road. Before, their lane went through Minister Creek and around field edges to New Hanover Square Road.
John Budnick reports there were incidents in school, though, of kids harassing the “foreigners” and “Catholics.” He solved that one day by giving one of his tormentors a walloping punch in the nose and knocking him down. That had a very civilizing effect on the malefactor and the problem was solved.
Conrad worked at various jobs in Pottstown. For a time he worked for Charles Stout, bridge builder. While helping to build the Keim Street bridge over the Schuylkill, he fell from the structure into the icy water. After they pulled him out he was still clutching his hammer. Later he worked at Dana where he was part of the roof repair crew. Conrad died in 1973. His wife had predeceased him in 1964.
The Budnicks’ story was typical of the new arrivals to this area.
Next week: more stories