A Canton Thanksgiving Once Upon a Time

We had wooden steps and every year my father would paint them white and we used to scrub the sidewalks with detergent…

Geraldine Ida Bartkowiak Weaver

In the Polish families of old Canton, for whom cleaning was religion on a par with Catholicism and a broom was an extra limb, all scrubbing was done well in advance of the Thanksgiving feast. The many factories in the neighborhood went dark on major holidays and the industrial village by the harbor took on an eerie spell.“It was so quiet around here that you couldn’t stand it,” said the kid who grew up as “Gerry” Bartkowiak at 816 Luzerne Avenue, two blocks up from the American Can Company on Hudson Street.

Gerry Weaver holds photo of Gerry Bartkowiak
Gerry Weaver holds photo of Gerry Bartkowiak

The “Can” worked three shifts and a lot of noise came out of the red and white brick building: cutting tin, stamping it and molding it into cylinders; around-the-clock assembly lines banging out cans in all sizes for waiting rail cars.

The sound rumbled across the rooftops; easily heard during recess several blocks away at St. Casimir parochial school where Gerry graduated in 1956 and one day became the “lunch lady” and once-in-awhile gym teacher to get a break on tuition when her kids went there.

But little if any commerce moved on Thanksgiving in the days when not every family owned a car. And if your family name was Bartkowiak of course you put kielbasa in your stuffing as sure as there was a tureen of sauerkraut with barley and caraway seeds near the green beans and a heavy crucifix on the wall.

“I used to make a dozen loaves of stuffing every year,” said Gerry, 74, now living in Cecil County. “I like Roma’s Polish sausage, fry it off and save the drippings, mix it with green pepper, onion and celery and stale bread, you know how you do.”

How you do was done every holiday by her mother – the former Helen Wladkowski [1919-to-2012] – on South Luzerne before the holiday moved in the early 1970s a few blocks away to 818 South Port Street where Gerry raised two girls and two boys.

“It was very important to me to have Thanksgiving,” said Gerry, whose father – John B. Bartkowiak, Sr. [1917-to-1970] – briefly labored at the American Smelting and Refining copper works south Boston Street before a career with Bethlehem Steel in Sparrows Point was cut short by a fatal aneurysm.

While Gerry bought her kielbasa at Mars Supermarket in Dundalk, her seamstress mother most likely walked to the end of the block at Fait and Luzerne to get the turkey at “Brown’s chicken house.”

A

"Look, Mr. Koetzle's tree!"
“Look, Mr. Koetzle’s tree!”

s Baltimoreans did on Fleet Street near Broadway and East Lombard Street across from Attman’s delicatessen, you picked out the bird you wanted and Mrs. Brown – born into the fabled Poodle family of billiards and boxing – would slaughter it.

“Miss Brown would wait on you during the week in a bloody apron,” remembered Gerry, “and then on Sunday she’d walk down the sidewalk in a fur coat looking like a million dollars.”

The memories came back to Gerry (Confirmation name “Mary,” first married name Candelaria) with many tears on a recent visit to her old neighborhood, an ache for the good ole days prompted by the sight of “Mister Koetzel’s tree” where she and her friends played when the scrubbed sidewalks of August were unbearably hot.

It is doubtful that the somewhat small tree is the same one that shaded those 1950s kids munching pickles and hard pretzels as they spun sharpened Popsicle sticks on a homemade Wheel-of-Fortune, a pack of rascals gambling for bottle caps. And it’s possible that the man whose house faced the tree spelled his name Koetzle and not Koetzel. But Gerry’s tears were very real the other day, reaching back more than six decades before so many of people she loved had passed away.

Gerry and her second husband of many years — a good man from Chicago named Pete Weaver — moved into a new home this year, an apartment in Perryville senior housing. Always a giver, she now finds herself on the receiving end of a familiar holiday tradition: the delivery of left-overs from the main meal.

Forty years ago, after providing all the trimmings for the family, Gerry would put together a cardboard box of Thanksgiving food in a half-dozen containers – “a little bit of everything” — and her daughter Lynn Candelaria Tress scooted down to Hudson Street with it accompanied by a cousin. City kids with the genome of Canton in their DNA, they’d cut behind the Sip & Bite and cross Fleet to 218 South Chester Street near Holy Rosary, arriving at the home of “Ciocia Bertha.”

“Aunt” Bertha Bialozynski [1910-to-2003] was the widowed sister of Gerry’s mother. She was delivered by a midwife in her parents’ Chester Street home and died alone there in 2003. A generous woman partial to “comfortable clothes” – her wardrobe included pink polyester pants and a crocheted hat bordering on fuchsia — Bertha preferred the intimacy of corner saloons to family gatherings.

Gerry at her childhood home.
Gerry at her childhood home.

In 1976, Bertha had a thrill even greater than hitting the jackpot on a gin mill poker machine when she spotted Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow walking down Chester Street during a visit to Holy Rosary parish.

Standing at her front door as the future pope and saint came by, Bertha said “Hi Father,” and her fellow rodak raised his hand and replied, “Hello, pani.”

For years, Lynn and a tag-along cousin would ferry the care package to Ciocia Bertha who gave each kid a $10 tip, very much a big deal in the early 1970s. The youngsters pretended their great-aunt didn’t have to reward them for a good deed knowing that Bertha would insist. At the same time, the older woman pinched pennies with the best of her Depression-era peers.

“Ciocia Bertha heated her house by turning on the gas oven and leaving the oven door open,” said Lynn. “She used to heat up bricks and cover them with towels to sleep with when it was really cold. Sometimes she burned herself.”

This week, instead of putting the goodies together for her daughter to take to a one-of-a-kind loved one, Gerry will wait for Lynn to arrive in Perryville on Friday with food from the day before, including kielbasa stuffing the way she always made it.

The handed-down symbol of continuity in Bartkowiak tradition – one of those things that might make Thanksgiving the best holiday of all — is the dining room table where Lynn has served the last Thursday in November meal for the past several years.

It is the same groaning board –– the one with John Bartkowiak, Sr.’s cigarette burns at the head of the table — that held the feast on Luzerne Avenue, moved to 803 South Streeper Street when Helen and John needed a bigger rowhouse for the family and for the past several years has been at Lynn’s home in Overlea.

The rest of the year heirloom table was the spot for Saturday night card games and throughout the summer was covered with newspaper for crab feasts. But those are stories for other holidays.

This is Thanksgiving and, said Gerry, “I pray that we stay as healthy as possible and lead a good, giving life. I have lost too many special people …”

Photos by Jennifer Bishop

2 comments

  1. Charlene Dubbels 7 months ago

    What a great story. Thank you for sharing.

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  2. jb bartkowiak 7 months ago

    great read. Love you Aunt Gerry. Still learning things I did not know.

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