Sailing won’t soon forget the Kaszubes

July 4, 2012 § 3 Comments

In about a week, sailing kids from all over the midwest will arrive at South Shore Yacht Club (SSYC), my home club, for the annual, traditional Kaszube Cup regatta.

Kaszube 420s

Kids sailing in the Kaszube Cup off of Jones Island

Usually, there are about thirty 8-13 year olds sailing Optimist dinghies, and another fifty or sixty teenagers on Lasers and 420’s. There are typically two race courses, one inside the Milwaukee break wall for the younger kids, and another about a mile and a half offshore for the rest.

Like many large youth sailing regattas, this one will depend on parents to volunteer to make sandwiches for lunch, supply berths for out-of-town kids, and they’ll board spectator boats to snap pictures and offer encouragement.

The regatta has a special place in my family’s collective heart, in part because of the fun sailing memories that it provides my kids, but more importantly, because it celebrates a people who might otherwise be forgotten. My wife and daughters have deep Polish ancestry, some of it Kaszube.

The Kaszubes (also sometimes spelled Kashubes and short for Kashubian), were poor Polish and German immigrants who arrived in the United States in the mid-19th century and squatted on what was later named Jones Island, then an island, and now a peninsula, in Milwaukee’s inner harbor. Having come from the Baltic Peninsula of Hel, in what was then Prussia, they found maritime familiarities on the island: a fishing and boat-making subsistence in a tough, but manageable climate. At its peak, Jones Island was home to 1800 people and 22 saloons. The Kaszubes earned a living, paid taxes, and built homes and shops, but never enjoyed basic services like a policeman, sanitation or electric lights, even though such things were just across the river. For years, Jones Island children could not attend school, because Milwaukee’s leaders wouldn’t commit to building one there as long as land rights were unclear, and ferrying the children to the mainland wasn’t always practical or safe. Eventually, when public school teachers volunteered to be ferried back and forth from the mainland, a school was built and expanded*.

Around the turn of the century, the Illinois Steel Company claimed Jones Island to expand a mill. After a twenty year struggle, the Kaszubes were ejected from the island, many finding homes on Milwaukee’s south side, including in the neighborhood of Bayview, home to the SSYC and the Kaszube Cup.

My daughters Kate and Elizabeth have grown up with a sailing mentor, Susan Sorce Rieck (also a schoolteacher), as their steady and wise crew-mate. Kate (18) is our bow person, Elizabeth (14) trims jibs and runs the guy, and Susie teams with Elizabeth on jibs and spinnaker trim. Susie’s father was Francis (Sonny) Sorce who sailed aboard the yacht Lively Lady, a Universal rule Q-Boat, that won its division in the 1948, ’52, ’53, ’54, and ’58 Queen’s Cups, among many other races (Susie may have been a 4-year old stow-away, but can’t confirm.) The owner of Lively Lady was Otto Dreher, who was one of the children from Jones Island to have gone to the grade school there before being moved off the island with his family. His son is today a SSYC regular. Otto retained a deep connection to the sea and he passed it on in more ways than he knows.

By my count, a few of the kids sailing in the Kaszube Cup are three, maybe four degrees separated from the real Kaszubes, for whom the event is named. And they may share a bit of DNA as well.

It’s all something to ponder while slathering butter on two dozen ham sandwiches for the sailor kid’s lunches. Also a tradition.

Jones Island Kaszube Settlement - 1915

Jones Island Kaszube Settlement – 1915

* Source: The Fisherfolk of Jones Island, by Ruth Kriehn, Published by The Milwaukee County Historical Society, 1998.

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