BACK - Big Farms, Little Towns on the Prairie
NEXT - Between Two Wars
On December 20, 1877, somewhere in the Slavic regions of central and eastern Europe, Stephan Flakiewicz was born. Many things are known about this man, but many more are not, because he wanted it that way.

The family story is that Stephan's first wife died giving birth to his first son, Casimir, probably on March 3, 1905. While still in the old country, he remarried Mary Banacek, a woman who was said to have been of the Romany people ("Gypsies"). Mary was born on January 1, 1887.

Between 1912 and 1915, Stephan left the Russian army and arrived in the United States.

Stephan may have been Russian or Byelorussian but was most likely Polish. Some members of his family believe he may also have been Jewish. If he was either or both of the latter, he came from a place where neither was safe. In the early years of the 20th. century, Poland was a province of the Russian Empire. Polish men were often forced into the Russian army and treated as virtual slaves. Neither the Poles nor the Russians treated Jews well; "pogroms" (wholesale assaults on and massacres of Jewish villages) occurred periodically in both places, especially if things seemed to be going badly.

Stephan was afraid the Russian authorities might track him down, so he changed his name to Orzechowski when he arrived at Ellis Island, because it was a very common Polish name. The only thing Stephan would say about his experiences was that he was "tired of eating rats" in the Russian army. When discussing his history, the men in the family would speak in hushed tones and push the women and girls away if they tried to eavesdrop. His teenaged son Casimir was unhappy with him for changing his name and refused to accept the name "Orzechowski"; instead he shortened the family name and was known as Casimir Flak.

Eventually, Stephan and Mary made their way to the bustling industrial town of Winona, Minnesota. With them came Casimir, a daughter named Angeline, born in Warsaw on May 1, 1909, and possibly their son Vincent (known as "Fritz"), who was born on January 31, 1912 (St. Stanislaw's records have him born in Warsaw; his obituary says Winona). Their home was at 271 East Front Street, near the Mississippi riverbank, between Hamilton and Carmonia Streets.

Stephan and Mary had several other children once in America:

Stanley "Puck" Orzechowski (born January 19, 1916)
Cecelia "Celia" P. Orzechowski (born July 6, 1918)
Opal Orzechowski (Cecelia's twin, born July 6, 1918)
Sophie Orzechowski (born October 27, 1919)
Joseph Orzechowski (born December 2, 1922)
Stella Orzechowski (Joseph's twin, born December 2, 1922)

In what must have been both a hectic and sad Christmas season, little Opal Orzechowski died at the age of 4 1/2 years on December 27, 1922, just a few weeks after the twins Joseph and Stella were born.

Stephan had a bad temper and was difficult to get along with when things weren't going well. Family members tried to keep him from finding out if one of the children was in trouble. He was known to throw his lunch bucket if he didn't like what it contained, and some members of the family took to calling him "Joe Stalin."

Stephan's family were members of St. Stanislaw's Polish Catholic Church, known as "St. Stan's", where services were held in Polish. The children went to St. Stan's Catholic elementary school about 5 blocks from the house, but they did not go to high school at a time when most of their peers in Winona--even those who lived in poverty--would have gotten a high school education.

Instead, they worked right along with their parents. Stephan and his sons worked for Peerless Chain, the major employer in Winona and a good 1.5 mile walk from the Orzechowski home. Later, Stephan's son Casimir Flak worked as the custodian of the Winona National & Savings Bank. Mary and her daughters cleaned the houses of the wealthier people in town, and were paid in cash, clothing, household items, and sometimes, medical treatment.

Stephan's daughter Celia made homemade beer in the cellar and rolled cigarettes for him. Later his granddaughter, Gladys, continued the cigarette-rolling tradition. For entertainment, the children went to dances or took paddleboat rides on the Mississippi.

Angeline, Gladys' mother, was described as a young adult as a "flapper" who was determined to shed her Slavic heritage and be a thoroughgoing American.

The children of Stephan Orzechowski produced a large number of descendants, only some of whom are listed here.

Casimir Flak married Rozalia or Rose Adamczyk (also known as "Adams") on August 1, 1927. Their oldest child was Casimir Flak, Jr., and they had three daughters: LaVerne (Lovey) Flak, Dorothy Flak (second daughter who died in infancy), and Rosemary Flak. LaVerne, oddly enough, married a man named LuVerne Strelow. They had a son Steven and a daughter, and were eventually divorced. Rosemary Flak married Clifford Eide.

Angeline married Clarence Johnson of Bay City, Wisconsin on May 1, 1928, and they raised eight children. Times were always hard for the Johnson family. At first they lived in a house that had been converted from a chicken coop on Clarence's father Francis, Sr.'s farm. Later they built a house closer to the road, but only about 200 feet from the Johnson farmhouse. There was no electricity in the house until the early 1940s. Clarence worked in a sand mine about a mile from their home. For years, he walked to work, until he was able to afford a car. Later he worked in the boiler room at the Red Wing Potteries. Clarence and Angeline's children included: Gladys Ruth (the oldest, born March 12, 1929), Rosemary, Clarence, Jr. (born April 17, 1935), Francis, Patty, Genevieve ("Jenny"), Mabel (now known as Johnnie), and James. All the kids worked in Rose's garden in return for produce to feed the family, which always seemed to be short of food. Rose grudgingly gave Angeline, whom she disliked, eggs, but only for Clarence, because he was the "worker" in the family.

Vincent married Sylvia Thilmany around 1933. Their children were Catherine Orzechowski, Carroll Orzechowski, and Jeanette Orzechowski.

Stanley married Evelyn Bonnet in around 1948. They had a daughter, Mary Jane Orzechowski.

Celia married Robert H. Gatz. They had a daughter, Bonnie, born in 1943, and a son, Steven, born September 27, 1946.

Sophie married Robert T. Duff on April 13, 1940. During the Second World War, she worked at the Donavan's factory in Winona, and she was known for being an excellent cook of traditional Polish dishes. Their children were Joseph Duff and Sandra Duff.

Joseph married Anita Kostuch on June 17, 1944. Their children were Thomas Orzechowski, John Orzechowski, Barbara Orzechowski, Jolean Orzechowski, and David Allen Orzechowski.

Stella married Edward Ambrose. Their children included Edward Ambrose, Jr., born in about 1940, and Nancy Ambrose.

The patriarch Stephan Orzechowski died in 1947 at the age of 70. His wife Mary, aged 60, followed him in 1948.

Our story of Polish immigrants and their descendants has taken us to the mid-20th. century, but now we must return to the early years of that century and catch up with our Minnesota families.




Black & white photo of Winona, MN, taken from a high vantage point in 1915

Color postcard photo of 3rd. St, Winona, MN, 1918

Color postcard painting of St. Stanislaw's church and school, from 1905

Color postcard photo of paddlewheel excursion boats on the river at Winona, MN in 1908

Photocopy of a black and white family photo of the Stephan Orzechowski family in about 1922

Photocopy of a black and white naturalization photo of Stephan Orzechowski in 1941

Photocopy of a black and white photo of Mary Banacek Orzechowski at age 53 in 1940

Black and white newspaper photo of Angeline Orzechowski Johnson as a young woman

Color photo of Stephan and Mary Orzechowski's gravestone


BACK - Big Farms, Little Towns on the Prairie
NEXT - Between Two Wars

Photo of a dibble, a gardening tool for making holes
Home Page