Mill worker housing on Tunxis St., c1890s. Windsor Historical Society collections 1983.31.5, courtesy of Moise Lenard.
Windsor’s Saint Casimir’s Lithuanian Society celebrated its 100th anniversary in May 2010 by honoring its founders and former members and recognizing the legacy of cultural heritage which the organization has made such efforts to preserve. Social historians make note of the formation of groups such as this fraternal benefit society as one step in the characteristic path an immigrant cultural group takes as it progresses from isolated ethnic community to assimilated citizens.
Lithuania is nestled on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea and is bordered by Latvia, Belarus, Poland, and Russia. For centuries, this eastern European ethnic group was buffeted by waves of German, Russian, and Polish sovereignty. As a result, the people were subjected to periods of political, religious, and militaristic domination. Near the end of the 19th century, a strong nationalistic movement began to demand cultural and political autonomy. Between 1918 and 1940, the Lithuanians had a brief period of independence, but they were reoccupied during World War II. In 1991 Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to achieve independence.
Years of famine, unrest, repression, and forced army conscription finally drove many Lithuanians to emigrate during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Most of the 300,000 or so Lithuanians who journeyed to the United States during this period had been peasants in their native villages and were eager to improve their socioeconomic status. Frequently they found work as unskilled laborers in the coal mines of Pennsylvania, on the docks in New York City, or in the textile, paper, and shoe factories of New England. The nucleus of new Lithuanian-American communities soon became established in these areas. A second wave of immigration following World War II was much smaller and consisted of a variety of social groups including professionals and political exiles.
Many Lithuanian immigrants were either young bachelors or married men who left their wives and children behind in the Old World. The Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups describes the familiar stages as these first arrivals began to put down roots:
As the newcomers gradually became established, many would write home to invite relatives and friends to join them and often sent back money or tickets for the trip…Within most Lithuanian colonies, a small group of newcomers succeeded in establishing retail and service trades that catered primarily to the special needs of their countrymen. The most common of these enterprises was the saloon, an institution that often combined under one roof the functions of social center, boarding house, restaurant, travel agency, bank, and labor exchange.
Windsor’s First Lithuanians
John Paul Cranouski is recognized as the first Lithuanian to settle in Poquonock, arriving in 1891 and finding work on John DuBon’s farm. Within ten years he had been followed by scores of other young, single men who found jobs as farm hands or in the Poquonock paper and textile mills. They often gathered in the local pool hall or saloon after work to exchange family and political news from their homeland. Gradually friends and family members joined them in Connecticut, and the Lithuanian population in Windsor grew to nearly 400 persons by 1920. By the time the Poquonock mills began to close in the 1920s, many Lithuanians were able to buy their own farms or establish local businesses. Long-time Poquonock residents may remember Peter Linonis’ gas station, John Shimkus the barber, Anthony Vogus the blacksmith, and John Griskewicz’s Central Market.
In the first wave of immigration, the majority of the Lithuanian émigrés came from three adjacent provinces: Kaunas, Suvalkija, and Vilnius. John Rimosukas, in a 1962 recorded presentation at the Windsor Historical Society, describes how some of the young men, teenagers for the most part, “were very boisterous and they were not giving the nationality a good name… they were fighting amongst themselves … So the older men got together and said, ‘Let’s form a brotherhood and see if we can make them forget about coming from Kaunas or coming from Vilnius and make them all feel that they’re all one group now.'” ²
Liberal Hall at 28 West St. which later became the site for St. Casimir’s. WHS collections 19126.96.36.199, photo courtesy of Carrie Marshall Kendrick.
With this impetus, the local St. Casimir’s fraternal society was founded. Its purpose was to unite the Lithuanians into a group that would enable the members to preserve their historical and cultural identity, to provide care for each other and their families in times of sickness and death, and to follow the example and guidance of Saint Casimir, the patron saint of Lithuanians.
The original membership was comprised of 108 male members between the ages of 13 and 45; each member had to be a practicing Roman Catholic and was obligated to file to become an American citizen. At first the meetings were held in the homes of members. Later they gathered in the former Poquonock Town Hall, and in 1940 the society purchased from the Spiritualist Society the building located at 28 West Street. A Women’s Auxiliary was formed in 1974; just recently women have been admitted as full members.
This small but active group of second and third-generation Lithuanian families gathers regularly to participate in community activities, sponsor educational scholarships, and maintain their cultural heritage through social events and holiday traditions.
By Barbara Goodwin, Librarian, 2010