Polish Kashubs and their cars

Msgr. Biernacki’s car in 1915. Here he is chauffeuring Elizabeth Etmanski and Alex Shalla on their wedding day. (Photo submitted)

In this day and age, we often take advances in technology for granted. The automobile is one. Many, including myself, were born into a world with vehicles already in use. It wasn’t always this way – just ask a parent or grandparent about life before or without cars. Indeed, automobiles revolutionized the lives of Canadians. In the Madawaska Valley, generations of Polish-Kashub families witnessed many changes brought on by vehicles, albeit at a slower pace than urban areas or in Poland. Furthermore, the cars belonging to Polish-Kashubs and Galician Poles were often cherished objects and figured prominently in many family photos.

Until the 1890s, widespread travel out of the Barry’s Bay area was limited until the Ottawa, Arnprior & Parry Sound Railway was built. Previously the main form of transportation in and out of the Barry’s Bay area was by wagon along the Opeongo Colonization Road or via water. Across Ontario, though, many road networks were soon created and the number of registered vehicles jumped from 535 in 1904 to over 490,000 in 1930. Most rural residents could not afford cars initially, as the average car cost around $600. They were more attainable by the 1920s due to liberal financing plans and a drop in price.


Arrival and departure times in the Bay. Photo: J. Blank, 2005

As rural families began to purchase vehicles, they enjoyed their benefits. Rail travel restricted the views of the landscape for passengers who were limited to the scenery beside the rails. Travel times, too, were tightly restricted. Automobiles allowed for a more flexible schedule and opened up new spaces for travel. For example, instead of having to walk long distances or hitch up a team, one could quickly drive from distant farms into town – a route never serviced by a rail line. When several gravel roads were merged by the Province to create Highway 60 in the 1930s, the boundaries for travel outside the Madawaska Valley were expanded. For those fascinated with the world beyond, first-hand accounts of what lay outside the region could now be relayed to an interested audience. One who took advantage of this was Msgr. Peter Biernacki. He drove to out to western Canada in 1932. Upon his return, he happily lectured about his trip and outside world to many interested listeners at St. Hedwig’s Parish.

In the early half of the century, several businesses took advantage of automobiles. Biernacki, John Omernik, Chas. Murray and H.J. Chapeskie travelled by car to Toronto and Buffalo in 1921 to promote a local lumber company. Paul B. Mask, of the Island Dairy, utilized a car for deliveries in the late 1930s. In the 1940s, Frank Pastway had one of the largest commercial fleets of lumber vehicles in the area. John J. Glofcheskie also started a taxi and delivery service in the Bay broadening it to several vehicles in the 1950s.


Frank Pastway’s fleet of vehicles c1940s. Photo: Mission House Museum

However, cars were not always used year-round. Springtime mud and winter snow became barriers that some cars could not bound. Horses and sleighs were used by many during the winter. Helen Dombroskie, a well-known midwife, mentioned to me years ago that she used both during different times of the year to quickly reach women in need of help. Road building at the time was also much different. One worker, Andy Coulas, mentioned that farmers were often paid ten cents for a load of gravel they could spread. The work was backbreaking. There

was no such a thing as a bulldozer in those days. So it was all labour. Drilling the rock by hand.

Some roads were not fit for certain models of cars either. Ron Glofcheskie highlighted the perils of driving up Black Cat Hill before the 1940s in the Kamaniskeg Chronicle’s “As a Matter of Fact” illustrated feature.

From the Kamaniskeg Chronicle, Vol. 1, No. 10 (26 Aug. 1970)

Nonetheless, families were proud of their first vehicles. It was a status symbol, a marker of development and progress for the family. Many families displayed their pride of ownership by taking formal photos or wedding photos with the car. On the other hand, the popularity of the car was bittersweet. There were fewer long attachments with teams of horses as demand for them declined.



Rose (Blaskavitch) Beanish   



Mary Shushack and Joseph Dudek in front of their ’29 Chevy 

While some families could not afford vehicles in the post-war period, our brethren in Poland had a more difficult time. According to Mariusz Jastrząb, cars were seen by the Communist state as

contradictory to the socialist ideal of rational consumption.

They were only given to the political elite and their friends. It was not until the 1980s that many could finally obtain one.

A longer article could be written on this topic, especially considering that other ethnic groups in the area shared many of the same experiences with vehicles. Hopefully, though, this provides a glimpse into the past and brings forth more memories. Do you remember your first car and what it meant to you? Feel free to post your recollections in the comments section below.

About the author: Joshua C. Blank is the author of several articles and books. His latest is Creating Kashubia: History Memory and Identity in Canada’s First Polish Community (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016). He teaches English and history in the Ottawa Catholic School Board.









  1. Bernadette Dudack

    Thanks Josh for including the picture of Ernies parents,we always liked that pic and his dad often talked about the car,he bought it in Ottawa and it arrived by rail…good work Josh,,

  2. Jim cringan

    You didn’t mention the vehicle of Paddy Lavere and the tales it could tell. Also a certain blacksmith who took regular runs to Quebec during prohibition as part of a commercial enterprise. Or was it to visit his relatives in Shawville.

    • Joshua Blank

      Thanks for the recollection Jim. For this piece, I tried to focus on what published sources can back up. We all know an entertaining story or two that isn’t well-known to the public. The tough thing is deciding which ones to print. The last thing an author wants is for a relative to take offence to a memory that the rest of us might find humourous. If we could only compile some of these old tales though…

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