The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Home Lands

October 31, 2010

'It is in our hearts' | Somerset County family carries memories, maintains traditions of Polish ancestors

In the early 1900s, Adam Cotchen made at least three trips back and forth from his village of Kaczanowka in Poland to America and Canada, earning money to take back home to his wife and children.

Cotchen – Kaczan in the original Polish spelling – worked his way over and back on the ship, doing jobs in the kitchen and also cleaning decks. At some point, he made his way to Windber, where he worked in the coal mines and earned extra cash by wrestling, something he called “breakneck.”

Joan Golden, 81, believes what her grandfather did was remarkable, although not unlike what other immigrants faced when they came to America.

“He left one hardship to come to something different,” the Davidsville resident said.

Golden said each time her grandfather would return to Poland, his wife, Cecylia, would ask when she and the children could go with him. She was told that when the time was right, the rest of the family could come over.

“One day, my grandmother said, ‘Enough is enough, if America is good enough for Adam, then it’s good enough for me and the children,’ ” Golden said.

“She sold the farm, and I think what a brave decision that was since women didn’t make business deals in those days.”

In March 1910, Cecylia Cotchen packed up her four children – Philip, John, Julia (Golden’s mother) and Helen – and set sail for Ellis Island in New York.

Golden said while on the way over, her grandmother became very sick and thought she wasn’t going to make it.

‘What a burden’

“She gave my Uncle John all the money she had and told him that he would have to see that they got to America and then to Windber, where their father would be waiting,” she said.

“What an awesome burden for an 11-year-old boy.”

But Cecylia Cotchen pulled through and attributed her recovery to eating nothing and drinking “black beer.”

Once in New York, the Cotchen family boarded a train for Windber.

Golden recalled her Uncle Philip telling the story that each time the train conductor would come through looking for tickets, his mother would open her purse and say, “VeemBerrr,” meaning Windber, not understanding what the man was looking for.

“My mother (Julia) remembered being offered a banana upon arrival, and since they had never seen a banana, they tried to eat it peeling and all,” she said.

Once in Windber, Golden said her mother saw a man standing on the street who began to cry when he saw his wife and children.

“My mother, who was 7 years old, asked if that was her father because the kids didn’t really know their father since he was gone a lot,” she said.

While in Windber, the family lived in several places, following the work that was available in the coal mines.

Speaking English

Golden said her grandfather was determined that his children would learn to speak English because they were in America and needed to assimilate into the culture.

The Cotchen children began to play with other area children and were surprised at how easily they were mastering the language and decided to speak it at the dinner table.

“Well, my grandfather pounded his fist on the table and said, ‘I did not bring you here to speak Slovak,’ ” Golden said.

“The kids didn’t know. They thought they were speaking English.”

In 1916, the family moved to Hollsopple, where Adam Cotchen enlisted the help of a friend to build the family homestead.

He also continued to work as a coal miner and a shoemaker, a trade he mastered while in Poland when he made boots for the Polish army.

“My grandmother stayed in the home and was a homemaker,” Golden said.

“She never did master the English language, but she was a wonderful gardener and grew vegetables. And they had ducks, geese, chickens, pigs and raised bees for honey, so they were very much self-sufficient.

“I think my grandmother was the one who pulled it all together.”

Church property

She added that her grandfather was instrumental in obtaining property for the original St. Anne’s Roman Catholic Church in Hollsopple, which has since burned.

Prior to the construction of the church, people had to travel to Hooversville or Windber to attend Mass.

“He (Adam) would get up and read in Polish so the people could understand,” Golden said.

“I’m proud of him for that.”

She said her grandfather died at the age of 72 on Feb. 10, 1944, as a result of an automobile accident. Cecylia Cotchen died on Sept. 29, 1952, at the age of 86.

“My mother lived until she was 90 and lived her whole life in the family home in Hollsopple,” Golden said.

Polish heritage

Although the elder Cotchens wanted their children and grandchildren to fully embrace the American way of life, they were proud of their Polish heritage and it is something that the family continues to carry on today.

Golden said her husband, John, also has Polish roots – so keeping the traditions going is particulary meaning- ful.

At Easter, they dye Polish Pysanky eggs and do the blessing of the baskets.

Some members of the family have mastered the art of Polish papercutting, where paper is folded in half and designs are cut out. It is traditionally done using sheep shears because many Poles did not have scissors available.

Every Christmas Eve, the family gathers at the Goldens’ home to have the traditional Polish dinner, or Wigilia, which consists of pierogi, sauerkraut, beans, mushrooms, fish, red beat soup and an assortment of cookies and nut and poppy seed rolls.

Golden said that when she visited Poland in 1990, she forged a strong friendship with a woman who married Golden’s third cousin, and each year they send each other a piece of Oplatek holy bread to be shared around the dinner table.

“It’s similar to a communion wafer and we all talk about the tradition and wish each other good health, wealth and happiness,” she said.

Golden hopes the traditions will continue on through her children and the generations that will follow.

“It’s very important to keep the traditions alive,” she said.

“It is in our hearts and it keeps our family together.”

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