In a time of divisiveness in our country, it’s vital to remember that all of us Americans have immigrant roots. Even our native Americans’ ancestors migrated here from Asia across the Bering Strait during our last, ocean-lowering ice age.
Our American fabric’s unique strength is derived from its many contributory, interwoven, vibrantly colorful threads, most of which fade as they blend.
Chatting with Portuguese and Italian fishermen in Provincetown, New Bedford, Gloucester and Boston this year got me to thinking about other minority ethnic groups of local sportsmen and sportswomen that followed the English, Irish and French here.
My own immigrant family left their tiny, Ireland-sized country of Lithuania to escape the brutality of Russian control in the late 1890s. My great-uncle confessed that he desperately fled the discriminatory practices of the Czar’s army, which regularly delegated the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs to non-Russians. To this day, Lithuanians who remember still resent the Russians’ several long, cruel and exploitative occupations.
My grandfather was a carpenter, who literally helped build Worcester, which then had a population of about 4,000 Lithuanians, making it the fifth most Lithuanian-populated city, after Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.
My grandfather got me started fishing, driving my parents and me in his big, 1941 Cadillac every Sunday to the Lithuanian clubs on Lake Quinsigamond, the largest metropolitan lake in the East. I remember everyone there trying to maintain connections with their abandoned culture, celebrating potato pancakes, kugelis, black bread, kielbasa, vodka, and a red, green and yellow flag that stood by our red, white and blue one.
My family went there to nostalgically connect to their forever-lost homeland, to dance Lithuanian dances, sing Lithuanian songs, eat Lithuanian foods, toast and fortify each other in a land run by other, earlier-arriving, more privileged and often prejudiced ethnic groups. I remember so many laughs, joyous shouts — and tears in remembrance of family left behind. Many of the melancholy songs were of homes, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers who would never be seen again. But I went there to fish.
I especially remember excitedly running down the hundred or so steep steps of Olympia Park located off South Quinsigamond Avenue to catch bluegills and pumpkinseeds. They were what first enticed me to love the outdoors. “Kivvers” would change the direction of my life.
While Lithuanian culture could be heard mutely in the celebrating halls high above me, I was thrilled just to bring along a can of worms and watch my bobber dance, dive and disappear in my great lake. The countless little panfish there provided the constant action a child needs to stay connected frequently enough to be successful.
Those obliging fish taught me patience, how to dig my own worms; how to bait, cast, and set a hook; how to play — and lose a fish; how to clean and eat what I caught — and maybe most importantly, how to be self-reliant and happy when alone. Lake Quinsigamond was my magical, wild escape from Worcester’s three-deckered East Side.
When the Sunday celebrations shifted to Maironis Park, just 100 yards closer to Route 9 and the now-gone White City, I’d bring my worms and gear there, too. And when some Sundays, the Lithuanian dance bands played at the Bungalow, which jutted out on a peninsula off the south end of Lake Avenue, I’d fish there, too.
The Bungalow was built by the Lithuanian Naturalization and Social Club, which began in 1903, when Rev. Jakstis of St. Casimir’s Church called together a group of 18 young, recent immigrants to organize for social activities and to help each other learn about the U.S. Constitution so they could become citizens and good Americans.
The members, some of which were musicians, first met at 96 Green St., where they formed a band. Their joyful, polka-spirited dance music attracted many new members. The club got a liquor license, which further grew its membership and fattened its treasury. By July 1913, the LNC had enough — $500 — to buy the Bungalow, which then consisted of only a tiny cottage.
On summer Sundays, the mostly blue-collar, city-weary members in Worcester packed picnic lunches and took a streetcar on the Grafton road line, now Grafton Street, as far as Pine Hill Road. From there, they walked downhill to the Bungalow for swimming, blueberry, raspberry and mushroom picking. When America entered World War I late in 1917, many of the new Lithuanian-American citizens were called to active duty. Seven never returned.
After a jubilant end to the war, increased membership allowed for an expanded Bungalow with an open porch on three sides, each of which overlooked the water. The Bungalow dance hall and bar would attract many more members. In its heyday, there were 1,200 LNC members.
The Bungalow’s gorgeous setting provided a priceless, 270-degree view of the lake. Worcester’s James Derwallis and his orchestra brought music to the south end of the lake Wednesdays and weekends during the summer. Back then, almost everyone danced hard and fast. And there was no air conditioning. The lake breezes perfectly cooled the dance floor.
All the while for me, fish could be cast to all around the Bungalow’s periphery. There, I caught my first bass and pickerel in the weedy shallows and stepped on my first dancing toes doing the polka.
Occasionally, we’d go to the Lithuanian War Veterans on the Shrewsbury side of the lake. Its membership was mostly comprised of LNC members who had survived World War II.
The kivvers were cooperative there, too. No ethnic group built more clubs on the lake than the Lithuanians. Each one had its own distinct religious or political character. The Vets had the least dancing, so I fished there the least.
Before the Lithuanians arrived, of course, Lake Quinsigamond was magical for Worcester residents, some of whom still rode horses. It was a wild escape from the city and in some respects a poor-man’s Maine. Its waters were deep, cold, unpolluted, highly oxygenated and loaded with smelt. Its tributaries had thriving native brook trout then. It was consequently stocked with landlocked salmon from 1899-1900, walleyes in 1907, and chinook salmon in 1913. Fingerlings grew to 12 pounds.
But a careless, growing and insufficiently regulated Worcester populace — especially its building and developer interests — let water pollution from sewage and construction degrade their aquatic jewel, warm its waters and end its vital smelt runs. The Lithuanian clubs would hit hard times, too, but for other complex reasons. Two of them went under.
The Bungalow, which was a unique piece of gorgeous real estate, was sadly sold to Rob Roy after a devastating fire in 1972. So was Olympia Park. The weeping mulberry in the center of the latter’s circular driveway provided many sweet, skin-staining, inch-long berries that fortified me on my way down the steep hill to fish.
Some members who didn’t want to sell Olympia Park swore about the developer allegedly getting more for just the underlying gravel than what he paid them for the entire property. Today, this favorite fishing spot off South Quinsigamond Avenue is a flattened, road-to-water community of condominiums.
Much has changed on Lake Quinsigamond over the years. The old Lithuanians who helped found those clubs have passed on. It was inevitable that on Dec. 4, 2016, the final meeting of the Lithuanian Naturalization Club at Maironis Park would be held.
For decades, the club also had a grand, several-story club with showers, stage and bar on Vernon Street. But when membership diminished to just a little over 200, the $20,000 per year taxes and other maintenance expenses could no longer be paid.
The last membership number was 3417. There would never be a 3418. They regretfully sold the club to a church in 1993. President Dick Stellman gave me the honor of presiding and swearing in the last LNC officers that would ever stand together: Stellman, director Zigmas Dabrila, treasurer Joseph Godek, director Vincent Zigmont and secretary Stephen Walinsky.
The club had lasted 113 years. A membership that peaked at 1,200 finally dwindled to just 33. Its great run is now just a memory. The number of new Lithuanian emigrés drastically declined just as too many of the young, second-generation Lithuanians were thoroughly Americanized, intermarried, or moved far away from their roots.
Today, too, the Lithuanians are no longer a vulnerable, uneducated, underprivileged, foreign-language-speaking minority, blue collar labor force needing to stick tightly together for emotional strength and security.
I nostalgically visited Maironis Park last week. I thought it would be wonderful one day, soon before the waters cool and the fish go deep, to bring my 3-year-old grandson, Cameron — who’s Lithuanian, Polish, Swedish, Irish, Welsh, French and German — and my nearly 2-year-old grandson, Michael — who’s Lithuanian, Polish and Italian — to fish as I did.
While the dance floor is empty and the singers are now all silent, there are yet many exciting kivvers to catch and learn from as bobbers still dance and dip.