Thursday, November 17, 2011

Searching for Home in the Land of Oz

by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, November 4, 2005.

Polish American Club, c. 1930s
New England rarely looks like a promised land. With our harsh climate, rocky soil and stoic citizenry, we’re hardly somewhere over the rainbow, but for many groups of people in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, New England had a great deal to offer – even if it didn’t quite turn out to be the magical Land of Oz.

Dorothy’s homeland of Kansas was dismal. L. Frank Baum was very clear about that: “When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same color to be seen everywhere.” It was a life without color or hope. There was no chance to pursue one’s dreams in this gray world.

Neither was there much hope for many of the people trapped in an endless cycle of economic bondage in parts of Europe. Even Exeter had fallen into a listlessness of declining population and abandoned farms as the Yankees moved west. As the nineteenth century progressed, industrialism crept into the area and the need for labor increased. Exeter attracted some close neighbors before it began casting about. French Canadians began drifting into the region as early as the 1840s. They brought with them no illusions about the landscape – Canada’s climate being quite similar to ours. When they arrived in Exeter they discovered another group filtering in from the wasted potato fields of Ireland. Together, these two groups worked the early mills of Exeter and brought their common Roman Catholic faith to the universally Protestant town. Agricultural failure had prompted both groups to leave their homelands and they mingled together, frequently intermarrying, as they integrated into the town.

Far, far away, behind the moon, beyond the stars, more people were aching to find a place where dreams really do come true. In eastern portions of Europe people in the late nineteenth century lived on the edge of poverty like Dorothy’s Uncle Henry who “never laughed. He worked hard from morning till night and did not know what joy was.” To countless peasants in Poland and Lithuania, a dream began to grow. Somewhere over the rainbow, or at least over the Atlantic Ocean, was a place where dreams really do come true. Coming, as they did, from miserable tenant farming, extreme poverty cycles, brutal military conscription and few educational opportunities, America with its streets paved in gold must have appeared to be the most glorious place on the face of the earth or the sky. This purely imaginary world had to be better than the one they were in. The dream told them: “hold onto your breath, hold onto your hearts, hold onto your hope,” and it carried them away to the golden land of America.

The first Polish and Lithuanian immigrants arrived in Exeter in the 1870s. Unlike the Irish and Canadian immigrants who’d come thirty years earlier, the newcomers must have been startled to discover that this new country wasn’t quite the pot of gold they’d expected. The factory work they’d longed for turned out to be just as punishing as the fieldwork they’d left behind. They soon noticed that everyone in the factories had a ghostly pallor and factory owners cared little about working conditions. Child labor was common in Exeter even into the 1920s. Racism provided Europeans with an uncomfortable edge in the marketplace. Many immigrants decided early that they would return home as soon as they were able.

Just as Dorothy discovered that her imaginary world wasn’t as welcoming as she expected, our newest neighbors also came face to face with some harsh realities. We never really know what happens to Dorothy after she returns to Kansas (in the film and stage versions of the story, that is). Most likely she still had to contend with an angry Almira Gultch who was still after poor little Toto, but I like to think she brought a little bit of Oz back to Kansas. Home is, after all, where your feet are and the recent arrivals in Exeter soon discovered that the yellow brick road was leading their children to a much better life. They stayed. They went to school. They became citizens. “They” became “Us” and together we are a town.

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