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An Excerpt From Henry's Journey by Henriette Rocks

Henry was born Zygmunt Marion Borkowski in a small Polish village, Sochochin, northwest of Warsaw. He arrived in the U.S.A. with his family in 1892. The family traveled from Pennsylvania to Streator, Illinois where they were found by the 1900 census taker in the 300 block of West Sumner Street. A few years later when the family moved to Wisconsin, Zygmunt took to the rails to explore the country where somewhere on the way to Wisconsin, he picked up the moniker Henry. He took to using this name despite the fact that he had a younger brother named Henry.

Henry was a bright, unpretentious, self-taught, calm young man when he was introduced to Julia Zieman, a Chicagoan who was visiting her Uncle John at the time. She was an independent young lady, vivacious and animated. They were immediately attracted to one another and began a long distance romance which led to marriage on November 25, 1914.

Both Henry and his new wife were thrifty with a philosophy of “buy nothing unless you can pay for it.” In the late ‘20’s they found themselves with a family of four girls, a three bedroom house with indoor plumbing, a garage, a car, radio and a piano. Henry was employed at the Western Glass Co. in Streator. He had experienced an attack on his lungs when as a youngster, serving as a water-boy, he came in contact with the choking black dust of the coal mine. Now, working as a millwright, he again felt an attack on his breathing as he descended the ladder into an access shaft to perform some repair work. Nearing the last rungs of the ladder he described a feeling of someone grabbing him around his chest and squeezing his life out of him. It was “black damp” gas, a mixture of carbon monoxide and nitrogen that was common to underground spaces especially in mining towns. He had the presence of mind to hold his breath and pull himself up each rung of the ladder until he reached the fresh air awaiting him above.

Except for occasional mishaps, life was good for the family until the 1929 Stock Market crash that eventually led to Henry losing his job. He found another job in Kankakee, Illinois, which meant leaving his family behind except for weekends. Times were hard on everyone but people reached out to one another. The Pouk family, who ran a small grocery store a few blocks away on Sangamon Street, let people buy their groceries on the “book.” They listed the purchases in an individual book and permitted them to pay for them when they had the funds. Families shared their food with the many hobos that roamed the country in search of work. Julie and the girls often answered a knock at the door to find a number of hungry men asking for a meal, as they were eating their own in the kitchen. They never went away hungry. There also were Gypsy families who came to the door begging and threatening to put a curse on the house if they did not get a donation.

Julie and the girls often attended the medicine shows that were held in the fields on Twelve Street, not far from their home. The colorful Master of Ceremonies had several native Indians and other performers who put on a show by torch light and afterwards offered to the crowd their snake oil liniments and potions to cure every possible ache, pain or condition. They also had candy for the youngsters.

Many young men joined the CCC and built much of the infrastructure of our country, including starved Rock State Park nearby. Frank Poruba and Walter Koprowski, special friends of my sisters, Evalynne and Roma, were stationed at Utica and Starved Rock and often talked about the log fence they were building surrounding the Park, as well as many other projects in the area. They were given room and board in the camp as well as a small stipend which they usually sent home. Walter and Frank were half brothers and owned an old Buick cab with pull-down opera seats in the rear. It served as the means for transportation to the many picnics and other outings of the young crowd. These excursions often included me, the youngest sister, much to the chagrin of my older sisters.

Julie became involved in politics during the 1932 Roosevelt campaign for President. She became the Democratic Committee Woman for her district. I rode on a float with her as she sat in a rocking chair, covered with a maroon crocheted shawl in front of a fireless potbelly stove and me and my small companion sat at a table eating pork and beans from a can. This was to demonstrate society’s plight during the Hoover administration and the promise of “two chickens in every pot and a car in every garage,” of the Roosevelt campaign. I still have the shawl my mother made for the occasion. It is in perfect condition.

This is a chapter in the story of my parents, Henry and Julie.

Originally Posted (Jul 02, 2002)


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