Historical museum pays homage to Hamtramck


The Hamtramck Historical Museum is sure to bring back memories for visitors.

Christopher Betleja, from Warren, donated several objects to the Hamtramck Historical Museum. Betleja grew up in Hamtramck and volunteers at the museum.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes


WARREN / HAMTRAMCK – Entering the Hamtramck Historical Museum is like stepping into a time machine.

The museum, which opened in 2013, pays homage to the city’s rich history in terms of people, food, hard work, polka music, culture, businesses, restaurants and shopping.

There is a section devoted to what a common Hamtramck kitchen looked like in years gone by. Another space is set aside to honor the town’s men and women who served in the military. Colorful murals painted by Dennis Orlowski showcase immigrants from different countries around the world who have planted roots in the community.

And that’s just the start of the countless artifacts that showcase the heart and soul of the city. Every photograph, wall plaque, souvenir, item of clothing, yearbook and more once belonged to a resident of Hamtramck. Everything has its place inside the 3,500 square foot building located at 9525 Joseph Campau, between Poland and Norwalk streets in Hamtramck.

“We have such an incredible story,” said museum executive director Greg Kowalski, a retired journalist who has written several books on Hamtramck. “Almost everything you see here has been donated to us. People bring stuff all the time. We mix nostalgia and history.

Museum organizers have applied for and received grants to benefit the museum, including a Cities of Promise grant for cultural improvements under former Governor Jennifer Granholm. According to Kowalski, Hamtramck was founded in 1798 and became a village in 1901. In 1922 it was incorporated as a town and it will turn 100 next year.

“We’re 2.1 square miles,” Kowalski said, adding that in 1910 the population was 3,500. In 1920, it had 48,000 inhabitants and 56,000 inhabitants in 1930.

When Dodge’s main factory opened in 1910, “the population exploded,” Kowalski said. “That’s why houses are like dominoes. They were built to accommodate all the people who rush into town.

Other auto factories also opened, attracting more people from overseas who initially settled in Pennsylvania and New York before moving to Hamtramck. The museum has a section devoted to Dodge Main, which operated from 1910 until around 1981 and was located on the Hamtramck / Detroit border. A Chrysler Corp. work shirt, old newspapers, flags flying above the auto plant, and photos of the demolition recall the plant’s historic past.

Kowalski said the most popular section of the museum is the houses area, which includes a kitchen table, cooking utensils, cookbooks, mixers, a sewing machine, and a manual phonograph purchased in 1924 from the Great Hudson store for $ 250.

“Everyone remembers the old wringer washing machine,” Kowalski said.

Looking back
Another section is dedicated to “show biz” artists from Hamtramck and also to the films made there. Hamtramck bars that once buzzed with all kinds of music, including the ’80s punk rock scene, are part of the Global Collection. For example, we remember Lili Karwowski from former Lili’s on Jacob Street. There is a place for Grammy winner Leon Zarskic. And don’t forget to take a look at the shiny accordion, a sure find in a town like Hamtramck.

Museum volunteers have also set up other sections, including a space dedicated to politics. There, visitors can view various photos, including those of presidents who have spent time in the city: John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, George Bush Sr., Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Harry Truman. Pope John Paul II even visited twice.

Other highlights include St. Ladislaus’ cheerleader outfit, historical maps of the city, and a Hamtramck High School sink that is in the museum’s own bathroom.

Kowalski was born in 1950 at St. Francis Hospital, which he says is now part of Hamtramck Town Hall. He has lived in the city his entire life.

“It’s the only place I would live,” he said. “The dynamism here is incredible. The community spirit is incredible. The diversity here is fantastic. It is a fabulous place to live.

Many changes have taken place over the years. For decades the city was made up of predominantly Polish families. Some families eventually moved to the suburbs of Detroit, including Warren.

“The wives wanted the suburbs with big lots, garages and big lawns,” Kowalski said.

At present, a large part of the city’s inhabitants come from the Middle East and parts of Asia.

“We are one of the most diverse cities in the country,” Kowalski said. “We have everyone who lives here from all over the world. “

Kowalski said government officials and journalists from other countries, including Finland and Germany, visited the city to “see how everyone is getting along so well.” Museum members also bring Hamtramck’s history to schools, churches and businesses for presentations.

“A lot of people are interested in diversity, immigration and prohibition,” Kowalski said.

In fact, the museum houses a prohibition still, mason jars, and a funnel that was found in a building on Caniff Street.

“My heart is still there”
Warren resident Christopher Betleja, 62, got involved with the museum in 2016 as a volunteer. He was born at St. Francis Hospital. Betleja left Hamtramck for Warren in the early 1990s when he started working at the Warren Post Office. He is now retired.

“My heart is still there,” said Betleja, who has treasured memories of her birthplace. “We were running through the alleys. “

“And a lot,” Kowalski added. “We would ride bikes and do water balloon wars.”

Another hobby was playing baseball and a game called “Strike Outs”.

“We would take a rubber ball and spray paint a square on the wall. It was the target and with a bat we were trying to hit the ball, ”Betleja said.

“Chris is on our board of directors,” Kowalski said. “He is extremely helpful. We have a great board of directors.

Betleja’s favorite piece of history inside the Hamtramck Historical Museum is the stove from 1871.

On July 3, former Hamtramck resident Tony Piechota visited the museum for the first time since it opened eight years ago.

“I was excited to see it and see the different stories that I didn’t know. It’s nice to be back. There are things that are still recognizable. Polish culture is not as important as it once was, ”said Piechota. “I’ve known Greg since I was a kid. He lived right across from my house. He taught me to paint and draw. I loved being with his family.

Piechota, 52, was born in 1968 and raised in the city. His father was a policeman in Hamtramck for 22 years.

“At the time, the majority were still Polish. Everyone knew each other. There was always something to do, ”Piechota said. “There was always that small town feeling. All the children could still walk anywhere. You felt safe. It was great.”

The graduate of St. Florian High School left Hamtramck in 1986 when he joined the military. The Hamtramck native now lives in San Antonio, Texas with his wife and family, but he still has family in the area, including Sterling Heights and Harper Woods.

The Hamtramck Historical Museum is open to the public from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Friday, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday, or by appointment. Admission is free, but monetary donations are welcome.

For more information, visit hamtramckhistory.com or call (313) 262-6571. The email address is hamtramckhistory@gmail.com.


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Patrick F. Williams