August 10, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ever since the days of pioneer trails, immigrants from all over the world have managed to make their way to Omaha—smack-dab in the middle of the U.S.—to forge a new start for themselves and their families.

Today, the descendants of earlier generations of Omaha immigrants continue to build on the roots planted by their forebears.

Areas of town where many locals’ ancestors once lived and worked have been restructured within the city’s changing landscape, leaving behind unique traces of history and communities determined to maintain a connection to their heritage. One such local area is Sheelytown.

The City of Omaha annexed Sheelytown in 1887. Interstate construction in the 1960s cut through the neighborhood’s main street, flattening storefronts and homes. Much of the old Sheelytown is now buried under an endless stream of interstate traffic zipping past.

Sheelytown was once an important center of opportunity for Polish Americans. In the 1860s, the Stockyards thrived, and many in need of work headed here to be a part of that growth. The neighborhood—from Edward Creighton Boulevard to Vinton Street, and from 24th to 35th streets—was already occupied by Irish immigrants, but quickly expanded, promising steady income to the many arriving families.

Joseph Sheely, the area’s namesake, owned one of the meatpacking plants near Hanscom Park. Families there were hardworking, but low-income, and therefore generally looked down upon by the wealthier residents of Omaha. Still, they made their own fun, and even developed a reputation for throwing rambunctious parties and dance events.

John Szalewski, a second-generation Polish American and member of a local polka band named Sheelytown, says this kind of energy is representative of Polish culture. In his mind, Polish people are “hardworking, and enjoy their time away from work. They enjoy getting together.” In other words, Polish people work hard and play hard.

For Szalewski, this is a part of what he loves about polka: “People feed off the energy from the band. We grew up with it, and the Polish tradition brings us together.”

On the south side of Dinker's Bar & Grill, artists began work on the Polish Mural Project during the summer.

On the south side of Dinker’s Bar & Grill, artists began work on the Polish portion of the South Omaha Mural Project during the summer. Mike Girón was the lead artist with Quin Slovek as an assistant. Rhianna Girón, Richard Harrison, and Hugo Zamorano also assisted with the mural. 

Polka music, however, is not the only part of his family lineage that remains with him. “It’s very heartwarming when you walk into a South O establishment and they know your dad.” Other members of the Sheelytown band also have family ties to the neighborhood, including violinist Patrick Novak. Patrick is the son of accordion player Leonard Novak, a local musician who used to perform with The Polonairs.

These days, most of what remains of Sheelytown is the memory of what it once was. Szalewski continues, “I think most of the people that talk about the area talk about its history.” Still, he hasn’t lost the feeling of belonging, and says, “I don’t ever feel ill-at-ease going into that area.”

For younger generations, the memories are present, but not quite as clear.

Ryan Dudzinski, Omaha resident and third-generation Polish-American, is able to recall more general aspects of his heritage through stories and recollections of Polish family members. His great-grandparents came to Sheelytown as a young family with small children in the early 1900s.

“They couldn’t speak English. My grandfather (Edward) Dudzinski spoke fluent Polish, as could all of his brothers, but my dad (James) never learned it.” He says they all settled in South Omaha and remained there, with most of their descendants still in the area today.

Like so many immigrants, some level of assimilation was a necessary part of survival, and many traditions were ultimately lost. Dudzinski says grandpa Edward insisted that his father speak English only. While this meant that Ryan Dudzinski never learned the language, he understands why.

When asked to describe how he experienced Polish culture, Dudzinski echoes Szalewski’s sentiments, “There’s lots of drinking, singing, and dancing. They are fun people.” Regarding the cuisine, he’s not as much of a fan: “There’s lots of meat in tube form.”

Today, one of Sheelytown’s biggest draws is Dinker’s Bar & Grill, a family-owned establishment at 2368 S 29th St. The current owners are great-grandchildren of a Polish immigrant by the name of Synowiecki. The most popular fare at Dinker’s is quintessentially American—hamburgers—but Polish sausages with kraut are also on the menu.

Just as it occurs within families, much of what originally united the immigrants in South Omaha has given way to time. The melting pot of ethnic groups present here allows disparate backgrounds to commingle and adapt to an evolving cultural climate.

Still, the essence of what the Polish community brought to Sheelytown has not been lost entirely. It continues to be passed along by many who were raised here, and those who want to see future generations maintain an association with their history.

Though it may be hard to spot, Sheelytown holds onto a sense of pride in its Polish traditions and continues to celebrate them today. If you look for it, you can see the community’s impact on our diverse city, and you may even be able to catch the Sheelytown polka band warming up for a night of traditional Polish mayhem. 

Visit sheelytown.net for more information about the band, Sheelytown. 

Visit amidsummersmural.com/for-communities/south-omaha-mural-project/ for more information about the South Omaha Mural Project.

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