Text: R.J. Weick
A three-part series
Organized and sponsored by the Polish Heritage Society of Grand Rapids, the Dozynki Polish Festival has been one of the longest running ethnic festival in Grand Rapids, drawing more than 15,000 people to the three-day celebration of food, music, and culture. The event, which has historically taken place the last weekend of August, was born of a hope to keep national and religious traditions and customs alive after immigrating to Grand Rapids from Poland and Lithuania during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“Metro Grand Rapids is home to a large and vibrant Polish-Lithuanian community, tracing its roots back to the 1870s when immigrants from Poland and Lithuania began arriving here in search of better lives,” said Marilyn Mileski-Lignell of the Polish Heritage Society in Grand Rapids. “Those immigrants brought with them music, food, traditions, and a zest for life that has been passed down through the generations. We celebrate all of that at the Dozynki Polish Harvest Festival.”
From the Rosa Parks Circle amphitheater, the distinctive sound of bands like Lenny Gomulka & Chicago Push have set the stage for a weekend of traditional folk dances, authentic costumes, children’s crafts, cooking and arts demonstrations, and the aromas of potato cheddar pierogis and kielbasa. Rich notes of trumpet, accordion, saxophone, vocal, and drums have struck more than a chord of entertainment, but also one of reflection and cultural significance.
Mileski-Lignell said Grand Rapids’ Polish-Lithuanian heritage makes Grand Rapids stand out as a city and in terms of population, it is considered the 18th largest city in the country with residents of Polish-American ancestry.
“That flavor comes at you in all sorts of ways—everything from the bronze statue of Stanley Ketchel on Bridge Street to the 14 Polish-Lithuanian halls that dot the city—and people are naturally drawn to a city that has character,” Mileski-Lignell said.
“It’s fair to say the festival has become a centerpiece of the downtown Grand Rapids summer activities. For the Polish-Lithuanian community, it remains a source of pride that our traditions of music and food continue,” Mileski-Lignell added.
The Polish Heritage Society also partners with different organizations throughout the festival to raise awareness for businesses and vendors in the community—and at the end of the day, it is the sense of fun that permeates the festival that Mileski-Lignell noted is her favorite thing about the event
“It is a free, family-friendly event that has encouraged visitors to dance to lively polka bands, enjoy some authentic Polish food, meet with family and friends, and learn more about Polish culture,” Mileski-Lignell said.