Tom Zielinsky is an accordionist and member of Weirton, West Virginia’s Sacred Heart of Mary Polish Parish. Zielinksy was born in Steubenville, Ohio and raised in New Cumberland, West Virginia, where he attended a one-room Polish Catholic church. He plays regularly at the Sacred Heart of Mary Polish Festival, their bi-annual polka mass, and other community events.
On family, industry, and immigration in New Cumberland and Weirton…
Emily Hilliard: Could you tell me about your family?
Tom Zielinsky: My family is, on my mother’s side– she was Slavic and her parents- one came from Poland and the other came from Austria. My father’s family, both his mother and father came from Poland. So, I’m half and half. I’m half Polish and half Slavic.
EH: What did your parents do? What brought you to Weirton and them to the area?
TZ: I think the mining up in New Cumberland was really a strong suit for all the immigrants coming over from not just Poland or Austria or Germany, but Russia, Czechoslovakia… they came because there was work. And there was a lot of work, the brickyards starting in about middle-1800s continued through about 1976, gradually decayed to where there’s hardly any remnants of the brickyards, but traditionally they came for work in the brickyards and then when the Depression hit, the brickyards started to stagnate and Weirton Steel at the time was the predominant employer and so the men and/or women transferred from the Rocky Side brickyard area down into Weirton.
My father… only worked in the brickyard for a short period of time and then went to the military, he was in WWII…And when he came back from the war in middle 40s, he then started working at Weirton Steel, just about like all the other men in that area did.
On learning accordion and Polish accordion traditions…
TZ: About when I was 8 years old, my father brought this little box home and set it on the dining room table and my mother said, “your dad bought you a present,” and I said, “well what is it?” and inside there was a 12-bass accordion. He decided I was going to take accordion lessons. So that was kind of the way they did things back then. So at that point I started taking music lessons with a gentleman from East Liverpool, Ohio, his name was Johnny Celli and I took lessons with him probably for about… 4 or 5 years. John ended up closing his studio and my dad then moved me to Dino Belli here in Weirton.
…I really feel privileged that I was able to do that… This was back in 1954, I believe, when my dad bought me my first accordion—if you see pictures of me… it was like this great big accordion and this little person. And that accordion is 60 years old, 62 years old and it still plays. And when he took it off the shelf, he had accordions in a case, and I wanted the black shiny one and back then, that was $600. In 1954. That was a lot of money. So I was very privileged that he was able to spend that kind of money and I was able to play.
But what I did with the Festival of Nations that we do here in Weirton, representing the Polish community, I went back and did some research on who the people were at the time that were able to contribute to the genre and there’s quite a few people that really brought life to the music, whether it was through a waltz, an oberek, a krakowiak, to a polka. And probably the most famous was the “Dziadunio Polka.”… We’ve been able to entertain the people, the community, so they have a little bit more understanding of who the Polish people are, what music contribution they made to society.
On Polish food traditions…
Emily Hilliard: So what are some of the recipes that you make now that you got from your mom and dad?
TZ: …From pork chops to city chicken, to making cabbage rolls. My mother had a recipe and unfortunately she took it with her… when she made her dough for her pierogi. And these pierogi that she made, they just melted in your mouth. It wasn’t a chewy dough—don’t know what she put in it or left out of it, but it was an exceptional dough. So those kind of traditional food things we’ll do… some soups, or a goulash with meat. Of course mother never had a slow-cooker, but she would cook that stuff until it was just falling apart. And the flavors—it was just amazing. So we’ve tried to keep that, pass that along to my daughter, but some of that, people are just too busy to do anymore.
EH: Have you ever made your own kielbasa?
TZ: No. The kielbasa, my dad tried early on because—he liked it with a little bit more garlic and more pepper than what he could buy. And then eventually there was a gentleman that made it over in Ohio that [made it]. Right before the holiday season had started, he would go to these different places and try a sampling just to see if it was to his liking and then this one fella, he had it in—I can’t remember, it’s down around the Bellaire, Ohio area—he doesn’t make it anymore, he passed away. And we finally found a gentleman who went to Newcastle, believe this or not. Newcastle, Pennsylvania—it was a 2 hour drive for us, but he had to get the kielbasa. And this gentleman, his name was Wasilewski and he went into the smokehouse, took us in there, showed us how many… for Easter time, Easter was his biggest. He would make 35,000 pounds of kielbasa and these people would come into this little country store, wooden floors, the shelves were probably no bigger than the aisles here [in the library] and if you didn’t have an order, you weren’t getting any of his kielbasa. And that gentleman passed away a number of years ago. His family, because it was so intense to make and keep the recipe consistent, they sold the recipe to Giant Eagle so you can buy it at the Giant Eagle market district up in Pittsburgh. And it says right on the package, Wasilewski kielbasa.
For the full transcript of our interview with Tom Zielinsky, contact the West Virginia Folklife Program.