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

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

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes


Historical museum pays homage to Hamtramck

By: Maria Allard | Warren Weekly | Published July 13, 2021

 Christopher Betleja, of Warren, has donated several artifacts to the Hamtramck Historical Museum. Betleja grew up in Hamtramck and is a volunteer at the museum.

Christopher Betleja, of Warren, has donated several artifacts to the Hamtramck Historical Museum. Betleja grew up in Hamtramck and is a volunteer at the museum.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

WARREN/HAMTRAMCK — Walking into the Hamtramck Historical Museum is like entering a time machine.

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

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

And that’s just the beginning of the endless artifacts that highlight the city’s heart and soul. Each photograph, wall plaque, memento, piece of clothing, yearbook and more once belonged to a Hamtramck resident. 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 history,” said museum executive director Greg Kowalski, a retired journalist who has written several books about Hamtramck. “Almost everything you see here was donated to us. People bring in stuff all the time. We do a mix of nostalgia and history.”

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

“We are 2.1 square miles,” Kowalski said, adding that in 1910 the population was 3,500 people. By 1920, it grew to 48,000 people and up to 56,000 residents by 1930.

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

Other auto factories opened, as well, that attracted more people from overseas who originally settled in Pennsylvania and New York before relocating to Hamtramck. The museum has a section dedicated to Dodge Main, which operated from 1910 until approximately 1981 and was located on the Hamtramck/Detroit border. A Chrysler Corp. work shirt, old newspapers, flags that flew over 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 homes area, which features a kitchen table, cookware, cookbooks, mixers, a sewing machine and a hand-operated phonograph purchased in 1924 from Hudson’s Department Store for $250.

“The old wringer washing machine, everybody remembers that,” Kowalski said.


Looking back
Another section is dedicated to the “show biz” performers who came from Hamtramck and also movies made there. The Hamtramck bars that once vibrated with all kinds of music, including the punk rock scene of the ’80s, are part on the overall collection. For instance, Lili Karwowski of the former Lili’s on Jacob Street is remembered. There’s a spot for Grammy award winner Leon Zarskic. And don’t forget to check out the shiny accordion, a sure find in a city such as Hamtramck.

Museum volunteers also have set up other sections, including a spot dedicated to politics. There, visitors can view various pictures, including those of presidents that once 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 the St. Ladislaus cheerleading outfit, historic maps of the city and a bathroom sink from Hamtramck High School that is in the museum’s own bathroom.

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

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

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

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

Presently, a large portion of the city’s residents have 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 living here from around the world.”

Kowalski said that government officials and journalists from other countries, including Finland and Germany, have visited the city to “see how everyone gets along so well.” Museum members also take 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 here’
Warren resident Christopher Betleja, 62, became involved with the museum in 2016 as a volunteer. He was born at St. Francis Hospital. Betleja moved out of Hamtramck to Warren in the early 1990s when he began working at the Warren Post Office. He’s now retired.

“My heart is still here,” said Betleja, who has cherished memories of his birthplace. “We’d run around in the alleys.”

“And in lots,” Kowalski chimed in. “We’d ride our bikes and have water balloon wars.”

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

“We’d take a rubber ball and spray paint a square on the wall. That was the target and with a bat we’d try to hit the ball,” Betleja said.

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

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 to see the different histories I didn’t know about. It’s nice to be back. There are some things that are still recognizable. The Polish culture is not as prominent as it once was,” Piechota said. “I’ve known Greg since I was very little. He lived right across the street from me. He taught me how to paint and draw. I loved being around his family.”

Piechota, 52, was born in 1968 and grew up in the city. His dad was a policeman in Hamtramck for 22 years.

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

The St. Florian High School graduate left Hamtramck in 1986 when he joined the Army. The Hamtramck native now lives in San Antonio, Texas, with his wife and family but his 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. Fridays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays, and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays, or by appointment. Admission is free, but monetary donations are welcome.

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