John Stephen Wasilewski Sr. was born in June 1891 in the historic city of Brest-Litovsk in the Russia Empire. The city was historically part of the Kingdom of Poland. It became part of Lithuania in 1319, then fell under the Russian Empire in 1795, was returned to Poland in 1921, reacquired by the Soviet Union in 1945, and finally became part of Belarus in 1991.
Wasilewski, at the age of about sixteen, departed home in early 1908 and made his way to New Castle, Pennsylvania. Just who he came to live with is unknown, but some reports say he was basically an orphan. He attempted to get a job at the local tin mill in Tube Town, but was told he was too young. He improvised and started selling water from a bucket to the thirsty men at the mills.
Wasilewski saved his money and opened a small boarding house on Mahoning Avenue for the mainly Welsh immigrants who were employed at the tin mills. He also started providing meals for the men, primarily made from cured meats shipped from Pittsburgh. He soon developed his own recipe for Polish sausage or “kielbasa” and his homemade product became a huge hit. Before too long, in 1913, he started his own small but growing meat market on Mahoning Avenue.
He apparently kept tabs on political changes taking place back in the old country, as the New Castle News of Saturday, March 17, 1917, reported, “John Wasilewski of Moravia street, well known Russian butcher, was not inclined to take much stock in the Russian revolution when interviewed by a News representative this afternoon, but stated he was thus far insufficiently informed to express an opinion as to the probability of the success of the revolt.”
Wasilewski was apparently forced to abandon his small boarding house in the early 1920’s when plans called for the new Mahoning Avenue Viaduct to be built over the site. In 1922 he erected a new residence at #1901 Hamilton Street, located near Gaston Park on the northeast corner of Hamilton and Carl Streets. In September 1922 he married Rose Pecore, also of Polish heritage (coming from what is now modern-day Ukraine). Their first child, a son named Walter, was born in 1924 and he was followed by four more children – John Jr., Stephen, Eugene, and Donna – in the coming years.
It appears John Wasilewski continued to operate his market on Mahoning Avenue location for some time. The New Castle News of Monday, November 9, 1925, sheds light on that topic with, “Meat Market of John Wasilewski, 218 Mahoning avenue, was entered some time early Sunday morning by breaking a front window of the store. The cash register was carried from the store and broken open the rear of the place. There was nothing missing, according to the report made by the officers investigating the robbery.”
By 1930 the enterprising Wasilewski was operating his market on the first floor of the Hamilton Street building, while his family resided in the upstairs residence. Wasilewski’s Market, which also sold produce and packaged foods, became an extremely popular South Side business. It was known throughout the region for making the most flavorful smoked kielbasa anyone could hope to find. John Wasilewski quickly became a leading merchant in New Castle and a prominent member of the Lawrence County Retail Grocers and Food Dealers Association.
On Tuesday, December 22, 1942, a full year after America’s official entry into World War II, an early morning fire severely damaged Wasilewski’s Market. The New Castle News of the same day reported, “Fire which broke out shortly after one o’clock this morning completely gutted the storerooms occupied by John Wasilewski’s market at 1901 Hamilton street, and drove four families residing above into the street scantily clad… The origin of the fire has not been determined. Mr. Wasilewski, who resides in an apartment above the store, had just finished making preparations for today’s business, and was about to retire when smoke was discovered coming from below… Those occupying the building, a two story brick structure, in addition to the Wasilewski family, were the families of Nick Ezzo, Sylvester Bockum, and Edgar Taylor. They were cared for at the home of C. E. Crevenston, nearby, where coffee was also made for the firemen and handed out to them during the night.” The store was completely gutted but was soon rebuilt.
The popular market was the scene of a daring holdup in late 1946. The New Castle News of Friday, December 13, 1946, reported, “Two red-hooded armed bandits at 10:15 p. m. Thursday held up five persons, one a costumer, in the Wasilewski grocery, 1901 Hamilton street, and fled with about $300, according to a report to police. While one of the bandits covered Mrs. Wasilewski with the revolver after commanding “Don’t move!”, the other armed bandit looted the cash register of greenbacks. He did not take the silver. John Wasilewski, husband of Mrs. Wasilewski and proprietor, and his son Eugene, 16, ran from a rear room. “Get out of here!’‘ exclaimed Mr. Wasilewski. The bandits fled into Hamilton street and escaped.”
Less than a week later a young man named Samuel Sams was arrested for the crime. Sams, who confessed to multiple other robberies, implicated an accomplice named Leonard D’Antonio. The two men were brought to trial in June 1947 and convicted of armed robbery. D’Antonio, who proclaimed his innocence, was soon granted a new trial, but before the case could be re-tried the charges against him were dropped. Sams, who recanted his confession, was denied a new trial and started serving a four-year sentence.
In the late 1940’s the elderly John and Rose Wasilewski, who continued to operate the store, relocated to reside in a house in the Walmo section of Neshannock Township. Sadly, John Wasilewski, at the age of sixty-three, passed away on Friday, July 23, 1954. He had suffered a heart attack about a week prior and never really recovered. A memorial service was held two days later at the Noga Funeral Home on S. Mill Street, and he was laid to rest at Castle View Memorial Gardens. Rose Wasilewski continued to run the family business, while greatly assisted by her oldest son Walter.
On the warm evening of Wednesday, July 25, 1956, Wasilewski’s Market closed as usual at 7:00pm. The neighborhood was alive with the sounds of children playing in the streets. Meanwhile, to the east of the New Castle, a U. S. Air Force T-33 Shooting Star training jet was on a routine flight from New York to Texas. The plane was experiencing severe mechanical failure and the two crewmen soon bailed out over Frew Mill Road near Harlansburg. The pilotless plane, pointed away from the city, apparently altered course and streaked off towards the South Side of New Castle. As the small plane dropped in altitude it clipped the tree line in Gaston Park and soon crashed into the back of Wasilewski’s Market at about 7:20pm.
By pure luck only a single person, a lady residing in one of the upstairs apartments, was in the building past 7:00pm, but had fortunately stepped outside just prior to the crash. Upon impact the aircraft burst into flames and a raging fire soon engulfed the entire building. Curious onlookers swarmed the area as policemen and other authorities attempted to cordon off the area. Various firefighting companies responded to help fight the blaze throughout the night. By dawn the building was completely gutted, while several other homes suffered lesser degrees of damage. The sturdy cement structure built by John Wasilewski essentially absorbed the aircraft and saved the neighborhood was utter destruction.
The New Castle News of Thursday, July 26, 1956, reported, “Several persons escaped possible death early last night when a pilotless T-33 jet plane crashed into an apartment – grocery store building in a densely populated South Side neighborhood. Seven persons, including two children, were the only casualties. They were admitted to the New Castle Hospital in a state of shock… Only two walls of the building remain standing today.”
The story might have made the national news, except for the fact that on that very same day of the crash the Italian passenger liner Andrea Doria collided with another vessel and sunk off the coast of Massachusetts. The infamous event resulted in the death of fifty-one people, although a greater disaster was averted when the crew skillfully evacuated over 1,600 passengers before the Andrea Doria sunk.
The two young pilots involved in the crash, Lt. William K. Ryan of Texas and Lt. Gordon McLeod of California, parachuted to safety. They were picked up by local residents and taken to the local State Police Barracks. The both of them were shocked to learn that their plane had come down in an urban area. They were subsequently taken to Youngstown Municipal Airport for a debriefing, while Air Force officials descended on New Castle to conduct a thorough investigation of the crash. The two pilots indicated they looked around, but couldn’t find a suitable place to land the troubled aircraft. Fearing a mid-air explosion they decided to bail out.
The New Castle News of Saturday, July 28, 1956, reported, “A U.S. Air Force today (sic) defended the decision of two jet pilots involved in the Hamilton St. crash Wednesday to bail out rather than crash land the ill-fated T-33 trainer. Lt. Col. Sidney A. Kay, until today in charge of removing all plane parts from the demolished building, said. “They made two passes at fields in the area but both fields were too short. I would have done the same thing.” “I think the boys did everything they could do before bailing out,” he said. Colonel Kay said his final official act in the case will be to pick up the canopy jettisoned by the plane on the farm of Earl Kretzer, Volant RD 1. He intended to pick it up today… Further investigation of the recovered plane parts will be conducted at the Youngstown Airport, headquarters of the 79th Fighter Group.”
The Air Force investigation into the crash lasted about a month, but it took a full year for the various claims to be settled by the federal government. The pilots were cleared of any wrongdoing and both returned to flying. One of them, twenty-four-year-old Lt. Ryan, was tragically killed near Perrin Air Force Base in northern Texas just six months later on January 24, 1957. He was flight testing an advanced F-86 Sabre fighter jet when it crashed into a swamp.
The Wasilewski family began formulating plans to rebuild the store. Meanwhile, Rose Wasilewski went into retirement and her son Walter Wasilewski, who served in the U. S. Navy during World War II, took over active management of the business. He was aided by his wife Jane, a dedicated volunteer who was involved with various civic agencies and local charities. She was passionately involved with the Holy Trinity Polish National Church, and later served on the New Castle School Board from 1969-1974 and on the City Council from 1988-1994.
The Hamilton Street site was soon abandoned when Walter Wasilewski, capitalizing on a good opportunity, acquired the former Grzybowski Grocery at #1701 S. Jefferson Street in July 1957. The established store was in the predominately Polish neighborhood of Sheep Hill had been operated by Peter J. Grzybowski (1889-1970) – who was now retired. Wasilewski relocated the business to Sheep Hill and it quickly resumed its great reputation. The building, situated across the street from the Holy Trinity Polish National Church, was soon enlarged and a smokehouse was added. The Wasilewski’s even took up residence on the spacious second floor.
The Wasilewski’s famous kielbasa remained a staple throughout the community, especially during Easter and Christmas. Costumers literally lined up outside the store during the holidays to place orders for kielbasa, kabanosy, hams, and other deli items. This was an old school operation. At night Walter Wasilewski personally mixed the ingredients and stuffed the casings, and after being cured overnight the prepared meats were smoked (with applewood) the next morning.
Walter Wasilewski eventually operated the market with his wife Jane for a total of about forty-four years. He decided to retire in 2000, but without any of the children or other family members willing to take over the business things looked dismal. He made plans to close the market. Local businessman Rodney Firmi and his wife Sherri soon stepped forward and offered to take over the business. Walter Wasilewski turned over the entire operation, including the secret recipe for the famous smoked kielbasa, to them. The Firmi’s began operating Wasilewski’s Market in early December 2000 and officially took over ownership in April 2001.
The “Kielbasa King of Sheep Hill” had finally retired. Walter Wasilewski had worked in the market in some capacity since he was fourteen – so in all that’s well over six decades of association! Walter and Jane Wasilewski settled into retirement in Neshannock Township, before relocating to South Carolina in the summer of 2009.
Wasilewski’s Market remained in business until financial issues resulted in its closure in early September 2006. The Firmi’s had attempted to sell or relocate the business but to no avail. The market was closed after being in existence for the past ninety-four years. Kielbasas, sausages, hams, and other meats bearing the “Wasilewski Sausage Makers” brand name are still available in local stores. The items are produced by Olde Recipe Foods Inc., a local corporation co-founded by Rodney Firmi back in March 2004. Wasilewski’s Market, although currently abandoned, remains a true landmark of the Sheep Hill neighborhood.
The Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star went into service as a military training jet in 1948. It was an aircraft like the one shown above that crashed into Wasilewski’s Market in July 1956. (c1959)
Wasilewski’s Market was relocated in the summer of 1957 into the building (shown above) formerly housing the Grzybowski Grocery. At this Sheep Hill location the market became a well known institution. (c2005)
The Wasilewski family officially sold the business in the spring of 2001. (Mar 2001)