History of Labor Day Festival,
Hamtramck & the Volunteers
Festival History: Hamtramck City Festival, 37 years of fun
It was the worst of times when the Hamtramck City Festival was first proposed in 1980.
The city was in the depths of the worst crisis it had ever faced. The Dodge Main factory had just closed. For seven decades the factory had defined Hamtramck, providing tens of thousands of jobs and millions of dollars of revenue.
The mood of the city was grim as it faced an uncertain future. At the time, then-Mayor Robert Kozaren, with the help of a group of dedicated citizens, conceived having a huge city festival that would not only boost the spirits of the residents, but also show everyone else that Hamtramck was a tough town that could smile in the face of a crisis.
In short order, the first festival was planned for late September. It was a chilly Friday when the bands stuck up for the first time at the festival on Joseph Campau, just north of Caniff.
From the start it was a huge success, with over 100,00 people attending. If there is one thing Hamtramckans know well it is how to party. But it wasn’t just for Hamtramckans. People from across the metro area came to the festival to enjoy the music, food, crafts and all manner of fun.
The following year the festival was moved up to Labor Day to take advantage of the better weather and longer holiday weekend. It also became associated with the annual Polish Day Parade on Labor Day.
The Festival has changed over the years, with different vendors and entertainers, but has been remarkably consistent in its ability to deliver a great time for all.
(Greg Kowalski, City Historian)
Founded in the wake of the American Revolution, Hamtramck remained largely unknown for more than 100 years as a dusty farming community on the edge of Detroit, Michigan. In 1910, the town took a new direction with the opening of John and Horace Dodge’s auto factory. Within a decade, Hamtramck had become a bustling city. By 1930, it had a population of 56,000 in an area of just 2.1 square miles, making it one of the most densely populated cities in the United States.
Polish immigrants made up the majority of this growing population. In a sense, it was the quintessential immigrant story. These “Huddled masses” typically arrived in the United States with little more than what they were wearing and a steamer chest stuffed with their belongings. In a short time, they saved enough to buy homes on tiny lots. Like so many others, they came seeking a better life. After centuries of repression by the Russians, Prussians, Austrians, and Germans, the Polish immigrants hungered for democracy. They embraced the democratic process and quickly began seeking public office. By 1922, when Hamtramck finally incorporated as a city, the Poles were the controlling influence, molding the city into one of fiery politics, gritty urbanism, raucous entertainment, and an intense spirit of living. They weren’t alone. Even as the sounds of heavy industry faded, and the Polish Americans were pulled away from town by the lure of the spacious suburbs, Hamtramck maintained its persona as an immigrant community. From Hamtramck’s earliest days, African Americans provided a constancy of the fabric of the community. As it attracted droves of immigrants nearly a century ago, these days Arabs, Bangladeshis, Bosnians, Serbians, and others still find the city an attractive place to settle.
It’s been a wild ride between then and now. Hamtramck’s saga is filled with the drama of big business tycoons, Communist plots, notorious gangsters, labor goons, corruption of staggering proportions, and destructive political feuds. Hamtramck is driven by industry as well as high emotions, but just as greed and a lust for power drive some “Hamtramckan’s,” so did the desire to build solid homes in a decent community.
This is a story of strong family values, deep religious beliefs, compassionate and landmark educational programs, and an incredibly rich social structure. It is also a story of intriguing and affluent characters, of the corrupt and the charismatic, as well as the honorable and the high-minded. Above all, it is a story of extraordinary people.
(Kowalski, Greg. Hamtramck: The Driven City. Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2002.)