NEW YORK FOLKLORE
Vol. 4, Nos. 1-4, 1978
IMAGE AND IMAGINATION: HOW AN ETHNIC
COMMUNITY SEES ITSELF
by Linnie H. Thuma
West of Utica, along the path of the old Erie Canal, lies the
village of New York Mills, From early in the nineteenth century
until the closing of its textile mills in 1951, the proprietors of this
company town rented housing to an often migratory labor force.
While the original workers were drawn from the surrounding
countryside, a succession of immigrant groups later filled the
village and worked in the mills. During the mid-1800s Scots and
Welsh made up the community and the work force, but by the
early twentieth century, Poles predominated. Today, their Polish-
American descendants form a self-identified ethnic core in this
community of four thousand.
When the mills’ final owner, the A. D. Juilliard Company,
moved away, local patterns of employment changed drastically.
Suddenly, workers had to find jobs in nearby Utica or Rome, and
New York Mills became a satellite community rather than a self-contained
economic unit. On the other hand, company dominance
was now at an end, leaving the way clear for increased Polish-
American involvement in local government, civic improvement
efforts, and the school system. While other small towns on the
outskirts of Utica have been absorbed into that city’s suburbs,
New York Mills, though no longer an industrial center, stands
apart both politically and in the minds of its residents. Perhaps a
key to the difference lies in the strong identification of its Polish-
American population with a distinctive community image, an
image shaped by its industrial heritage.
My task, in a three-month study of New York Mills, was to
determine what roles ethnic and historic consciousness played in
residents’ perception of their environment. What image did people
have of their village? What landmarks were important to them, and
why? To determine what local traditions and outside factors influenced
their perception, I questioned people about the importance
of their homes, the community, and local history in their
daily lives. I used non-directed interviews to see if ethnicity would
surface as a factor in the image forming process. I observed traffic
flow, open space treatment, and the placement of monuments.
Finally, I asked informants to draw maps ot Main Street from
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