By William W. Abbott

One of the more intriguing early settlements in California involves the Polish colony in Anaheim. The story begins in Poland, and centers on a young aspiring actress, Helena Modjeska. Born Helena Opid in 1840, Modjeska at a relatively early age gained great fame and recognition as an actress. Her work as an actress brought her in contact with the prominent literati and liberals of time. At the time, Poland had been partitioned by Russia, Prussia and Austria, and the desire for unification and freedom was met with unbending, brutal responses by the occupiers. By 1875, while Modjeska was secure in both her success as an actress and by marriage to Count Bozenta, her health began to fail. The combination of political uncertainty and health concerns, coupled with their established wealth, gave the actress and her family the option not many others possessed: leaving Poland. California became the eventual destination, with a vision of creating a utopian community, similar to Brook Farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, a colony launched in 1840 by Transcendentalists.

The Modjeska family and entourage, arrived in San Francisco in 1876, having travelled by the overland Panama route. Upon arrival, her family was introduced to the existing ex pat Polish community. Drawing upon the early agricultural success of the German immigrants already in Anaheim (and recognizing that while few of the group could speak English, they could speak German fluently and thus could converse with existing residents), the Count acquired farm land in Anaheim and put into production. Nationalists and perhaps revolutionaries at heart, none of the colonists were farmers in their souls or their hands, and the agricultural colony quickly failed (1876-1878). Perhaps out of necessity, Modjeska then mastered the English language, and eventually became one of the most famous actresses touring America.

She eventually returned to Anaheim, and acquired significant property in Santiago Canyon. She commissioned the famous architect Stanford White to design her home. She named her estate “Arden”, from Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” At Arden, she opened her house to visiting Polish illuminaries. After leaving the stage, she retired to Bay Island in Newport Bay where she died. While banned for political reasons from returning to Russian occupied Poland while alive, her body was ultimately interred in Krakow, where she is recognized as both an actress and patriot.

Helena Modjeska cast a large shadow. Her home was acquired by Orange County and is available for viewing. Modjeska Canyon and Modjeska Peak are named for her. Her son went on to become a bridge engineer on bridges throughout the United States, and at the age of 70, a consulting engineer on the Golden Gate Bridge.  Her circle of Polish ex pats included author Henryk Sienkiewicz, who later received the Nobel Peace Prize in literature for Quo Vadis, and international pianist Ignacy Paderewski, who after Polish independence in 1919, returned from California to become Poland’s first prime minister. Her autobiography is Memories and Impressions of Helena Modjeska. Additional source materials can be found in The Polish Colony of California 1876-1914, a thesis authored by Milton L Kosberg (1952), published by R and E Research Associates, San Francisco (1971).

William W. Abbott is a partner at Abbott & Kindermann, LLP.  For questions relating to this article or any other California land use, real estate, environmental and/or planning issues contact Abbott & Kindermann, LLP at (916) 456-9595.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Abbott & Kindermann, LLP, nor the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Because of the changing nature of this area of the law and the importance of individual facts, readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.