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Wilno Furniture featured at Wilno Heritage Park

Article written for the Spring/Summer 2003 Wilno Heritage Newsletter
by Shirley Mask Connolly

At one time, almost every farmhouse in Canada's first Polish settlement had a tall glazed dish cupboard (szafa, kredens) or a sideboard in the kitchen. And there were always a variety of  chairs and backless benches around the big, well-scrubbed wooden table (stol). A free standing shelf /bench stood near the door, accommodating milk pails and a full pail of freshly pumped drinking water.   Sometimes there was a little table there too, or a small washstand with a big granite wash dish and a bar of harsh lye soap. A dough box and an overflowing  wood box were generally located near the big cook stove.  A large clock held a place of honour on a wall-mounted shelf, which often  was adorned with a little skirt of lace. A calendar shared wall space with several holy pictures.  A wooden "flop couch", comfortably covered with a quilt or two,  was a favourite spot for curling up on with a book and a kitten.  Most of these handmade wooden pieces were covered with several layers of darkened varnish or painted the favoured "Wilno green".  This was what I remember about my grandparent's house.

 I loved to sneak upstairs where it was quiet, and find a sunny spot to daydream.  Bedrooms were small and sparsely furnished. Wilno Blanket Box Most had iron beds in the cramped 3/4  style, but even the tallest man and the biggest woman somehow managed to fold or squeeze into these without complaint. Almost every house had  a wooden storage chest/blanket box (skrzynia) in the main bedroom.  In it were stored the feather ticks (pierzyna) and quilts.  A few homes also had big wardrobes (szafa), but my grandmother's house had a chest of drawers made as a wedding present for my great -grandparents in 1894.  There were no closets.  Clothes were hung on wooden wall pegs or on hooks on the back of the door.  A washstand with a jug and bowl might complete the furnishings.  A chamber pot was stashed inside the washstand or slipped under the bed. A little rag rug warmed the plank floor near the bed.

Today most of that old furniture is gone - and cannot be found in the dusty granaries and damp basements some of it was relegated to when the family could afford store-bought furniture such as mirrored dressers, shiny chrome tables, padded chairs, and built in kitchen cupboards.  Still many of the old people were reluctant to modernize and some of the old pieces remained in use exactly as they were originally intended.  However, that all changed in the late 1960s and '70s when the first antique "pickers" came knocking.  A man named Wolf (Wolfgang Schlombs) was one picker that many remember. Within a couple of decades, the pickers essentially picked us clean of our Polish furniture.  Hundreds of blanket boxes, dish cupboards and wardrobes were emptied and sold.  Anything that was handmade and painted was particularly popular, regardless of how worn and weathered it might look.  Today this old time Polish Canadian country furniture commands a high price from antique collectors. That is if you can find any of it on the market! It is just not for sale.

 Wolfgang Schlombs sold most of his "pickings", but he kept the best for himself until his personal collection was sold by consortium in the summer of 1999. The $1.4 million paid for the Schlombs collection,  made it one of the highest grossing sales of Canadian furniture and accessories in history. A two page writeup entitled: "Top Canadian Collection Dispersed — $1 .4 MIL", written by Larry Thompson appeared in the Upper Canadian magazine, September/October 1999.  I include a few passages quoted from this article:

"Schlombs began his search for antiques in the early 1970s in Renfrew County, scouring the countryside for the furniture and accouterments of the Polish settlers whose handiwork is now so highly prized.  Collectors and dealers active in those days remember Schlombs as a man who collected with an unwavering intensity, and with an uncompromising standard.  This determination resulted in the gathering of a collection which has been described repeatedly as one of the best in Canada.  The Schlombs kept some of the best Renfrew County pieces for themselves, then began to collect antiques and art from Quebec and Eastern Canada with the same rigorous standard. ...Long before the current enthusiasm for pristine antique Canadiana with original finish and no repairs, Schlombs had trained his eye and aesthetic sense to identify pieces with only the best qualities in mind."

 The best qualities all relate to the age, origin and originality of the piece.  Prized Wilno pieces were made prior to 1900 by skilled cabinet makers in Canada's first Polish Settlement.  Originality meant no alterations, repairs, replacements of hardware or fittings, and especially important, the original paint or varnish was intact without overpainting, stripping and/or refinishing.   The uniqueness of the piece was also important. Blanket boxes,  which were quite common,  did not fetch as much as glazed dish dressers or small cupboards.

 It may be hard for some of us to recognize what made Wilno Furniture so special.   I certainly am the first to admit, that I did not appreciate its worth.  In the 1970s as a young married,  I filled my apartment with "antiques" in refinished golden pine and oak,  but overlooked handcrafted,  more primitive,  painted pieces that were once so much a part of my world.   I had no interest in a battered old kitchen sideboard which was storing tools and tins in my parent's granary until a perceptive picker took it away.  And then there was the little Borutski dough box from my parent's house - the old Frank Borutski place.  I had the good sense to claim it, but made the mistake of stripping it of several layers of old paint. [See photo below]

 Then one day I went to a social gathering at the home of a well-known Ottawa writer and found  a rather ugly,  painted cupboard in the place of honour in the dining room.  The owners proudly presented it as prized "Wilno Furniture", knowing my connections to the area.  I must admit that I failed to see the beauty of the piece, but then and there,  I decided that I had to find out about this "Wilno Furniture".  Howard Pain's book, The Heritage of Upper Canadian Furniture became my "bible" [authoritative book on the subject].  And so I learned about my cultural heritage and I became aware of the historical (and market) value of our Wilno furniture.

Dough Box from the personal collection of Shirley Mask Connolly

Because of its scarcity and the high demand for it, we have legitimate cause to worry that eventually we might only be left with pictures in books. Thankfully, the CanadianMuseum of Civilization had the foresight to collect Wilno pieces back in the 1970s when they were more plentiful and more readily available; unfortunately, the 18 pieces that comprise their collection are stacked in humidity controlled vaults and inaccessible to the general public.

The Wilno Heritage Society wants everyone to have the opportunity to discover our unique cultural heritage -  to learn about the Polish Kashub tradition in Canadian country furniture.  And on this basis, the Society has managed to collect a few pieces of authentic Wilno Furniture for exhibit in the Wilno Polish Kashub Heritage Museum.  Thanks to those people who participated in this project and to the funding provided by the Trillium Foundation, visitors can appreciate firsthand our special Canadiana.

For more information on the Wilno Heritage Society e-mail: