It was known as “Dunkirk’s Bright Spot;” Johnny Hamernik’s Café at 182 East Second Street in Dunkirk, New York featured dining, dancing and the occasional boxing match on Friday nights. The kitchen served fish fry, shrimp cocktails, roast beef sandwiches and hamburgers, and there was a rotating parade of local performers, everyone from The Tempo Trio and The Townsmen to the Star Dusters and the Avalon Radio Orchestra. The café hosted New Years’ Eve bashes, Halloween parties, political meetings and area galas. It was all organized by–you guessed it–John Hamernik. And the best part? We’re related.
On my mother’s side, to be more specific. John James Hamernik was born on May 13, 1892 in Little Rock, Arkansas to Valentine Hamernik and Frances Bishop, two Polish immigrants who had arrived at Ellis Island earlier that year. By 1900, the Hamernik family–Valentine, Frances and sons Walter, Stanley, Martin, Andrew and John–had left for the Fourteenth Ward of Buffalo, New York. But John and his family soon moved on to Dunkirk’s Fourth Ward, and they all grew up at 153 Roberts Road, a block away from Lake Erie. It’s a good thing, too, or John would’ve never met the beautiful Belle Jozwiak.
Pelagia Jozwiak was born in 1896 in Poland to Mykel Jozwiak and Franciszka Marczynski, my great-great-grandfather’s younger sister. Mykel had died in Poland in 1907, and Franciszka traveled to Dunkirk aboard the SS Dampfschiff with four of her five children–Francizek (b. 1891), Salomea (b. 1893), Wladyslaw (b. 1895) and Pelagia (b. 1896)–and future sister-in-law, Maryanna Witkowski, that same year. In Dunkirk, Pelagia changed her name to Belle Amelia Jozwiak, and she grew up on the east side of Lord Street, just a few houses down from her Uncle Casimir and the rest of the Marczynski’s–and a few more from her future husband, John Hamernik.
John and Belle were married on October 23, 1916, and they had three children together: Marion (b. 1921), Virginia (b. 1924) and Raymond (b. 1929). And in 1934, John and Belle finally realized their dream of opening a restaurant. They called it Johnny Hamernik’s Café, and they served an “a la carte turkey supper” with “beers, wines and liquors” at their Grand Opening Gala on November 15, 1934. There was music from the White Eagle Band and Johnson’s Radio Orchestra, and “everybody [was] welcome.” For over a decade, Johnny Hamernik’s Café was the place to be for weekend dinners and dancing, holiday parties with friends and even weeks-long victory celebrations after the end of World War II. The Hamernik’s poured everything into their café, and it was a definite success.
Belle passed away on September 25, 1947 at the age of 51, and the café ended with her loss. The family seems to have been heartbroken: on the one year anniversary of her death, her children took out an ad in the Dunkirk Evening Observer and shared a poem that reads: “You left behind some aching hearts // Who loved you most sincere, // Who never have and never will // Forget you, Mother dear.” But the café was still kind of in operation until a few years ago, albeit it under a new name and new management. It was called the Rainbow Inn, and the bar and restaurant was popular for its buffalo wings and fish fry–I wish I could’ve made it.
It turns out that I have a lot of entrepreneurs in my family tree: there’s Casimir Marczynski, who owned a penny-candy store, Victoria Kuznicki, who owned Kuznicki’s Bar (and operated an illegal still on the side), Joyce Przytula, who started a cake decorating business known as Cakes by Joyce, Jenness Merrill, who was the “singing caller” at a barn dance, Nathan Hawkins, who ran a saw mill on today’s Glen Miller Park, and, now, John and Belle Hamernik, the owners of Johnny Hamernik’s Café. When I first started researching my genealogy, I never imagined that I would find so many businessmen and women in the family–but I’m very lucky to have dozens of entrepreneurs to look up to.