a strong man can laugh at himself … whispered in the accent he could not lose

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Christmas Eve 2020

It was a haunting image. The flag-draped coffin starkly alone in what looked like a deserted cemetery.

Then around noon, December 24, 2020, it slowly was lowered into the awaiting grave.

It was cold. Temperature hovering around Zero. A devastating Minneapolis blizzard, on the horizon.

Jerry Rotman, the ebullient, articulate, entertaining, caring, patriot, was put to rest. Because of the pandemic, the funeral played out on Zoom. The former Marine, Ivy League graduate lawyer, the kind of father you want, and a damn nice man. He was my 87-year old cousin.

Louise, his dear wife died earlier this year of Covid related issues.

The country is dying All countries do. All people do. All leave a legacy.

Some are positive.

Jerry’s was, and even today remains, a positive force.

To me, the ultimate test of a man is if he is strong enough to laugh at himself.

A short story.

Jerry knew I was writing a series of essays trying to figure out what was going on in our ancestors’ minds and in their lives. I wanted an explanation for the decisions they made that still affect us today. Jerry said he long had wondered the same things.

So, as a young man coming home to visit his family in Iowa from his New England classes, Jerry decided to go via Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. He wanted to see what his father saw many years earlier as a new world, a new life, was about to begin. He wanted to experience the emotions.

And he did.

Over the phone, even 60 years later I could feel the powerful impact of what he absorbed.

The intensity must have been exponentially more dramatic as he sat in the family living room, next to his father, displaying his heated sensations in great detail. An act of extreme empathy.

Slowly his father reached over and put his warm hand atop Jerry’s and gently whispered in the Eastern European accent he never could lose, “But, Jerry,” he said. “We came through Canada.”

poor georgie’s almanack

december 25, 2020

The Black Death

 poor georgie’s almanack:

When medics and care-givers are in isolation will we relive the 14th Century “Black Death” Plague? It spread from China to Europe, where it killed about half the population.

Origins of plague and virus pandemics differ, but not the results. 

THE PLAGUE DOCTOR     il_570xN.1632743670_d65b.jpg

The Simmons Tale

“Why Did My Family Do That”is a series of essays that explores the backstories of long-ago decisions that affect their descendants today. All the characters surnames were Kroloff, Helfet, Herzoff, Levich, Gordick, Simmons, Kauffman, Levy, and their hundreds of relatives.

SIMMONS FAMILY.  REVISED AUG 8, 2018.   George Kroloff

This essay, “Unmasking a fake Voldermort and mapping the road to Tippah” is my take on one portion of early American history. It examines the outside, even worldwide, forces that led to my wife Susan’s ancestors who were among the very first settlers in what became the United States of America.

It also looks at what “drove” Susan and her brother Bob’s grandparents to move from Blue Mountain, Tippah County, Mississippi, in the Deep South, to Southern California before World War I. The grandparents names were Suzie and Lemuel Simmons. Wife Susan’s grandmother’s maiden name was Mitchell. Susan’s mother was Edith Marks Simmons Gordick. Picture is Susan, her father Robert B. Simmons, Edith, young Robert Mitchell Simmons.

If you have ADD and/or don’t care a whole lot about the Simmons family but are interested in why your ancestors did what they did to influence your lives, read the timeline and then skip to the headline “In the beginning there were three American Simmons.”

If you are interested in other essays in this series regarding our family in Sioux City, Iowa, South Africa, The Pale of Russia, Chicago please to to WordPress.com and look up Kroloff, or “Why did our family do that?”

First a timeline, then the history and people behind the bullets.

 — 300 million years ago a meteor, about the size of a football field crashes into the newly formed Appalachian Mountains near today’s Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia border. The gash it made in the mountains is known as The Cumberland Gap.
— 1492 Spanish Inquisition.
— 1492 Columbus was the first European to curl toes in warm Caribbean island sand. Thinking he had found India, natives became known as “Indians.”
— 1492 (it was a big year) Columbian Exchange began.
— 1607 Richard Simmons’ ship and two others arrive and drop anchor at Jamestown, Virginia. The passengers create North America’s first British colony to survive a few years. He, however, promptly dies.
— 1608 William Simmons, a laborer and surely an indentured servant, arrives at Jamestown.
— 1621 Moses Simmons, a Puritan, arrived in Plymouth Colony.
— 1700s Simmons and Mitchell families settled up and down Atlantic Seaboard. Quite a few resided near Jamestown.
— 1754 Brutal French and Indian War. Simmons soldiers first saw Land of Milk and Honey west of Appalachian Mountains. Some were paid in “patents” or land grants in the “unsettled” area and eventually moved west.
— 1776 Revolutionary War. More Mitchell/Simmons soldiers got land grants for their military service.
— 1800 After The Cumberland Gap’s Indian trail was widened to accommodate wagons, family members moved west across the Appalachians. Several settled in Tennessee, north of what became Tippah County Mississippi.
— 1830s Most Native Americans forced out of Mississippi. Millions of acres opened for settlement by whites and slaves. Susan’s ancestors move in.
— 1860s Tippah County was decimated by waves of Civil War battles. Nearby towns changed hands over 50 times. Great suffering. Tiny Blue Mountain, (Susan’s ancestral homesite) never really thrived.
— 1910 Lemuel B. Simmons married Susie/Suzie Mitchell in El Paso. No indication of why El Paso. He was not the first Simmons to marry a Mitchell. The two moved to Los Angeles and then to nearby towns where “Lem” worked as RR conductor.
— 1930s Lem, Suzie, their sons William M and Robert B settled in San Bernardino, California where Lem was a home builder.
— Most of the 1930s Robert B, was in the US Navy, with a break as a San Bernardino policeman. In 1937, while his ship was in Boston for maintenance, he met Edith Marks. She moved to his home port, San Diego. They married and soon had two children, Susan L.
— WWII, 1945, Robert B returns to active Navy duty.
— 1946 Robert B dies in accident on way home after being released from Navy in Los Angeles.
— Later in 1946 Edith married John Calvin Gordick who adopted Susan and Robert M.

(Note: In this essay, some relatives are identified by their middle initial to differentiate them from other family members. Over several centuries, most Simmons’ were consistently uncreative when naming their children.)

Unmasking a fake Voldermort and mapping the road to Tippah

Herein we discover a story about an American family that also is a family story about America.

We start where this essay ends. Southern California, 1946.

If you followed the Harry Potter book and movie series, you should remember Lord Voldermort, the most evil character of all time. Voldermort was so powerful that people feared to speak his title and name, and referred to him as “He Who Cannot Be Named.”

For the first 50 years of our marriage I envisioned my dear wife Susan’s birth father as being someone like the elusive, dreaded, supremely ugly, Voldermort. He just wasn’t talked about. As far as I knew Susan’s father’s family was non-existent.

I learned online that her father’s full name was Robert Bernard Simmons, but I had never seen a picture of him.

                                               Robert B and Robert M

Apparently, he wasn’t evil. In the few pictures of him that later turned up, he seems like about six feet of happiness, a really good looking family guy.

Bob Simmons’ parents were from Tippah County Mississippi. They were living in Southern California, when he was born. For a so-far unexplained reason, Susan’s grandmother was in Blue Mountain, Tippah County when her father (Robert B) was born. That was 1914, a half century after the northeastern Mississippi county was crushed by the Civil War. In 1914, and for a long time afterward, Blue Mountain (or “BM” as it now is sometimes accurately referred to) did not have a single paved street or road.

Susan’s grandmother, variously known as Suzie/Susie/Susan/Sue Mitchell Simmons, told the 1920 Census that she was a hospital nurse. She and Susan’s Grandfather Lem were living in Los Angeles. (Coincidentally, my dear Susan spent about a quarter century as a hospital nurse, not knowing about her grandmother’s occupation.)

Fast forward to the early-1930s. Several people wrote notes in support of teenage Robert B enlisting in the US Navy (he wanted to learn a trade). They described him as a hardworking, decent individual. The trade he learned was how to be a “signalman,” communicating by flags and searchlights between ships nearby. Not really an education for a future job, but the pay was steady.

Edith Marks, the girl he met in Boston, was a local girl whose family years earlier had emigrated from Canada. They were Scotch, Irish and who knows what. A family legend claims that some of the family were Native Americans. DNA check results from two different labs do not report any Native Americans in the family.

Meanwhile, Robert B was at sea when wife Susan was born in February 1939. Robert B soon was honorably discharged and along with his wife Edith and baby Susan moved to San Bernardino, California, about 100 miles away. There he first worked with his father Lemuel B and older brother William M, building houses. It’s confusing, but Susan’s brother Robert M was born in 1940, in San Bernardino.

Railroading was deeply rooted in the Simmons family, all the way back to Blue Mountain in Tippah County. It appears Lem worked for the Southern Pacific RR and the family moved from LA to other cities along the line … including Riverside and San Bernardino. El Paso, where Lem and Suzie were married is on the Southern Pacific RR line. There must be more to the story than that, but I can’t find it.

William, Susan’s uncle and Robert B’s brother also remains a mystery. He married a “Ruth” who, so far, has been impossible to trace online. William’s main presence in history seems to be that he died in 1971 and was buried in a military cemetery because he had been in the Navy, like his brother.

Robert B, Susan’s father, had attended grammar and high school in San Bernardino.

Edith’s Boston accent and her in-laws’ Southern drawl did not make beautiful music. You might say atonal. After Robert B was back in the Navy, Edith felt isolated in San Bernardino, with two youngsters and few friends, according to a diary she sporadically wrote. Edith anxiously waited for Robert B’s finally returning as a civilian on April 24, 1946.

Then tragedy.

Mid-day, as planned, Robert B was mustered out of the Navy in the Los Angeles area. He died in an accident on the way home to San Bernardino. It seems he tried to same some money, attempted to hop onto a freight train headed to San Bernadino and missed.

He died.

To Susan and her brother Bob (Robert M), events of April, May, June, and July1946 remain a bit murky. They were 7 and 6 years old.

Susan does remember the terrible Wednesday evening and the scene when policemen arrived to report Robert B’s death. She recalls no support from the Simmons family. To this day Simmons and Mitchell families and Susan have not been in contact.

Edith was penniless. She was awaiting Robert B to bring home his wages, living paycheck to paycheck (although, in those days sailors probably were paid in cash). Most friends and family were 3000 miles away.

Within about three months the young, helpless and hapless, scared, isolated, and devastated, Edith, married John Calvin Gordick, a hard-drinking, chain-smoking Army Air Corps soldier. He adopted Susan and her brother Robert M. Later the family grew to include a brother John, and sisters Jody and Shelley Gordick. That marriage lasted 30 years until John Gordick died.

The adventures of the core Robert Simmons/Gordick family (Susan, Robert M. and Edith) should be told in another essay. This essay is about what happened during the 430 years before the incident in the Simmons’ San Bernardino doorway.

Actually, it begins with a not-so-slight hick-cup 300 million years before.

Pandora’s Box.

Susan and I have three adult children. Three adult grandkids. We are about three inches from being happily SuperGlued forever together at the hip. That’s false news. We are donating our bodies to science and will be cadavers at a medical school.

Yet, from early in our relationship it was clear that somewhere in the deepest reaches of Susan’s fertile mind there was a small area reserved for a Pandora’s Box (photo above) … a container in Greek Mythology that stored all the world’s evils. The Pandora’s Box in Susan’s brain, for years, needed to be kept sealed and not discussed.

When it burst open, inside was just another mystery. Who were the Simmons? Who was her father? Why was he, whose family lived in Southern California, born in Blue Mountain, Tippah County?

This is my effort to fill in blanks and conjure up a somewhat revisionist’s researched view of how the Simmons family influenced American history and, more important, how history influenced the family … including Susan, her siblings, their kids and our kids.

In the beginning there were three American Simmons.

Two were at Jamestown, VA. One was Richard, an original settler who arrived in 1607.

The Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery, had set sail from London on December 20, 1606, bound for the New World. The fleet reached the Virginia coast in late April the next year. After two weeks of exploring the seacoast and inland waterways, the voyagers, including Richard, selected a site on May 13. It was at a point where marauding Spanish ships could not easily bombard the fort they would build. (See painting above.)

Alas, Richard, a white collar worker in England, died within four months of landing in Virginia. No evidence he and Susan are related.

Next cameWilliam Simmons in 1608. He arrived on the first supply ship sent from London to the Jamestown settlement and must have been an indentured servant. History claims he was a laborer.

The third Simmons to arrive was Moses. He was a full-fledged Pilgrim, landing at Plymouth, Massachusetts in1621on the first ship after the Mayflower with new settlers. The ship was named Fortune. For Moses the ship was aptly named. He prospered and his family was prolific.

So that genealogy doesn’t intrude and confuse the history that follows, Susan probably isn’t related to Moses the Pilgrim. Nonetheless, Moses is significant because this narrative is about how America’s history evolved. And, her mother, Edith was born in Boston, not that far from Plymouth.

William,the Jamestown laborer, is the most likely candidate for planting the first American root from Susan’s family tree. He probably worked out his indenture, which was a contract to be a slave of sorts for a few years and then be freed.

One of the misplaced facts about the American colonies is that up to about 1800, most of the white British colonists arrived as indentured servants who, like William, would work for their freedom.

Thousands were petty criminals who the British wanted to clean out of their filthy prisons (called gaols). Some were children, they were kids randomly picked off the streets and delivered to ship captains who would sell them in America. (The term kidnapping refers to that practice.)

Like black slaves, indentured servants were not allowed to marry and could be bought and sold. Unlike black slaves, the white indentures knew that, if they could keep themselves alive, at a certain date they would be freed.

Within a generation or two of William’s arrival, there were Simmons living in Virginia just west of Jamestown. Not all family trees are accurate, but according to several online, some or all of those Simmons’ were Susan’s kin.

It wasn’t until about 175 years after the first Southern Simmons arrived that they were able to move west over the Appalachian Mountains to Tennessee and Kentucky, and then down to Mississippi. Geography and global geopolitics, hostile Native Americans and bandits, kept them close to the Atlantic Coast.

The trek to Tippah began with, and was pushed along by, the Columbian Exchange.

Tippah County, in fact the whole Mississippi Territory, was as alien to the early British settlers as Lesotho in Africa is to most early 21st Century Americans.

Tippah County surrounds the tiny town of Blue Mountain. A short horseback ride away was another tiny town named Mitchell. Today Simmons and Mitchell families still live in the area.

Simmons and the Mitchell ancestors were involved in the French and Indian Wars and the Revolutionary War. As soldiers they first saw some of the lush, fertile land west of the Appalachian mountains. Later they would fight with and against each other in the Civil War, where some died of disease in prisons and hospitals. They may even have fought each other in Tippah County.

Germs, groceries, gold, gems.

Unwittingly, Christopher Columbus started the Columbian Exchange. He brought germs west to the Americas. He certainly did not return, back to Europe with gems.

The Columbian exchange in a very few years brought Europe, Asia and Africa, the potatoes and corn so important to feeding a rapidly growing world population. The Exchange eventually produced new kinds of cotton to protect humans’ skins, as well as rum and tobacco to eat away the innards of billions of new users.

Germs were, arguably, the most important element in the history of the New World and the Simmons’ trek to Tippah.

The islands Columbus visited were outposts of an ancient, sophisticated and amazingly healthy network of civilizations. Using new techniques, a few historians have concluded that in 1492, the three Americas, North, Central, and South, as well as the Caribbean islands, could have been home to as many people as Asia. But, the indigenous Americans were as isolated from Europe, Asia and Africa as were Australia and the icy poles. And they were isolated from germs and diseases that other cultures had become immune to.

One of the biggest threats to the newly exposed Native American population was rats. The rodents escaped from European ships along with the vermin that lived on their skins. They infected the nearby indigenous people, who, in turn, infected others of their tribes and distant tribes with whom they traded or fought.

The most deadly of all killers, likely were pigs that Spanish and Portuguese explorers and conquerors brought with them for food. Many broke free and became feral. Ugly, oozing, gurgling pig pox spread up and down the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and relentlessly worked its way inland. The gnats, lice and other creepy-crawlies on the pigs spread the pox, which decimated entire villages.

Germs help explain why a very small number of Europeans were able to conquer the American continents. Teeny-tiny microbes were much more lethal than swords or muskets. Scientists now estimate upwards of 80 million inhabitants of the Americas died of the pox and a few other European diseases. The pandemics took several generations to run their course and the surviving Native Americans around Plymouth and Jamestown were still trying to figure out what hit them when the oddly clothed, bearded, inexperienced and often very hungry European settlers arrived.

Other diseases, especially Malaria and Yellow Fever spread by mosquitos, were huge killers of the whites, especially the indentured servants who worked tobacco fields and later the rice paddies and cotton fields. (Mosquito zone map NYTimes)

The importation of African slaves who could survive in the mosquito zone (between Baltimore in North America and Buenos Aires in South America) had two causes. First, they were immune to some tropical diseases. Second, slaves were considered to be a cost efficient way to obtain needed labor to produce the expanding demand for American agricultural and mining products.

The northern and southern extremes of the American Continents, were relatively free of disease-bearing flying insects. In the Mosquito Zone the bugs were major reasons for wars, civil rights (or lack of them), business decisions and even religions. The pandemics that cut down so many of the indigenous Americans still bug world politics. And dominated Simmons’ country.

(There is a lot more to the story. Malaria weakened the British soldiers south of Baltimore in the Revolutionary War to they point that, at the end of the war, the King’s generals couldn’t find enough healthy men to fight. Germs, not bullets, were the main killers of soldiers in the American Civil War and WWI. George Washington’s success in the Revolutionary War was, in large part, because he forced his troops to be inoculated against disease.)

When the first Simmons settler (Richard) died a few months after arriving in Jamestown, it is likely that one or more diseases led to his demise. The fact that he was an investor not an explorer and had no clue how to survive in the new alien environment of Virginia didn’t help him. There were just too many human and inhuman predators, who didn’t want their domain disturbed by outsiders, especially men with hairy faces.


An academic explanation of the Columbian Exchange is “the widespread transfer of plants, animals, culture, human populations, technology, and ideas between the Americas and the Old World in the 15th and 16th centuries.”

The Columbian Exchange was the force that drove European colonization and trade after Christopher Columbus’ 1492 voyage. Invasive species of flora and fauna and communicable diseases were a byproduct of the Exchange. But, without the corn and potatoes from the Americas there likely would not have been the population explosion that occurred a couple hundred years later. Or, on the other hand, the Potato Famine in Ireland … but that is another story which I expect will arise in an essay about Susan’s mother’s family. If I ever get to it.

Gold and gems.

Gold is what the European kings wanted. There wasn’t near enough to satisfy them in the Americas. But, for the Spanish, there was Silver. Lots of it. Chinese war lords and traders were willing to pay/barter for it. Silver made Spain rich, most of it was dug out of deep mines near the west coast of South America.


Trade in manufactured and agricultural products, humans (slaves) and gunpowder exploded after 1492. A snapshot of how globalization worked could have been taken when the Spanish hired Japanese samurai warriors (Above) to protect the caravans of animals carrying silver to ports and ships headed for the Chinese. Bandits were attacking the caravans of animals carrying silver, stealing the ore before it could reach the ships waiting to take the riches to China. Apparently, the ship captains didn’t care to know who they were dealing with, as long as they could get the loot onboard.

The colonists, including Simmons, along the Atlantic really were a different story.

For Southern Simmons families, and/or their neighbors, tobacco initially was the main cash crop. Addiction for the weed was growing in the Americas and Europe. It literally lit up the economy in the 1600s. American lumber, shipped across the Atlantic also lit-up and built-up Europe. Because of their farming methods, tobacco and other crops were gobbling up the land’s nutrients, making the soil unfit for farming. That created a push to find new lands and the vast area west of the Appalachians was a magnet pulling people like the Simmons. But, as noted, the mountains were only one of the barriers to them heading west.

A few years later, cotton and rice became cash crops in the South. They, too, needed new land.

Then, in the 1790s Eli Whitney invented the Cotton Gin (gin, as in engine). The machine greatly speeded production of cotton by cleaning out the dirt and other imperfections that were caught in the sticky cotton bolls. The demand for American cotton sky-rocketed in the Northern states and Europe. As did the demand for slaves to work the fields and process the cotton. A demand for slaves also was pushed by the need for cheap labor to grow sugar, mostly in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico islands.

England’s economy was heavily invested in US cotton. The South grew it. Cotton mills which turned the cotton fibers into cloth also sprouted up along the Atlantic Coast, with many in North Carolina and even more in New England. (Above photo: Lowell, Mass. textile mills, undated etching. Coincidentally, it was in Lowell that John and Edith Gordick settled after he retired from the military.)

The approximately 1,750 largest plantation and slave holders were to the South what the Robber Baron industrialists and investors were to the North. In the South, especially Mississippi, “Cotton was King.” The plantation super-slavers controlled just about everything, especially governments.

While there are records of one or two Mitchell families (who appear to be Susan’s relatives) owning as many as 20 slaves, it was, and is, widely said that the goal of many poor southerners was to own at least one slave. Not only would they have someone under their control to look down upon … a slave was a status symbol.

But, that gets us ahead of the story.

The Simmons were caught in a bind. As mentioned, several had fought in the French and Indian Wars on the western side of the Appalachians. That put them in the Ohio Valley, and they personally had seen a new Promised Land.

As a reward for their service in the earlier wars, then, later, in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 with the British, they received a piece of paper (a “patent” or land grant) entitling them to property to the west. They wanted it. But they couldn’t get there.

Even as tobacco plants were sucking up the nutrients in the Seaboard soil the fields continued to be fertile breeding grounds for the bugs that delivered the deadly germs the local populations.

Medicine was rudimentary. Life was fragile. It was not unusual for Simmons males to father over a dozen children, often going through three wives, hoping enough males would survive to carry on anything they wanted to carry on … a business, a farm, whatever.

Meanwhile, the big bumps in the roads.

The Appalachian chain of mountains is nowhere near as high as the far off Rockies to the “real west.” Most colonists probably hadn’t heard about the giant Great Plains, deserts and soaring peaks of the Rocky Mountains, past the Mississippi River. As much as they wanted to move west, they couldn’t, so almost all migration before 1750 tended to be north/south as the map of major trails and rivers shows.

Anyway, the Appalachians were uncrossable except by foot over narrow Indian or animal pathways, not wide enough for a wagon. A favored means of travel was rivers, but rivers refuse to flow up-hill and over mountains.

Cumberland Gap

The mountain barrier wasn’t breached for Southern Simmons until the late 1700s when a group that included the legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone was responsible for widening the narrow Cumberland Gap trail so that it could accommodate wagons. (Above Cumberland Gap photo above, about 2013.)

Before that, a relatively few people walked the Wilderness Trail, which led into the Cumberland Gap. They mostly headed for Tennessee and Kentucky from Virginia. President Abraham Lincoln’s parents, reportedly, did just that to get to Kentucky, where he was born.

Northern Simmons families had it somewhat easier. They could get west via the Great Lakes, which was fed by rivers flowing from all directions.

Geopolitics again.

There were other barriers. The French to the north and west, and the Spanish to the south.

In 1608, even as the British were establishing their first colony at Jamestown, the French were digging in at Quebec, commanding the St. Lawrence River in Canada and starting their domination of the fur trade.

The centuries-long European battles between the French and English and Spanish washed over the North American shores. By the early 1700s, France and its allies among several large Native American tribes effectively blocked the British colonists, including the Simmons and Mitchells, from settling in the Ohio Valley.

The ring of French forts, settlements, churches and trading posts that started in Quebec, ran down the St. Lawrence River, along the Great Lakes, down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico, where they mixed it up with the Spanish, who off-and-on controlled New Orleans, the Gulf Coast and Florida. Notice the green and yellow areas in the map.

Then, in 1754 something with huge unintended consequences happened during the French and Indian War.

That war in North America as an important part of a worldwide and bloody series of battles raging from Europe to Pacific islands like the Philippines, to India, and to the Americas. It is known as The Seven Years War. European kings just couldn’t stop trying to flex their muscles (armies and navies). Colonial Simmons families from New England to North Carolina were in the thick of the skirmishes, mostly in colonial militias. They also became caught up in the movement that led to the American Revolution.

A 21-year-old aristocratic Virginian named George Washington, led the Virginia Militia (below). Washington was appointed to the post by a colonial governor with the great name of Dinwiddie. Young George did not initially have a stellar performance. His troops suffered severe casualties and Washington was forced to surrender. But he and others, including Simmons’ saw first-hand the brutality of the British military. There was the brutality of British officers against their own men, of the British against the “lowly” colonials, and the the brutality against their Indian enemies, where they seemed to match-a-scalp-for-a-scalp, and worse.

(Another essay in this series about the Helfet relatives in South Africa, reports on similar brutality by British in the Boer War 150 years later.)

Washington’s family, along with other Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin, were major land speculators. They had helped create companies that were granted hundreds-of-thousands of acres in the Ohio River Valley. The investors expected to make money by selling parts of the grants to settlers, if the land was settled. The French already were there and didn’t like the British intrusions.

There always seems to be a backstory, or in this case volumes of back stories. But, among the reasons several signers of the Declaration of Independence were eager to fight the British was a desire to protect their financial interests.

Not long after Washington suffered humiliation, he and others returned to battle and beat the French. Globally, including North America, the Brits won The Seven Years War.

The French and Indians lost Kentucky, Tennessee and later Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and parts of Louisiana. Soon they were opened to white colonists. Suddenly the British had to govern Florida and a greatly enlarged chunk of North America, include much of today’s eastern Canada. That, along with paying off war debts was an immense financial burden.

So, the English instituted a series of taxes and tried to force the relatively few colonists who had settled in the Ohio Valley to return to the Atlantic Seaboard. That was bad news for the land speculators who eventually signed the Declaration of Independence. The so-called “Fathers of Our Country” couldn’t make money by selling to new settlers if the “King” would only let settlers by land that England controlled, not the American land speculators. The Declaration of Independence has a few sentences that spells out the grievances the speculators felt.

Separately, the British didn’t think that the colonial militias they had forced into service during the French and Indian War pulled their own weight. Cash-strapped London thought the colonies should contribute to easing the debt and pay for the continued “protection” provided by the British. Sort of like the protection racket by mobsters who had been part of the Al Capone Gang in Chicago when I was growing up there.

The Boston Tea Party (1773) was just one of many protests about taxes. Bales of highly-taxed tea were grabbed from a British ship and dumped into Boston Harbor. America’s War for Independence officially started in 1775 and ended in 1883 … about a generation after the French and Indian War. (old Tea Party print below)

It took about another generation until the first Mitchell and Simmons families were ready and able to to move into Tennessee. The few trails across the mountains were rough, unpaved, subject to attack by Native Americans and an errant bear or wolf and ice storm.

In the 1790s The Wilderness Trail which led to the Cumberland Gap was widened enough to let wagons pass through. Quite a few family members moved west and settled in Kentucky and Tennessee near the Northern border of Mississippi, above what became Tippah County. Because it was hilly, Northeast Mississippi developed as an area of small family farms, small towns and few plantations.

(Above, a fantasy picture of Daniel Boone leading a group through the Cumberland Gap … notice the armed scout in the woods.)

In summary:

The good news for the Simmons and others who lingered on the East side of the Appalachians was that about 300 million years ago an errant meteor, about the size of a football field, crashed into the still-growing Appalachian Mountains and created a valley that became known as the Cumberland Gap. It is in the general vicinity of where the states of Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky.

The bad news is that it took 300 million years for people and technology to progress enough to widen the animal and Indian trail through the Gap so that wagons could be hauled into the Ohio River Valley.

Sorry for the repetition, but the Gap is long forgotten, but quite important to the Simmons’ and American history. It moved the goal posts westward.

Another quick recap.

The French lost the French and Indian War, but, in the long run the British lost North America.

Curiously, with French help George Washington, his troops, and widespread malaria, helped defeat the British and end the Revolutionary War in Yorktown, VA. That town is less than a day’s horseback ride from Jamestown, VA, where the British first planted a viable settlement.

Then, within a historical blink (1803), and for a pittance, the French sold the young American Republic the Louisiana Purchase, which hugely increased the size of the fledgeling country in every measure, (square miles, economy, food production, resources, world prestige, etc.).

And, in the next century, the 1900s, America, at great loss of life, helped rescue the French and British from the Germans (WWI and WWII). Just to round out the ironies, the Germans also contributed to the colonials’ victory in the Revolutionary War.

A circle of history.

Another recap … Online family trees connect wife Susan to a John Simmons, in Surry County Virginia, the county where Jamestown was located. John was born in England before 1630, according to genealogists, and died in Surry about 1677.

History has a way of circling back upon itself. Jamestown is about a half-hour drive from Yorktown, VA, site of the battle where the British surrendered to Gen. Washington. That occurred less than 200 years after Jamestown started as the first permanent British settlement in what became the United States of America. There were Simmons in Jamestown when it all began in 1607 and Simmons’ who participated in the American War for Independence where it ended in Yorktown in 1781.

Back to the trail ending in Tippah, Mississippi.

In 1809 Alexander Lemuel Simmons was born in Bedford, VA. Alexander moved to Tennessee before settling near Tippah County around 1848. He married Rebecca Mitchell. My wife, Susan, according to family trees posted on-line, is his direct descendant. Others in her family had moved to North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and, apparently, some to Pennsylvania and Illinois.

There doesn’t seem to be any record of how they crossed to the west side of the mountains, whether by wagon, walking, partially by river, stage coach and/or partially by rail after 1850.

Even before the Civil War, Mississippi was crisscrossed by a few railroads and Susan’s grandparents depended upon them. Lemuel Simmons, of Blue Mountain, Tippah County, Mississippi, her grandfather, worked for years as a railroad conductor. He is the one who married Suzie Mitchell … not the Alexander Lemuel Simmons who married Rebecca Mitchell.

Occasionally, the Simmons did produce an innovative baby’s name. Durock Dekalb “Captain Garfield” Simmons (above) was born in Blue Mountain in 1878. His dad and other Simmons had been in the area before the Civil War. “Cap” was a locomotive engineer on the Frisco RR, settling in Memphis, Tennessee when Lem and Suzie Simmons were growing up. Cap didn’t like his given names and allegedly refused to use them. To one-and-all he was “Cap Garfield.”

Parallel trails, parallel stories … a little refresher … because wading through this story has been a long slough. Just like the History for Dummies books, a little recap goes a long way. 

The early French, English settlers and the Dutch (who founded New York) didn’t just get up, leave Europe, and go west. Often they were financed by investors who expected the the settlers to work, plant, trade, trap … and ship back items that would be sold at a profit in Europe and elsewhere. The Germans seemed to have more interest in Africa than America. The Dutch liked the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico but gave up Manhattan, now New York City.

The Spanish and Portuguese were different. Their explorations and exploitations were aimed at converting the heathens to Catholicism and providing the royalty with wealth. A popular explanation of Columbus’ sales pitch to the King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain was that he might find enough gold to fund a new Crusade to capture Jerusalem from the Muslims, probably to be led by King Ferdinand himself.

Curiously, without a real understanding of world geography, in an attempt to settle arguments among powerful families, the Pope chose a line on the globe and said everything on one side would be Spanish and the other side Portuguese. Spain got almost all the mineral riches of the New World. Portugal got the steamy jungles of Brazil. Of course, the non-Catholic countries didn’t agree with the Pope. The British, Germans and Dutch, for instance.

In South America the Spanish found more wealth from silver than they ever would expect, and some gold. How the Spanish conquests affected Southern California where Lem and Suzie Simmons settled will be skipped in this essay.

It is safe to assume that most of the Simmons who landed North of Philadelphia fought for the Union in the Civil War and those who landed to the south fought for the Confederacy. (Except for those in Maryland, were people were all over the place politically … and still are.)

But, why Tippah?

Good question, not totally sure of the answer, but there are strong clues.

In the late 1700s and early 1800s Tennessee and Mississippi were attractive. The occasional economic recessions (they were called Panics then) affected the price of agricultural products and when things “got” bad, people “up and went,” often moving westward. As repeated before, much of the tobacco farmland in Virginia was worn out by poor agriculture techniques. The market for American tobacco also was softening. Everyone, including farm families, had to eat, and rich earth which usually grew abundant crops was available in Tennessee and Mississippi. There actually was a phenomenon called The Great Migration to the Mississippi Territory, 1798–1819.

Cotton was in demand, big time. Mississippi, which had the appropriate land and climate, became the the center of the Cotton Kingdom. Of course, there were similar reasons for people to settle in Georgia, Alabama and Arkansas. But this essay is not about them.

Tippah was north of the seemingly prosperous cotton country. Maybe the magnet that attracted people there and nearby Tennessee, was as simple as the answer to why my own grandparents and dozens of their relatives and neighbors moved to the Missouri River area North and South of Sioux City, Iowa. Some relative or friend arrived and wrote back home that it was a good place to set roots. The postal systems of the 1700s and 1800s were slow, but they often worked. And usually there were people nearby who could read.

In 1798, when Congress created the Mississippi Territory, the combined population of white Europeans and black African slaves living in the territory was fewer than 7,000. All but a handful were in the south near the Gulf of Mexico.

The Territory was the home to Chickasaw, Cherokee and Choctaw tribes until the 1830s when treaties forced them to walk west along The Trail of Tears, to what now is Oklahoma. If you get history from watching old “Western” movies on TV you would think the Cherokee always lived in “The Wild West.”

A bunch of Mitchells (Susan’s grandmother’s family) and Simmons’ settled around what became Tippah County. A now deserted town near Blue Mountain, where Susan’s father was born, is named Mitchell, the maiden name of Susan’s grandmother.

The 1860 map President Abraham Lincoln used to show the extent of slavery in the South claimed 28 percent of the sparsely settled Tippah County’s population were slaves. Tippah County is in the NE corner of Mississippi. (Above:https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3861e.cw0013200/)

Certainly, everyone wasn’t a farmer. One of Susan’s great-grandfathers ran a boarding house. Near-by were shop-keepers, doctors, clergy, and maybe a few Indian chiefs in retirement. Literature about the area indicates no lack of lawyers.

Some in Tippah were supporters of The North. Most weren’t. Actually, most just wanted to be left alone.

The Tippah area, itself, was to be devastated by armies from the North and South and bands of thugs who roamed across the land preying on already-plundered families. Many of the local men were off to war. Some fought nearby and occasionally came home. Some fought far to the North and East.

Armies had to be fed and they often looted any food they could find. In one report, military marauders around Tippah even took the popcorn strings from a Christmas tree. An example of troops “foraging,” or “living off the land” is depicted in the illustration of General Sherman’s troops in Georgia.

Towns close to Blue Mountain, like Ripley and Holly Springs, home of the famous NAACP founder, Ida B. Wells  (below) were ravaged and several, it was said, changed hands between North or South armies over 50 times.

Among those who served were William A. Simmons, Susan’s great grandfather who was a corporal in the 26th Regiment, Mississippi Infantry. William and his wife had moved to Tippah before the Civil War.

William A’s family originally moved to Tennessee from Bedford, Virginia. Some of his wife’s family can be traced from New Jersey, to West Virginia, to Pennsylvania, and to Tennessee, according to those sometimes accurate online family trees.

An example of unreliable sources is that, depending on the record, Susie Mitchell Simmons was born in nearby Alabama and or maybe in Mississippi. In any event, the Mitchell and Simmons paths to Tippah do not appear to be unusual.

Susan’s grandmother’s family, the Robinsons of Tennessee, had 10 slaves according to the 1820 Census. As mentioned, at least one member of the Mitchell family had more than 20 slaves.

Near Tippah County’s Blue Mountain community were the Mobile and Ohio and the Mississippi Central railroads. As roving bands, and then full armies, marched back and forth across the area, railroad trains, tracks and ties were continually destroyed and partially repaired.

Above is an illustration of a train with reinforcements for General Joseph E. Johnston, commander of the Confederate forces in the west, running off the track in the forests of Mississippi. (Courtesy of the Civil War in America from The Illustrated London News; a joint project by Sandra J. Still, Emily E. Katt Collection Management, and the Beck Center of Emory University.)

For Tippah, about one year after the Civil War began, the Battle of Shiloh was more than a wake-up call. It was a call to arms, along with a dose of panic because the war, so far, had not really hit home. Shiloh was less than two days ride by horse from Blue Mountain.

The blood let at Shiloh, on the Mississippi River in Tennessee, was staggering … 23,741 casualties (13,047 Union and 10,694 Confederate) and a total of 3,800 captured or missing.

The Confederates stopped to lick their wounds in Cornith, about 30 miles from Blue Mountain. Cornith was the scene of several battles and skirmishes (small battles) between Union and Confederate troops. An unknown artist’s depiction of one of the battles is below.

A large number of “able bodied” Tippah young men were conscripted (forced to join the army) or volunteered. At least one Tippah soldier’s death was recorded a the Battle of Bull Run, (also called The Battle of Manassas), about 25 miles from Washington, DC.

In his book, “History of Tippah County, Mississippi: The First Century,” Andrew Brown, estimates about 2,000 men left Tippah County to fight the War, out of a white population near 16,000. Several died of disease and poor medical treatment in northern prisons. (Disease killed more Civil War soldiers than battles. Same was true of WWI.)

As in the rest of the South, uncounted thousands of blacks fled their masters and headed for concentrations of Northern troops. Some became Union soldiers. Others lived in what today would be called “refugee” camps the Union had set up. After the war some came back to their plantations.

Here are a few excerpts from Brown’s account.
“There were skirmishes across the county … Tippah County was in fear after Sihloh … and as the war went on, and northern Mississippi became a no-man’s land overrun by both armies but held by neither, more and more stragglers drifted into the area and lived off the country by any means they could. 

The citizens of north Mississippi were thus stripped of much of their food and forage not only by the two armies, but by outlaw bands that followed the armies. At least some of the blame … must be laid at the feet of northern General Halleck, whose letter to Grant makes it plain that the idea of all-out war against the entire population was conceived not by Sheridan in Georgia in 1864, but by Halleck … in 1863” … and tested in west Tennessee and north Mississippi, where Tippah rests.

After the Union and Rebel armies moved east in the last half of the Civil War, Tippah continued to stumble through the “fog of war.” Newspapers were few, there was no regular mail service, and the general collapse of all forms of transportation made it impossible for the citizens to have more then a vague idea of what was happening only a few miles away.

It was a bitter, nerve-racking experience indeed.

Occasionally, the matriarchy left in Tippah was visited by their male loved ones. They were on furlough, or had deserted, or they were among the relatively few encamped nearby. Losing the use of the last horse and eating whatever hidden food was left, led to personal disasters in rural areas. Even if there was someplace to walk to, it probably was in dire straights.

After the Civil War, in 1866, a Tippah County census reported 19,361 people, of whom 14,671 were white and 4,710 “colored.” In the six years since the federal 1860 Census, the county lost 1,535 white and 1,621 colored residents.

Although slavery was outlawed before the end of the war, many poor blacks and whites remained under the control of the large plantation owners as they became sharecroppers … a form of economic slavery, without the whips. It must be assumed that Tippah included sharecroppers. Some were white, some were black. Few if any sharecroppers ever made enough money to buy their way out of debt to the large landowners on whose land they farmed.

Some blacks gravitated back to Mississippi after the war.

Even though the railroad was routed through Blue Mountain in the 1880’s. It took generations to recuperate from the battles and from the hatred and frustration that lingered after the war. Actually, as of this writing (2018) wounds continue to drain.

During “Reconstruction” (1865 to 1877), the victorious North took over and upended the old Southern-Way by trying to give the black slaves relatively equal rights. The Simmons and Mitchells were there but their reactions, as far as I can determine, went unreported. I would love to find some letters from that period.

Not long after the war ended, the KKK rose up to discipline blacks, Jews, Catholics, white Union and Reconstruction sympathizers, and anyone they just didn’t like. The chilling song Black Fruit, is about lynching, of which Mississippi, with almost 600, had more than any other state. Once, Susan and I were in Costa Rica, driving through a banana plantation with green plastic bags covering the banana bunches hanging from trees. At that time my brain was flooded with the haunting song “Strange Fruit,” most notably sung by Billie Holliday. Check You Tube.

Southern trees bear strange fruit.

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze.

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south.

The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth.

Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh.

Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck.

For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop.

Here is a strange and bitter crop.

For the record, I have been unable to find anything online of the Simmons and Mitchell’s who settled around Tippah ever doing anything unusually positive or negative.

Nonetheless, for the Lemuel Simmons’ family of Tippah, life in the sparsely settled area was hard. Lem and Suzie must have stopped in Texas where they were married, moved to Los Angeles, and later to counties just west of LA, until settling in San Bernardino before 1930. And that’s where this essay begins … in 1938, San Bernardino, were Edith Marks and her husband Robert Bernard Simmons lived just before Susan Lee Simmons Gordick Kroloff was born.

                                                   “Bob” Simmons and Edith.


1. Spanish/Holland/Jamestown

In 1609 a small group of Puritans bribed their way out of Scrooby, England and sailed to Holland. They did not flourish and it hadn’t dawned on them, or they were just being too hassled in England because of their religious beliefs, that the odds of Spain conquering Holland were reasonably high. If that happened, (it didn’t) the Puritans would be subject to the Inquisition.  If they were caught by the Spaniards they, as non Catholics, would be in the same situation as Spain’s Muslims and Jews … convert to Catholisism or die by torture.

Thus, in 1620 the Inquisition was a major impetus for the Pilgrims to go back to England from their temporary home in Holland, then to hop on the Mayflower, and head for North America.  In Jamestown, 1609, Spain already was on the minds of the first settlers who positioned their little fort in a spot that marauding Spanish warships could not bombard them from the sea.  Spain was a terror.

2. Moses came to a promised land.

The Puritans and Pilgrims (they were not quite the same) also feared the English and disliked the urban life in Holland. The third North American Simmons, Moses the Pilgrim, was not on the Mayflower, but on The Fortune, the second ship. It arrived about a year after the Mayflower in 1621, with a few more colonists and supplies. He prospered.

3. The Mayflower

The creaking and small ship was overloaded after she took aboard the passengers and stocks of a leaking sister ship that had set out with her on the voyage to America. Because of the delay, by the time the Mayflower finally anchored in today’s Massachusetts the winds they needed to blow their sails to the warmer south had died down for the season. Black fly swarms found their succulent human bodies extremely tasty and nutritious, while passing along uncomfortable and deadly disease germs that also found the human body a delicacy.

6. Environment and natives.

The Pilgrims in Massachusetts and their earlier counterparts in Virginia had serious problems surviving in an environment for which they were not prepared. The nearby Native Americans who recently had been devastated by diseases that the Spanish and Portuguese had brought to America, were not sure about the white people who wanted to stay. Other whites who dropped anchor earlier wanted to trade and leave. So the Indians wavered from accepting the white colonists and repelling them.




The Fire, the Neighborhood, the Mob and the Shabbos Goy.   
By George Kroloff
I am pretty sure all the following is right.  This is an in-progress draft.  Actually you might call it a back-draft because so much was caused by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

This short essay examines a mere sliver of our Chicago connections.  Other essays in this series “Why Did Our Family Do That” contain much more about age-old developments in the New World, Old World Europe, and South Africa, which affected the decisions our ancestors made, and help to explain why we are what they were.  I try to base EACH essay on the experience of one relative or one part of the family.  This one takes what may seem to be disparate facts and ties them all into a bundle at the end.  The accompanying essay (Part 2) provides more depth.
The Fire
In 1875 or 1876, Mary Levy Kauffman’s mother and father (Louis and Sarah Levy) emigrated from Poland to Chicago, allegedly from in or around Warsaw.  For the next 25 years everywhere the Levys lived was within a very short walk to the site on DeKoven Street where Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern while being milked.  The lantern’s flame is said to have ignited straw in the O’Leary barn, which along with a lot of other factors led to The Great Chicago Fire of 1871. 
Mary Levy was my grandmother.
That catastrophe (the fire, not Mary) was a defining moment for Chicago.
From the height of the Industrial Age to the beginning of the Technology Age (let’s say, late 1800s to late 1900s), The Windy City and its east coast partner New York City were arguably, the most important engines driving the development of the US. 
EDIT.. EDIT.. EDIT.. As you may know, Chicago was named The Windy City, not because of the brisk breeze that blew in from Lake Michigan, but because of it’s ever-so-loud boasting politicians and other promoters.  Mary married and moved to the banks of the Missouri River, to Sioux City, Iowa.  That community’s boosters, especially the land speculators, had been puffing up their chests and proclaiming the riverside semi-metropolis was “Little Chicago.”  Proportionally it probably had a bit less corruption and prostitution.  Later, according to my parents, the Chicago Mob had taken control of an island in the Missouri River as a place for some gangsters to hide from the police and/or vacation.

In their infancy, each community had been a pretty rough port city.  One a lake port the other, especially in the steamboat ages a thriving, not completely lawless, river port.  Neither of the two were restrained enough to quietly ease into a placid adulthood.

While the Fire and the bustling DeKoven Street neighborhood were relevant to our family, as noted above, Chicago was defined by the Al Capone Mob, also known as The Gang, or The Syndicate.
Meanwhile, the 1880 U.S. census listed my great-great grandfather Louis Levy as a “huckster.”  Officially, that was a very broad category.  He might have gone door-to-door peddling or selling something, or maybe he had a cart on a street from which he sold vegetables or household items … as did relatives he would never know in South Africa and Iowa.
By the time Mary Levy was in her teens, her dad had moved up the food chain and owned a street-level grocery shop in a DeKoven St. building (probably once a tenement).  Louis and Sarah had a slew of kids in addition to Mary and in the 1890s they all lived above the store. 
The Neighborhood. Coincidentally, the DeKoven Street area at that time was the most studied poor urban immigrant community in the United States.  So, as seen in another essay,  we can infer a lot about their daily life. 
A man I knew as Uncle Ben Behr, married Mary Levy’s sister Annie.  Conversations with him about 50 years ago revealed that he and other DeKoven Street teenagers lived a life almost identical to those depicted in the pale and movie West Side Story … without the music, dance and bright lights.  It had teen gangs, turf wars, ethnic divides, and knifes. 

The neighborhood was very loud, smelly.  Sometimes the garbage and human waste was  picked up, often not. 

While the Chicago Fire had attracted huge amounts of New York money to rebuild the smoldering center-city, the fire did not burn all of DeKoven Street.  Prevailing winds carried the murderous flames and ash north and east.  Curiously, the O’Leary barn burnt to a crisp, but the house survived.

The avalanche of new East Coast money financed hundreds of thousands of jobs in Chicago, which attracted a million or more new procreative people from all over the USA and the world.  Some were good, some vile.  All who settled on DeKoven had one thing in common.  They were poor.
So, in 1900, when Mary Levy married Joseph Kauffman of Sioux City, Iowa, and moved west, her new home must have seemed absolutely serene.
Random fact:  The white building above, apparently built in the 1880s, sat on the O’Leary lot where it was photographed in the 1940s.  It had a plaque.  The building on the right probably looked like the Levy’s place a few doors away.  All were razed.  The the site today is a large modern training facility for Chicago’s fire fighters. 
The Mob.  In the mid-1950s I worked in a filthy, actually REALLY filthy old warehouse to earn enough money to finish college. The guy in front of me with the sweaty soiled shirt had been a “chauffeur” in the Capone Gang.  He often drove Al’s brother “Bottles.” 
One day he was at the wheel of a car ferrying a long-forgotten politician who had ties to “The Mob.”  While stopping at a light, several gunmen opened the car’s back door, machine-gunned the passenger and, poof, disappeared.  Just like in the movies, but it was real life.  (I checked this out looking at microfilm of The Chicago Tribune which reported the incident.)
The Shabbos Goy.  About the same time that Joseph Kauffman went to Chicago in search of a bride (1900), that scrawny warehouse drunk was the Shabbos Goy in the Levy apartment above the store on DeKoven Street.  (A Shabbos Goy is a non-Jewish helper who does the forbidden Sabbath activities in an Orthodox household, such as lighting fires.)
As luck would have it, like every Chicagoan of a certain age, I could not help but run into the Mob often though my life in Chicago, as documented in other essays.
To be continued.
George Kroloff, Nov. 2017

By George Kroloff
This essay is relevant to today’s discussions about immigration, jobs, healthcare and the American story.  It is about a neighborhood in Chicago during the late 1800s that today has been pretty much dug-up, paved over, or rebuilt.  Some call it gentrification.  Others call it erasing history.  Nevertheless, we are what we are, and who we are, because of our history.
Here is a summary of PART 1.

A woman named Mary Levy, who lived most of her life in Sioux City, Iowa, had been born on Chicago’s Near South Side in the mid-1870s.  Her Polish parents, Louis and Sarah and the expanding Levy family moved a couple times but always were  near where Mrs. O’Leary’s cow allegedly kicked over a lantern in 1871 that started the Great Chicago Fire.  (That’s a nice urban legend.  The updated fire theory doesn’t change the site, but suggests the huge blaze that reduced the center city to burning embers probably was started by a couple guys not being careful with their smokes in the O’Leary’s tinder dry barn.)
The neighborhood in which Mary grew up probably was the most studied few blocks in America.
The Levys were Orthodox Jews.  They hired a young Italian boy to do the forbidden Sabbath (Saturday) chores that would otherwise keep them from religious requirements, like attending services and studying the Bible.  The youngster eventually became part of the Al Capone Mob.  In the 1950s I worked in a filthy warehouse with the Levy’s (by then decrepit looking, but amazingly sturdy) Italian “Shabbos Goy.” (Shabbos means Sabbath.  Goy means not Jewish.)
Mary Levy was my grandmother, my mother’s mother.  In 1900, two years after her father died she married Joseph Kauffman and moved to Sioux City, Iowa where Joseph, for many years, was a successful grocer.  Wedding photo above. 
After reading Part 1, cousin Hal Mendelsohn asked if I had heard stories about our grandmother Mary’s early life in Chicago.  The answer is no, but the Levys’ lifestyle is well documented.  Some is summarized below.
Mary was born in 1877, second of Louis and Sarah’s kids.  There appear to have been ten children, six of whom survived.  According to the 1880 census, the eldest, Moses, was born two or three years earlier.  It seems Louis and Sarah immigrated to America in 1875.  There is some evidence Louis’ father, mother and a brother emigrated as early as a year before the November, 1871 Chicago Fire.
When Louis and Sarah arrived and the city was in the midst of a frantic rebuilding spree financed, in large part, by New York money that might otherwise have gone to other uses.  This was no small deal.  People in St. Louis, Sioux City, San Antonio, and Seattle complained about the shortsightedness of New York money being sent west and not getting past Chicago.
That financial capital quickly built an infrastructure and business culture that made Chicago the business capital of most of the USA … from the Appalachian Mountains to the east and the Rockies to the west.  Chicago dominated an area roughly the size of Europe.
There were jobs in The Windy City and jobs attract the jobless like bears to honey.
An 1880 census-taker classified Louis as a “huckster.”  At that time the term included several categories of salesmen.  Among them were people who went door-to-door and those with pushcarts on a street corner.
By the 1890s Louis had literally moved up the food chain and was proprietor of a  grocery store on DeKoven Street.  The Levy’s were about ten doors east of where Mrs. O’Leary’s barn once sat.  Levys were at 113 DeKoven when the Fire broke out, just a few years earlier, the O’Learys lived at 137 DeKoven.
Compared to European cities, Chicago was, like Mary in 1880, a toddler, still maturing and with unrestrained optimism.  The lyrics of a hit song first recorded in the 1920s and appropriately titled, “Chicago,” said it was a “toddlin” town.
Toddlin had at least two meanings.  First, it referred to a boisterous, dance craze (The Toddle), but also a maturing city, with …  what else? … unrestrained optimism.
Chicago boosters, sometimes called blowhards and “windy,” certainly exhibited wild optimism.  Others, maybe not so much.  The city was a huge magnet for the poor, hungry, yearning to breath free.  Young Mary’s neighbors were poor, hungry and because of the oppressive air pollution, still yearning to breath free.
Across the city from the Dekoven St./Maxwell St. neighborhood were quite a few thriving areas and prosperous people.  Downtown quickly was rebuilt and suburbs were popping-up like daffodils in May.
Every material item anyone would want was in Chicago.  Even if that anyone was not there, it was available.  By the 1890s Chicago’s bulky Sears or Montgomery Ward’s mail order catalogues were stuffed with over 25,000 items.  They were sent almost everywhere.  Railroads thrived on delivering the heavy picture–filled books and then delivering the bounty that mail order customers purchased.  The Post Office also liked the business.
Some mail order items were small like a button.  Others were as big as kits for houses, ready to be shipped to a site and built.  About 125 years later there are thousands of Sears houses in good condition and they are considered “finds.”
Like in wars, there is money to be made in rebuilding from tragedy.  And the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was a real tragedy.

Mary’s Near South Side neighborhood was very, very depressed economically and emotionally.  As mentioned earlier, it was a receiving station for the newest arrivals from equally depressed areas of Europe.  The “greenhorns” had to learn not only English, but urban survival skills, new cultures and how to get along with the mass of people swirling around them that they never imagined existed while still in their rural, thinly populated communities.

One online document created by Hull House, which was the most devoted chronicler of the neighborhood, showed all Mary’s closest neighbors were Italian except for a few from Sweden.
Louis and Sarah were somewhat successful, I guess, because everyone in the neighborhood had to eat.  And they sold food.
A hint to their economic status is that, according to the 1900 Census, the building in which they lived (rented), housed the widow Sarah (Mary’s mother) and her younger children.  The only others living in the building were Sarah’s son Moses, who then called himself Morris, and his family.
The logical assumption is that they were not living in a cramped tenement and renting some of it out to others.  Louis had died a couple years earlier.  Sarah ran the store and local directories said that Morris was an iron salesman, whatever that meant.
To better answer cousin Hal’s question about Mary’s world I lifted information from several mid-1890 essays published by Jane Addams’ Hull House, the most important settlement house in America because it provided so many services the the surrounding area.  And it was where Benny Goodman took music lessons.

Interspersed are a few of my own comments.  Unless otherwise noted, words within quotation marks come from the Hull House essays, all written by women.

Picture above: South Branch of the Chicago River which divided the Near South district in 1883 when Mary would have been five or six years old.  Apparently, the situation for residents of the eastern bank (bottom of drawing) deteriorated as Mary grew from toddler to adult.

Below is the Chicago River at entrance to South Branch in 2017, just a couple blocks away from the place pictured above.

The approximately one-square-mile that the nearby Hull House chronicled in the early 1890s actually was two separate areas.  On the east side of the Chicago River’s South Branch was a “third-of-a-square-mile that includes…a criminal district which ranks as one of the most openly and flagrantly vicious in the civilized world, and west of the same stream the poorest, and probably the most crowded section of Chicago.”  That’s where Mary lived.
So, east from Mary’s house looking over the South Branch were the houses of ill repute and a jumble of polluting industries, railroad yards, stacks of lumber, and that stinky, befouled, bubbling river.  A bridge led to the other side.  The Dark Side.

Just a few blocks west from Mary’s house were several residences that gave “the  impression of a well-to-do neighbor-hood.”  (Electric poles in picture indicate it might have been taken around 1900.)

 Even in the rather small, but seemingly well-to-do area near Hull House, landlords sought maximum income from available space.  Where backyard gardens might have been planted, wooden buildings sprang up.  “It is customary for the lower floor of the rear houses to be used as a stable and outhouse, while the upper rooms serve entire families as a place for eating, sleeping, being born, and dying.”
DeKoven and other close-by streets contained a collection of “tobacco-stands, saloons, sordid looking shops, factories and occasional small dwelling-houses,” built for one family, but generally “tenanted by several, and occasionally serving as bakery, saloon or restaurant as well as residence.”
Liquor and just about any other “vice” was available everywhere around young Mary.  There were “eighty-one saloons west of the river (in her neighborhood), besides a number of delicatessens, restaurants and cigars-stands where liquor was sold.”
Plenty of people from neighboring Midwest states moved to Chicago, but not to Mary’s World. The tenements seen on the map below housed people from at least 18 nations.  Almost all adults were immigrants from Europe.  Kids tended to be born in the US and put to work as soon as possible.  Some went to public school.

Several smallish areas were considered ghettos … Italians dominating a block or two, Russian and Polish Jews on another few blocks, Bohemians on a separate few blocks (the better streets) and Irish, Germans, Scandinavians, Chinese (in basement laundries, we were told), and a few people from the MidEast.  While, only two African Americans were found, many, after the first of several large migrations from southern states after the Civil War, had settled nearby into what became known as The Black Belt.  Large ethnic, pretty homogenous ghettos were scattered around the city, Chinatown, for instance.   

The map shows the Levy’s building at 113 DeKoven.  The street was re-numbered after she left and 113 became 524.

The colors for each occupied tenement show the predominant languages spoken in each residence. The white in the front of the Levy’s building indicates residents spoke English.  The red in the back part is the symbol for Russian speakers, which in their case must have meant Yiddish.

Another Hull House map for the early 1890s reported on the weekly earnings of residents of each building in the DeKoven neighborhood.  If I have it right, about half the Levy building’s residents were, in total, earning $20 or more a week and half between $10 and $15 a week.  Not sure what that meant in terms of their wealth.
The white brick building below was erected in the 1880s.  It rested on the DeKoven St. site of Mr. and Mrs. O’Leary’s cabin and barn. The close-by Levy’s building probably looked similar to the brown structure on the right, a typical Chicago design.  Photo taken in 1940s.

The picture below shows the O’Leary house/cottage.  The barn with the cow burned but their home didn’t because of the prevailing winds.  Note that the street was unpaved and there were no gutters.  Water undoubtedly carried any imaginable pollution to the Chicago River and Lake Michigan.  Also notice the raised wooden sidewalk.  One of the main reasons for the quick spread of the Chicago Fire was that type of sidewalk was across the center of the city.  In 1871 widespread drought and millions, maybe billions, of extremely dry leaves were crammed under those walkways.  They needed only a spark to ignite.

The Hull House papers reported a high turnover in the tenements.  Often renters were unable to pay the rent and were evicted.  It was not unusual for a packed tenement to morph into a residence for emigrants from a single country, often relatives.  Some landlords rented beds, not rooms … 12 hours for the day shift, 12 for the night.
All around Mary were sweat shops and their sweaters (For example, people who sewed sleeves or other parts of garments).  Some kids sewed, others rolled cigars in overflowing apartments.  Still others toiled in small factory settings, maybe, painting pottery with toxic lead based colors.  They were paid by the “piece” … each skirt, cigar, or painted piece, was worth a few cents, or maybe only a penny.  Men, women, boys and girls worked from dawn to long after dusk.
In New York, Chicago and elsewhere, the profit margins for sweatshops’ usually were not huge, but the cut-throat market for clothes grew in tandem with America’s rapidly expanding population.
A Hull House investigator who peeked into the back doors of factories wrote she continually saw “bent figures stitching.”
The Italian, Bohemian, German, and other pre-teens had cousins doing the same things in Chicago’s large ethic neighborhoods.  Among them were, Pilsner (Slavic), Chinatown, Little Italy, Little Warsaw, Andersonville (Swedish), Bridgeport (Irish), Polonia (also Polish), Greektown, Jewtown (Maxwell Street), and The Black Belt.  The DeKoven Street area seemed to be almost entirely white, but otherwise more integrated than the others.

“People are noticeably under-sized and unhealthy,” an observer wrote.  The many workers in the tailoring-trades “look dwarfed and ill-fed; they walk with a peculiar stooping gait, and their narrow chests and cramped hands are unmistakable evidence of their calling.”  This was hard, tedious work.

“Tuberculosis prevails…and deformity is not unusual.  The mortality among children is great, and the many babies look starved and wan.”
Germs dripping from the noses of sick sweaters became imbedded into the fabrics they handled and stealthy moved from sweater’s shop to shopper.  The malicious microbes helped cause mini-epidemics.
Like today, there were fashion “seasons.”  The “needle trade” sweaters and their bosses feverishly worked to manufacture the new clothes-lines and then suffered payless down time waiting to see if their products sold and if there would be reorders.  Being paid a pittance by piece, and with growing families to feed, did not easily lead to savings accounts or “rainy day funds.”
Smaller kids and unemployed older ones ran up and down the stairwells and along  sidewalks and alleys unattended, unless their parents were out of work.  Most of the tightly-packed houses on DeKoven had little, if any, air circulation in interior rooms.  People slept on windowsills or wherever they could.
Few of the tenements had indoor toilets.  Some had a bench with a hole covering over a pit in the basement that occasionally was cleaned out.  Others used a backyard outhouse shared by many.  It too would use a bench with a hole over a hole.
(One of my aunts once told about the joy when Mary and Joseph built the family’s first indoor toilet in their Sioux City home sometime before the First World War.  Midwest winters are brutal and bug infested pits are frightful.
In Chicago, Mary’s adult neighbors spoke broken-English if they spoke any English at all.  Immigrant relatives spoke English with a Yiddish accent and their kids spoke Yiddish with an English accent.  The same must have been true for the other DeKoven St. families speaking German, Italian, etc.
Hull Hose and other institutions, including religious and government agencies,  offered self-help services like English as a Second Language, discussion groups, entertainment events and useful medical services.  Native language newspapers circulated and there were plenty of poster announcements on outside walls and windows.
Churches and synagogues abounded.   Like in small-town or big-city Poland people lived near their houses of worship.  Unless they were forced to, the Polish Jews had as little to do with the Polish Catholics as possible and visa-versa.  In Chicago, and other places, with large Catholic populations the Polish Catholics were not close to the Irish Catholics in most every way.  They attended different churches, lived in different parishes, and seriously maintained their clannish identities.
The Jews were similar.  Orthodox Jews tended
to be poorer and lived in different areas of the city than the richer Reformed German Jews.  There was some cooperation on civic projects.


Not far away were the humongous, sprawling andodious Chicago Stock Yards and meat packers.  Wastes (from those animals, including those still alive and what was left of them after they were butchered) flowed into the ever more sickly, stick Chicago River.
Autos and trucks were years in the future.  Horses and their manure were never far away.  Looking at photos of long dresses on women crossing the streets and what must have stuck to them congers up unpleasant thoughts.  Of course, people did not regularly wash.  The Hull House Settlement House encouraged neighbors to walk over for weekly baths.  There also were bath houses in the neighborhood which charged a fee.
In those days, before the river-flow was reversed so that cleaner Lake Michigan water could run into the Chicago River, the city’s pollutants (of which the stockyards composed only part) were dumped into Lake Michigan.  That great inland sea was, and still is, the source of the city’s drinking water.
Growing up in mid-20th Century Chicago, we commented that the harbinger of Spring was not the first robin-redbreast but when the black soot-besotted slush would melt to reveal the remains of a winter’s harvest of doggie poop.
I shudder to imagine what the Spring thaws uncovered in the day when the horse was king of the road.
For about 150 years the air was dirty from the smoke of railroad engines in the many  train yards, from burning of soft coal in the Far South Side steel mills, plus the millions of cooking and heating stoves and furnaces.
The picture of a steam engine belching black smoke probably is not from Chicago but it makes the pollution point.  It was chosen because under the engine’s bright light, is emblazoned “Susan,” coincidentally the name of both my wife and my sister.
Health care in the 1890s was minimal.  Birth rates were high.  A Hull House essayist wrote that “omnipresent midwife” signs were “announced in polyglot” languages on every hand.

Even after the 1871 Fire, as building codes were strengthened, many wooden buildings remained.  Some eventually just collapsed and were replaced by brick.  Some actually were jacked up onto moving platforms and deposited on property in the outer areas of the city.  Chicago had been jacking-up and shipping-out still-usable buildings to suburbs since 1858. (The drawing from 1865 shows that brick structures also were carried away.)

As mentioned, trash, along with human and other wastes were all around. Their smells were not erased by stiff breezes from Lake Michigan.  The good odors from cooking usually lost out to the bad.  Alleys, where they existed, were dangerous places for children, or anyone.  In the alleys “refuse and manure are sometimes removed.”
“In front of each house stand garbage-receivers, — wooden boxes repulsive to every sense, even when as clean as their office will permit.”
On the brighter side, a Hull House report stated that nearby were “fruit stands to help fill up the sordid streets, and ice-cream carts drive a thriving trade.”
As bad as things were around DeKoven, hope was tantalizingly near.  State Street, known as That Great Street, was a merchandiser’s dream.  The lakefront and many well tended parks were open and free.  Unless you were a person of color the sky was the limit, even if it might be darkened by floating coal ash.
And then, with great fanfare, appeared the gossamer view of the best of the present and the even better future arose on the Far South Side.
The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 drew millions into the city (about a quarter of the population of the US attended, it was claimed).  “Sell the cook stove if necessary and come. You must see the Fair” is what novelist Hamlin Garland wrote to his parents.
It was called The White City because its massive buildings were painted white and brightly lit.
Inside were the marvels of civilization and the Industrial Age.  Outside, were the fantasy worlds of the Wild West, foreign lands and just plain fun, like the first Ferris Wheel.
When possible, DeKoven St. residents slipped away from their corner of the Near South Side and took affordable public transportation to see the fair.  It really was the biggest extravaganza anywhere in the world.
That year, 1893, Mary was a teenager and must have been thinking of marriage and her future.  Whatever she hoped was dramatically affected by her father’s death five years later.  She must have dreamed.  But, her grandkids like Hal and George who hardly knew her, never heard what she wanted, or about what she did in Chicago and how she lived.  All we know is that in 1898 when her father Louis died, mother  Sarah was left with a bunch of kids and a store.
As the 19th Century drew to a close, for a 20-something Mary there was no Prince Charming from a land far away to sweep her up in his arms so the two could fly away on gossamer wings.
And then, poof, he arrived in the form of Joseph Kauffman, a successful grocer from Sioux City, Iowa.  According to family legend, Joseph had convinced a friend or two to take a train to the Big City and seek a bride.  He and Mary somehow met, clicked, and soon married.  It was 1900, a turn of the Century and a turn of fate.
She followed her new husband Joseph to his home in semi-rural Sioux City, where residents still talked of the Union soldiers garrisoned there during the Indian Wars.  It still was a gateway to the West.
Sarah, and one of Mary’s younger sisters, Eva, resettled in the Iowa town, nestled on the banks of the usually tranquil and rather unpolluted Missouri River.  (Photo of Joseph and his store.)
Coincidentally, Sioux City boosters loudly proclaimed they wanted to be Little Chicago.
There were only 33,111 residents in the whole city.  The air was much cleaner.  The neighborhoods were quieter.  The corruption was not as obvious, and almost every child went to a reasonably good school.  According a book published about Jews of Iowa, when Mary arrived, the Russian/Polish Jews of Sioux City were the poorest in the state.  But, not Joseph who had been born in or near the town of Slutsk (now Belarus).
One thing that was not strange to Mary, with the nearby constantly expanding Sioux City Stock Yards and packing houses, and horses everywhere, was the familiar scent in the air.  It just wasn’t as intense as Chicago’s.

About 50 years later, a few of the Levy family gathered in Sioux City for an event.  Back left is Ben Behr.  He was the neighborhood kid who once bragged to me about outwitting the ethnic gangs of boys around DeKoven St. that constantly harassed youngsters of other religions or homelands.  I thought Ben must have been quite a badass as a kid.  He married Annie Levy (seated left next to Mary).

Ben and Annie stayed in Chicago, had a  family and owned a couple picture framing stores.  On the right is Eva, Mary’s youngest sister who, followed her to Sioux City along with their widowed mother Sarah.  Eva married and had a family in Sioux City.  Who knows what happened to Mary’s others siblings, and so far Who is not telling.
A final aside.  I used to wonder why Joseph (standing on the right) was so quiet.  Then it dawned on me that he had lived in a house with a wife, mother-in-law, sister-in-law and five daughters.
I remain intrigued with the thought that our Jewish family, like millions of others, began with a humble couple named Joseph and Mary.
To be continued.
George Kroloff

They came from small towns and settled in small towns … from shtetl to Sioux City. This is about you because you are what they were.


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George M. Kroloff

July 12, 2017

The following is a back-story of the emigration of poor Jewish residents from small towns in Eastern Europe circa 1887-1917 who settled in small town America around the Missouri River Valley.  Some stayed for a generation or two.  Some left early-on and came back for a while.  The why’s are explained below.

Although this is just a small, grainy, snapshot of history seen through the lens of our family, it parallels other families’ experiences.  There will be at least one more essay in this particular series about Sioux City that includes more of the city’s history.  I aim to make a point much bigger than the small dot on the map below.  Even more important, I hope this will help exasperated parents when they are faced with the dreaded questions from their 5th graders who have to write a paper on their family history.

Why Did Our Family Do That?

is a blog on wordpress.com

Essay #1.  Context: Some of  the Characters & their motivations – 1887 to 1917

Family legends, like the humans they describe, get shorter and shorter as they age.  

The legendary people lived complex lives.   The decisions they made still affect us. This essay discusses the context of their day-to-day lives and how events thousands of miles away influenced what they did.  

Following this essay you will find …

Essay # 2.  Queen Bee, King Corn and the 65 foot tall Big Mary.

Palaces were one key to understanding Sioux City and the psyche of my relatives.

First, a smattering of background on the characters in this exposition.

We are who they were.

The surnames of some of our family who settled along the Missouri River Valley, when it still was considered a gateway to the West, were Kroloff, Helfet, Levich, Levy, Richards, Sandler, Rabinow, Kauffman, Davidson, Herzoff, Dubrofsky, Ginsberg, and Levin along with a bunch of their relatives and neighbors.

Most came from the area around Slutsk and Kapulia (later called Kopyl, Kopil, or Kapyl) in Belarus.  Some came from Mena and Chernush (Chornukhy), in Ukraine.  Almost all of the original group had somewhat different last names when they left for the USA.  In fact, last name’s were a pretty new phenomenon.  They only arose because of governmental mandates, so a reasonably accurate census could be taken.  (Before Wolfson was  son of someone named Wolf.  And a lot of men were Wolfs.)

Unlike so many who emigrated and entered the United States from Europe, the relatives mentioned here decided not to settle in Boston or Baltimore, New York or Philadelphia, Chicago or Cleveland.

The earliest family members (in the 1880s) chose to dip their toes in American life in small river towns from Sioux Falls, south through Sioux City and on to Omaha.  At that time the communities were similar in size to the small towns where they were born.  A majority of them spent a few years in Sioux City, Iowa.

Why they emigrated

As this is written over 130 years later, our family stories or legends have, for the most part, been reduced to one sentence.

They came to America to escape oppressive anti-semitism of the Tsar, and the draft of young men into the Russian army, and the fear of progroms (organized violence against Jews), and/or because a relative said America was the place to be.

That statement is true as it stands, but the reality was much more complex.  Further essays for the blog Why Did Our Family Do That? will put their actions in a larger context.

Above: Kapulia in the province of Minsk about 1900.  The Kroloff’s and their numerous relatives lived in  and around Kapulia before coming to the USA.  Kapulia was a shtetl like hundreds of others in The Pale of Russia.  It was home to about 2,700 Jews and about 1,800 of other religions.  

The Pale was big.  It included almost all of what later became known as Eastern Europe … around 500,000 square miles … approximately twice the size of Texas.  The Russian census of 1897 found about 11 percent of The Pale was Jewish.  More about that later.

Russia’s Jews were forced to live in The Pale, pay numerous taxes and suffer indignities because they would not convert to the Russian Orthodox Religion.  Of course, it was much more complicated than that.

Much is known about Kapulia because several prominent authors lived there.  Just a stroke of luck.  

Abraham Jacob Papirna claimed, “Christians and Muslims were on the side streets on and behind the mountain.  The Jews took the best part of the shtetl on the highest part of the mountain where the marketplace was located.  This included the street where the synagogue courtyard was situated.  All the special Jewish religious and community institutions were there.  Occupying such a respected place with its large Jewish population who carried on such lively commerce, Kapulia gave the impression of a clean Jewish community.” 

Only 10 percent of the emigrants to the USA in the three-decade period (1887-1917) were Jewish (about 2 million).  Most of the other 90 percent, were from all over Europe.  People of color, especially Asians, who earlier had built the infrastructure of the American West, the railroads, for instance, were no longer invited in.

Like our relatives, the emigres arrived poor.  They saw no great future for themselves unless they left.  All the non-Jews knew that they could return if they made enough money, and some did.  Going back to The Pale was illogical…and darn near impossible for any Jew.

Here are some of the pressures they felt.

  1. The kings and queens of Russia were called Tsars.  High on all their agendas was the conversion of every non-believer within their realm to the Russian Orthodox religion.  Though many others were persecuted, Jews historically felt they were more restricted and higher taxed, but usually not the point where they couldn’t pay.
  1. Before 1900 there were relatively few deadly progroms, (organized, devastating, anti-Jewish riots, usually sanctioned by local government officials).  But, fear of pillage, killing and rape was an increasingly darker cloud that spread across The Pale’s Jewish population.  After 1900 the number and severity of progroms accelerated.  A simplistic explanation is that the Tsars not only wanted to be the Popes of a unified Russia but they wanted to ape the Western European kings and be considered very European.  Anti-semitic was about as French as one could get.
  1. The Russian military was busy putting down revolutions inside Russia and stirring up battles to expand the country’s borders.  (As of this writing, things haven’t changed.)  That led to higher draft quotas overall, but especially for Jews.  The pressure was so intense that there are un-refuted reports of some shtetls, needing to meet their conscription numbers, kidnapping youngsters from other shtetls and offering the captured teens to the army.  The wars also created huge government debt. That led to new taxes and further restrictions on Jewish residents of The Pale, which, in several ways, was run as a colony.

(The words kidnapping and greenhorns come up in other articles in this series regarding, family in America, England and South Africa.  As do other examples of the same distant events affecting very different ancestors.

For instance, one essay will focus on American history through the lives of my wife Susan’s ancestors, the Simmons and Mitchell families of Tippah County, Mississippi.  A part of their story will consider the French and Indian Wars of the mid-1700s, west of the Appalachian Mountains.  England demanded its American colonists do much of the fighting aimed at wresting territory from the French and their Indian allies. Then London levied taxes upon the colonies to pay for the war.  The new taxes were big factors in inciting the American War for Independence.  England’s King George III lost 13 colonies.  Tsar Nicholas II did something similar in the west of Russia which was a big factor in the 1918 Bolshevik Revolution.  He not only lost his country, he lost his life.  Wars have unintended consequences.)

  1. The Jews, Italians, Poles, Scandinavians, Slavs, Serbs, Irish, Greeks, and other European poor, and second generation Americans, who came to the Missouri River Valley also were influenced by the:
  • Industrial Revolution, which introduced machines to do the work of people and  electricity that brought light to the night and lengthened the work day.  The Industrial  Revolution first occurred in the larger cities, stealing jobs from the shtetls.
  • Medical Revolution, which increased lifetimes, decreased deaths at birth, and lead to over-population across Europe.
  • Transportation Revolution, which dramatically lowered travel time and prices for ships and railroads and helped lead to concentration of production in cities.  That eradicated many rural jobs.  Among them were tailoring, making alcoholic beverages, running inns for travelers, and other enterprises in the shtetls.
  • Communications Revolution, which lowered prices for printing presses and more importantly, for paper.  Suddenly, non-religious books in Yiddish appeared, along with newspapers and posters.  Telegraphed news replaced word of mouth.  Salesmen spread across Europe seeking workers for real jobs (tailors were needed in New York, land was cheap for farmers).  Advertising promoted the newer, and bigger, and faster railroads and ships that had to fill seats and beds at almost affordable prices.
  • Economic Revolution, which meant coins and paper money became a larger piece of people’s lives than barter.  That was huge.
  • Education Revolution, which meant more people were becoming literate.  Suddenly, there was a Yiddish press.  People read and saw that their lives could be rosier in other places and learned about those who shared their woes. (Right: Cover of a Soviet Yiddish edition of Tevye der milkhiker, the story of Fiddler on the Roof.)

The poor European emigrants were pulled to North America, Australia, Argentina and South Africa because that’s where the jobs were.  They had no interest in going to sub-Sahara Africa, Surinam, or Siam, where the jobs weren’t.

Though born in rural Russia, not all had roots in their communities.

Pale is an old English word meaning border.  Thus, the expression, something is “beyond the pale,” means beyond a real or imaginary boundary.

Many of the small villages and towns in The Pale had long histories.  Kapulia already was a walled community in the 1200s and often was attacked by Tatars and others.  Until the 1790 establishment of the ever-expanding Pale, like most shtetls, there were few Jews in Kapulia.

Thus, our ancestors probably did not have deep roots in their communities.  They certainly weren’t nomads, because most travel was forbidden.  Many had been forced by government decree out of other places.  (See notes on Pale map below.)

Off-and-on, all Jews were forbidden from living in some of the larger cities in The Pale and across Russian territory.  So hundreds of thousands were forced to live in small rural settlements where the patterns of daily life were not much different than the year 987.  No electricity, for instance.

(This report is about small towns.  The situation in larger towns was different and I expect to later look at very different life styles in Warsaw.)

Dreary as all that seems, the overriding theme of the essays regarding Sioux City is optimism.

The soon-to-be Midwesterners screwed up their resolve, somehow obtained money and documents to travel (escape).  They dealt with borders, bribes, bumpy ship berths, bumpy stomach-wrenching storms, sea sickness, and bad food.  Miraculously they landed on the East Coast of America.  (A vivid example is the essay in this series titled UNCLE JAKE’S DRAMATIC ESCAPE.)

In fewer than nine weeks, the immigrants, exhausted physically and financially, had traveled 900 years and 9,000 miles to get to the Missouri River Valley.  They had seen their first ocean, big ship, electric light and tall commercial or religious building.

Many of the emigrants on their way to Europe’s Atlantic Ocean ports were met by Jewish organizations created to feed and help the poor travelers move on.  The groups were set up for political, philanthropic, philosophical and very practical, but guilt producing, reasons. Not the least of which was that local Jews, their neighbors and others along the way, didn’t want the fleeing and impoverished co-religionists to stay nearby.

The border crossing town of Brody was one of those locations.  The best description of the chaos and catastrophic terrors of getting past the border I have found is not about our family, or maybe it was.  It will be posted separately later.

The migrants traveled in groups, as families, or individually.  (The Helfet and Dobrofskys stopped for about a decade in Liverpool, England.)


More geography. 

The majority of our relatives who first settled in Siouxland were from the province of Minsk in what now is the country of Belarus.  Others came from a couple of very small Ukranian shtels in Chernigov and Poltava provinces east of Kiev.

Mary Levy (Levi) my maternal grandmother was an exception.  Born in Chicago as it was rapidly rising from the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, her parents were from in or around Warsaw.  In 1900 she married Joseph Kauffman and moved to Sioux City.

The Chicago in which Mary was raised “The Second City,”  was and is the de facto Capital and heart of the America between the Appalachian Mountains of the East and the Rocky Mountains of the West.

The middle of the USA’s body is the Mississippi River Valley.  For most of America it is the cardio vascular system.  It’s main artery is the Mighty Mississippi.  It’s right arm is the Missouri River Valley, (Sioux City is at the elbow), the left arm is the Ohio River Valley.  That is one reason the Midwest is called the Heartland.

Mary was born five or six years after the devastating Chicago fire.  Her father peddled food, likely first from a street cart.  Later he owned a grocery store.

The Levys lived above the store on Dekoven St., a couple of blocks down the street from where Mrs. O’Leary’s cow allegedly kicked over a lantern in the family barn and started the quick-spreading blaze that leveled the center of Chicago.

With its railroads and stockyards and many businesses spared by the fire, Chicago became a boom town, and a magnet for just about everything good and bad in the “civilized” world.  Around the country, bankers gripped because so much East Coast money was invested in the rebuilding Chicago that their areas were being short-changed.

Not surprisingly, Sioux City’s political and business leaders wanted their town to be “Little Chicago.”

Before we get to Sioux City, though … several quick asides.

1. Over the years, as borders changed, Mary told U.S. census takers that her parents were from Poland or Russia.  Like all maps, the one above depicting The Pale is a snapshot in time.

2. Mary’s husband, Joseph Kauffman, was a Sioux City resident originally from Slutsk.  I like to say that it all started  with Mary and Joseph.  That may be overly cute.

Photo at right includes some of the Kauffman family about 1950 at a celebration in Sioux City.  Mary and Joseph are in the middle. People identified at end of essay.

3. Somewhere buried online is a list of nearly a dozen Krulevitski (Kroloff) young men who were wanted by the Russian police for evading the draft.  All of them were my relatives.  If the Tsar’s minions had floated downriver from Sioux Falls to Omaha, they could have nabbed them.

4.  Food was a big problem for deeply religious Jewish travelers.  Not all ships had Kosher kitchens.  Certainly railroads didn’t.  This forced religious emigrants to break with tradition or starve.  It must have been a factor in the changing of religious habits and the rise of Conservatism and Reform movements in Judaism, especially in the US.

5.  Uncle Jake Dobrofsky came from a very rich family in Mena, Ukraine,  The family suddenly fell upon hard times and fled to Liverpool.  The story of Jake’s harrowing adventures is the basis for another essay in this series “Uncle Jake’s Dramatic Escape.”

6.  A future essay will discuss life in Kapulia/Slutsk area, the home of Kroloffs, Kauffmans, etc.

The wanna-be

By the time the shtetl folks converged in Sioux City it already was the ultimate Chicago wanna-be.  It had an ego as big as The Windy City, which was Chicago’s nickname.  The epithet was derived not from the the gales that swept in from Lake Michigan, but from the loud boasting of its politicians and boosters.


Like Chicago, Sioux City was a railroad junction (albeit a lot smaller) and had a huge job producing, sprawling, smelly stockyards and several equally odorous and prosperous meat packers. (Photo below.)

The city’s population was almost as diverse as Chicago’s, although it housed and tried to segregate the 300, or so, people of color.  From historical reports it seems to have had the same ratio of crime and corruption.  There was some anti-semitism in the community, and it occasionally was bothersome.  Nearby KKK clans, for instance.  Overall, the level of acceptance far outweighed the slights.

Chicago in the 30 years covered by this essay had a constantly growing population that soared far over 1 million.

Sioux City’s population figures went up and down like a yo-yo.  From a mere 3,500 in 1870, to 7,366 in 1880, dramatically rising to 37,806 in 1890, dipping to 33,111 in 1900, and up to a stratospheric 70,300 in 1917.

So, the citizens of Sioux City had seen boom and bust times.  They had seen the rise of an elevated railway (Below) which was sort-of like the one in Chicago … and then the urban railroad’s quick demise.  They  had seen the introduction of electricity, rampant land speculation that helped buoy and then bust the local economy.  They reveled in their newly paved streets, cable cars, manufacturing and retail establishments.  Even during the bust years the town survived as a regional commercial hub servicing people from towns and farms far and wide.

Until the market for agriculture products crashed for a while after the end of WWI, when the troops came home, the city was full of optimism based on what the citizens had seen in the past.

That experience, the continual bouncing back from adversity, is what pulled our relatives who left in the bust years back to Sioux City.  They knew there was a support system of their kin along the Missouri River.  It must have been comforting that some of those supporters were the very same ones who had been part of the support systems in the shtetls in and around Kapulia 20 years earlier.

Who came first?

The first person in Sioux City from Kapulia might have been Morris Levich (Yankelovich) who, his grandson Barton told me, had been a potato farmer in or around the Kapulia shtetl.  Morris tried farming potatoes in the Dakotas and failed.  Bart remembers hearing, the first year was OK but the next crop was a failure.

Morris might have been attracted to the area by advertising like that pictured.  Similar posters were popping up all across Europe in the local languages.  Assumedly, no one in Kapulia read English and it is unclear how many read or spoke Russian, which is different from the local Belorussian language.

Maybe the first Kapulian to visit Siouxland wasn’t Morris, but another relative or friend who heard about newly opened West and wrote a glowing letter home.  Or maybe the first from Russia was enticed by an agent seeking pioneers to settle the area.  They agents were not necessarily seeking Jews.  They were seeking healthy  warm bodies to farm and work the territories and fill jobs opening up.

The railroads were more than just the the Midwest’s nerve systems.  There were the tracks and the telegraph wires that paralleled the rails.  The railroads also provided the nutrients for America’s growth.   They were selling farmland near the newly laid tracks to grow the unprocessed food that would fill the freight cars headed for Chicago, for instance.  The railroads constructed huge water towers to fill up the boilers of locomotives that would be heated by stacks  of coal or wood to burn under the boilers to create the steam which turned the wheels.  Towns grew up around the stops.

The freight cars filled with raw food and other materials returned to the towns along the tracks, towns like Sioux City, with the wonders of the Industrial Age, much of it from Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward’s catalogues.

How they were doing.

By 1900 the Jewish population of Sioux City was 1,000 and growing.  About that time a book on Iowa Jews by Rabbi Simon Glazer proclaimed that Sioux City’s Orthodox Jews were the poorest in the state.  Of course, not all my relatives were Orthodox and several were far from poor.

My grandmother Mary and husband Joseph, until their young and only son Louis died in the great flu pandemic that spread to Sioux City during the First World War, was, according to the five surviving daughters, very “social.”

Joseph’s grocery store was thriving.  It was the first in Sioux City to buy a gasoline powered delivery truck.  This photo of him in front of the store must have been taken before the truck was acquired.

While his competitors were  delivering to their customers via horse and wagons, he was leaving them in his smoke, as their horses, scared by the vehicle, literally were littering the streets.

Among her other activities, Mary, the Polish-American from Chicago, whose English and Yiddish were well honed, donated time to help the “greenhorns,” which is slang for new arrivals.

Globalization, which goes back even further than biblical days, was evident in our family.  About the time Mary was helping greenhorns in Sioux City, half a world away in Cape Town, South Africa, Jewish merchants were helping new arrivals, also called greenhorns, Leon Helfet, get acclimated to the new culture and started in business.  (See essay about Leon on the medium.com blog “Why did our family do that.” Subtitle is “The night I slept in my great uncle’s bed.”)

Our relatives scattered across Sioux City and suburbs, just as they had lived in Slutsk, Kapulia and their suburbs.  And, just like the old country, most clustered within walking distance of a synagogue or two.  Because of its membership, one synagogue was nicknamed “the Kapulia Shul.”

Two more sidebars.

4.  This is a convoluted family story that might actually be true.

There were two Davidson families in Siouxland.  One from Slutsk, created what for its day was a massive regional chain of department stores run by Ben, Abe and Dave.  It was called Davidson Brothers.  The other Davidson family was made up of Kroloffs who probably had what seemed at the time a logical reason to change their name to Davidson.

The wildly successful Davidson brothers, who began emigrating to Siouxland in 1880, had left a married sister in Slutsk.  The “boys,” or maybe their mother, supposedly despised the husband and wanted the sister to come to Sioux City.  A Kauffman family legend claims a deal was cooked up under which the sister would divorce and come to Iowa.  Like any Orthodox Jewish woman she had to have the consent of her husband to obtain the divorce.  She got the “Get,” which is Hebrew for the divorce paper, and hightailed it to Sioux City.

In an apparent pay off to get the Get, as the Davidson boys’ fortunes already were soaring, the ex-husband, Gabriel, his new wife Fannie, and their two young kids were sent money to come to Iowa.  Before arriving in the USA during 1887 they changed their name from something that supposedly sounded like Secov, to Kauffman.  Joseph, the son who tagged along, was my maternal grandfather.

5.  First cousin Chuck Kroloff and I were born in 1935.  A couple summers in the late 1940s we jointly invaded Sioux City and stayed with relatives.  By then, most of the area’s Jewish families from “the early days” had moved on to Chicago, Los Angeles, Phoenix, or wherever.

Nonetheless, several hundred remained close to the Missouri River shores.  On one of those trips Chuck and I attended a Jewish Community picnic.  It seemed we all were related.  It was a celebration of a continuing support system.


Why many left Sioux City when the economy was bad.

Why they later returned to Sioux City.

After the first few from the Slutsk-Kapulia area arrived, the  attraction of the existing Sioux City support group of old friends and relatives was a huge pull.  Not to be ignored were the expanding economic opportunities along the river and railroad towns.  Optimism was contagious. (Picture: Being examined for diseases before being allowed entry into America.)

The Helfets, Dobrofskys, and Levys who been reared in Liverpool and Chicago were well aware of the highs and lows of big city living.  For quite a while they, too, preferred the smaller setting of Sioux Falls, Sioux City, Council Bluffs, and Omaha.

Like the rest of the nation, and world, Sioux City was subject to severe economic swings.  They called economic Recessions “panics” in those days.

Sometimes the Sioux City relatives didn’t just waited out the storm, hoping for the better times to return.  Sometimes they left for good.

My paternal grandparents, Sarah Helfet Kroloff and Sam Kroloff were bounce-backers.  Not long after what must have been a religious wedding in Sioux City they left with Sarah’s sister Esther and brother-in-law Jacob (Jake) Dobrofsky for what they expected to be greener pastures in Chicago, where their civil marriage took place.  This photo, from who knows where, sure looks like a wedding picture.


Reading Uncle Jake’s autobiography I was surprised at how many relatives returned to Sioux City and stayed, at least, through the First World War.  (The Midwest’s rural economy tanked for a while when the US government cut back on the purchase of food essentials, like corn, once the troops returned from Europe.)

As noted, the relatives felt comfortable with Sioux City, in part because some of the same people who had provided the support system for them in Russia were living in Sioux City, and there was no way those who bounced-back would, or could, return to Russia.

More background.

Improbably, this exercise in figuring why our ancestors did what they did began with a three part question.  Since my grandmother and grandfather met in Sioux City, why was my dad was born in Chicago, October 27, 1905.  And why two years later was his brother Max born in New York.  And why, by 1915 were they were back in Sioux City, where daughter Ina Leah Kroloff was born.

My father was one of several Archie Kroloffs.  A later essay about Kapulia will explain why there were so many Archies in the Kroloff and Herzoff family, along with other recurring names among the relatives’ first borns.


On Feb 11, 1903 the three Helfet girls arrived at Ellis Island in New York and immediately went to Sioux City to join up with brother Harry (Isaac) who preceded them by two months.  Sarah, Esther and Minnie, having been raised in Liverpool, were very proper Victorian straight-laced young ladies when they arrived.  Just look at the picture of Sarah and Sam above.

A cousin, Arnie Levin, whose mother was Sam’s sister Helen once stayed with Sam and Sarah for a while.  If I recall correctly, it was while Arnie’s mother and father were setting up or selling their grocery/general store in Rosalie, Nebraska, not far from Sioux City.  Their  customers primarily were from the nearby Winnebago and Omaha Indian reservations.  One day, over lunch, the often jovial Arnie turned deadly serious when talking about Sarah who apparently was a very stern disciplinarian.

In 1912 my grandmother took her boys to Liverpool to show them off.  Below is a picture of Archie and Max, the younger smaller brother.  I can’t imagine why, with such bitter memories of The Old Country, both would be decked out like miniature Russians.  The family tried to remain “different” in Russia and I recall Sam  as working hard to be a “real” American in Sioux City.

Aunt Ina, younger sister of Archie and Max, eventually married Irving Levich.  Irving’s father, Morris, is the man mentioned in this essay who might have been the first Kapulia resident to come to Sioux City.

Another sidebar to break up the genealogy.

6. My late sweet sister Susan swore she heard this right.

One of the young Kroloff boys, Archie or Max, took ill and the trip to Liverpool had to be delayed.  The original booking was on the Titanic.

Back in Sioux City.

To refresh your memory.  Esther Helfet married Jacob Dobrofsky.  They were from different parts of Ukraine.  Both families had settled in Liverpool, where Esther and Jake met.  She left first and Jake later followed her to Sioux City.

From Uncle Jake’s long memoir I learned that the two sisters, Sarah and Esther, and their husbands, (Sam and Uncle Jake), moved to Chicago before my father Archie was born because they thought they could get better jobs.  That was not a successful move.

Jake and Esther returned to Sioux City.  Grandparents Sam and Sarah and my toddler dad wound up in New York City where Sam had a signed up for a traveling salesman job.  He was  recommended by a family friend in Sioux City, Mr. Wolfson.  According to Jake, Sam was on the road a lot.  His territory extended from New York to Ohio.  That explains why Uncle Max was born in New York in 1908.  Sam, Sarah, (and the two boys) were back in Sioux City before the 1910 census.

Uncle Jake Dobrofsky wrote that Sam had a new successful enterprise.  He made (maybe at home) and then sold punch boards to stores as far away from Sioux City as Wyoming.

Punch boards (See sample) were an early form of The Lottery.  A store would buy a large printed thick piece of cardboard with many holes in it.  Inside the holes were little pieces of paper which told the “puncher” how much he or she won for the small price of gambling.  Or the paper would say there was no prize.  The store owner might buy a card for $3 and know the total pay-out would be $10.  By determining how much to charge per punch, the owner could know the profit.

Jake said Sam made a lot of money until there was too much competition.  The business itself was not a fad.  A small grocery store in my Chicago neighborhood had punch cards as late as the mid 1940s.

I heard a different story about Sam’s leaving the gambling business.  Straight-laced Sarah was sick and tired of her husband once again spending a great deal of time on the road in wild places like Deadwood, South Dakota (home of Boot Hill, Calamity Jane, and Wild Bill Hickok).  As in Sioux City, a surprisingly large number of downtown Deadwood stores were owned by  Jews from The Pale.  Sarah told Sam to stay home or she take the kids, go back to England and stay.  Sam opened a grocery store.

Manifest Destiny.

There was something else going on in Sioux City and in other towns across the country.  And the the greenhorns quickly bought into it.  The “it” was a national euphoria about America and its unlimited future.  It was like they had boarded a train that could take them anywhere they wanted and along the way they could stop and check out the surroundings, and maybe stay.  They were convinced they had left organized government oppression behind and they quickly saw others around them were beginning to live the American Dream.

They believed in Manifest Destiny, which was the idea that America’s growth and their individual growth and welfare were unstoppable because it was “God’s Will.”  Manifest means “obvious to the eye or mind.”

That didn’t apply to people who weren’t white.  African Americans, Asians and Native Americans were segregated out of areas and jobs.  The few, black, brown, red and yellow skinned residents in Sioux City were in that category.

My mother and other Sioux City girls of the time feared people of color.  There hadn’t been any people of such dark skin where they came from so the fear must have been picked up from neighbors in Sioux City.

But, above all, Little Chicago, still on the edge of the frontier, was bubbling with optimism that was contagious.

Bottom line, the residents of Sioux City who were having a hard time “knew” that they could “make it” somewhere else in America.  If the new venture failed, they could return to the Sioux City safety net … before foraging out again.

They had broken out of the dreary Pale into a bright dream.


The essay below (see next page) zeros-in on events of 1887 through 1895 in Little Chicago and Big Chicago.

Queen Bee, King Corn and the 65-foot tall Big Mary.

This essay includes further context for my theory about the safety net in Sioux City and optimism about the future.  It begins in 1887, as our family was establishing itself along the Missouri River.  That was the beginning of the good years.  I have scandalously stolen the facts from Iowa historical websites.

Prarie, Palaces and King Corn


There were periods when Midwest summers were hot and dry.

In the 1870s swarms of locusts gobbled up entire grain fields.  Even in the best of times farmers had trouble making a profit.  Prices for their produce seemed low.  The complained that it was expensive to ship crops to market on trains and to borrow money  from banks.  The locusts and dry weather forced many to leave their land and go elsewhere.  Typically, those who remained took years to recover.

The Sioux City area was luckier. There was enough rain. Crops flourished.

The town had grown from about 7,000 in 1880 to over 30,000 people (mostly immigrants and first generation Americans) by 1887.  It was the third largest meatpacking center in America and a busy gateway to the Northwest.  As mentioned before, Sioux City residents, or many of them, in their bravado believed the city might actually become nearly as important as Chicago. The city’s bankers, business leaders, real estate developers (speculators, you might say) and even the “common citizens” were promoters.  It was decided that building a corn palace would help them meet their expectations.

People already knew how to build barns and houses, but a palace wold be harder.  For six days, 46 men sawed and hammered.  They erected square towers on corners of the palace and arches over its entrances.  The outside was covered with corn.  A lot of corn.

Help from Native Americans

The near-by Winnebagos sold 5,000 bushels of Indian corn to the palace-builders for decorations.  Indian corn is blue, purple, red and white.  Another 15,000 bushels of yellow corn was used.

Indian corn poster below: http://www.milkwood.net/2012/05/12/glass-gem-corn-and-other-heirloom-jewels-of-the-corn-cabinet/.

For 15 days, teams of horses hauled additional loads of straw, sorghum, wild grasses and vines.  Steam saws sliced and chopped the materials to size.  Carpenters thatched the roof with green cornstalks, and nailed tons of corn to the walls and around the windows.

Inside the palace, local artists twisted and arranged nature’s products into works of art featuring autumn colors and unusual textures.  A huge spider made of carrots hung on a web made of corn silk.  For the walls, artists wove scenes of Indians in canoes and buffalo in meadows.

Local women wore corn necklaces to parties, and the men cornhusk neckties.  Just about everyone learned the myths of Mondamin, the Indian god of corn, and Ceres, the Greek goddess of harvests. They wrote songs and poems about “King Corn.” (Left: Peacock Jeweler’s business card circa: 1877.)

Storekeepers filled their windows with pumpkins and harvest scenes. Brightly colored globes covered the gas lights that arched over the streets. It was a big deal.

The Palace Opening

One crisp fall day in October 1887 the palace and festival opened.  Businesses placed their newest products on floats for the industrial parade.  Another day covered wagons and groups of Winnebago, Sioux and Omaha Indians paraded down the streets.  At night fireworks boomed overhead.  Passenger trains to Sioux City added extra cars to carry the crowds into town.

Sioux City was World Famous

In Chicago, New York and London newspapers and magazines published stories about the Corn Palace in Iowa.  From Boston came curious vacationers.  Wealthy businessmen from the East Coast were impressed with Sioux City and the enthusiasm of its citizens, and, they invested there.  More than 130,000 people saw the Corn Palace before the festival ended a week later.

The palace was torn down, as planned. But right away the citizens of Sioux City started thinking about building another palace the next year.  Every year for the next four years a new palace was built—always more magnificent than the one before.

In 1888 the carpenters used so much corn and grain to decorate the outside walls that not a single square inch of wood was left uncovered—except for the flagpoles.

Above: Later palaces in Sioux City.

In 1889 the palace towers were higher than nearby church steeples.  More industrial and agricultural displays were added.  New products appeared, like phonograph records, for the new-fangled “talking machines.”

In 1890 a giant globe of the world topped the palace.  Countries were outlined with kernels of corn.  Inside, the the ceiling was an imitation sky at night.  Electric lights shone like stars.  A bevy of towns in Iowa had some electric lights by then, but most Iowa farm families would wait at least 40 years before electricity could light their evenings.  The festival that year was as grand as ever, until the last day.  Heavy rains ruined the parade, poured through the palace roof, and drenched the displays.

The 1891 palace was more than a block long. Visitors hopped on streetcars and rode right through the building.  Other states and “South America” sent exhibits.  Mexico sent a band, Louisiana shipped live alligators.  The Electricity exhibit was popular.  Coincidentally, electric utility crews at that very time were wiring Sioux City neighborhoods.   When the palace was torn down.  A man paid $1,211 to salvage some of the corn, lumber, cloth and nails.

And then the palaces were no more.

In the spring of 1892 the nearby Big Floyd River, which flows into the Missouri River, flooded much of Sioux City.  Money was short after the clean up.  The Panic of 1893 brought  on a three-year economic depression in the US and Europe that crushed any hope of another palace.

Sioux City’s economy was in shambles.  (Right: Floyd flood.)


The name, Corn Palace, is revealing.  As if a city had eyes and could see, Sioux City saw itself first as a rural agricultural dynamo and second as a business and manufacturing center.  “Palace” is a European word denoting superiority that would have been familiar to Sioux City’s European immigrant population.

Nonetheless, probably no other small city had come up with, and successfully executed, such an audacious example of American optimism and boosterism.


The once fearful Belarus Kroloff, Herzoff, Robinow and Levich young men and later their families, were infected with the optimism of their neighbors in Siouxland.  That was communicated back to the “old country,” because more kept coming.

Those five years probably were Sioux City’s most confident.  The streets were not paved with gold, but they were adorned with the golden corn mined from the fields that stretched as far as the eye could see and silver from the tassels on each ear of corn.

That’s the Sioux City my relatives knew, even if they came later.  The Corn Palace years seemed to cement a semblance of sensible optimism for the future.

There was an important difference in the actions and reactions to the boosterism in Sioux City and Chicago.

The city fathers and mothers of Sioux City thought as big as they could.  One corn palace a year for a quick publicity and tourism hit, and maybe sell some corn, or cows, or pigs, or produce, or real estate.  It was meant to amaze and amuse but not to inspire and change the world.

On the other hand

Chicago was a different story.  It amazed, amused, inspired and changed the world.

Sell the cookstove if necessary and come. 

You must see the fair.

–Author Hamlin Garland in a letter to his parents, 1893

As Sioux City and other communities were suffering from floods and failures Chicago produced more than just palaces.  It created the greatest show on earth, the World’s Columbian Exposition.  It erected not just a building that covered a square block.  It built “The White City” of 200 buildings with inventions and products and architecture and entertainment that literally changed the world.

One striking example was the first Ferris Wheel, another the 65 foot tall statue nicknamed Big Mary.  So much that changed civilization was introduced at the World’s Fair that it will take up a large part of a future essay or two about Chicago before 1917 when Mary Levi/Levy, my grandmother lived there.

Below.  Sheet music for a song about the Ferris Wheel, a drawing of the fair and a picture of the lagoon, only a fraction of the vast landscape.



Other essays for “Whey did our ancestors do that” will examine more about Sioux City, Chicago, and a wide view of history through the eyes of our family between the years before 907 (back to Babylon) through 1917.

After Sioux City, while many of our relatives moved west, even more came to Chicago, at least for a while, than anywhere else.  By the 1940s Sarah Helfet Kroloff’s two sons, Max and Archie, were raising families there, as were Sarah’s sister and brother.  There also were Davidson, Dobrofsky and Herzoffs. Four (including my father) were in different aspects of the advertising and promotion business.  The burgeoning Levy/Levi family had been in “The City of Broad Shoulders” since the mid-1870s.

In the 1940s cousin Chuck and I were amazed at the number of relatives we met at a Sioux City family picnic.  In Chicago Max and his family lived on the South Side and Archie’s family lived on the North Side we hardly met any of our local relatives.  The city limits were big enough to encompass all of the land that included Slutsk and Kapulia.

In Sioux City all the relatives could get together for a celebration.  In Chicago, they couldn’t even get together … ever.

To be continued.



Left to right


Dave Ginsberg, Eva Levi Skalovsky, Annie Levi Behr, Ben Behr, Archie Kroloff, Florence Kauffman Kroloff, Bud (Skalovsky) Sanford, Harriet Kauffman Metcalf, Harvey Metcalf, Louise Metcalf,

Second row:

Leah Kauffman Ginsberg, Joseph Kauffman, Mary (Levi) Kauffman


Mazie Kauffman Mendelsohn, Harold Mendelsohn, Larry Mendelsohn, Susan Kroloff, George Kroloff, Gloria Ginsberg Marks, Norton Marks.  About 1950 in Ginsberg’s living room, Sioux City, IA.


Left to right

Top row:

Sam Kroloff, Irving Levich, Harry Helfet


Sarah Helfet Kroloff, Ina Kroloff Levich, Harry’s wife

Probably mid-late 1930s in Sioux City, IA

Cat chewed on the photo cracking Sarah’s face.