Named not in hubris but in honor and memory of Austin M. Wright, who taught me critical thinking, and his teacher, Wayne Booth, who coined the phrase.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Simes and Solomons of Central Iowa

Driving across central Iowa, it’s easy to imagine the countryside when Louis Sime opened his men’s clothing store on the town square of Toledo, Iowa, on April 10, 1877. 

Tama County had been in existence for 34 years.  Toledo, the county seat, had been founded in 1853, and the stately county courthouse (now listed on the National Register of Historic Sites) in the center of the town square had been completed in 1866.
The land surrounding the two towns was richly agricultural.  An 1875 history of the county lists wheat, corn, oats, barley, rye, buckwheat, potatoes, cabbage, timber, and meadows:  “The various tame grasses grow in Tama soil as if by magic.  There is but little labor needed in raising it and the remuneration is good.”

Many of Iowa’s early settlers were drawn by the railroads, whose representatives went to Bohemia and other parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire offering an acre of land to hard workers who would come to build the railroad.

Clearly, the farmers and the railroadmen needed clothes.  The Simes and the Solomons, two intertwined Jewish families that lived in the twin towns of Toledo and Tama City, arrived to meet their needs.

Louis Sime and his wife, Deborah (Dora) Levinson had come to central Iowa most recently from Wisconsin, where all five of his children had been born.  His partner in the Toledo business was Zachariah Solomon.   Louis was 37; Zach only 23.  Zachariah Solomon’s younger brother, George, was married to Louis’s younger sister, known in the family as “Big Sarah.”

In addition to Sarah, Louis had two other siblings, Leah and Abraham I. (“A.I.”), my great-grandfather.  When Leah died in childbirth after the birth of her second daughter in New York, her older daughter Sarah (Sadie) went to live with A.I. in Toledo; the new baby, Rachel, was placed in a New York orphan asylum but eventually she, too, moved in with her mother’s family in Toledo.  Both left in their teens for Chicago, where they met husbands and remained.

Rachel (Rae) and Sarah (Sadie) Goldstein

A.I. followed Louis from Milwaukee to Iowa, becoming a clerk in the establishment of Sime & Solomon when it opened.  Two years later, in 1879, Zachariah Solomon went into business for himself in Tama City, and remained a clothing merchant there till 1914, when his business failed.  He moved to Chicago, where he worked as a clothing salesman at The Fair, and died in 1922. 

Louis had even less success in the clothing business . . . or perhaps he had trouble staying in one place.  In 1881, he had relocated to Gladbrook,and in 1885, he was back on the High Street in Toledo.  He subsequently lived in Belle Plaine, Des Moines, De Witt, and Denison before he moved to Chicago, where he was working as a “laborer” in the clothing business in 1900.

In Toledo in July 1882, when George Solomon married “Big Sarah,” A.I. married his childhood sweetheart, Lena, from “Lebova”:   probably Liubavas, Lithuania, based on other information.  This is when facts get tangled.  Their marriage certificate says her name was Ziman, but her husband’s obituary says her maiden name was Jeruslinsky, and her own obituary says her maiden name was Vatelsky.  Leah’s first husband had the last name Simon, and when A.I. and Hyman and Leah’s father died, their mother also married a man whose last name was Simon.  A.I. had a half-brother, Morris Simon, who was killed in “the Moro insurgency” in 1905 in the Philippines. The coincidences are too great to be coincidences; the families must have known each other and been interwoven in the towns they left behind.

Lena Ziman had arrived about a year before her marriage with – family legend has it – a tag around her neck that said “Toledo, Iowa.”  In fact, the records of the ship she took from Hamburg, the Uranus, note that her destination is “Toledo,” and she was already listed as “Lena Sime.”  Nevertheless, they were officially married a year later by Rabbi David Davidson, a Reform rabbi serving Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in Des Moines, Iowa.

A.I. and Lena Sime ca. 1922
I remember stories of trips to Des Moines for kosher meat, but how my grandfather’s family lived a Jewish life in Toledo never really entered my childhood consciousness.  Simon Glazer, in The Jews of Iowa (1904), divided the Jews of Des Moines into eastsiders, mostly Orthodox, who came from the Suwalki region – where I believe the Simes came from – and westsiders, mostly Reform, who established B’nai Jeshurun.  Among their family photos was a “rabbi card” of Rav Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor of Kovna obviously copied by a Des Moines photographer.

Nevertheless, when the Simes and Solomons needed a life-cycle event, from a wedding to a funeral, they sought out Reform synagogues and Reform rabbis.

To be continued . . .