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.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Remnant of Jews in Tama County, Iowa

Michael J. Bell, in “True Israelites of America” (Annals of Iowa 53, 2, Spring 1994), comments that well into the 1850s almost all the permanent Jewish settlers in Iowa were peddlers who traveled through the state:  “Those early Jews who came to Iowa were among the first generation of American entrepreneurs.  For the young Jewish businessman, a small store in the right community offered the opportunity for a Jewish immigrant to link himself to the rising prosperity of 19th-century American and to develop a sense (however limited) of individual power and independence.”

In addition to Louis, A.I., and Zachariah Solomon, at least two other Sime men followed this path to integration if not prosperity.  Louis joined his sons, Max and Simon, in Des Moines in 1889 for two years where they operated “Sime Bros Clothing and gents furnishing goods” in the city center.  

Max Sime
In October 1892, the two brothers opened yet another store in Denison, Iowa, in the southwest corner of the state, which they ran for eight years.  Shortly after they opened their store, prairie fires – a frequent occurrence – swept the nearby countryside.  In an act of charity, the Simes donated clothing to the victims; in 1893, they donated 5 percent “of All Cash Sales” in December “to be distributed among the deserving poor and needy in Denison Township.”

Simon Sime
Max especially became active in the life of the town.  He was an officer in the local whist chapter (a popular card game that had a national organization) and a charter member both of the Order of the Eastern Star and the International Order of Odd Fellows. His wife and daughter also were founders of the Order of Eastern Star.  The brothers had a float in Denison’s July 4th parade.

In March 1900, Max became a member of Denison’s city council, but in May of the same year the business failed and the brothers declared bankruptcy.  Both brothers ended up in the clothing business – working for others – in Chicago, where they both died, Simon in 1932 and Max in 1945, after being struck and killed by an automobile.

The only early Sime settler who prospered in Iowa was my great-grandfather, Abraham Isaac Sime (“A.I.”). After working in his brother Louis’s business and moving around like his brothers and cousins from one small Iowa town to another, he established Sime’s Clothing Store in 1896 in Toledo, at the corner of Broadway and High Streets, where Louis had originally had his store on the main square.   

608 Broadway
He and his wife owned a big white house at 608 Broadway, and they had three sons and a daughter.  A.I. was active in many civic organizations, and when he died of tuberculosis in 1923, his obituary was the lead story on the front page of the Toledo Chronicle.

Hyman, 2nd from left, at Northwestern
His oldest son, Hyman – my grandfather – left Toledo to study pharmacy at Northwestern University and received a PhG (pharmaceutical graduate) in 1904.   

With his first paycheck, Hyman bought his parents a Tiffany lamp to hang over their dining room table.  He worked as a pharmacist in Dayton and Clutier, Iowa, as well as Wayne, Nebraska, before settling in Chicago, where he married my grandmother, Mary Drapekin, in 1913.  By 1918, he had his own drugstore, which he maintained till the Depression when – family legend has it – he gave away too many medications to people who never paid for them.  From then on, he was a druggist in someone else’s store.

Sampson Sime
The second son, Sampson, went to Iowa State University and became a civil engineer, settling eventually in Kansas City.

A.I. and Lena’s only daughter was “Little Sarah,” who started working in a Toledo bank in 1916 and retired in 1965 from her position as assistant cashier of the State Bank of Toledo; it was clear to all of us that she ran the bank!  Sarah lived with her youngest brother Zelic in the big family house on Broadway.  In 1921, Zelic became a partner in his father’s business and ran it until his death in 1949.  Sarah sold the business in 1962 and died in 1972 in a nursing home in Gladbrook, 20 miles away.

Sarah and Zelic
When I was a little girl in Chicago and St. Paul, we would take a summer driving trip to Toledo.  The Sime house was on a double lot, and Aunt Sarah, who collected rain water in a barrel to wash her waist-length hair, grew all kinds of vegetables.  When we would arrive, there were always many rituals.  First, she would call the operator on the crank telephone in the kitchen so the news could be relayed to others in town.  Then we would go into the vegetable garden and pick peas to shell.  Then I would go up Broadway to visit Sarah’s best friend, Estelle Born, and pick up a little red wagon she would lend me.  In the evenings we would go to band concerts on the Courthouse Square, and when we got back in the dark, we would go into the garden to listen to the corn grow.

On a “roots road trip” we took about three years ago, my husband and I drove across Iowa, beginning in Denison, and followed Route 30, the old Lincoln Highway, which runs through the center of the state, to Toledo.  The countryside is still beautiful, with rolling hills and fertile fields. 

Sime's Corner, Toledo Iowa
The towns, not so quaint.  Town squares and downtowns are full of empty storefronts, many of which were remodeled in the 1970s and 1980s with unattractive siding (like A.I. and Zelic’s store, now an insurance office).

Iowa is still drawing new immigrants, just as it did 140 years ago.  A.G. Sulzberger wrote in the New York Times (November 14, 2011) on the front page about towns in Kansas where “Hispanics are arriving in numbers large enough to offset or even exceed the decline in the white population in many place.” 

Of the towns in Iowa where Simes and Solomons lived, Denison in particular reflects a similar influx; the 2010 census counted 42.1% of the population as Hispanic. Denison is home to three major animal-processing plants:  beef, chicken, and pigs’ blood.  The stores on its main street, where the Sime brothers sold men’s clothing, now feature dresses for La QuinceaƱera.  Fine old Victorian-era homes shelter multiple tenants. 

The only visible remnant of the Sime family of central Iowa is an old barn with a fading sign just a few miles outside of Toledo.