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Jewish families found niche amid coal boon

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Sunday, July 27, 2008

It was a different kind of pioneering.

As coal mines in West Virginia opened for thousands of immigrant laborers in the late 1800s, a stream of peddlers brought the pots, pans and cottons of the outside world to the mining hollows. The more enterprising door-to-door men opened small stores of their own. Many were practically just off the boat. They learned English buying and selling.

Hard work, long hours and customers who were grateful to be "carried" through bad times -- it was a foothold in the golden land.

"They were drawn to Appalachia by economic opportunity," historian Deborah R. Weiner said in Wheeling the other day. "If one man was responsible for this trade, I think it would be Jacob Epstein of Baltimore."

Hardly a household name in the age of Carnegie and Rockefeller, Lithuanian-born Epstein arrived in the United States in 1879 at age 15. From a pack on his back, he sold to farm wives in Pennsylvania and Maryland, then set up as a wholesaler, the Baltimore Bargain House. Soon he was recruiting "greenhorns" -- and more important, extending them credit -- to carry goods into the gritty hinterlands.

By the 1880s, railroads were hauling big tonnages to U.S. industries in need of coal for steel, steam and electric power. This just as southern and eastern Europe were disgorging millions of Italian, Greek, Slovak and Hungarian work-seekers to America. Russia added its own infamous exodus with pogroms of murderous anti-Semitism.

A regional result between mine owners and mine workers, literally a "middle" class, were storekeepers. Many, not all, were Jewish. They married, set up synagogues and brought relatives over. And offered a welcome competition to the "company store" in company towns. It didn't last forever. Labor-saving machinery in the mines, the automobile and suburban shopping centers eventually shrank the Main Street trade. It wasn't the winning of the West, but it's a very American economic trajectory.

From oral histories and courthouse, cemetery and synagogue records, Weiner pulls the threads together in a new book, "Coalfield Jews: An Appalachian History" (University of Illinois Press, Chicago, 234 pages, $25).

She told an audience at Wheeling's lively Ohio County Library that the Jewish population in the mining region (parts of Kentucky and Virginia included), probably didn't exceed 1,000 at any one time. Anti-Semitic unpleasantness was rare, and amid so many immigrant groups, "small towns judged people by how they acted."

A boom town atmosphere prevailed with the predictable sinning. Keystone, W.Va., had a notorious red light district, Cinder Bottom; Weiner found an aged citizen who had delivered papers there as a boy.

The only peddler badly mauled by coal company goons didn't get his bruises as a Jew; they thought he was a union organizer. And teenage peddler Epstein lived to become a significant donor to the Baltimore Museum of Art and Johns Hopkins University.



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