Moving In, Moving Out, and Moving Up: Jews in Waterville in the Early 20th Century
by Kimiko Kossler ’12 (April 2011)
In the early 20th century, Russian Jews migrated to Waterville, Maine, for two major reasons: economic independence and family connections. The Jewish population of Waterville was in a constant flux, however, because not all of its families were able to find an economic niche that allowed them to prosper. Those who did not succeed in Waterville quickly relocated to other towns. Many of those who found prosperity moved as well: to Waterville’s nicer neighborhoods.
Jews migrated to small towns across America in search of economic independence. Why did Russian Jews come to Waterville in particular? Many had family or hometown connections to a successful Jew already living here who could help them establish themselves economically. The most well connected of these Jews was William Levine, who arrived in Waterville as a peddler in 1890. Many of William’s relatives eventually followed him, so that by 1920, 21 of the 50 Jewish heads of households in town were members of the Levine clan.
Lester Jolovitz explained, “if you didn’t have relatives [then] you’d go to the people that you had some knowledge of and were friendly to you, and it was generally accepted that they would take people in and get them started.” Lester’s father, Barnet Jolovitz, received a loan to buy a horse and buggy from the Rosenthals, who came from the same shtetl in the Old Country, Ivia.
For Jews in Waterville, peddling was simply the first step towards a more steady and lucrative occupation. Peddling provided them with an opportunity to attain the wealth and experience needed to transition into retail occupations. The story of Louis Rosenthal not only illustrates the determination of Jews to succeed in Waterville, but also the transition from peddling junk to industrial waste and, eventually, manufacturing. Bob Rosenthal, Louis’s son, explains:
My grandfather had a junk business, which a lot of the peddlers did in those days, and what he did was he just had a horse and buggy and picked up junk and sold it. And when my dad was in the 3rd grade, which would have put him about 9 years old, his father got very sick—Hyman got very sick and had to go to New York for treatment where his brother lived and my dad took over the business when he was 9 for several months while Hyman was recuperating, and when Hyman got back my dad went back to school. They wanted him to repeat the 3rd grade and he wouldn’t, so he became an entrepreneur at that point. He stayed in the junk business for several years but he gradually drifted into the wool waste business because he thought there was a better market there and a bigger market, and it turns out there was for him. And so he went into the wool waste business and eventually that became the main business and after that, when he couldn’t sell the wool waste during the Depression, he would hire someone to make wool blankets and sell the blankets and he eventually bought the mills!
Louis Rosenthal’s transition from peddler to manufacturer is unusual among the Jews of Waterville, as most followed the trajectory from peddling to opening retail stores.
For many of Waterville’s Jews, a successful transition into retail required the entire family’s help in the business. Barnet Jolovitz’s family lived above his Winslow grocery store. Lester Jolovitz recalls:
When we were home, whatever, after school or on Saturdays, and we had a couple of people working, we had employees working with my father. But my mother and the three of us, the children, if they got busy downstairs, we had a signal. My father would rap, knock on one of the pipes that came from the store upstairs, I guess a water pipe or whatever, and that was a signal that somebody should go down and help out, that we were busy. So, we all participated in the store; we didn’t have certain hours or whatever. After school the first thing we were supposed to do was study, and if we weren’t busy in the store, we went out and played, of course.
Barnet Jolovitz was successful enough that he was able to send all of his children to college in Waterville, at either Colby or Thomas.
William Levine, whose clothing store became a landmark in Waterville, also made his start as a peddler. William was 18 years old when he came to America and chose to start peddling in Maine because the cost of a peddler’s license here was cheaper than in Massachusetts. William settled in Waterville because there were already other Jews living in town and because there was a large Polish population in Winslow, right across the river. William Levine was able to address the needs of his customers through his knowledge of Polish and English, as well as Yiddish. While William traveled the countryside, his wife Sarah opened a small store on Ticonic Street, where most of Waterville’s Jews lived. In 1904, that store moved to Main Street. William’s sons and grandson continued to run Levine’s Store until 1996.
Louis Rosenthal, Barnet Jolovitz, and William Levine were able to successfully transition from peddling to better occupations, ultimately becoming respected figures in Waterville. Those who were not able to make this transition often left town. Half of the 32 Jewish families that arrived in Waterville between 1900 and 1910 left by 1920. In most cases, those who left were peddlers or small-scale junk dealers. Those who stayed worked primarily in retail stores—selling clothing or food—and in the waste business.
In general, the Jewish families that settled more permanently in Waterville were the ones that accumulated more wealth. In 1920, the median value of taxable property owned by Jews in Waterville was 2,500 dollars. By 1930, the median value of Jewish-owned property tripled in value, to 7,775 dollars. The median value of taxable property for the six head of households who left Waterville during that decade, in contrast, was only 1,050 dollars. Clothing merchants were the most affluent of Waterville’s Jews, with the exception of Louis Rosenthal. Others in the junk trades were less well off, but on average owned more valuable property than did the grocers.
The rising affluence of the Jews who stayed in Waterville can be seen clearly through where they chose to live. On the maps above, the range of affluence is indicated by the varying color of the circles. Yellow indicates the lowest affluence value and red indicates the highest affluence value. In 1921, most of the Jews lived in the North End, particularly on Ticonic Street. The Jews who lived in the North End had occupations that involved junk, wool waste, or food services. Some clothing retailers had already acquired enough wealth to move to nicer areas of Waterville. By 1934, even more Jews had moved to other parts of town, including to properties valued at 10,000 dollars or more. The rise in affluence between 1921 and 1934 directly corresponds to the increasing number of Jews who transitioned into a more prosperous occupation in retail.
Over the course of a generation, the Jews who remained in town became successful and prominent members of the Waterville community. Many of their children were able to go to college and pursue careers in professions like law and medicine. A significant percentage of these families are still represented in Waterville today. This rise to affluence and integration into the greater Waterville community results from the successful transition by immigrant Russian Jews from peddling to more stable occupations.