Migration Patterns

“Prosperity is Just Around the Corner”: Migration Patterns of Waterville Jews

by Isadora Alteon ’13 (January 2011)

Herbert Hoover’s remark that “prosperity is just around the corner” during the years of the Great Depression reflects the history of the Jews of Waterville, which follows an ebb and flow pattern fundamentally dependent on the economic viability of the town. In Jewish Life in Small Town America, Lee Weissbach links the creation of new small town Jewish communities with the development of the towns themselves. Jews were more likely to stay if they were financially secure and to move elsewhere if they were not as secure (Weissbach 60-61). Weissbach’s observation about the importance of financial stability for Jews in small town communities correlates with the primary reason that the Jews of Waterville chose to remain or to leave.

There are two generations that bear the most relevance to my study: the founding generation of Waterville Jews from Eastern Europe and the descendants of that generation. The founding generation are those who ventured to Waterville during the time period of 1900-1920.The descendant generation were those born during the interwar years (1920-1942). The decisions of the descendant generation changed the landscape of the Waterville Jewish community in ways their predecessors did not. Stories told by and about members of these generations reflect the broader trend of migration patterns being inextricably linked to the economic vitality of the town.

From the Shtetl to Small Town America

In Michael Hoberman’s How Strange It Seems, Sonny Chertok of Laconia shares a statement about the motivations of Jews in migrating to a small town in New Hampshire:

Why were people here? An opportunity to work. Why did people come to Laconia? Because the textile mills all of a sudden got busy, the lumber mills were busy, there were job opportunities. And where there’s job opportunities there’s always a chance for people to sell them goods and services. (31)

Chertok describes a scenario in Laconia that can easily fit into the developing industrial center that was growing in Waterville’s during the early 20th century .

The Wyandotte Worsted factory, along the Kennebec River (image courtesy of Tom Longstaff)

During the time period of 1866-1887, Waterville was in its early stages as a center for manufacturing. The construction of the Lockwood Company mill complex as the largest factory in the town initiated an industrial revolution in Waterville, providing “unlimited jobs and opportunities.”  Shortly after, Waterville became established as a railroad center due to a winning bid in 1884 for Maine Central Railroad to set up car and locomotive repair shops (Plocher 10-11).

German and, later, Eastern European Jews came to Waterville to peddle dry goods and then, after acquiring enough capital, opened up retail shops. Ewa Morawska offers the analysis that Jews who settled in small towns incorporated themselves into the economy rather quickly through their use of “sociocultural resources.” Morawska’ s use of this term describes the advantages that migrant Jews had in establishing themselves in the economies of their community. Jews relied either on chain migration familial networks or ethnic networks of relation between Jewish entrepreneurs.

Lester Jolovitz shares the following about his father’s experience in settling in Waterville without a familial network:

He came to Waterville, Maine, of all places because there were the Rosenthal family living there, and my father had known, apparently, of them back home. And they saw that he had no money, so they… provided enough money for him to rent a horse and a wagon… and he was able to save a little money and as a result he was fortunate.

Waterville continued to develop and transformed from a town into the fifteenth city of Maine (Plocher 12).After the first arrivals of immigrants seeking jobs in the factories came the arrival of hopeful Jewish merchants wishing to start retail businesses and provide services for the masses of people that the emerging industrial town would attract. Waterville’s sizeable population attracted those wishing to take advantage of the industrial economic complex.

The Talberth family was sent to Waterville in the first years of the 20th century to capitalize on the booming city population and set up a cigar shop. Ethel Talberth and her son share the following:

Ethel: “I don’t think they chose it. I think it was chosen for them.”

Jay: “The cigar union in Boston gave him an offer of a certain amount of money if he would go to another region and set up a little manufacturing for the cigars. So they went to Waterville.”

Waterville continued as an industrial manufacturing center but the economy was switching gears to foster the growth of the retail industry. Tendai M’ndange-Pfupfu, in his research on the connections between occupation and affluence among Waterville Jews during the interwar years, reveals that the most affluent group in Waterville were those who were involved in some form of retail specialization.  “Retailers and merchants averaged $13,300 in real estate and $2,600 in personal property.” His data also reveals the economic pitfalls grocers and laborers faced because of their precarious place in Waterville’s economy. The implications of this study suggest that the relative economic well-being for Jews in Waterville was one that didn’t prompt many of them to leave. Those that did leave, however, struggled to latch on to the economic niches that were thriving and, as revealed by their declining real estate and personal property values, those people left.

Small town America isn’t so bad after all

Waterville’s Jewish community members continued running successful businesses on Main Street. Some of the Jewish families in Waterville that maintained a generational presence in the community were the Levines, Millers, Shiros, Sterns, and Wolmans. They all had maintained successful businesses and there was never contemplation of the thought of leaving all of that behind to live elsewhere until the economic viability of the town became unsuitable for their businesses.

Second, “descendant,” generation Jews also provided professional services to the community. Waterville was an ideal location because there was a great need in the area for professionals, and there was less competition in establishing a client base since they often were one of few professionals in their field working in Waterville.

Marcia Beckerman moved to Waterville at the age of 9 and returned in 1947 with her husband after meeting in Chicago. Her husband, Stephen Beckerman, found work at local Thayer Hospital and then set up his own medical practice. The Beckerman’s son, Peter, would repeat the same pattern in returning to set up his professional practice in the 1970s.

Boston has about five law schools and we are all stepping on each other for the few jobs. … The fates brought me back here and, as far as I was concerned, I was better off than my friends practicing law in Boston.

The Beckermans had two generations of professionals who successfully practiced in Waterville because of the need for their expertise in the area and the economic opportunity the town provided.  Another trend presented by this family’s story was that those who returned to Waterville for its economic opportunity fared well because of their family connections in town.

From Small Town America to Elsewhere

The nature of small-town life in Waterville was inextricably linked to its economic viability, and from the mid-1950s the community’s population was on the decline.

Kenneth Jacobson shares the reason why he and his siblings left in the 1940s and ’50s:

Well, we all left Waterville. As fast as our feet could carry us. It’s just like a depressed area now because all the factories closed and everything else, but it’s not a very attractive place anymore.

Aside from the declining economy in Waterville, secondary non-economic factors also shaped the decision of those Jews who left.  Sara Miller Arnon, daughter of Giselle and Howard Miller, felt the pressures of belonging to a Waterville family legacy:

Everybody knew everybody else’s business. In retrospect, I’m glad that I left Maine and that I lived in Boston for four years and then I moved to New York after Boston to work. I was not ready to move back to the State of Maine. It was still too small for me.

Sara’s sister, Julie Miller-Soros, shares a similar story in which her life became confining because of the family legacy:

I can remember at one point wanting to go to Colby and my parents discouraging me saying, “As much as we’re a Colby family you need to go elsewhere.” … I never would have been able to establish my own identity.

Peter Beckerman and Fred Levine were close friends growing up, and both sought to establish their own identities through social experiences away from home. “Fred left for Boston every single Friday at 5:30. He was on the road and that’s where he kept an apartment, and that’s where he had his social life. I would go with Fred once a month.”

The last three stories reveal that Jewish baby boomers were in search of new social experiences as well as opportunities that Waterville just couldn’t offer them.

Waterville became a home for Jews primarily because of its prospects in securing a financially stable lifestyle, with the added benefits of small-town Jewish communal life. Some of these Jews left, seeking prosperity elsewhere, and some returned to strike out with success in a familiar economic setting. The postwar years brought an end to the manufacturing industry and, consequently, a major population decline. The city’s economy today relies on educational and medical institutions, attracting new Jewish families seeking professional opportunities. The implications of this study in its analysis of Waterville’s Jews migration patterns suggests that the future growth of Waterville’s Jewish community is dependent on the continued growth of Waterville’s economic vitality.

Print Sources

Hoberman, Michael. How Strange It Seems: The Cultural Life of Jews in Small-Town New England. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. 2008.

Morawska, Ewa. Insecure Prosperity: Small-Town Jews In Industrial America, 1890-1940. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1996.

Plocher, Stephen. A Short History of Waterville, Maine. Colby College. 2007.

Weissbach, Lee Shai. Jewish Life in Small Town America: a history. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2005.


Arnon, Sara Miller. Interviewed by Amy Eklund, January 8, 2011.

Beckerman, Peter. Interviewed by Isadora Alteon, January 10, 2011.

Jacobson, Kenneth. Interviewed by Katie Peterson, January 27, 2010.

Jolovitz, Lester. Interviewed by Sam Levine, January 10, 2010.

Miller-Soros, Julie. Interviewed by Madeline Kurtz, January 12, 2011.

Shiro, Phyllis. Interviewed by Sam Levine, January 17, 2010.

Talberth, Ethel and Sue. Interviewed by David Freidenreich, December 21, 2010.