‘Our poor Brethren’
HistoryDispersing new Jewish Americans

‘Our poor Brethren’

Louis and Temma Horwitz left Cleveland at the turn of the century to run general stores in Chicora and Kaylor, Pa., removed from any center of Jewish life in the region.

Detail from memorial board at Congregation B’nai Abraham in Butler, Pennsylvania, listing yarhzeit information for congregants Louis, Temma, William and Dora Horwitz 
(Image courtesy of the Rauh Jewish Archives)
Detail from memorial board at Congregation B’nai Abraham in Butler, Pennsylvania, listing yarhzeit information for congregants Louis, Temma, William and Dora Horwitz (Image courtesy of the Rauh Jewish Archives)

The Industrial Removal Office was a Jewish employment bureau with a philanthropic mission. It sought to alleviate big-city congestion in the early 20th century by relocating urban Jewish immigrants to smaller cities throughout the country.

The IRO emerged from a basic fact of immigration: It’s a national conversation about a local issue. In coming to a new country, immigrants come to a new city. Those local conditions inspire national policy — sometimes sincerely, sometimes cynically.

The leaders of the IRO worried that conditions in crowded eastern cities would be used to justify closing national borders to Jewish immigration. These worries emerged from reality, as well as from their own biases about class, ethnicity and religiosity. It is a complex, perpetually relevant story, and I wanted to find some compelling local angle.

Reviewing the IRO’s records online, I found a series titled “Surveys of Jewish Population and Living Conditions.” It was a collection of questionnaires sent to Jewish residents from all over, asking for basic facts about population, wages and schools.

One response came from Kaylor, Pennsylvania. There are two unincorporated communities in Pennsylvania named Kaylor. This one was in Armstrong County. The entire community was essentially an intersection on Route 68, halfway between Chicora and East Brady, just outside Butler. It was about as small a town as a small town can get.

First page of a letter from Louis Horwitz on Pittsburg General Store letterhead to Central Committee of the Baron de Hirsch Fund, also known as the Industrial Removal Office (Image courtesy of the American Jewish Historical Society, Industrial Removal Office Records)
With the response was a letter, dated Sept. 6, 1906. It read as follows:

Enclosed find your request filled out.
The writer and his family used to live in Cleveland for 15 years, and 7 years decided to venture out in the country and start in Business, which at first was uphill work, but have made a success, and can at present move Back to a City if I wish and retire.
I am not the only case where a Jewish Family once moves out of the large Cities into a small town or village, one always making an easier living then in the Crowded Cities, and if our poor Brethren in New York and other cities would only make the attempt there would be no need for so many Jewish Aid Societies.
Any assistance I can lend you will gladly do so.
Res. yours
Louis Horwitz

In the research process, every document you find is a lighthouse calling you to some port. But until you reach land, you never really know where you’ve been going.

The letter initially seemed to me to capture a crucial divide of that era, one that is overlooked in some early 20th century American Jewish histories. Before World War I, Jewish immigrants often had a choice between cultural comfort and economic comfort.

Cultural comfort could be found in a few large enclaves, like the Lower East Side of New York or our Hill District. These neighborhoods provided all-encompassing Jewish environments with synagogues, community centers, schools, butcher shops, bathhouses, bookstores, theaters and a general sense of Yiddish on the street. With those amenities, though, came challenges like overcrowding, pollution, poverty and “vice.”

Economic comfort could be found almost everywhere else. The country was rapidly expanding. There were literally tens of thousands of growing towns, each in need of some mercantile operation to supply the local population. Anyone willing to venture into the frontier, and work hard, stood a good chance at obtaining financial success.

In these towns, though, a Jewish immigrant would be a curious minority at best, and often entirely alone. Any participation in communal life happened at a distance.

The IRO was convinced that the promise of economic security would be decisive for many Jewish immigrants, as it had been for Louis Horwitz. What they found is that many new arrivals preferred to tough it out in a familiar Jewish environment like the Lower East Side than to chase success amid the overwhelming loneliness of the frontier.

In our corner of America, the tri-state region around Pittsburgh, literally tens of thousands took a different path. Mostly independent of the IRO, these immigrants chose to bypass the city in favor of county seats, boroughs, townships and even miniscule unincorporated communities like Kaylor. In the city, hundreds lived at the margins in places like Woods Run, the West End, and Hazelwood, instead of the Hill District.

This dispersion occurred all over but was especially extreme here, thanks to our topography, our industrial landscape, and state laws that encourage local government.

The fact that some 40% of the regional Jewish population at one point chose to live outside of major urban enclaves like the Hill District, Squirrel Hill, the East End, or the South Hills says something fundamental about the personality of our community.

Louis Horwitz’s letter promised a way to tell that story, and so I started building his biography. He immigrated to the United States from Minsk in the mid-1880s with his wife Temma and their children. They settled in Cleveland, working in furniture repair.

By 1900, they had moved their nine children to Chicora, Pennsylvania, near Butler. They started the Pittsburg General Store and soon opened a second branch in nearby Kaylor.

Their oldest son, William Horwitz, worked in the family store before starting his own junk business. Butler was experiencing an oil boom, and he shrewdly converted his junk business into an oil field supplies company called Keystone Pipe & Supply Co.

By the end of World War I, Keystone Pipe & Supply had become one of the largest oil field suppliers in Butler and was eager to expand. The company bought more property in Butler but also made a key strategic decision to open a branch in Texas.

William sent his younger brother Isadore to Fort Worth in May 1919. A few months later, their brother Al Horwitz started a branch of the business in Wichita Falls.

This stunned me.

Some 30 years later, Al’s nephew Billy Morgenstern came to Wichita Falls from Ashland, Ohio, looking for help breaking into the Texas oil patch. He married a local gal named Rita Belle Oberndorfer, and they had four daughters, one of whom is my mother.

The closer I got to the letter, the closer it got to me. What was first a national story became a regional and communal story and then a surprisingly personal story. In a few handwritten sentences, Horwitz explained how my family came into existence — not only the specific decisions leading one to the next but also the guiding philosophy.

And as a result of this closeness, the letter suddenly felt much farther away.

Whatever conclusions I wanted to draw about the experiences of the many Jewish immigrants who prioritized small-town success over big-city community felt much safer when those people were anonymous to me. As family, I was talking about my cousins.

It was a useful reminder. Every broad conversation we have about national issues is also about actual individual people whose full experience we might never fully know. PJC

Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center. He can be reached at rjarchives@heinzhistorycenter.org or 412-454-6406.

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