The Jews of Baker City

[Note: I could not find the notes that I made in the Baker City Museum, so a few items in this blog may be somewhat inaccurate, for I could not find most of the names on the internet that I recalled. Therefore, I am relying on my memory. In the case of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center that I will discuss in the next blog, I had the brochures and literature that I collected to check my memory.]

Baker City in Idaho at 3,400 feet high sits between two mountain ranges – the Elkhorns on the west and the Wallowas on the east. It is an historian’s and preservationist’s dream. 

Explorers and fur traders were not the only ones who went west before the settlers or the overlanders as they were dubbed. Gold was discovered immediately south of Baker City in 1861. 4,000 prospectors headed to the region. But by 1865, there was no more gold to be found and the non-Chinese prospectors generally abandoned the town. The town was saved from obliteration when the Oregon legislature made it the new county seat of Baker County. The Civil War gave both the city and the county its name to commemorate Senator Edward Dickinson Baker, the only sitting member of Congress who was killed in the Civil War.

I learned all this and much more when we got up on Friday morning, dressed, packed up and stopped first at the Baker City Museum on the way out of town and then reversed ourselves to drive a mile north of town to the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center from which you could see the entire plain between the two mountain ranges and view that part of the trail that passed Falstaff peak. Over one hour in the Baker City Museum, I learned more about the 22 years between 1862 and 1884 and subsequently when the railway joined Omaha, Nebraska to Portland, Oregon through Baker City, than I could have learned in a month of reading.

The concrete and brick Victorian buildings that were built after the railway was constructed are currently being restored to try to resurrect Baker City’s prosperity as a tourist destination. They were first erected after fires destroyed many of the wooden buildings in the town. By the turn of the century in 1900, Baker City was the third largest city in Oregon. By 1916, it had a population of almost 17,000. As I wrote in my previous blog, the hotel had one of only three elevators in the west – and electricity. Theatre and opera companies passed through the town in 1900. And Jews played a very prominent role in that prosperity.

However, I am going to focus. I will be writing about the Jews of Baker City, not because they were especially featured in the Baker City Museum. Other than the references to Golda Meir and Israel in the section devoted to Leo Adler, there was no discussion that I could find of the Jewish origins, beliefs and practices of the Jews that settled in Baker City. The vast majority of the exhibits had nothing to do with Jews. The dioramas of the lives of the pioneers were very well done and the collection of various old wagons was also interesting. If you are interested in rocks, stones of all kinds, a visit to the Baker City Museum would be a must because the collection there is magnificent.

However, the most surprising and unexpected lesson for me was how Jewish Baker City was. It was not Jewish in the sense of religion, for the personnel at the Museum could not recall Baker City ever having a synagogue. The Jews presumably went to Portland for marriages, bar mitzvahs and high holidays, probably Congregation Beth Israel. However, the Grand Geyser Hotel in Baker City where we stayed, and which I wrote about in my last blog, was evidently first named the Warshauer Grand Hotel after Louis Warshauer, the man who first built the hotel in 1889.

John Geiser made his fortune by loaning a miner $2,000 with the security of the Bonanza Mine. When the debt could not be repaid, he foreclosed and the mine eventually made him a millionaire. Geiser bought the Warshauer Hotel a year after it was built and renamed it. My only clue that he too might have been Jewish is that he married Eliza and they had a daughter, Emma who married William Pollman, a butcher who established the Baker Loan & Trust Co.

As I wrote, the hotel closed in 1968 after the stage hands, camera men and others who worked on the ten-million-dollar film, Paint Your Wagon, left town. (The eventual cost of the movie was purportedly twenty million dollars.) Joshua Logan directed. The film starred Lee Marvin (Ben), Clint Eastwood (Pardner) and Jean Seberg (Elizabeth) with a script by Paddy Chayefsky based on the 1951 Broadway musical. The lyrics and music are by Allan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe; the songs I best remember are, “I’m on My Way,” and “They Call the Wind Maria.” A mining town set in the gold rush was specifically constructed for the movie at a cost of $2.4 million, and then torn down. The model is in the museum as is much of the memorabilia from making the film and hosting such important Hollywood stars. A small part of the museum is dedicated to memorabilia about the making of the film and even the 300 “hippies” who came north from California to gain employment on the film. 

When we first drove into the town, we saw a sign on a one-story building – “Chinese and American food.” A large number of Chinese had come to Baker City during the gold rush and, unlike most other prospectors, stayed to establish laundries, restaurants and even houses of “ill repute.” There is a Chinese cemetery in town and, as in Canada, Chinese helped build the railroad.

But the most celebrated figure in the town’s history is Leo Adler. His father was Carl Adler, a Jewish immigrant who settled in Baker City in 1874. His mother was Laura Hirsch whose sister married another Jewish businessman in town. Carl ran the Crystal Palace, a book and stationary store that moved to Baker City in 1888 when the railway signalled great prospects.

Leo was a newspaper boy who, when he finished high school, was convinced by his father to develop his magazine distribution business – Ladies Home Journal and other magazines. By 1925, he had become the largest distributor of magazines and newspapers from The Dalles to Grand Island, Nebraska with 2,000 outlets in seven states. In the museum, there is correspondence between Leo and the Curtis Publishing Company recording when he reduced his payment from $2.50 to $1.50 because the magazines sent to him were arriving two days after his competitors received their copies. The point the museum makes is what an astute businessman he was.

But he is mostly remembered as a philanthropist. He never married and bequeathed his fortune of $22 million to the town as a trust for town improvements (such as the museum itself) and a source of scholarships for students from the town. Hundreds of students from the town and the surrounding region have been able to go to college with average scholarships of about $2,500. The trust is now worth $38 million and it helps support not only the museum, but the Leo Adler mansion which we did not visit.

Leo Adler was evidently also a great supporter of Israel and the museum includes correspondence between him and Golda Meir as well as an award he received from the State of Israel.

There were other prominent Jewish businessmen in the town that are memorialized in the museum such as Herman Bamberger who married Julia Tichner and, with his brother-in-law, Sol Tichner, established Bamberger, Tichner & Co.  I am not sure whether Moses Tichner, Sol’s brother, became a partner, worked for the firm or established his own business. The Heilner- Neuberger Department store in town that sold clothing and home furnishings was established by Sigmund Aron Heilner and his wife, Clara Neuberger. Heilner also installed the first telephone system in the town and established the first bank. He also owned a hide and wool business, an insurance company and a mining company.

Isaac Bloch ran a general store. Moses Disheimer was a developer of the first high-rise hotel in Baker City, the Baker Hotel, but the Great Depression helped ruin the investment and the hotel was never a success. Moses Fuchs and his brother, Isadore, were involved in mining. Moses established the golf course in Baker City. Les Schwab was a storekeeper. I cannot recall what businesses Maximilian Weil or Hirsch or Wolfe had, but I believe Wolfe was the town’s pharmacist.

I was not able to learn anything about antisemitism in the town or whether Jews could join the Elks or the other lodges other than the Masonic lodge. Several of the Jews mentioned above were listed as members. However, a non-Masonic lodge and the Elks shared adjacent facilities with the Ku Klux Klan. However, given the laudatory accounts of the town’s Jewish citizens, Baker City appears to have been a great place to settle for Jewish immigrants and their families.

A significant Jewish presence in Baker City began before, during and especially after the great trek westward known as the Oregon Trail, which I will discuss in the next blog. Who would have guessed? Or perhaps it is just my ignorance of American history and, in particular, the history of Jews in America.

POSTSCRIPT

I found my notes. I was surprised by how accurate my memory was. But there were omissions. Leo Adler’s most important periodical that he distributed was The Saturday Evening Post. Harry and Jake Warshauer also lived in Baker City but my notes do not tell me what relationship they had to Louis. I left out Steve Bud who was the town dentist – and a blacksmith. It was Carl Adler who married Laura Hirsch. Jess Heilner had a grocery store. Walz ran a creamery. The other lodge that was adjacent to the Ku Kux Klan was The International Order of Odd Fellows.

Nevertheless, not too bad a memory for an old man.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s