Jews in the Upper Midwest

Jewish settlement in Minnesota and the Dakotas

Reprinted with permission from And Prairie Dogs Weren’t Kosher: Jewish Women in the Upper Midwest Since 1855 (Minnesota Historical Society Press).

The first groups of Jews to enter the Upper Midwest had emi­grated from German-speaking lands. Arriving in the 1850s and 1860s, many had already lost their immigrant "greenness" by ped­dling or by clerking in mercantile establishments east of the Mis­sissippi. Economic opportunity pulled them to the Upper Midwest to trade with Indians for furs, to speculate in land, to open stores and small manufacturing concerns in the new river towns, to mine gold in the Black Hills, and, less frequently, to farm….

First Arrivals

In gen­eral terms, the German Jews, most of whom arrived between 1850 and 1880, settled in significant numbers in St. Paul, Minneapolis, Duluth, and, for a short time, in Deadwood. In these places they became merchants and manufacturers. Amelia Ullmann was the first Jewish woman who recorded her arrival in St. Paul, but there were certainly others in the town. In 1856, a year after she debarked, there were about 25 Jewish men and women–enough to form the Mount Zion Hebrew Association. Six years later it became Mount Zion Hebrew Congregation.

The Minneapolis Jewish community grew as well, and, in 1878, German Jews there founded Shaari Tof [sic] Hebrew Congregation, which was later renamed Temple Israel. By the 1880s, German-Jewish merchants could generally be found in every sizable market town or transportation center in the region. Sioux Falls and Aberdeen in present-day South Dakota; Fargo, Grand Forks, and Bismarck in what is now North Dakota; and Mankato, Austin, Le Sueur, and Albert Lea in Minnesota–all had one or two Jewish families.

Many maintained their ties to larger Jewish communities through synagogue affiliations, while others drifted away from Jewish practices. Often, family ties connected members through the region. For example, in turn-of-the-century St. Paul, the Plechner-Fantle family of furniture and clothing merchants spotted fertile business ground in the thriv­ing divorce-mill town of Sioux Falls (the Reno, Nevada, of its day [where divorces were easy and quick to obtain]). Espying opportunity in the enforced leisure of estranged and bored spouses, they dispatched relatives there to open another store.

Entry Points

The second and much larger wave of migration to America–and the Upper Midwest–began in the early 1880s and consisted of Eastern European Jews, primarily from the Russian empire and Rumania. They were helped westward, and ultimately across the ocean, by Jewish communities along the way. The process did not stop at the East Coast. One example was the band of 200 people who arrived in St. Paul by train in July 1882 without warning. Their sudden appearance overtaxed the resources of the mem­bers of Mount Zion Congregation, who gratefully accepted help from Christian citizens of the city….

Many Jews were assisted by the Industrial Removal Office (IRO), an East Coast Jewish organization that attempted to settle Jews inland, away from the overcrowded ghettos and "gateway districts" of the largest eastern cities. The IRO also dealt with immigrants fun­neled through the port of Galveston, Texas, and then transported up the Mississippi to the Midwest. In both cases, members of the national Jewish fraternal organization, B’nai Brith (Sons of the Covenant), found them jobs throughout the region.

Like other immigrants, Jews also entered the United States via the Great Lakes, a route that enabled them to avoid the turmoil of Ellis Island and save money. Other Jews came through Canada. A tick­et from Liverpool, England, to Winnipeg cost Norton Giller’s fam­ily $25 in the early 1890s. The train from there to Grand Forks, 100 miles away, cost them a penny per mile. Giller recounted that "for one dollar they came to ‘America.’"

Once they had arrived, the Eastern European Jews needed work. Unlike New York City, St. Paul and Minneapolis did not have a large garment industry. Also, Jews do not appear to have worked in the burgeoning flour or lumber mills. Other forms of factory work, peddling, and small-business ownership characterized the econom­ic life of the newer arrivals.

Jewish Neighborhoods

Immigrants who arrived in the Twin Cities generally settled in neighborhoods near the downtowns, where the rent was cheap and the houses were close to work. Housing mainly consisted of single dwellings and duplexes, for land was inexpensive and tenements, therefore, relatively rare.

St. Paul had two Jewish districts, the West Side and the Capitol City area. Minneapolis had its North Side, composed of Jews from the Russian empire, and its South Side, filled with Rumanians. While these areas had large proportions of Jews, they were never confined solely to one ethnic group. The North Side of Minneapolis was shared by African Americans, Irish, and. Old-Stock Americans; the West Side of St. Paul, by Poles, Syr­ians, and Mexicans.

Smaller cities as well had areas of several square blocks that could be characterized as immigrant Jewish neighborhoods. Fargo’s was next to the Red River; Duluth’s was on the West End. All these neighborhoods accommodated a vibrant Jewish life: synagogues, kosher butcher shops and other stores catering to Jewish tastes, socialist meeting halls, and Hebrew schools made life comfortable for the Yiddish-speaking inhabitants.

Different Residential Patterns

Despite such urban concentrations, the general pattern of Jewish settlement in the Upper Midwest in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was quite different from that of the East Coast, where Jews gravitated mainly to the cities. Two factors accounted for this difference.

The first was that a significant number of Jews lived in small towns in areas throughout the region. One such area was the Mesabi Iron Range in northern Minnesota. There, by 1905, iron mining replaced logging as the dominant industry and fueled the growth of numerous towns. Seeking economic opportunity, East­ern European Jews settled in Chisholm, Eveleth, Hibbing, and Virginia. These towns all sustained large enough Main Streets to support numerous Jewish stores, and each town had a synagogue. Still smaller Iron Range towns typically had one or two Jewish businesses, while Duluth, the premier port of Lake Superior, had the third-largest Jewish population in the Upper Midwest….

The second factor distinguishing the Upper Midwestern Jewish settlement pattern from the one prevailing on the East Coast was that some Jews chose to become homesteaders. Land ownership, which appealed to poor and unskilled men, denoted not only freedom but also a more ennobling life. Craney Goldman Bellin, whose family left Beresenova, a town near Odessa, in 1905 to settle near Williston, North Dakota, recalled that one of the reasons her father decided to homestead was that a customer in Russia had called him a parasite–for, as a shopkeeper, he produced nothing. Other Jews tried farming because they had grown up in semirural environments in Russia and hated the taste they had gotten of American big-city life.

They were able to satisfy this urge to try farming because home­stead land was still available in the Dakotas as late as 1910, although by then the remaining acreage was of marginal productivity. Between 1882 and 1910, about 1,000 Jews filed homestead claims in North and South Dakota.

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