.אַ באַרג מיט אַ באַרג קומט זיך ניט צונויף, אָבער אַ מענטש מיט אַ מענטשן יאָ
A barg mit a barg kumt zikh nit tsunoyf, ober a mentsh mit a mentshn yo.
Two mountains can’t come together, but two people can.
– Yiddish Proverb
The history of the Jews in Fort Collins begins with just one family — the Bernheims.
William S. Bernheim – Family Man
William Bernheim was born in Philadelphia. He was the third of nine children. Though I couldn’t find William’s exact birthday, his two older siblings were listed among the birth records of the Mikveh Israel Jewish Congregation of Philadelphia.
William moved to Fort Collins in 1878 or 1879. The first mention of him in the paper is from October 9, 1879.
It appears that his younger brother, Walter, came out to join him for awhile, but soon returned to Philadelphia. Eventually his brother Louis also came out and opened a shop of his own. While William sold dry goods, Louis focused specifically on clothing for men and boys.
William must have been quite a charmer because it looks like he was married soon after arriving in the area. Harriet, commonly known as Hattie, was the daughter of John W. Smith who owned property at the corner of Meldrum and Oak (where the Key Bank parking lot is today). Hattie’s brother, Len, married Minnie Byrne, the daughter of Francis Byrne, the rector of the Episcopal church. It seems highly likely, based on this association and given the lack of evidence to the contrary, that Hattie and her family were gentiles.
William and Hattie’s first child, John Morris, was born on October 19, 1879 in Denver (according to his World War I documents). John Morris was named after his grandfather, Morris Bernheim (also listed on various documents as either Maurice or Moses). The couple had five children in total: John Morris, Irene (b: 1883), Julian (b: 1884), Arthur (b: 1889), and Nina. (I wasn’t able to find Nina’s birthdate, but I suspect she was born before Irene. It’s possible she didn’t make it past the age of 20. I couldn’t find any mention of her past the 1900 census.)
The kids seem to have had a pleasant childhood. In 1890, Irene and Julian attended Mary Hottel’s 7th birthday party, which was mentioned in the newspaper along with a list of attendees. John Morris attended Dudley Golding-Dwyre’s 14th birthday party in February, 1894. Mrs. Bernheim and the kids would travel up to Rustic, Colorado in the summers, along with a few other Fort Collins families to escape the heat. And in June of 1891, the newspaper included a happy report that the Bernheim’s children were recovering from an illness and were safely out of the danger zone. So clearly the entire family was recognized by the rest of the town and people were interested in knowing the health and whereabouts of the family.
William S. Bernheim – Business Man
William set up a dry goods shop which he supplied through regular trips to New York City where he would purchase goods. He had various partnerships over the years, starting out in 1879 with a business relationship between himself and a Mr. Parker. When that partnership dissolved he ran his own store, first called “Bernheim’s Cheap Store” and then “Bernheim’s Cash Store.” In March of 1884, the newspapers announced a partnership between William Bernheim and J. S. Mosman. Mosman moved to Fort Collins from New York, which hints that perhaps Bernheim met him during a purchasing trip to NYC and invited him to move to Colorado as his partner. (Mosman might sound like a familiar name to regular readers of this blog. The post on Fort Collin’s architecture two weeks ago included a photo of the house W. O. Mosman built on East Oak Street.) The Mosman partnership didn’t last long and soon Bernheim was working with Herman Schiffer, the president of the Rio Grande County Bank and the leading merchant of Del Norte. That also dissolved after awhile and Bernheim ran the store on his own from that point forward.
No explanation was ever given in the newspaper regarding the dissolution of any of these partnerships. But I believe the Mosmans remained good friends with the Bernheims as associations between the two families were frequently mentioned in the paper.
William’s older brother, Louis, moved to Fort Collins around May 1883. He set up a men and boys clothing shop. For a time he also partnered with J. S. Mosman. One of the draws to Louis’s shop was his daily puzzle. The Fort Collins Courier occasionally encouraged people to visit the clothing shop to check out the puzzle, even if they didn’t have plans to purchase anything.
William S. Bernheim – A Jewish Patriarch in a Sea of Goyim (Gentiles)
There are very few references to the fact that William and Louis Bernheim were Jewish. In fact, there were really only two references that I could find. One has been lost to the sands of time and the other was in response to the first, from the October 6, 1881 Fort Collins Courier in which the author defended the shop keeper against racist words from the author of the Express.
On March 29th, 1894, William’s son Julian is commended for his help with St. Luke’s Sunday School classes. Given that Julian’s mother was the sister-in-law of the rector’s daughter, it’s likely that the Bernheim children were involved in events at the Episcopal church.
And there you have all of the mentions that I could find regarding the religious inclinations of the Bernheims. And yet, despite being a Jewish family in a gentile land, they seem to have fit in quite well with most of the townsfolk. William joined the Masons, Lodge No. 19. It was likely through his affiliation with the Masons that he befriended so many well known names of historic Fort Collins. For example, the August 6, 1885 Courier states that Frank Stover, Charlie Sheldon, Ed Garbutt, Eph Love, Will. Bernheim and a few others went on a fishing excursion. The men didn’t catch any fish, but they had a good time.
The Bernheims were also involved in costume parties, plays, and musicals. Louis played the part of the “Wild man from Borneo” in February 1890 and William once dressed as a butterfly for a Dress Ball (January 1891).
The Sad End of William’s Tale
Unfortunately, despite the Bernheims embedded status within the community, things took a severe turn for the worse in the 1890s. An acute recession hit the east coast in 1890 with the Baring Crisis, also known as the Panic of 1890. Because William imported most of his goods from the east coast, he was deeply affected. On December 18, 1890, the Courier announced the failure of his business. William’s goods were sold at auction to H. Schiffer of Del Norte (who he had previously been in business with) for $14,825.
In the May 4, 1893 newspaper, condolences were given for the death of Hattie Bernheim. The Courier doesn’t list the cause of her death, but it does describe it as sudden. A sign of how well beloved the Bernheims were in the community can be found in this poem that was published soon after in the paper.
Irene and Nina went for an extended stay with their aunt in Missouri that June. William had to sell off Hattie’s property, which included the house and land that they had bought from Hattie’s father at the corner of Oak and Meldrum.
Eventually W. O. Mosman took on William Bernheim as an officer in his mercantile company (June 1894) and things were probably look up a little. But in October, 1894, William’s youngest son, Arthur, died of heart failure after a bout with diphtheria. Arthur was only 5 years old. Nina came down with scarlet fever that December, though she did eventually recover.
The stress must have been extreme upon both William and his brother Louis. On May 4, 1899, the paper announced the sale of William’s estate. I wasn’t able to find a mention of his death (most likely because the paper hasn’t been scanned to the Colorado Historic Newspapers collection, not because there wasn’t something written about it). It’s likely that William passed away some time in 1898.
Louis retired his clothing store and moved to Connecticut where he is listed in the 1900 census as recuperating in HallBrook Sanatorium in Fairfield. The Courier announced in December of 1908 that Louis had finally recovered from his long illness. That was the last mention of him in Fort Collins’ papers.
John Morris had already been working at a dry goods store in Denver for four years upon the time of his father’s death. Nina, Irene, and Julian were sent to live with their aunt, Maggie Cowen, in St. Joseph, Missouri. Julian eventually returned and worked in Walden at a store that W. O. Mosman had opened there. He is occasionally mentioned in the newspaper as having come down to Fort Collins for a visit with this or that friend.
There’s a Yiddish proverb that states that two mountains can’t come together, but two people can. William and Louis came to Fort Collins and blended themselves into the community. There are references in the newspapers to their civic engagement with the community including William’s membership in the Masons and Louis’s role of treasurer in the Hook & Ladder Company.
Clearly the family was well beloved by the townspeople. Sadly, with the death of both parents and the removal of the children to the home of another family member, their memories seem to have fallen from the minds of residents. Ansel Watrous gives only one quick reference to the family store in his 1911 History of Larimer County and the 1975 book, Fort Collins Yesterdays, makes mention of Jewish folks in the 1880s, but then proceeds to list the Reingold family as the first Jewish family in the city. (The Reingolds moved to Fort Collins in the 1910s.)
William Bernheim’s Lasting Legacy
The sole remaining testament to the Bernheims time here in Fort Collins is the building that William had built in 1881. The two story brick structure had to be expanded another 25 feet in 1882 to add to the size of the salesroom. Bernheim is even commended in the paper for adding a “regulation sidewalk” to the front of his building. (That was a big deal during a time of dusty streets in summer and muddy streets during the occasional rains.)
Though addresses don’t appear to have been used at the time, the Fort Collins Old Town application to the National Register of Historic Places lists Bernheims property as standing at 214 Linden Street. I believe this is the property recently vacated by the Old Town Spice Shop. (The current addresses of these buildings is a bit confusing. The Blind Pig lists their address as 214, though I think that was originally the store of a cigar maker that was built just south of Bernheim’s place. I believe William’s building is the one on the left, which the spice shop says is 220 Linden. But on the day that I went to take this photo, the address read correctly. I believe the brick building on the left is William’s building.)
So the next time you’re on Linden Street, visit the brick building at 214 and imagine yourself in the mid 1880s stopping by to inquire about the latest goods brought in on the train from New York City.
|Next week I will be investigating the history of baseball in FoCo. It looks like information on early teams might be rather scant, so I’ll happily take stories and photos that you send in. 🙂|
Sources for this article:
I found the Yiddish proverb at Wikiquote – Yiddish proverbs.
The birth dates of most of the Bernheim family members came from Ancestry.com although Arthur wasn’t mentioned at all on the genealogy site. The October 23, 1894 Fort Collins Courier told of Arthur’s death. John Morris’s World War I documents are available to view on Ancestry.com.
The iterations of William Bernheim’s businesses were sourced as follows: “Bernheim and Parker” – 9 October 1879, Fort Collins Courier, “Bernheim and Mosman” – 23 August 1883, Fort Collins Courier, “Bernheim and Schiffer” – 2 April, 1885, Fort Collins Courier.
Mary Hottel’s birthday party was described in the Fort Collins Courier, December 25, 1890.
William dressed as a butterfly (along with several other notable Fort Collins persons wearing other colorful costumes) was mentioned in the January 1, 1891 Fort Collins Courier.
More information on the Baring Crisis can be found on Wikipedia. The sale of William’s goods is described in the January 22, 1891 Courier.
The mention of Irene and Nina going to live with their aunt in Missouri is from the Fort Collins Courier, 29 June 1893.
Harriet’s property at the corner of Oak and Meldrum was sold to one of the Mosmans. Fort Collins Courier, June 7, 1894.
William becoming the secretary of W. O. Mosman’s Mercantile Company was mentioned in the June 14, 1894 Fort Collins Courier. Arthur’s sickness and death was in the October 23, 1894 Courier. Nina’s scarlet fever is in the December 27, 1894 Courier. And the sale of William’s property in the Loomis Addition, at the corner of Loomis and Oak, sold to Michael Conners, is listed in the May 4, 1899 Courier. John Morris working in Denver and Nina, Irene, and Julian’s removal to their aunt’s in St. Joseph, Missouri is explained in the August 3, 1899 Courier.
I accessed the Fort Collins Courier through the Colorado Historic Newspapers site which makes it easy to search by keyword or date.