The Edmond Sun

March 25, 2013

AGAINST THE GRAIN: Researcher reveals state’s Jewish history

William F. O'Brien
Special to The Sun

OKLA. CITY — Stuart Rockoff is a historian who is affiliated with the Goldring-Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, which publishes the "Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities." He recently gave a presentation at the Jewish Federation of Greater Oklahoma City regarding the research he and his organization have done regarding the history of Jews in the state of Oklahoma.

He explained that he researched that subject by consulting maps prepared by the Sanborn Fire insurance Company that prepared maps showing all of the structures that were in existence in communities in Oklahoma and what they were being used for as well as newspaper and census records. His research revealed that in the 1920s the City of Okmulgee had a Jewish community that included more than 35 families and a synagogue. Several other smaller communities in the state, including Ponca City, McAlester, Wilburton and Ardmore, also had Jewish houses of worship in the early decades of the last century.

According to Rockoff, most of the Jews in those locales were originally operators of retail stores, but some of the them became scrap metal dealers and oilmen by the 1920s. He also detailed the careers of some of the early Jewish settlers in Oklahoma.

Moses Weinberger came to Guthrie shortly after the Land Run in 1889 from Kansas and began selling fruit to the men and women who were waiting in line to file their claims to land. He would later open the first legal saloon in Guthrie, “The Same Old Moses” that became one of the more popular establishments in what was then the capital of Oklahoma Territory. The anti- alcohol crusader Carrie Nation had come to Guthrie to campaign for prohibition, and Weinberger invited her to come to his saloon to give a speech.

Nation was known to attack bars with a hatchet, but she promised Weinberger that she would leave her weapon at home when she spoke at his establishment. But, according to Rockoff, after Carrie gave her speech she took out her hatchet and drove it into the bar which left a wide crack in it.

After that event, Weinberger placed a sign outside of his saloon that read “All nations welcome except Carrie.” For years to come patrons would gather at the sight of the incision created by Carrie Nation in Weinberger’s bar and raise drinks in her honor.

Rockoff also spoke of William Krohn, the Jewish editor of the Daily Ardmoreite in Ardmore, in the early 1900s. Krohn, who originally was from New York City, used to greet people with the Yiddish greeting “Sholom Alechem,” which translates into “peace be with you.” Krohn was an enthusiastic supporter of the oil industry in the Ardmore area, and when one oil field was developed in the Ardmore area its owners decided to name it the “Sholem Alechem Oil Field” in his honor. Wells in that field are still producing oil, and Rockoff reports that some people in Ardmore assume that its name is Native American in origin. He also spoke of the Dixie stores that were located in various communities throughout Oklahoma that were owned and operated by the Miller and Frank families. Leon and Tamma Frank operated two Dixie Stores that were adjacent to each other on Main Street in Edmond that remained in operation until the early 1970s.

The historian reported that Oklahoma’s rural Jewish communities began to decrease in size in the 1950s as young people began to leave and now most of the state’s Jewish population now resides in the Tulsa and Oklahoma City metropolitan areas. But Rockoff said that his organization is dedicated to preserving the memory of all of Oklahoma’s Jewish communities, and asked the attendees to submit to him any mementos that they may have of Jewish history in the state.

WILLIAM F. O’BRIEN is an Oklahoma City attorney.