Thank you to Garri Regev and Rabbi Hank Skirball for sharing with me their many years of research into this family, aspects of which are incorporated below. Discovering our shared Skirball interest at the RootsTech genealogy conference in Salt Lake City in February and exchanging discoveries in July at the International Jewish Genealogy conference in Jerusalem have been some of the highlights of my Homestead project so far.
The first Homestead Hebrew isn’t someone who left a lasting impact on the community. You won’t recognize his name. He moved away before the parents of the oldest living Homesteaders were even born. He probably never joined the shul. But he paved the way for all our ancestors who came after him. For as unexpected as his ascent was, it’s all the more remarkable because in most details it was fairly typical of the Jewish experience in small-town America.
Like most of our ancestors, he started at the bottom. His name, when he arrived around 1865, was Abraham Skiersobolski. Just ~23 when he left his small village in Lithuania with his wife and two young children in the aftermath of the failed Polish-Lithuanian uprising, he settled almost immediately in Pittsburgh amongst other immigrants from towns around the village of Kalvaria. Like most such newcomers, he began work as a peddler selling goods door-to-door in the small towns of Western Pennsylvania. 1 Perhaps his rounds included the fledgling town of Homestead, which sprang into existence in September 1871 when the farmland of the former Amity Homestead was divided into lots and sold. As Abraham continued to peddle throughout the 1870s, he would have seen sales of Homestead’s lots falling off due to the Panic of 1873, which ushered in the “Long Depression” through the spring of 1879. At the end of its first decade there were fewer than 600 people living in the town.2 Such a small population wasn’t enough to attract many local merchants, but there were more than enough residents to warrant repeat visits by a peddler like Abraham.
Initially the 1870s were not good to Abraham, either. At the beginning of the decade he lost his eldest child, and his wife died delivering twins who did not survive, either. A few years later, though, he remarried, and by the end of the decade he, his new wife, and their four children were living in Allegheny City (now the Northside), where Abraham had made the all-important transition from peddler to merchant when he acquired a liquor license and opened his own saloon. Some sources suggest he was still peddling 3, which perhaps helped him to spot the beginnings of an upturn in Homestead’s fortunes, starting with the 1879 opening of the town’s first industrial operation, a glass manufacturer. Not long after construction began on the town’s steel mill in spring 1880, Abraham recognized that Homestead would soon be a great place for merchants like him to cater to the expected workers.4 So, in November 1880 he bought a lot for $539 at the corner of Heisel Street and Sixth Avenue, then the town’s business thoroughfare. 5 The deal was finalized the second week of 1881, suggesting that Abraham was settled and his liquor business re-established in its new location just in time for the opening of the mill and the influx of workers in mid-late 1881. With the steel mill in operation, the town’s population grew thirteen-fold over the course of the 1880s — exciting growth for the town’s merchants!
Abraham’s gamble on Homestead certainly paid off, enabling him to live a better life than he would have had he stayed in the city. One of the ways we can see his success in action is through the town’s tax records, which I found for most of the years between 1883-1892. (Full tax data and source citation at the end of this post.) The assessment of his worth was initially $1600 in 1883, which peaked at $5890 in 1890 and dropped to $3800 in 1892. Overall these numbers suggest he was one of the better-off men in town and likely the wealthiest amongst the tiny Jewish community6,
but the fluctuations are intriguing. Looking at the datapoints alongside the professions they give for him, we see that he did well as a saloon keeper 1883-1887, but after his peak earnings he became a laborer in 1890 and a merchant in 1892. Why did he leave a lucrative profession in which it appears he had been prospering?
The answer is: he was kicked out!
On May 13, 1887 Pennsylvania capitulated to the pressure of the temperance movement and passed new regulations governing liquor licenses called Brook’s Law. 1888 was the first year it went into effect, requiring Skirball, along with thirty-two other applicants from Homestead and hundreds more from around Allegheny County, to apply to obtain a license to continue selling liquor. In Skirball’s case, he wanted to turn his saloon into a wholesale business. In April his turn came before the judge, and he did not fare well:
Judge Ewing–You were in this house [i.e. ran a saloon] six years, you say, and swore when on the stand [earlier today] that for five years of that time you had a $300 license. Do you state that now?
Skirball–Yes, I think that it’s it.
Judge Ewing–Well, the record is very bad against you. You had a $100 license three years of the five you claimed to have had a $300 license.
Skirball–That must be impossible; it’s wrong. I don’t understand it.
Judge Ewing–Well, the record is something from which we can get facts. You stated on the stand something that was not true.
Skirball–It can’t be; that’s too bad.
Judge Ewing–Yes, very bad indeed, for you.
Skirball immediately went around and started trying to convince Clerk McGunnegle that the record was wrong. He talked loud and excitedly and interrupted the examination of the next applicant.
“Make that man keep quiet,” commanded Judge Ewing, and Tiystave Sofel took Skirball by the arm and led him off.
(The Local News, 4/7/1888)
The judge granted only eight retail licenses and no wholesale licenses in Homestead. Afterward, the judge reflected on the “piteous appeals on the part of some who were refused. Wives have pleaded with tears for a license to enable the to make a living for their family” (ibid., 5/5/1888). But the judge’s decision was final, and Skirball would never sell liquor again legally. (Though he did try illegally: “Skirboll is peddling liquor and beer to the Hungarians on the hill. We thought he was refused a license,” wrote the paper a week later.) It seem as though it took him years to accept his change in fortune; he kept trying his luck in liquor license court again the next year and every year from 1891 to 1894. Although being legally barred from plying his preferred trade was a unique obstacle, it’s not so different from the kinds of setbacks that other merchants faced.
All the same, he needed to find a new profession and fast — he had a wife and seven children, including a newborn, to support! A little over a month after losing his license, he did the stereotypical thing:
Mr. A. Skirball, a well known citizen of Homestead, is this week in New York City, for the purpose of buying a stock of clothing and furnishing goods….Mr. Skirball has the qualities of a good business man and will likely make his enterprise a success. (ibid., 6/2/1888)
It’s unclear how that first business attempt went, because less than a year later, he was (also?) in an entirely different line of work, one more closely related to his previous saloon: boarding and stabling (see ads at right and left). 7 But this business doesn’t seem to have stuck, either, though who knows, because between 1889-1893 I lose sight of Skirball almost entirely. 8 He doesn’t show up in the newspaper other than to fail a few times at getting his liquor license back, and he’s missing from the city directories where he really ought to have been listed.
We can guess at how he fared during this period from the next time I am able to pick up his trail — August 1893, when he was erecting his own building and preparing to open a shoe shore in it. Neither was a cheap undertaking, but with the shoe store Skirball finally settled into the business by which he would become a well-known, leading citizen in Homestead (and finally stop trying to get his liquor license back!).
Skirboll’s Shoe House; Homestead.–Among the business houses of Homestead, “Skirboll’s Shoe Store” as it is locally known, is recognized as one of the progressive trade enterprises of the place. It was established over two years ago, and is owned by Abraham Skirboll, a native of Russia, who has been in the United States for the past thirty years and a resident of Homestead since 1881. The store is located in a substantial three-story building, No. 515 Eighth Avenue, having a frontage of twenty-four feet and a depth of sixty-five feet. It is owned by the proprietor who owes his present standing in the community to hard work, personal energy, thrifty habits and well-directed effort. In his business, Mr. Skirboll has the active assistance of his two sons. The store is neatly and tastefully arranged, and the stock carried embraces footwear of all qualities and styles suited to all ages and the circumstances of all classes of buyers. The assortment includes everything required in this line for men, women, children and infants, and the establishment will every way bear favorable comparison with any like business enterprise in this section. It enjoys a large patronage, which it well deserves. Mr. Skirboll is an active member of the Knights of Honor. (1896 book on Allegheny County)
Some time in 1899 he opened a second store, Skirboll Men’s Furnishers, which by 1900 he was calling Skirboll and Son’s gents furnishings. In 1901 he dropped the “& Son” part of the name and probably left the gents’ furnishings business altogether, making this store into a second shoe store.
With this second store it’s unclear which son he was attempting to set up in business. Oldest son David, who was 18 when the shoe store opened, attended Western University of Pennsylvania, where he graduated with a degree in engineering in 1899. It’s debatable if he used his degree, though — in 1900 the paper recorded him considering a job in Philadelphia, but it seems he remained in Homestead and clerked for his father’s store, leaving in March 1903 to open a stationery store in Sharon. Perhaps he chose that town because the second son, Joseph was living there running his own shoe store. It doesn’t seem like Joseph went to college; fourteen years old when his father opened the first store, it seems he was the son designated to help his father in business, as so many children had to in those days. Third son Harry Ralph graduated from four years of high school in 1902 (a very rare event in those days — there were only 14 kids in his class, mostly girls), delivering a commencement address, “The Duty of the Employee to the Employer” (how very Homestead!). Fourth son William graduated high school the following year, but in a nasty prank, he and two other Jewish students were prevented from attending their graduation dance. So, though the norm at that time was whole families contributing to the family’s finances as early as they were able, at least three of the four Skirboll sons who grew up in Homestead were educated well beyond the norm in those days, a real testament to Abraham’s means.
And it wasn’t just the sons who received an education! Second daughter Nellie/Mildred attended the training school of the Allegheny General Hospital to become a nurse, and third daughter Rose graduated from Homestead’s high school, the only Jewish student in a class of 14, and went on to attend California State Normal School, a teacher training college. In June of 1901 she was elected a teacher in Homestead — likely the first Jewish one! It’s unclear what education was accorded the eldest daughter, Leah Sadie, from Abraham’s first marriage, but the prominence of her parents in town assured that her “very pretty wedding” was reported in the Homestead paper.
Besides tracing the children’s education and professions, the paper hints at other signs of the family’s position and integration into the life of the town, beyond Abraham’s membership in at least one fraternal lodge. Two of the sons played violin. One daughter was a member of the Homestead Library Athletic Club, and a son played for the high school basketball team. Rose was on the High School Alumni Association’s dance committee in 1903, and Harry was elected president of the association in June 1909. And the family’s many trips were noted in the paper. Highlights included Abraham’s trip to NYC in October 1899 for the celebration for Admiral George Dewey, the recently-returned hero of the recent Spanish-American War, and trips various of them made to the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, at which one arrived before and the rest after President McKinley’s assassination there. 9
After 1903 the paper scarcely mentions the family. In August 1902 Abraham took out an ad (at right) announcing that he was “positively going to quit business.” The family didn’t leave town immediately, though — in March 1903 the paper says one of the sons was visiting Abraham in West Homestead. The next sign of Abraham is in the Cleveland city directory for 1904 — selling shoes! He didn’t return to Homestead in 1904 for a reunion of over three hundred “old timers, the boys of 1876-1881, those who were here when the town was but a corn field” (The News-Messenger, 10/27/1904). But he would reappear in Homestead’s paper the following year:
Former Old Resident Dies
Abraham Skieball (sic), for 23 years a resident and prominent business man of Homestead, died suddenly at his home in Cleveland, where he moved two years ago. He was 50 years of age and is survived by his wife and ten children. (The News-Messenger, 6/2/1905)
Believe it or not, Abraham’s death notice wasn’t the last time he was mentioned in the paper. In February 1907 Homestead finally noticed that many of its residents were years behind in paying their taxes (how very Homestead), including two Skirboll sons and Abraham himself. Death and taxes! Yet again, they get the final word.
With the vital records, censuses, directories, newspaper articles, tax records, and deeds I found, that is everything I can tell you about Abraham Skirboll, the first Jewish resident of Homestead. How far his family rose in one generation is a story of which we can all be proud.
But while what you just read is the story of a Jewish American, there’s nothing specifically Jewish about it. In fact, the whole time I was researching him, I wondered where he fit Jewishly, because while he was clearly a well-known figure in town, I didn’t recall seeing his name in the Homestead synagogue records. The only time the paper mentioned him in a Jewish context was as a member of the synagogue’s school board in late 1894, a half-year after the synagogue was chartered, and his eldest son was listed as the secretary of the Homestead Hebrew Political Club in 1902. But when I took a closer look at the synagogue records, I confirmed that while he was never listed as a member, in 1901 he, Joseph, Rose, and Millie were invited to the cornerstone laying, in 1902 he was listed as an invitee to the dedication itself, and shortly thereafter a Skirball paid for one or more tickets to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services in the new shul. He was not the only non-member, but the usual reason — limited finances — would not apply to him. So, if I’m reading the evidence correctly, why was he only peripherally involved in the town’s Jewish life? Did his and his family’s increasing integration mean a fading Jewish identity? For months I wondered whether this evidence outlined an early story of assimilation.
The answer came from a surprising source — not from one of these primary sources I went over with a fine-tooth comb to tease out lost history, but from one of the best-known books about Pittsburgh’s Jewish history, The Jewish Experience in Western Pennsylvania: A History, 1755-1945 by Jacob S. Feldman. I read this book when I first started my Homestead research and didn’t pay much attention to the specifics of how the various congregations in Pittsburgh were first organized. But when Garri and Hank brought this book back to my attention last month, the story of how some Lithuanian Jews broke away from Tree of Life Congregation became suddenly relevant!
Until the summer of 1870, the Lithuanians worshipped at Tree of Life on Second Avenue, which had never made many of them members. Joining a synagogue did not indicate that a Jew had just settled in Pittsburgh because poor immigrants rarely could afford to pay the $10 initiation fee at Tree of Life in addition to the regularly membership dues…Much time, sometimes many years, elapsed before even the most religious immigrant could afford membership in the synagogue in which he had worshiped every Sabbath or, if possible, every day. Joseph Altman, Simon Jacobs, Jacob Levy, Isaac Novinsky, David Oppenheim, Herman Rosenblum, Abraham Skirboll, and Jacob Solomon10 were Lithuanians who attended services at Tree of Life but who were not members. They declared that they “had been brought up in the strictest Judaism” and complained that the congregation was “too reformed”…The eight Lithuanians broke with Tree of Life to found the B’nai Israel Congregation in August 1870…By 1871 most recent Lithuanian immigrants began affiliating with B’nai Israel. (pp. 70-1)
These names meant nothing to me when I first read them, but now — there it was! — the man I had been looking for with part of the answer I had wondered about!
So, perhaps Skirball didn’t join the Homestead shul because he remained a member at his own place with his own landsleit? I consulted the records for B’nai Israel, now Beth Hamedrash Hagodol 11, and found other Skirballs, but not Abraham or sons, which doesn’t necessarily mean anything given how sparse the surviving records are for this early time period. Still, this guess raises more questions — like how he could have remained affiliated when he lived in Homestead, since even after the bridge was built in 1897 it wasn’t in walking distance — and anyway, as the excerpt above suggests, I suspect for convenience he would have mostly davened at the nearest shul, Homestead’s, if he held onto his Orthodoxy as most men of his generation did.
And what about socially? Did he consider himself a part of Homestead’s Jewish community? He rose to prominence in the town at a time when there were very few Jews there and (therefore?) seemingly fewer social divisions between Jews and Gentiles in secular settings.12 Unlike other leading Jewish businessmen in Homestead, he is never mentioned in the paper in connection with other Jews of the town, though often he and his children are mentioned in connection with their non-Jewish friends. But a couple discoveries I made along the way suggest that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
The first is the chance discovery that another early (and eventually far more prominent) Jewish resident of Homestead, Joseph Lasdusky, was from the same area in Lithuania as Skirball! Given what we know about the role of “chain migration” in filling up these small towns, I have to assume the Lasduskys and Skirballs had ties from both Kalvaria and Pittsburgh, meaning it’s no quirk of fate that Lasdusky followed Skirboll’s lead in leaving Pittsburgh for Homestead. Presumably their connection continued for the many years they overlapped in Homestead.
Actual evidence comes in the form of a 6/1/1905 letter written by Ignatz Grossman, a fellow Homestead businessman, as well as the shul’s long-time secretary and unofficial historian, to his fiancée:
This morning I got a very sad telegram from Joe Skirball, his father died suddenly, without being sick — I don’t know how it happened but it seems it was a sudden attack of apeplexia (sic)13, he was about 58 years old, the funeral will mostly likely take place tomorrow at Cleveland, if you see fit to do so, you might write to Joe or to Mrs Skirball a letter of condolence, and address it to 740 Giddings Ave Cleveland O. Old Mr. Skirball was a very good friend of mine — May he rest in peace.
(From the Grossman-Ecker letters privately held by their granddaughter, Karen Grossman.)
As small as these two details are — a landsman connection and a “very good” friendship — they remind us that what historical evidence does and does not survive is utterly arbitrary, bearing no meaningful relationship to the truth of who people were and how they were connected to each. These little hints are enough for me to believe that for many months I was misguided in thinking Skirball held himself aloof from the others. This issue of local synagogue affiliation was an important one, probably more divisive then than it is today 14 , but there’s no reason to believe it created a hard-and-fast dividing line amongst people otherwise very much in the same boat. While there were always Jewish immigrants who assimilated as deeply as they could, this phenomenon was rare.
The truly exceptional chapter of this family’s story begins after they left Homestead. Long before I started my Homestead research I knew the Skirball name — and perhaps you recognized it, too, from places like the Skirball Cultural Centers in NY and LA — so every time I saw Abraham’s name in the Homestead paper, I would wonder and then immediately dismiss the idea that there was any relationship between these two sets of Skirballs. But one evening I decided to investigate the possibility.
The philanthropic Skirballs, I quickly discovered, were a married couple, Jack (1896-1985) and Audrey (1915-2002). Jack was a former rabbi who found success as a movie producer and a real estate developer. Although he never returned to the rabbinate, Jewish life in America remained important to him, and he and Audrey helped found and support many Jewish institutions, especially at Hebrew Union College, the Reform rabbinical school where he was ordained, as well numerous cultural and medical institutions that benefit a wide audience.
He was also the youngest child of our Abraham Skirball!
Born in Homestead in 1896, Jack was just seven when he moved away and likely retained few memories of his early years in Homestead. He probably also remembered little of his father, who died when he was 9. But it was his father’s success in Homestead that made it possible for him, unlike most boys of his background, to attend high school, college, and even multiple graduate schools. Behind Jack’s three subsequent careers I discern the same personality qualities that enabled his father to persevere through at least four different professions. And I find it equally fitting that the son of a synagogue founder should become a Jewish community leader himself.
As much as the particular details of this story represent the best of the Jewish immigrant experience, Abraham’s general trajectory is fairly representative of Jewish life in these small towns during this time period. Like him, most early residents were not fresh off the boat, but from cities where they had already begun to establish themselves. Many other immigrant peddlers became leading businessmen in their towns, and most such fathers were able to give their children opportunities they never got, but in Homestead Abraham was the first to forge this path and took it about as far as anyone did in those years. In return Jack, like no other child of Homestead, absorbed his father’s values and put them into action in a broad, enduring way that even today touches many people’s lives all over the world.
Jack H. Skirball believed deeply in the values of the Jewish tradition. He was often heard to say that the Jewish tradition has so much to contribute to the ideals of peace, social justice, integrity, and moral concepts. He felt it was essential for Jews and the rest of the world to be aware of the deep roots of the Jewish story. By having an integral role in the development and growth of the [Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion] throughout the decades, he had an opportunity, in his own way, to have a share in the telling of that story, a grand story the world would continue to relish as his legacy.
This post is the first of three I’ll be posting about famous Jewish Homesteaders. The second concerns… Jack Skirball’s friend from rabbincal school! And the third will focus on someone many of you knew — a Homestead boy who, like Jack, found success in Hollywood.
Abraham Skirboll in the R.G. Dun Records
Note: This entry came from Volume 4, p. 93 of the R.G. Dun Collection. The handwriting in these records was extremely difficult to read. Since photographs were not permitted, I did my best transcribing this information, but unfortunately I have no way of re-checking my work now or enabling you to take your own crack at it…
Abraham Skirboll & Harry Livingston
75 Third St.
|# I.S. June 11/68 Both strangers. State capl. is 18c$ + refers to Mr. Samuels
|490 Pearl St. NY – in DG – + also to Oppenheim + Ginsburg, 246 Canal St.
|# IS. Mch 111/69. Seen to be doing a frier (?) bus. and are active men by (?) little is known of them here have not heard of any Complaints against thim (?) promptness.
|[illeg] Aug 31. 69 Out of bus. 4060
The information below comes from the records of the Allegheny County Board of Assessment and Revision of Taxes Records, 1883-1892. 1 Sty fr. Dble Hse = one story frame (wooden, not brick) double house (double width, I think?).
Interestingly, while I could find the deed for Lot #87 to confirm when he purchased it, I could not find a deed for Lot #150 — or any other lots, for that matter — which makes me wonder about the 1890 tax inventory of his property — and how he could have owned all these houses — or the building he erected on Eighth avenue — if he didn’t own the land they stood on?!
|Name and Description of Property
|Skerball Abraham saloon
|½ of Lot 87. D.B. Pl fr J. Bonner
|1 sty fr Dble Hse and saloon
|Skerball Abraham Saloon
|½ Lot 87
|1 Sty fr. Dble Hse and saloon
|Skerball Abraham Saloon
|½ Lot 87.
|1 sty Fr. Dble hse + Saloon
|3 rooms + Hall
|Skirboll Abr Saloon
|Lot 87 45/140 D+B Pl
|2 Sty fra Hse and Saloon and Kitchen
|Lot 150 fr Dan Estep
|1-2 Sty Dou fra Hse
|Money at Int Ju
|Skerball A La
|Lot #87-45/140 8th Ave
|2 Sty Fra Hse + Saloon
|Lot #150 50/137
|Dble 2 Sty Fr Hse
|2 Sty Fra Hse
|2 Sty Fra Hse + Store
|Money at Int
|Skerball A. MR.
|Lot 87 – 45/140 – 8 Ave.
|2 Sty Fr. Hse + Sal.
|2 ” ” “
|2 ” ” “
Peddling is probably one of a few things he did in the 1860s and 1870s to make a living. From city directories and the R.G. Dun credit report records also appears he was involved with manufacturing hoop skirts in the 1868-1870 time frame. The R.G. Dun record is transcribed above. ↩
June 1880 federal census ↩
There are two entries for Abraham Skirbolls in the Allegheny City directory in 1880. One lists him as a peddler at 83 Washington Avenue; the other as a saloon-keeper at 593 Preble Avenue. The 1880 census lists him as running a liquor store at 83 Washington Avenue. It seems unlikely he could have been doing both at once, as peddling would have kept him from home for long stretches, and with only young children, who would have run the saloon? Yes, wives often helmed their husband’s shops, but a saloon? ↩
Allegheny County Deeds, vol. 406, p. 481 ↩
I say suggests, because the assessment, which combined the value of property owned and the perceived value of one’s profession, seems to me a fairly indirect measure of one’s actual net worth and cash flow. ↩
Running a saloon in those days went hand-in-hand with running a hotel. If you’re interested to know more about this change in liquor laws, the preceding discussion, starting with Brook’s Law, is summarized from this longer post about it. ↩
In the 1891-2 city directory for Allegheny, an Abraham Skirball was named as a merchant or clerk working for Union Supply. While it’s possible he returned to his old town, it doesn’t add up with the tax and liquor records that suggest continuous residence in Homestead. ↩
Updated August 2017: His brother-in-law! Who invested in Homestead real estate in the 1890s, and whose daughter’s family, the Goldstons, had a prominent store in Homestead and became quite active in the synagogue! ↩
I have a general feeling that in these small towns ethnic relationships started off better than we’d think and as the Jewish population grew, got worse before they got better. This is a complicated argument to make, and here is not the place to make it, but note, for example, Skirball’s membership in at least one fraternal order, evidence for the inclusion of Jews in settings we might have expected exclusion. I could turn this footnote into its own essay on the subject, so I’ll just stop myself here for now, knowing I haven’t yet made much of a case… ↩
In later years the shul’s directors repeatedly grappled with the problem of “outsiders” who ought to have been members but were not, brainstorming ways to make them join or to tax them for however they did involve themselves. While the non-members may have had their own financial limitations that kept them away, the shul couldn’t survive if too many people took advantage of its offerings without paying dues. ↩