IAGenWeb Project - Clayton co.

McGregor Jewish Community

The picturesque little city, McGregor, situated on the Mississippi, in Clayton county, might justly be styled the Newport of Iowa Jewries, and had the small but flourishing Jewish community of that town been careful in preserving a record of their experiences, they certainly would have done an invaluable service to the cause of history. But, alas, as it is today, all that can be transmitted to posterity is a meagre account collected from oral communications, dry biographical sketches and scattered fragments in the form of a name. "Old timers" claim that the Jews settled in McGregor "very early," but as the town itself was laid out on a tract of land belonging to James and Duncan [sic] McGregor in 1846, there was no possibility for any Jew to have been there "very early," besides, there appears no Jewish name on any record prior to 1860. Possibly some stragglers have been in McGregor at intervals during 1846-60, but of them no mention is made.

From the Fort Madison Courier, October 30, 1841, it appears that Nathan Louis and Solomon Fine (apparently of Russian or Polish origin) were the first Jewish peddlers in this state. They appear to have afterwards settled themselves in Keokuk, and subsequently in McGregor, but no definite recount can be obtained as to their final fortunes in this state.

The first Jewish settler of that town was Mr. B. Strauss, a prosperous and prominent citizen; his name appears upon a Masonic record, for he was one of the founders and a charter member of Clayton Chapter No. 27, which was organized October 29, 1860. In 1862, Mr. Louis Hirshfield, who subsequently became one of the formost citizens in Clayton county, came to McGregor and established a large clothing house. Mr. Hirshfield was born in Sehneidmuhl, Prussia, September 19, 1833, and came to America at a tender age. His adventures bear the stamp of those days. Peddling, frequent change in headquarters, a start with less than nothing — having pawned a suit of clothes for $5.00 to buy Yankee notions with — and final success. On July 12, 1857, he married Miss Rosalia Summerfield, and succeeded in making a handsome fortune and in preserving a good name. He, as the author of Clayton county history has it, "was a member of the Bnai Sholem congregation of Chicago and secretary of the McGregor Lodge I. O. B. B. Daniel No. 128." Hence, it appears that the little McGregor Jewry was well equipped 'with the institutions marking the progress of a Jewish community.

In but five years the little town could boast of the following Jewish merchants: B. Strauss, Louie Hirshfield, Abraham Cohen, Louis Metzger, Leopold Isaacs, B. Rosenthal, Bended Cohen, William Cohen, S. Rauh, (secretary of the Keokuk congregation during the fifties) D. Abrams, M. Katzky, L. G. Levy and Charles Stearn.

Leopold Isaacs
Leopold Isaacs

They have had a 'Mynion' for several years, and Mr. Leopold Isaacs (subsequently of New York) volunteered to act as the minister, for he was well qualified for the position. It seems that they were the first "reformers" in Iowa, for at no time was there made an effort to bring a Schochet or to establish all other orthodox institutions, although the Ashkenaz ritual was adhered to.

The wealthiest Jew of McGregor, who probably was the wealthiest of all Jews in Iowa at the conclusion of the war, was Abraham Cohen. His large wholesale establishment, of which L.G. Levy and Charles Steam were partners, employed, besides clerks, ten travelling men, besides this he had a large store in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, which is situated opposite McGregor. Mr. Cohen was born in Baden, Germany, and had the same career as all other Jewish pioneers during the first half of the nineteenth century.

It also appears that the Jews were most prominent in the affairs of the city and county, although they have refused many tenders of responsible offices. Three of them, however, have served as councilmen of the town. They were Jacob Strouse (1866), Louis Metzger (1876) and A. Samuels (1872-73).

When the river front towns commenced to decline, most of the McGregor merchants removed to larger cities, some going to Wisconsin and the middle west, others to New York and the east, while but a small number of them were scattered in different parts of Iowa, and today none of the old settlers or of their children are to be found in the beautiful little town of McGregor.

~source: The Jews of Iowa; by Rabbi Simon Glazer, 1904; pgs 162 & 225
~contributed by S. Ferrall


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