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Pushmataha Pioneers

Submitted by Fred Zimmerman
© Copyright. All rights reserved. by Fred Zimmerman

A PARTIAL HISTORY OF THE JEWS IN ANTLERS, OKLAHOMA

by

Fred M. Zimmerman

One of my early memories is of Rosh Hashanah (the Hebrew name for the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), which is the holiest day in Judaism. Because Jews are not supposed to work during these High Holy Days, my parents would close their store and we would drive thirty miles west to Atoka, about the size of Antlers, to drop off my grandparents at a small hotel near the hall that had been rented as an orthodox schul. Then my parents, and my brother, Hal, and I would continue to Muskogee, a larger city about 90 miles farther north, where Mother's relatives lived. Jews from all of the small towns within fifty miles of Atoka would come for these High Holy Days; either an orthodox rabbi would be brought in or the men would conduct the service themselves. Muskogee had a permanent reformed temple, confirmation classes, Bar Mitzvahs, and the usual Jewish community's activities. We would come home after Rosh Hashanah and repeat the trip eight days later for Yom Kippur. Mother's aunts, her father's sisters, had no small children, so they pampered Hal and me.

Pesach (Passover), which celebrates the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt under the leadership of Moses, was another highlight. My grandmother, Ida, always had a Seder (the combined religious ceremony and ritual meal which begins the seven days of Pesach) and, when Hal and I were young, it meant a new pair of white shoes for Spring. Ida kept Kosher, so during Pesach there was plenty of matzah (unleavened bread), gefülte fish, soup, and the like. A true story I love to tell is about one of Ida's friends, Mrs. Walker, who owned a "variety store" ( a five and ten). She knew that for Pesach Ida needed a fresh set of dishes, a set that Ida could never use during other times in the year. Every year Mrs. Walker would loan Ida an unopened box of dishes from her store. After Pesach, Ida would carefully clean all of the dishes, repack them in the box, and return them to the store for sale as new.

Hal and I never encountered any discrimination as Jews in Antlers, and there were no obstacles to our full participation in school or civic functions. As a child, I took for granted those Jewish rituals in a small town, but later I became intrigued with how my family and other Jews came to be in rural America.

When I was growing up, there were twelve Jews in Antlers:

Ida and Barney Zimmerman, my grandparents
Frances and Harry Zimmerman, my parents
Aunt Annie, widow of Louis Silverman, Ida's brother
Uncle Abe and Uncle Will Silverman, Ida's brothers, both widowers
Harry Silverman and Bill Silverman, Abe's sons, in their thirties
Harry Silverman (a popular name), Aunt Annie's son, in his thirties
Hal and I

Born in about 1860, Barney Zimmerman fled to New York from Russia to escape conscription in the army of the Czar. After several years he had saved enough money to send for a wife. Ida was a distant cousin, orphaned, who was raised by Barney's mother. She told Ida to go marry Barney, so, at sixteen, Ida went to New York and married Barney. A few years later they moved to the South, where Barney became a peddler. Daddy was born in Greenfield, Tennessee, in 1893.

About 1895, Barney was invited by a Jewish man (whom I'll call "Mr. Levy") to be a partner in his general store in Paris, Texas, so Barney packed up wife and baby in the wagon and drove from Tennessee to Paris. The morning after their arrival, a black man was lynched in the town square. Seeing this as a bad omen, they never unpacked the wagon, explaining to Mr. Levy that they did not want to settle in Paris.

Mr. Levy suggested that Barney open a general store about 45 miles north at a trail crossing known as Antlers, in Indian Territory; the Zimmermans moved north across the Red River and opened the first general store in Antlers. Their daughter, Freda, was born there in 1895, and another son, Hyme, in 1898.

Ida's brothers soon followed her to Antlers, and by the turn of the century they and Barney were prominent members of this community of 500 persons. In a brief history of Antlers called "Days Gone By", written by C.E. Dudley, their influence appears:

--A Petition dated April 28, 1903, was submitted in the U.S. Court for the Central District of the Indian Territory at Antlers, asking that Antlers be incorporated as a town. L. Silverman was one of the 3 committee members authorized to act on behalf of the thirty-three petitioners. Wm. Silverman and B. Zimmerman were signatories to the petition.
--Business lots purchased by B. Zimmerman, L. Silverman, and Wm. Silverman are described. B. Zimmerman owned, in 1903, one of only 4 brick buildings in the town; in addition, he owned a frame warehouse which was destroyed, along with 9 other businesses, in a fire on December 31, 1903.

In those early days, Ida and Barney would hold the High Holy Day services in their home, and some of the Jews who came to Antlers for the services would stay in their home. After the Harvey House was built near the Frisco depot, Barney would put the Jews up there for the Holy Days.

Daddy was fourteen when Indian Territory became the State of Oklahoma. Since there was no public highschool in Antlers, he was enrolled in the Catholic Highschool. At dinner after his first day at the school he crossed himself, so Ida and Barney never let him return to the school. Instead he was sent to a boarding school in Paris, Texas. In the Antlers High School graduation class of 1913, 3 of the 7 graduates were Jewish girls, including my Aunt Freda and the two Silverman sisters.

Daddy's heart murmur almost kept him out of World War I, but he persisted and was finally accepted in the Army and sent to France as a member of a Company formed of men in Antlers and surrounding towns. After some combat, he was selected to attend Officers Candidate School, just before the Battle of St. Mihel. Many of his friends were killed in that battle. He returned from France in 1919 as a First Lieutenant in the 90th Division. When the train from St. Louis to Antlers stopped at Ft. Smith, Arkansas, he went into the depot to get a cup of coffee. A traveling salesman who knew the Zimmermans recognized Daddy and expressed his condolences on the death of Daddy's sister, Freda. She had died, at 24, earlier that year in the nationwide influenza epidemic, but Daddy didn't know it; he had never received the message sent to him in France.

Uncle Hyme joined the Navy in World War I and served in the Philippines.
Many years later, Mother told me that a few months after Daddy and Uncle Hyme returned from the war some people decided to form a Ku Klux Klan chapter in Antlers. Daddy and Uncle Hyme gathered a group of their young friends, all fellow veterans, and raided the Klan meeting with baseball bats. That was the only Klan meeting ever held in Antlers.
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When my other grandmother, Rose, was born in Hungary, her mother died during the delivery, and her father abandoned her on a neighbor's door step the next day; he disappeared and was never heard from again. The neighbor woman took Rose and her two older sisters to a nearby town where Rose's mother's sister ran a small store. The aunt agreed to take in the two young girls, but persuaded the neighbor woman to raise Rose as her own daughter, with some financial help from the aunt. Often Rose was taken to visit the woman and the two girls at the store, without knowing they were her family.

When Rose was six, her foster mother began to suffer from ill health and told the aunt that she could no longer take care of the child. The women agreed that "mother" would bring Rose to the store and abandon her so the aunt could take her in. "Mother" attempted several times to carry out the plan, but did not have the heart to do it. They finally explained to Rose that the other woman was her real aunt and the two girls were her own sisters, with whom she would live.

Somehow, Rose was brought to New York at sixteen; she lived with relatives and worked in a bakery. One Monday a few months after she started on the job, a young man, Morris Unger, new on the route, delivered milk to the bakery; he could speak Hungarian, Rose's only language. On Tuesday he asked her for a date, but she would not talk to him because they had not been introduced. The next day Morris got the bakery owner to introduce him to Rose and they went on a date. On Thursday, he asked her to marry him, and the next day she agreed. They were married that same day, Friday, and on the following Monday Morris put Rose on a train to Zanesville, Ohio, using the milk money to buy the ticket. She carried a letter to Morris's mother: "This is my new wife, Rose. Please take care of her until I can pay back the milk money to my boss and come home." (Morris paid off his employer six months later and returned to Zanesville ). A few weeks after Rose reached Zanesville, she discovered she was pregnant.

Eventually, Morris and Rose opened a confection store in Marrieta, Ohio, where my mother, Frances, was born in 1901, the seventh of nine children. Every year during Mother's childhood, floods forced the Unger family to move temporarily to the second floor rooms above the store. About 1913, the floods forced them out of the store and house altogether, so Morris decided to pack up the family and move to Cleveland, Ohio, where he opened another confection store.

In the early 1920's Morris and Rose, on advice of his doctor, moved to Oklahoma to find a climate better suited to his asthma. A few years later Morris had an asthma attack and was mistakenly given morphine by a local doctor; the morphine killed him. Mother, who had graduated from business school and was working in Cleveland, went to Henrietta, Oklahoma, for her father's funeral and stayed on to help Rose run their store. Daddy was in Henrietta helping a merchant put on a sale and was introduced to Mother. They were married in 1925, and moved to Muskogee a year later. I was born there in1927. Rose died in Muskogee in 1930.

After the "crash" of '29, my parents moved to Antlers (where Hal was born in 1930) to help Barney run the general store. I remember the counters with jars of rock candy, the barrels of pickles, the sacks of grain, and the tables laden with sheets, towels, and overalls. Behind the counters were shelves crammed with boxes of shoes; there was a coal stove near the back of the store. Barney had become wealthy in the 20's by speculating in stocks and in cotton futures, as well as by advancing credit to the farmers who had been steady customers for years, but by 1933 or 1934 he was almost bankrupt and had to give up the store.

In those days, Republicans were probably rarer than Jews in Oklahoma, and a Jewish Republican was extraordinary. Daddy was a Republican, and when Herbert Hoover named his last group of postmasters in 1932 before handing his job over to Franklin Roosevelt, Daddy was one of them. Daddy's job in the post office saved the Zimmermans during the Great Depression. To spare Barney the embarassment of bankruptcy, Daddy agreed to pay off the creditors as best he could over a period of time; he finished the payments about seventeen years later. I remember seeing the men sort the mail and shove letters into the small mail boxes, whose fronts had doors that could be unlocked by box renters. When Hal and I went to the cowboy movies on Saturday afternoons we would stop by the postoffice to get money for tickets and popcorn.

We lived in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom, wooden house surrounded by an acre of land which was covered with lawn and bordered on two sides by trees and hedge. Just west of our yard lay an open field that Barney usually kept planted with potatoes or corn. Beyond the field, at the other end of the block, Barney and Ida lived in a three-story frame house, which at one time had been encircled by a porch; parts of the porch had been removed during a renovation. Adjacent to the big house were a barn, hen house, corral, duck pond, a small vegetable garden, and another field for potatoes or corn.

Occasionally, Ida would prevail upon Hal or me to retrieve the eggs from under the setting hens. Once in a while we would watch her milk her cow. When she wanted a chicken for dinner, Ida would catch the right one in the chicken yard and wring its neck by holding its head and twirling it around. I've seen many a headless chicken flopping around on the ground with blood gushing from its neck. Ida would churn the milk for butter on a screened porch connected to her kitchen; she would make cottage cheese by hanging a cloth bag of curds on the large tree just outside the porch. When Hal and I were given a horse, we kept him in Ida's barn. When I was 5 or 6, Ida rented out a bedroom or two on the first floor to roomers. One man played the guitar, probably as a hobby not a vocation, and I was fascinated with it; I finally got my own at age 35.

In 1936, the Democrats made sure that no Republicans were kept on as Postmasters, so my parents decided to open a ladies' ready-to-wear store, the first in Antlers, which they named The Dixie Shop. I remember going with them one Sunday to Durant, about 60 miles, to buy fixtures from a store that had gone out of business. Mother and Daddy both worked in The Dixie Shop along with one or two sales ladies. The New York manufacturers had show rooms and sales offices in Dallas, which became the center of our business world outside of Antlers. Usually, Mother went there several times a year, accompanied by Daddy once a year. He said being in France was all the travel he needed, and it was difficult anyway for him and Mother both to leave the store for more than a day. Later, Mother began to take Hal and me to the Starlight Opera, an outdoor theatre in Dallas for concerts or operettas (The Student Prince and the like), once each summer. I remember taking Barney with us in later years; Hal and I would take him to lunch in a delicatessen while Mother visited the show rooms.

Daddy was sedentary, due in part to concern over his heart murmur, in part to his working six days a week, and, to some degree due to his quiet, conservative nature. Occasionally, when I was quite young, Daddy went fishing on the Kiamichi River, a few miles from town; once or twice I went with him. His favorite hobby was bridge, which he played with three other men one night a week. One of Daddy's boyhood friends, Earl Welch, became a Justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court and would occasionally phone from Oklahoma City to tell Daddy he was going to visit Antlers on the weekend; Daddy would arrange a bridge game for Sunday afternoon for himself, Judge Welch, and two other men.

As an active member of the American Legion, Daddy was very patriotic, and contemptuous of families who kept their sons home from the war on various pretexts, such as helping on the farm or providing sole support when that was not really the case. His reputation as a solid citizen led to his appointment as guardian, for a small fee, of several wards of the court, usually teen-aged, orphaned part-Indian boys who received a pension or allotment of funds from the State. Once a month, each boy would come to The Dixie Shop, walk through the main part of the store, then down a narrow corridor past the beauty shop in the rear third, and meet in Daddy's small office at the back to collect his allowance and talk.

Although there were many Choctaw Indian families in Pushmataha County, their interests and ours did not often coincide, but in bygone days it was different. When Daddy's sister, Freda, was in high school, one of her closest friends was an Indian girl, Agnes (not her real name), whose family consisted of many factions and was politically powerful. One day when Agnes was sixteen she was sent to deliver food to one family faction that was trapped in a gunfight with another. She was espied and the enemy took up pursuit. Riding for her life, she swept into town and reined in at the Zimmerman house, pleading for sanctuary. Ida hid both Agnes and her horse in the parlor and sent the pursuers off on a false trail. Agnes and her horse stayed in Ida's house until passions cooled.

Years later, Agnes, by then a young power in the community with her own candidate to support, vigorously opposed Daddy's appointment as Postmaster. Ida went around town telling her friends that the biggest mistake of her life was in not letting Agnes's family kill her when she had the chance.

Mother was the fun-loving, adventurous example in our lives. By nature and as a Democrat, she was active in everything that went on in Pushmataha County. Even while helping to run the store she served at various times as PTA President, Chairman of the Southeastern Oklahoma March of Dimes Campaign, and on the War Bonds sales drives. One of her proud moments was sharing, by invitation, the dais with Eleanor Roosevelt, who visited Durant to honor the March of Dimes Chairmen.

A story she often laughed about was when she arranged for Judge Welch and Paul Stewart, a U.S. Senator from Antlers, to visit Antlers and address the PTA at a special dinner. At her urging all of the PTA ladies cooked special dishes and brought them to the school, decorated the meeting room, and got everything shipshape. But no one came to hear the two speakers; she sat on the dais with them and stared in acute embarrassment at an empty auditoreum. The next morning when she asked all her friends why they had not come, they said they were happy to prepare the meal at her request, but they all knew Welch and Stewart--after all, they were hometown boys--so there was no reason to come hear them talk.

Another story Mother often repeated was about Hal's summer job, at sixteen, as a laborer for the State Highway Department's district office in Antlers. He was fired at the end of the first week. After talking to the Governor, and Senator Stewart, and a State Senator, Mother learned that a County Democratic leader living in Antlers had objected to the job going to the son of a Republican. She visited that politician and helped him count up the number of Democratic votes in the Zimmerman and Silverman households vs. the lone Republican vote represented therein. Hal was rehired the next day and worked all summer on that job.

The big treat every Sunday was a special loaf of bread that Ida baked that morning for our breakfast. While Mother was fixing the fried chicken and eggs, Hal and I would run to Ida's house to get the bread. What a disappointment if she had not felt well enough to bake it! Because our house was not kosher, she and Barney never ate with us, not even when Uncle Hyme drove up to visit from Texas. When I was young, I always loved Uncle Hyme¹s visits, two or three times a year, because the two households took on a festive mood. A lifelong bachelor, he was a gruff, burly man who would get into some horseplay with us. A tattoo on one arm was a souvenir of his WW I Naval service in the Philippines. Uncle Hyme worked in, then owned, men's clothing stores in East Texas; his hobby was playing dominoes in the domino parlors that were as prevalent as pool halls in the oil country.

Ida died on December 5, 1941, of cancer. On Sunday, when we came back to the hotel from her funeral at the cemetary in Dallas, we learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Her death had another tragic effect, I believe. Uncle Hyme had been planning to marry a lovely Jewish woman from Ft. Worth; he had brought her to visit us several times. They had not made any formal announcement nor set any date, but all of the signs were there. Ida's death postponed any such decision, and within several months he joined the Navy again, as a Seabee. Neither of them ever married.

Many people predicted that Barney wouldn't last a year after Ida died. They were wrong! He insisted on living in his big three-story home at the end of our block. My parents decided that in order to look after this 80-year-old man Hal and I should take turns sleeping at his house. On Hal's first night there, he walked in his sleep. At 3 a.m., Barney found Hal outside near the barn and had to lead him back to bed. The next day, Barney practically chewed up the telephone telling my father that he did not need the kind of looking after that he was getting.

Oklahoma was a "dry" state, but Barney made a small toddy every night by mixing an ounce of whiskey with jelly; it was like an elixer of life for him. When his supply of whiskey ran out, he would not admit that it was gone, but within few days he would begin to droop, become lethargic. I remember hearing Daddy say on many occasions, "Dad, are you out of schnapps?" Barney would nod. A few nights later, about ten o'clock, there would be a knock at the door; Daddy would go to the door and return with a new bottle of schnapps for Barney; I never saw who delivered it.

The war effort spawned many kinds of drives: bond drives, paper drives, rubber drives (use of retreads was vigorously promoted), and metal drives. One of the first Zimmerman possessions to go off to war was Barney's cast iron fence that ran along two sides of his yard. Of course, we knew some of what Hitler was doing to the Jews, but I think we knew only of the rights denied them and the bullying; I only learned of the concentration camps when the war ended. Barney's "Jewish Daily Forward," in Yiddish, came from New York, so he kept current on all national and international affairs. I remember clearly his elation when Hitler invaded Russia: "Those Nazis will never whip the Bolsheviks !"

The tornado on April 12, 1945 destroyed Barney's house, but he survived. Roy Jackson had rushed home and found his wife and small children huddled between the piano and a wall that fell over on top of it, but they were all unharmed. He heard Barney yelling from the rubble that had been his three-story house, across the street from the Jackson house. Barney had been standing in the kitchen looking out onto his screened porch when the wind struck, and the wooden house caved in, trapping him between a wall and the refrigerator, with its cord wrapped around his chest. Roy got Barney loose and walked him down the block to our house, where I found them when I ran home from The Dixie Shop, where I had been helping out after school. (My parents were in Dallas).

I put Barney to bed and gave him a glass of schnapps to ease the pain in his ribs. Soon, Hal came running to the house from school. By 9 p.m., Barney was in considerable pain, so I decided to go for a doctor. The Army was all over town, having rushed a rescue team from Camp Maxey near Paris, Texas. A temporary morgue was set up in the school gym, with a makeshift hospital in the Methodist Church a few blocks away. It took considerable wheedling, but with the help of someone at the church who knew me I persuaded a medic to return home with me, partly in his jeep and the rest on foot. He decided that Barney might have a broken rib but was otherwise in good shape, better off at eighty-five than many men much younger and certainly no emergency, so he put some tape on Barney's rib and left.

Every house on all sides of ours was destroyed., but we didn't even have a cracked window! Although Barney's house was demolished , too, many townspeople later told Mother that they now understood why the Jews were called "God's Chosen People".



EPILOGUE--1995

(ONE HUNDRED YEARS AFTER BARNEY AND IDA CAME TO ANTLERS)

Daddy suffered a heart attack after he and Mother attended an O.U.-Texas football game late in 1950, and he died in December of that year.

After the tornado destroyed his house in 1945, Barney moved in with my folks. Tough and alert to the very end, he died in 1952, at the age of 92.

Uncle Hyme remained a bachelor and continued as a merchant in East Texas (Kilgore, Gladewater, and Henderson) until his death in 1954.

Mother sold The Dixie Shop in 1956 and moved to Houston, Texas. She continued to work part-time in sales at a department store for 25 years. She died in 1987, at the age of 86.

Hal graduated from Antlers High School in 1948 and went to Oklahoma University for two years. After serving in Korea during that war, he returned to complete his studies in accounting at the University of Texas, Austin. Hal married and settled in Houston, Texas in 1953. He obtained his CPA certificate in 1957. After working in public accounting for several years, he entered industry and has spent most of his career as chief financial officer for companies in the manufacturing, construction, entertainment, health care, and real estate businesses. He formed a home building company in 1978 in Houston and built tract homes and custom homes for 6 years. Although Hal is no longer married, he has been with his "significant other", Glenda Lightfoot, for over 10 years. They live in Houston and look forward to spending their lives together. Hal has four children: Harry, Bruce, Keith, and Felice.

Harry was born in 1955. He graduated from Wharton School of Finance and University of Texas Law School. Harry is a CPA and an attorney and now is legal Vice President of a company in the health industry. He and his wife, Cindy, live in Austin, Texas with their two children, Amy (9) and Adam (5).

Bruce was born in 1957. During high school, he was elected International President of AZA (a youth group of the Jewish organization, B'nai Brith). He graduated from Duke University and Harvard University Business School. After spending 5 years in Boston with a major consulting firm, he returned to Houston and is with Texas Commerce Bank, a subsidiary of Chemical Bank-N.Y., in the corporate mergers and acquisition department. Bruce and his wife, Nancy, have one son, Brett (3), and she is expecting a daughter in November,1995.

Keith was born in 1960. He graduated from University of Texas, majoring in real estate. He has been with a real estate developer in Houston and Austin, and Vice President of Small Business Development for the Austin Chamber of Commerce. Keith is now with the largest commercial broker in Austin. He and his wife, Linda, have two sons, Eric (5) and Ryan (3).

Felice was born in 1965. She graduated from the Art Institute of Houston, majoring in interior design. Married in 1993, she and her husband, Jay Woods, live in Houston with their son, Cole (1).

I graduated from Antlers High School in 1945 and enlisted in the Navy, serving until July 1946. I received a B.S., Electrical Engineering from Purdue University in 1950, and an M.S., Applied Physics from UCLA in 1952. While at UCLA I met Marlene Sudmin, and we were married in 1952. Marlene's grandparents were also Jews who came from Russia and Hungary to the U.S. and Canada in the late 1880's. She was born in Los Angeles in 1933. Marlene and I settled in Beverly Hills in 1957. I worked for 35 years in the aerospace industry, primarily in the design and application of digital computers. Marlene's art career expanded into a full-time effort after our children were grown, and she has exhibited her work both in the U.S. and abroad. In 1989, Marlene and I spent 9 weeks at an Israeli kibbutz. She was artist-in-residence, and I helped develop a computerized cost-accounting system for the kibbutz farm. Among Marlene's work is a series of ceramic models of synagogues from various countries. We have four children: Shelley, Bonnie, Cindy, and David.

Shelley was born in 1956. After graduating from U.C. Berkeley, she received her J.D. from Hastings College of the Law, in San Francisco. Shelley lives in Dallas, Texas with her husband, Jerry Galant, and their two children, Zachary (6) and Sophie (3). Jerry graduated from the Wharton School of Finance and earned his M.B.A. from Harvard University. He is in financial management with American Airlines. Shelley has her own financial services company.

Bonnie was born in 1957. She received her M.D. from Northwestern University in Chicago. Her psychiatric practice is in Menlo Park, California.

Cindy was born in 1962. She graduated from U.C. Berkeley and received her J.D. from the University of Chicago. Cindy works in a Los Angeles law firm and lives in Beverly Hills with her husband, Dr. Mark Dubin, and their two sons, Alex (4) and Joshua (2). Mark, a radiologist, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and received his M.D. from the University of Chicago .

David was born in 1970. During the summer following his high school graduation, David worked as a journalist intern for the Los Angeles Times in its Jerusalem bureau. After earning his B.A. from Yale University, he is attending the Columbia University School of Law in New York.

(August, 1995 )

 

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