February 21, 2020

A Family’s Journey – Czechoslovakia to Nebraska to Cleveland

Robert Howard Goldhamer passed away at 94 years old.  What follows is taken from his oral history interview, conducted when he was 83. 

“My father’s parents, Max and Leba Goldhamer, came to this country around 1870 from Czechoslovakia. They came with their one child, my uncle Will.

The first thing they did when they reached America was to move all the way out to what was a fairly primitive West in those days–to Omaha, Nebraska. Grandpa had been a school teacher before they left Europe, but he didn't go into that trade when he came here, because he didn’t speak English. Instead, they tried to make a living there by running a saloon, which was apparently a pretty reputable kind of business that anybody could get into without a lot of capital outlay.

The story I heard is that my grandmother wasn't comfortable with the Indians who came into the saloon. So the family moved to Cleveland where they had some family.

In Cleveland, my grandfather became a peddler.  He would somehow get to the outskirts of the city and, with a pack on his back filled with small hardware and sewing and notion items, he would call upon farms and small towns. He also tried his hand at what my father called “the Dairy business.” My guess is that the farmers brought unpasteurized milk in those large cans into town, and Grandpa would buy a quantity of milk from them. Then, with a horse and wagon, he'd peddle it into the neighborhoods. This was at a time when there were no such things as dairies as we know them today, so that was raw milk.

My father, Samuel Goldhamer, was born in 1872, near downtown Cleveland.

When my father was nine or ten, he had a newspaper route. In those days public transportation was horse-drawn, and there were horse cars that went up the main streets–St. Clair, Superior, Euclid Avenue.  Dad described running after a moving horse car and jumping on with his newspapers.

In the late 1800's, Euclid Avenue had a section that was known as “Millionaire's Row.” On this street lived people like John Rockefeller, a founder of Standard Oil Company, Charles F. Brush, who invented the carbon arc street lamp, John Hay, who had been Abraham Lincoln’s personal secretary, and other people who were the wealthy of early Cleveland.  Dad delivered newspapers to their homes. He described how, in the winter, the city would close down several blocks on Euclid Avenue and everyone would turn out to watch those wealthy families race with their horse-drawn sleighs.

Dad adored his older brother, Will, who was a very inventive guy. One thing he  made was a brass cannon. Dad remembered how, at four in the morning on the Fourth of July, Will would go down to the Public Square and set off his brass cannon. It was just his way of starting the holiday off for the city.

Another older brother, Lou, was a bell boy at the Hawley House, one of Cleveland's earliest hotels, where important people used to stay. They say President Lincoln stayed there once. Working there, Lou got familiar with all kinds of people who came through Cleveland. Among the people he met were “the Race Track Crowd,” as my father called them.  Lou got so interested in these people that when he was 17, he ran off with them. Occasionally people would report they'd seen him around the country, usually at race tracks.

When my father was maybe seven or eight, Lou returned. Dad remembers the day when he saw this young man with a suitcase walking down the street, and he somehow knew that was Lou coming back home.

Lou married Fanny Unger, and they had a grocery store for awhile. One day, Lou had some turnips displayed outside his grocery store, and somebody asked him if those were good to eat.  Lou's answer was, “Well, my horse likes 'em.”

My dad was always interested in drawing and, when he was ten, his mother decided that his interest in art should be encouraged. He started art lessons which were given on the third floor of the Cleveland City Hall. Dad continued those lessons until he was 13, at which time it was decided he should stop because the next step would be life drawing. They didn't think a 13 year old boy should be drawing nudes.

However, these art lessons influenced some of his work, because when he graduated high school, he got a job designing lace patterns for a company which owned a machine that produced lacework.

From that work, he got a job working for a woman's ready-to-wear outfit in Cleveland. They'd send him on the road into towns in Indiana. He quit that pretty soon because he decided he didn't like selling.

His next job was working for a men's clothing factory, and he was soon secretary to the president of the company. In those days there were many male secretaries. He was at this time courting my mother, Lena Klein. I think they met at a dance somewhere. He would rent a horse and buggy and take her for picnics out all the way to the foot of Cedar Hill where there was a favorite beautiful picnic place called Blue Rocks Springs. She liked the trips, I guess, because she agreed to marry him. In 1903 they got married. Dad was then working with this men's clothing manufacturer.

Within a year or two after he started that job, some of the leaders of the Jewish Community decided that there should be a central fund-raising organization and a fund dispersing organization for the Jewish charities in Cleveland. These numbered quite a few organizations by then–social service agencies, orphans' home, relief organizations and others. So they founded the Jewish Welfare Federation.They were looking for somebody to administer the organization, and Dad's employer recommended him. He got the job and the Jewish Welfare Federation of Cleveland started with Sam Goldhamer and a desk with paper and pencils.

His first job apparently was to make some kind of a census of the Jewish community, so they would know how to go after people and raise funds. He was in on the beginning of the total organization and the development of the Federation, and he retired after 50  years as its Executive Director, a position that he held all his life.”