THE MUSEUM OF FAMILY HISTORY presents

 

Jews in Small Towns:
Legends and Legacies

Iowa




ELLA FILER--DEWITT, IOWA
 

The families of my parents, grandparents, and husband are all Russian-born, but I do not know where in Russia. Small towns, I know that.

Al and I moved first to Omaha after our marriage in Rock Island, Illinois, but we came back to Rock Island, Al's home. Soon after, we heard about a salvage yard that was for sale by a Jewish family who wanted to move. We bought the place, which had a nice little house on the premises and two large buildings which the business needed.  We learned how to buy new furs in the winter and cowhides that were skinned and brought in when the cows were butchered for food. We had to cure them with rock salt and then the rendering company came each week to buy them. We learned about skinning beautiful mink and muskrats, and bought raw wool when the farmers sheared their sheep, too. For us as kids, we surely learned a lot and liked the change.

At the time we moved to DeWitt, Iowa, there were these Jewish people: a bachelor at first (he had a nice grocery store where I was a customer) who soon married a girl from Chicago and became our best friends; an older couple who had a clothing store; the family from whom we bought the place (who soon left for the city); and Al and I.

It was nice for a while, but soon the older couple left to be near their son. The people who sold the business to us left so, eventually, we were the Filers and the grocery store couple. We were the only Jewish family for the last twenty years of the thirty-seven we were there. 

At the time, he town had no hospital, so our daughter was born in Clinton, Iowa, the county seat. Five years later our son was born in Davenport, Iowa. Our other doctor had died, so we had a new one. We loved our neighborhood and were truly good neighbors. People were friendly, and we felt wanted, too.

My husband has been a Mason for many, many years, and then a Shriner. I became an Eastern Star member and was always the star point. I was Esther and since I was the only Jewess, I was always asked to have that station. I refused to be Worthy Matron, though, as I didn't need the extra responsibility.

I must tell you that one of the youngsters who lived across the street from us was David Hilmers, who was one of the astronauts on the Discovery in 1988. Everyone was so excited and proud of this man. I was a very good friend of his grandmother, who was Matron of the Golden Star chapter. I was her Queen Esther. Our neighbor on the other side was a couple who had a greenhouse and fine flower shop, too. When our daughter married, the neighbor made all the flowers and gorgeous wedding bouquet as a gift for Lois. As it was, the astronaut's family was in the same business!

There was no hospital, but there was a small library and a school. During our life there, a hospital was built with a great deal of money donated. We had a fine mutual insurance company, which has grown a lot. I think every high school graduate worked there at one time. Even our daughter worked there for a while as a file clerk. But, the boss soon promoted her, telling her she was too good for such a menial job.

We had a nice main street and had everything a person would need. Now, of course, there are pizza places and more eating spots on the main street and a beautiful new library. A former resident, along with all of us, made this possible.

Our property was converted to the first parking lot! I don't think people had hard times while we lived there, except in the 1930s when banks closed. It was hard for us, too, as prices dropped for everything, as one would expect. We didn't have much when the bank closed! Our daughter was born in 1929, and times were a bit hard financially, too, but, we made it!

We drove each Sunday to do our shopping at the deli for kosher meat and deli items in Rock Island, Illinois, where Al's family lived. As my daughter laughs about it saying, "Mom, you knew what you always did on Sundays!" We visited Al's parents and his sisters, too.

Our son had his Bar Mitzvah in Rock Island. We took him twice a week and Sundays, too, and hew knew his part very well. Al's oldest sister had the refreshments at her home, and we had quite a few DeWitt friends there, too, as they were interested.

I feel we were accepted as people and not because of our religion. That was why we lived there so long and enjoyed our lives. When we settled in DeWitt, we were married a year and were not parents yet at this time. Al was twenty-seven and I was twenty-two. We had congenial neighbors and people in business, too. The one department store was a family owned store but it had wonderful merchandise, too. A couple had started it and they had fine salesmen.

The wife would call me often to please come and visit with her where it was cool since we didn't have air conditioning. We were on a first-name basis. She then would produce some cool drinks and I enjoyed the visits.

Now her youngest daughter has kept in touch these many years and it has been going on for nearly twenty-seven years. The oldest daughter has  son who met and married a Jewish girl in the East at school. Now they live in the Tri-Cities (Davenport, Rock Island, and Moline) area, and he is associated with a Jewish attorney in a law firm. He and his wife have three children.

In our small town, I was fortunate to have lots of friends. My husband was a quiet man (and still is), but he liked the Peskovitzes, Edith and Meyer--the grocer. Meyer was a great kidder and lots of fun.

One family I enjoyed was a Senator and his wife, neighbors of ours, as they lived about a block away. He had a law practice when he was in DeWitt, and then he would be in Des Moines for government matters. When I wasn't driving yet, he was always gracious to give me a ride to Davenport, Iowa, or Clinton when he was going there. When I started to drive, I took his wife shopping out of town, too.

I learned how to drive when the school offered the program to the public, using a dual-control car for two students at a time. My partner was a young woman who worked at the insurance company and told me she wanted to be my partner. I told her: "I know all the parts of cars, but I don't know how to drive!" We sold used car parts, so I was familiar with a car.

We spent time in town with neighbors who became good friends and several on the farms who were customers of ours. Our Eastern Star Worthy Matron was a special friend of mine. I bought fresh eggs from her as she had 1,000 little chicks each year.

When she became Worthy Matron, she asked me if I would shorten her white gown for Installation. She got it very reasonably since it was a wedding gown on sale. It had a train on it, which was not good for our Eastern Star work.  Her cousin was a dress maker but she wouldn't tackle the job of taking off the horse-hair braid at the hemline. I said I would do it, but I didn't want any money. Well, we made a bargain! She said she would supply us with eggs any time I wanted them. Would you believe? I kept track of the egg delivery and I had made $40 in the time. Not a bad investment, and she was happy with the dress.

We still observe our religious holidays although our children don't. We did all the right things to instill in them a sense of Jewishness, like closing our business on holidays; they did not attend school on holidays and so on. When our daughter and her family moved to Tucson and our son decided to transfer from University of Iowa to Arizona University. Al and I felt that it was a good time to make a move. We had an auction sale on our supplies and rented our home. We left many good friends who stop to see us whenever they are in the vicinity. I write to three friends who stop to see us whenever they are in the vicinity. I write to three friends to keep in touch, and we still get the weekly newspaper from De Witt. It now costs $40 per year.

We lived for thirty-seven years in De Witt, Iowa, and we feel that we would not have stayed so long if we had thought it was awfully dull. I don't feel that way at all. I grew up in Omaha, and it was a nice life, too, although my dad died when he was only thirty-two years old.

My dear mother sold the family home and bought a grocery store where she worked hard, and my brother and I had all the advantages any child could want. I made the deliveries, as I was twelve years old by then, and I did he bookkeeping. I really was good in math after all the addition I did on the weekly accounts. It gave me additional help when I was doing our bookkeeping in De Witt, too. My husband wanted to know how to spell many names of our customers of German or Norwegian or other hard names. It was a wonderful experience in a very different world we grew up in.
 


 

 

 

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