Education: Heritage Discovery Center

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Primary Source: Oral History Interviews

Working in an Ethnic Community

Mr. Beerman on owning a business outside of the mills and mines

When you come to the Johnstown Heritage Discovery Center you will see videotaped oral histories of Johnstown residents talking about their immigrant parents and grandparents. The Generations Theater is only able to show brief portions from those interviews. Below are other excerpts from the interview transcripts.

Opting out of the mills and mines

Grammaphone icon - denotes an audio recording transcriptMy father had no inclination in wanting to go to work in the mill or in the mine. Because he knew that, from the neighbors around our area, were hard-working people. And he would see them come home from work, sort of filthy dirty, and their backs broken because they had to bend over being in the mines with the coal that was so low. And their eyebrows and everything were all black. And he absolutely did not want that. And that's why he decided he wants to go into business of some sort. And that's why he never decided to go into the mill.

I don't recall if any Jewish person, actually, ever worked in the mill. They may have been but not to my knowledge. Or in the mines either. The only recollection I have about a mine is that we were growing up and my father decided he was going to buy a coal mine. So he and I walked into the coal mine. We got in about 10 or 15 or 20 feet and we saw a lot of rats running around and water coming up to our ankles and our knees. And I looked at my father and he looked at me, and he said yes, indeed, let's get out of here. And we got out. And that was the end of our experience in the mines.

Hard work of another kind

Grammaphone icon - denotes an audio recording transcriptTo attain a better life my folks worked long hours. In other words, a clock didn't mean anything to them. They got up in the wee hours of the morning. And my mother would go down to the store from upstairs and meet the bakers and the milkman. And take his wares into the store, and to make sure that he got paid, and make sure everything was put in, on display, for the people who were going to come in. It was very hard work. It wasn't something that just happened.

I mean, you don't just get up to the store and here we are, let's go. It just didn't happen that way. And my father, of course, helped as much as he could but he had to go out on the road. And break his back selling these things and dragging them on the wagon, and dragging them into the house, and the lady not wanting it, and then taking it back out again, and starting all over again.

And it was very hard, hard work. And it was time consuming and they worked hard. And the little bit of money that they made, it was all saved, everything saved. I mean, everything was saved. They didn't flaunt their money around. That's why I was saying when we went to the movies on a Saturday afternoon, and we walked because we wanted to have enough money to come home on or to buy some ice cream on the way home. So we had to walk to town, which was a very good hike, and see the movie. And then come home. And we had a beautiful day.

So our folks instilled upon us that money doesn't come easy and if you want it, you're going to have to go out and work for it. And it didn't hurt us.

No, my dad never did complain too much about his work. He did say it was hard work. You've got to remember my father, and the rest of the Jewish people, the religion to them was a very important thing. And they would get up at six o'clock in the morning or five o'clock in the morning, go to the synagogue and say the Morning Prayer, and then go to their places where they bought the merchandise. And then go out on the road. Now, this is the wee hours of the morning, it's very dark.

And every morning that's what they did. And it didn't seem to hurt them. Of course, we saw this happening and when we came of age we schlepped along with him.

Went into the service, came out of the service, I knew I [had] to do something. And my father had closed his business up, the automobile business. He had closed that because we all went into the service and there was nobody to help him and nobody to run it. And I remember a big sign in the window; closed, gone to war. And so, consequently, when we came back, I came back, from the service, I had to do something. And I thought well, the best thing to do is-- a start here. We have a building, maybe that's what we should try to do. And that's when we decided to go into the paint and glass and auto supply business.

We installed automobile glass, and we sold paint supplies and glass supplies. And then we kept growing and growing from there. And it worked out very well for us. We're real happy. Of course, we worked hard too.

When people were in business and, lo and behold, for some reason or other, whether they were too lazy or didn't know what they were doing, and would have to go out of business, go bankrupt. That was a terrible, terrible thing for somebody to go bankrupt. I mean, in the Jewish religion. And what they would try to do would go to see this gentleman and see what his problem was and how could they possibly help him. Did he need cash, did he need advice, or what did he need, so that they could help him. And get back started back on his feet again, put him back on his feet again, or find a job for him in one of the other stores.

Getting started

Grammaphone icon - denotes an audio recording transcriptWhen they first came to Johnstown my father acquired a horse and a wagon. And he went peddling from house to house and selling his wares. And as he grew more prosperous he went into business for himself in the grocery business. And got himself a home in the area, Maple Avenue, which is Woodvale, of Johnstown. That's where the steel mill was located. And, consequently, that's why he was so prosperous. And he wanted a store in that area.

Another thing that was in his favor is he could speak the Russian language and his clientele were all foreign people. And it worked out very very well for him. He had a lot of charge accounts on his books and he couldn't write English. He wrote everything in Jewish. And when we came home from school we had translated everything from the book, from the Hebrew, into the English. And that way everybody knew what was going on.

I think that they had some relatives here, which may have been my father's brother and my mother's sister. And I think that's what influenced them to come to Johnstown, is the fact that they did have family here. And that's why Johnstown seemed to be the place for them to be.

…His brothers also developed stores, grocery stores and clothing stores. And as my father-- My father had a lot of vision and he saw the automobile trend. As a matter of fact, he was the first one that owned an automobile in this area. And he decided he wanted to get into the automobile business. And that's why he started a used car-- Used parts, salvage. In other words, he bought these old cars up and sold the parts off of them and salvaged the parts. To the people that wanted used parts to repair their cars.

They came to Woodvale, which is on Maple Avenue, right along the main street. Which is maybe approximately five miles from the steel mills. And the people would walk to work and on their way to work they would stop and pick up their wares. And on the way home stop again and pick up more things. And that's why he decided that he wanted to be on a traffic area, in which the traffic area was going to the mills.

Because at that time everybody worked in the mill. You either worked in the mill or you worked in the coal mine.

Growing business

Grammaphone icon - denotes an audio recording transcriptAs far as I recall money [too start a business] always did come from individuals, which they loaned on a temporary basis. Say, for one week's time. A person would go into the particular place that he wanted to buy something and get merchandise or inventory that we wanted, so that he could go out and sell it. And at the end of the week he would come back and then he would pay them off and start all over again.

Consequently, then he would maybe have a son or somebody else and then he would put him in business. And the two of them would go down and open a new route, some place else on a back road and keep on going. And that's how they prospered.

It seems that my parents, my father, when he came to Johnstown wanted to get a better life for himself. And the only thing he did know, he was a tinsmith and he did repair roofs. But he didn't want that any more and what he wanted to do was get into business. That was the most important thing in his life. He wanted some kind of a business. And he decided that he would go into the peddling business and start a route of his own. And on his horse and wagon would go out to the small communities and sell the inventory that he got, and make it worth their while.

Then as he grew a little more prosperous he decided to go into the automobile business. Which led him then into another venture altogether and which, eventually, ended up with us as part of that business, his sons into that business.

When my father, when he would peddle on the road with his wares, which were notions, maybe trousers or blankets or pillows, and gloves, and shoelaces, and go into the home and sell these people whatever their wares were that he needed, that they needed. And that way-- And his next time, when he went back around, a second time around to visit them, probably the next couple of weeks or whatever time it took, he would have additional wares with him. Remembering that they had bought shoelaces with him and socks and things of that sort, so that he could replace his merchandise that he had and move on to some bigger items.

And the people all waited for him. They knew that his day was either on Wednesday, Tuesday, or Friday. And then he would come in then he would say now, this is what I have for you, and list all the items that he had, the handkerchiefs and the things of that-- A spool of threads, needles and pins. And sell them to the people and move on from there.


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