Friday, January 18, 2013

The Odyssey of Lazard Coblentz: Prussia, Pokerville, Portland

Portland Oregon 1888
Lazard Coblentz probably knew that when he fled Europe to avoid being forced into the Prussian Army he would head for America and the State of California, there to join the Gold Rush.  But he cannot have known that he ultimately would find his mother load following a “North Star,” selling whiskey in Portland, Oregon.

Coblentz was born in 1852 in the sleepy village of Lixheim in the Lorraine region of Northeastern France, near the German border.  Lazard’s extended family of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage had originated in the German city of Koblentz, situated at the confluence of the Rhine and Mosel Rivers.  Decades earlier they had migrated into France.  When France and Prussia went to war in 1870,  Prussia captured Lixheim and attempted to conscript into its army male residents of eligible age.  As a result, according to a family history, twenty one Coblentz men, a mixture of brothers and cousins,  headed for the New World, scattering out across South, Central and North America.

Lazard Coblentz, age about 20, headed for California, arriving in the state about 1871.  His early years in the U.S. are shrouded in time but he is recorded in 1880 running a mercantile store in a California mining town that had been known as Pokerville and eventually as Plymouth.  It is located in Amador County, and had the nickname, “The Heart of the Mother Load.”  With difficulty Pokerville/Plymouth could be reached by stage coach over bad roads from other parts of the state.  The main street as it looked during Gold Rush days, shown here, has been recreated at the town fairgrounds,  Coblentz opened his business with three partners, Isaac (Ike) Levy, Alex Rosenwald and Isaac Kohn.  They did a brisk trade in liquor serving thirsty miners.

Coblentz early must have impressed the townsfolk of Pokerville.  Despite his being a new arrival on American shores and only recently conversant in English,  they named him the judge of Pokerville.   When a post office building was erected, the rear part was designated as a court room  One observer has written that it was “fitted out with all necessary conveniences for cinching offenders or bleeding litigants, with jury seats, attorneys’ and reporters’ tables, and above all, an imposing pulpit for his Honor,  Judge Coblentz.”

The partners also opened a branch store in another nearby mining town, Lundy, formerly known as Mill Creek. This village was located in Lundy Canyon at the west end of Lundy Lake.   It boasted a mining camp, a sawmill run by W. J. Lundy, and briefly a post office.  The partners called their Lundy establishment the Mill Creek Pioneer Cash Store.

Meanwhile,  Lazard was having a personal life.  In 1883 he married Sarah Levy, the sister of his partner Ike.  She had been born in California of French immigrant parentage and was eight years younger than her husband.  They would have two children,  Julian born in 1886 and Helen in 1888.

As the 1880s proceeded,  Coblentz seems to have become increasingly restive,  perhaps sensing that, with the mining surge ebbing, the economy of central California was faltering.  The Heart of the Mother Load was beating slower and slower.  In fact, Lundy before long would become a ghost town and Plymouth would dwindle to fewer than 1,000 inhabitants .  Moreover, in 1887 a fire destroyed most of the town, a conflagration said to have been started by children playing with matches.  About a year later,  Coblentz, with his family and brother-in-law Ike in tow, pulled up stakes and followed his star north to Portland, Oregon, a city that was experiencing an economic surge.

There, under the company name, Coblentz & Levy, the pair opened a liquor wholesale business at 166 Second Street.   They featured their own brands,  probably “rectified” blends mixed on their own property.   Appropriately their flagship was “North Star Old Kentucky Bourbon.”   Other brands were “Old Private Stock” and “Black Diamond.”  Although many West Coast whiskey men preferred to put their product in pottery jugs,  Coblentz &  Levy favored glass bottles,  both in amber and clear tooled cylinders.
 
They also featured giveaway items.   For retail customers was there was a token they  issued for the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition, a major event held in Portland that drew visitors from many parts of the country.  The token clearly was aimed at the tourist trade,  suggesting that “When in Portland, Make Our Store Your Headquarters.”   The partners also issued shot glasses for their North Star and Private Stock brands.  Their most flamboyant giveaway,  presented to saloons carrying their liquor, was a wall sign advertising “Black Diamond Whiskey, Rich and Mellow.” It depicted two African-American couples dressed elegantly, the men in top hats and tails, the women in evening gowns.   There are few pre-Prohibition bar signs to match it in energy.

At the time of the 1900 Census Lazard was living in Portland at 137 Morrison Street with his wife and children.  With them in the same residence was Ike Levy and his wife, Nettie, and two younger brothers of Sarah, Aaron and Roger.  Coblentz’s occupation was given as “wholesale liquor,” Ike’s was “clerk.”  Near the end of that decade, Ike, for reasons unknown, pulled out of the partnership and began working elsewhere.   In 1910 the company changed its name to The Coblentz Co. and son Julien, who had been brought into the company at an early age, became the secretary-treasurer.   In 1912 Lazard incorporated The Coblentz Co., and a year later moved the firm to new quarters at 105 Fifth Street.

Already the hounds of Prohibition were on the Coblentz trail.  As early as 1844 the Oregon Territories had voted to prohibit alcoholic beverages.  This ban was repealed only one year later but Dry Forces continued to work.  In 1910 referendums prohibiting in the sale of liquor, regulating its shipment and providing police powers to search for illicit booze failed when put to a popular vote.  The Prohibitionists then got really busy winning public approval and in 1915 Oregon voted a complete ban on sales of alcohol.

The Coblentz Co. closed its doors.  The 1920 Census found Lazard and Sarah living at 151 22nd St. in Portland.   Their children, Roger and Aaron were no longer in the household. Ike  and Nettie Levy were still living with them -- an indication that the business parting earlier had been amicable.   Ike gave his occupation as an assistant secretary in a club.  Lazard Coblentz, age 68 and with his whiskey business five years gone,  gave his job to the census taker as “macaroni salesman.”  I detect more than a modicum of sarcasm in his response,  appropriate for someone who had ventured in life as far as he had.














10 comments:

  1. My cousin relative.

    Howard Coblentz
    mpajd11@msn.com

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Howard: You have a relative who certainly is worthy of remembering -- and celebrating. Jack

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  2. News came to me that Ms. Victoria Fischer was going to give you a hand on a final publication. I gave her all the information I had. I even have a copy of the LA liquor picture of them. You can send it to me to mpajd11@msn.com

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    Replies
    1. HowardMay 26, 2014 at 8:59 AM

      Later Howard Conblentz wrote me the following: I was glad to be a contributor to this article about our cousin Lazard. There were actually more than 25 Coblentz who came to America around the same time. Their history and accomplishments have been outstanding. Howard Coblentz --mpajd11@msn.com

      My response: Those nasty Prussians did the Coblentz clan and the USA a favor by driving the sons from France. JHS

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  3. I recently purchased a lithograph that includes a graphic for Coblentz and Levy. I will get you a better picture so that you can post it here, but this is the one I have available now. http://imgur.com/XF7btIc

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  4. Thanks, Gerard. I have taken off the image of the C&B letterhead. Will wait for the better image and try to post. Jack

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  5. My wife's mother, Grace, was the grandchild of Sarah and Lazard.

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    Replies
    1. Hello Jeff I have Julian, Helene and NOrman as children of Sarah and Lazard in my family tree. How does your wife fit? They are distant relatives of my Coblentz family. mpajd11@msn.com

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  6. Dear Jeff: As you can see from prior responses, I have heard from a couple of Coblentz descendants. I continue to be in awe of Lazard, coming to America as he did and succeeding almost immediately although his English cannot have been good at the beginning. Your wife has a very notable ancestor.

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  7. Howard: I see that you are trying to get in touch with Jeff via this blog. That is fine. Am delighted to bring families together. Hope he sees your comment and email and responds. All the best. Jack

    ReplyDelete