Saturday, January 28, 2017

How Fists Won the West — Or At Least Pueblo, Colorado

 No, not a bare-knuckles fist fight.  The reference is to the Fists, German Jewish immigrants who found their way to Pueblo, Colorado, shown above as it looked in 1888.  While selling liquor in Pueblo the Fist family found a welcoming home and considerable prosperity.  

The family founder was Julius Fist, likely born “Feis,” in July 1852 in Sotern, Sankt Wendel, Saarland, Germany.  His parents were David and Babet “Yetta” Levy Feis/Fist.  Educated in German schools, Julius emigrated from his homeland to the United States about 1864.  He likely came with other family members, including older brothers Emanuel and Israel.  Their part of Germany frequently was inhospitable to Jews and the youthful Fists may have sought to escape discrimination for a land of greater opportunity.
According to the census, by 1870 Julius was working as a clerk in Atchison, Kansas, living there with a family named Kline.  His brothers were not mentioned.   By 1888 a directory located the three Fists together in Pueblo, Colorado, where they had established a liquor house.  They called it “Julius Fist & Company,” with both Julius and Emanuel listed as officers.  A letterhead identified the firm as selling wholesale liquor and cigars as well as imported wines and liquors.

As wholesalers, the Fists were bringing whiskey in barrels by railroad from distilleries in states like Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Missouri and selling it to the dozens of saloons that lined the streets of Pueblo and other Colorado towns.  Their containers of choice were ceramic jugs, likely procured from area potteries.  The first one shown here is particularly interesting since it appears to have been formed from a redware sewer pipe.  The glaze on the cylindrical body was typically used on tiles used to drain ditches.  The Fist name has been stenciled on.  Despite its primitive look, this jug recently sold at auction for $405. 

Later company jugs exhibit more sophistication.  A second example here is  stoneware, a ceramic harder than redware, with an overall whitish “Bristol glaze.” This jug shows a network of lines over the surface of the body generally called “crazing.”  Crazing occurs when a glaze cools more quickly or more slowly than the body of clay.  Either way surface tension is created causing the cracks.   Crazing may suggest a container was a product of a relatively primitive pottery.

With time the sophistication of the Fists’ jugs increased.  Two shown here, the one on the left a gallon container; the one on the right, two gallons.  They have attained a “two-toned” exterior, with a brown “Albany slip” top and a Bristol glaze body with a cobalt blue label.  Those would have been decanted into smaller containers at the saloons and served up as individual drinks to the faces across the bar.  The jugs would have been returned to the Fists for refilling.

Throughout their careers in Pueblo, the Fists sited their business on Santa Fe Avenue, illustrated below.  A 1889 directory found Julius and Emanuel living together several blocks away on that street, along with Israel.  Another brother, Herman, lived nearby.  All were working at the liquor house;  at that point all apparently were still bachelors.

That would change.  Julius Fist soon married a woman named Jennie, last name May, who had been born in Missouri in 1873 but had spent much of her life in Nebraska. She was some 21 years younger than her husband.  There were no indication of children. According to census data, Emanuel wed Regina, a woman who also was a German immigrant and 18 years younger than her husband.  They would have eight children, five of whom lived to maturity, including sons who furnished the second generation of Fists in the Pueblo liquor trade.

Julius Fist was the “face” of the company, traveling throughout Colorado and adjacent states selling liquor and wine.  For example, the Salida Mail in November, 1893, noted the arrival of Julius “supplying the wants of his trade.”  Several years later the Wet Mountain Tribune reported Fist had come to town on business, terming him “the popular wholesale liquor dealer.”  As Author Marni Davis has pointed out in her book “Jews and Booze,”  Jewish whiskey men in the West faced far less prejudice than in the East. The Fists were evidence of that more tolerant attitude.

Additional evidence was the willingness of the Wm. J. Lemp Brewing Company to make the Fists exclusive agents for its beer in and around Colorado.  Established in St. Louis in 1840 by a German immigrant, Johann Lemp, and carried on by his son, William, the brewery pursued a vigorous marketing strategy that included placing distribution depots strategically around the Western U.S.  That they chose Pueblo for one of these facilities and trusted the Fists with the merchandising was a tribute to the family’s reputation.

The prosperity that these immigrants had found in America translated into their being able to afford substantial housing for their families.  Shown right Julius’ home at 32 Carlyle Place, was and still is, in full view of passerby.   By contrast, Emanuel’s home at 128 Jackson Street, also still standing, was a large residence away from the street and heavily surrounded by trees and bushes.  Living with him and wife Regina were many of their sons, three of them working for Julius Fist Wholesale Liquor.  City directories listed Milton J. as a “city salesman,”  A. Edward as “traveling salesman,” and Ferdinand simply as “salesman.”  This second generation of Fists would be brought into company management roles as the 20th Century wore on.  
In October 1913 Emanuel died at the age of 65.  Julius continued to guide the fortunes of the liquor house that bore his name, assisted by his deceased brother’s sons.  He passed away in November 1920, age 68.  Funeral services the brothers were held at Temple Emanuel, a synagogue they had helped to build. Shown here, it was the second Jewish house of worship in Colorado and is now on the National Register of Historic Places.  

Both Fists were buried in Pueblo’s Roselawn Cemetery under a family monument.  They would be joined there later by their widows and, in the case of Emanuel, their children and children’s spouses.  Today a total of 16 Fists lie in that burying ground.

The liquor business the Fist brothers built was forced to close its doors after 1916 when Colorado voted statewide prohibition.  Lemp beer sales also were terminated — financial blows received four years before National Prohibition. Emanuel’s sons went on to other pursuits.  Nevertheless, over a 28 year period the family had built a thriving business and gained respect among their fellow Coloradans— proving repeatedly that Fists could win in the West. 


  1. Thanks for the post. I grew up in Pueblo and a few of my ancestors immigrated from Austria at the turn of the century.... the 20th not the 21st. They moved to Pueblo as soon as they got off the boat in Galveston. They may have known the Fists but my guess is that, being as antisemitic as they were, they most likely did not socialize with them. It would be neat if schools taught this kind of local history as part of their cirriculum. I thoroughly enjoyed your post and I'll be sure to share a link to it with my friends and family that are still living in Pueblo.


  2. Thanks for your kind comments, Vince. Many American "whiskey men" were of Jewish background. More than a few were forced from Europe by prejudicial laws. Almost all did well here, faced with little discrimination except from antisemites like Henry Ford. This was especially true in the West. One gent who barely had arrived but had learned English was elected judge in his town -- again in Colorado, I believe. Hope your friends in Pueblo like the story.

  3. David and Regina are the husband and wife, I believe. The had a daughter Henrietta "Yetta" who married a Jacob Blum on Aug 6 1888.

    1. There is also a younger Regina that married a 2nd gen Fist, too. But I have the older Regina as David's widow living at Wilson Ave and Carlile Pl (that's 18 Blk G; which across from 32 Blk E or 32 Carlile Pl) by Apr of 1892.

  4. Heather N: Thanks for the additional genealogical details in this comment and the one above. The Fists are a fascinating family.