From 1850 to the 1920s, the Jewish population in the western United States grew from a handful to about 300,000. Jews migrated West for many reasons, principally to improve their social and economic status at a time in the region when anti-Semitic prejudice was virtually nonexistent.
Among them were the Baer brothers, Isaac and Adolph. Originally from Baden, Germany, Isaac was born in 1852 and emigrated in 1869 to the U.S. when he was 23, landing in New York City. He was joined in 1873 by Adolph, three years younger, shown right. Together the brothers decided to go West, stopping first in Pueblo, Colorado, and working there before heading 160 miles further west to Leadville, Colorado. By 1879 they had established a wholesale liquor house, a line of business that Jewish pioneers frequently had entered.
Leadville was a boom town. The discovery of silver had spurred a population growth to about 30,000, many of them prosperous from the strike. The number of saloons in town catering to miners and cowboys grew apace. Wholesaling liquor was a lucrative enterprise. The brothers sited their business on Harrison Avenue, a major commercial street, moving several times before fetching up at 503 Harrison on the ground floor of a hotel next to courthouse, as shown here.
Meanwhile the brothers were having personal lives. In March, 1881, Isaac married Hattie Kahn in Leadville and the newlyweds look up residence at 125 West Eight Street, a modest brown timbered house that stands today in the historic district. Two years later they moved to 308 East Fourth Street, another modest dwelling.
In October 1883, Adolph married. His wife was 20-year-old Matilda A. Ettinger, an immigrant from Germany. Initially they lived above the Baer liquor store. In 1884 he was able to move the family to a home away from the business at 315 West Eighth Street. A photograph showed Adolph and Matilda in the parlor of their new home.
Selling whiskey and cigars was not the Baer brothers’ sole preoccupation. Almost immediately they became active socially, religiously and politically. In 1880 Isaac, drawing on his national origin, was involved in the founding of the Turn Vereins, a German social and athletic organization. He was active in constructing of a building for the group at Fourth and Pine Streets.
Isaac also was active in the new synagogue that initially held its services in a converted Masonic Temple above a clothing store on East Chestnut Street. In 1884 he was a member of the building committee for the construction of a free-standing Temple Israel. He also was superintendent of the Sabbath School in which youngsters could learn about their faith. By this time about 300 Jews were resident in Leadville, some of them needing assistance from their fellow religionists. Adolph became president of the Hebrew Benevolent Society of Leadville, responsible for Jewish charitable causes and the Hebrew cemetery. Sadly, he and Mathilda would bury two of their newborn children there. Adolph also was one of the founders of a local chapter of B’nai B’rith and its first vice president.
The Bauers were active politically, strenuously backing the construction of a road from Leadville to Aspen. Adolph supported local candidates and county officials, contributing generously to campaigns. In 1888 Isaac helped post bond for a councilman accused of murder. Their business was prospering allowing the brothers to join a consortium of “public spirited citizens” to buy a hostelry at 701 Harrison Avenue for $50,000 and operate it as the Vendome Hotel, shown above. Business leaders, recognizing the Baers’ entrepreneurship, elected Adolph to the board of directors of the newly formed Leadville Board of Trade.
In ensuing years other Baer relatives would join the brothers. In 1890 a Joseph Baer is recorded as clerking for Baer Bros. A nephew named Theodore, after immigrating from Germany, surfaced in 1894 as a bookkeeper for the firm, Meanwhile things were changing in Leadville. The late 1880s had brought labor unrest among miners leading to strikes and bloodshed. The final blow fell 1893 after the Federal switch from a bimetallic (silver and gold) standard to just gold.
Meanwhile changes were occurring at the Baer Brothers Mercantile Co. Isaac, who had been president of the firm, relinquished the post circa 1889 and moved out of Leadville. Expanding their business interests, the brothers had bought thousands of acres near Meeker, Colorado, and established the K-T Ranch — one of the largest in Colorado. With Adolph as a minority partner, Isaac settled into the role of rancher with Hattie and their children, Ruth and Ezra.
Adolph became Baer Bros. president and Theodore took his place as secretary-treasurer. The younger brother continued to pilot the liquor house until 1910 and then sold out to a local merchant named Muller who issued a whiskey jug marking the transaction.
Now began the second phase of the saga as the Baer Bros. liquor house fetched up in another Western town, this time Salt Lake City. As Leadville was declining, the Utah town was booming. Between 1900 and 1930, the city’s population tripled. Not only had it been designated the state capital, important copper finds in 1905 had spurred mining and by 1907 oil had been discovered nearby and wells were multiplying. Thirsty miners and oil workers were accommodated with liquor in myriad Salt Lake saloons — the official Mormon ban on drinking notwithstanding.
As shown above, the Baers advertised boldly, featuring stacks of barrels of its flagship brand, “Old Caribou Whiskey,” in front of its premises at 245 State Street. In 1907 Adolph was president with Jacob A. Kahn, likely a relative of Isaac’s wife, as vice president and manager. By 1914 another relative, Ernest O. Baer, had joined as secretary-treasurer. During this period Isaac, while having a financial interest in the liquor house, lived on the ranch and nephew Theodore, now married, remained in Leadville.
In Utah Baer Bros. advertised as “Jobbers and Importers of Liquors and Wines.” The firm also was rectifying whiskey, that is, blending it to achieve particular color and taste. It bottled Old Caribou in several sizes, from quarts down to pint flasks. While not trademarking any of their labels, Baer Bros. also featured other proprietary brands. Among them were “Amity Pure Old Whiskey” and “Metropole Special Whiskey,” bottled specifically for the hotel bar at 39 East Broadway.
Time was running out for Baer Bros. Mercantile in Utah as prohibitionary forces closed in. In 1917 the state imposed a complete ban on the sale of alcohol. The liquor house was forced to shut down. Both brothers died not long afterward.
Isaac, Hattie, and their chauffeur were killed by a train while crossing a railroad track in 1920. The couple were buried in Denver’s Congregation Emanuel Cemetery.
Adolph was dead by 1922 — the exact date and place of burial so far have escaped my research. After his death, a local publication had this to say: “A strong and very true man was Adolph Baer. A stalwart man of affairs everywhere, he file his place and performed his work with honor and tireless energy, till his call came.” The same might have been said of Isaac.
During their lifetimes, the Baer brothers had been important part of the frontier Jewish experience. Having been accepted by the people of Colorado and Utah, they contributed in a major way to the financial and social stability of the states and communities in which they dwelled. Their story is an significant element in understanding “how the West was won.”
Note: This article and the first four photos of were drawn largely from information on a website of the Temple Israel Museum entitled “Frontier Jewish Leadville.” The museum is located at 201 West 4th Street in Leadville in a restored synagogue. It is open daily from 10:30 AM to 6 PM.