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The Wild West doesn’t lack for stories, both the mythic, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and the tragic, such as the exploitation of Chinese workers to build railroads. But after moving to Colorado almost five years ago and sifting through the Beck Archives at the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver, former Today producer Amanda Kinsey realized there were still many tales that remain untold. “There were just so many beautiful stories [in the archive],” Kinsey says of the records dedicated to Jewish history. “And a lot of it was very Wild West specific. There are stories of entrepreneurs and cowboys and ranchers and entertainers, and no one I knew had ever heard of these stories. And I thought, You know, I bet there is a film to be made here.”
The resulting documentary, Jews of the Wild West, will be shown May 5 at the Elaine Wolfe Theatre at the Mizel Arts and Culture Center in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Jewish Community Center in Denver. The film tells the story of the larger Jewish migration West through the individual tales of the people who made the trek and put down roots. Before Kinsey premieres the documentary for a Mile High City audience, we asked her to spotlight a few of the Jewish individuals who made an impact in the Centennial State.
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Editor’s note: The responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Robert Lazar Miller
“Lazar was this really iconic person at the Denver stockyards. He had this really long white beard and he spoke primarily Yiddish. He came from Lithuania with brothers (in 1881) and he likely came with a cattle-trading background. There was a core group of Jewish cattlemen out at the Denver stockyards in those early days that really helped build [them] into what they have become today.” (Editor’s note: Currently, the site of the stockyards is home to the National Western Center, which hosts the National Western Stock Show each year.)
“It was not uncommon for a Jewish refugee to come through as a peddler and if they made a little bit of success to then open a general store. And then that general store would oftentimes become the center of business in that little area of the West. … (In the film), we kind of deep dive into the story of Leadville, which was a huge mining boom town. They had a pretty established Jewish community—enough to support two different synagogues and there was a wide range of different Jewish merchant businesses on the main street, Harrison Avenue, there in Leadville. David May, for one, started the May Company there.” (Editor’s note: Born in Bavaria in 1848, May would expand the department store into a nationwide chain; the company would reach total sales of nearly $107 million, or $1.3 billion in 2010 dollars, by the year of his death in 1927.)
“Jesse was born in Black Hawk (in 1882). His parents were immigrants from within Russia, and they settled in Black Hawk because his mother had uncles that had come ahead and started as peddlers between Black Hawk and Central City, and then had established a business in Black Hawk that sort of reminds me of like an Uber Eats: You could order stuff and they would deliver it to the miners.
Jesse’s mother was a woman named Rachel. And Rachel was an amazing driving force in the family. They were fleeing violence in Russia, but she wanted to come west, I think because she really wanted greater opportunities for her family. And Black Hawk didn’t really offer what she had hoped for. So they move to Denver, across the street from where the Tivoli Brewing Company is. … They struggled to make ends meet and then his father dies. Jesse’s a young adult at this point, and his mother encourages him to open a business. Her only requirement is that he’s going to have to hire any family member that wants a job. Jesse started out with steamer trunks—he saw that, thanks to trains, people had the ability to get places they weren’t able to get before—and that little business became Samsonite.”
“Meyer Guggenheim, who is the original patriarch of the Guggenheims, came from Switzerland (in 1847) and started as a peddler outside of Philadelphia. Over several decades he became a modest success; they had grocery stores, and he also imported lace from Switzerland. Then somebody he’d worked with in the grocery business offered him the opportunity to invest in two mines in Leadville. I believe it was $5,000, which was a fair amount of money. Meyer invests in the (silver) mines, and when he took a look at them, he promptly realized they were flooded. Still, they ended up being very, very successful mines. They were able to take what they were making from the Leadville mines and move into refining and took that to build the Guggenheim fortune.”
(Read more: How Annual Arrival of Rosh Hashanah Enriches My Relationship With Judaism)