Documenting Maine Jewry : Early Lewiston Shapiro Family History

Lewiston Shapiro Family History

By Sherman G. Shapiro , June, 1982

This is a series of little stories told to me by my father, Jacob, and, in part, by his nephew, David (David / Dinah) as they recalled events on the farm, travel to the United States and the early struggles here. The material was typed in the 1950’s from Dictaphone recordings, without corrections or any attempt to edit. It is uneven and repetitious. Despite these shortcomings, the recounting may help a descendent to find something of interest. I hope so. The task of rewriting this material is left to future generations.

Transcribed by Richard Shaw, December 2005.

See original transcription with minor edits. This version is a complete rewrite using the original transcription material as reference. Rev 1 Version B – 4 May 2006


The oldest known family members are three brothers, Eser, Hyman, and Myer. Our family is descendent through the son of Eser, Joseph , and the daughter of Hyman, Leah .

Eser had two boys, Joseph and Isaac. Eser died when he was fairly young, in his early thirty’s, and left his widow, Peshe, with the two boys. She was a midwife. She was a big woman, tall and strong.

Isaac grew up to be a farmer and stayed in the same area as Joseph. He married a girl named Gittel. They had seven daughters and one son: Esther, Fannie, Abraham, Sarah, Rose, Leah, Annie, and Rebecca. Nothing more is known about this family branch at this time.


When Joseph was about 10 years old, he was caught by Russian soldiers and would have been taken away to be kept until about 20 years old at which time he would be put in the Russian army. Then they would have kept him 25 more years. However, Joseph’s mother, Peshe, gathered together a band of women and together they went to the guardhouse, broke down the door, beat the Cossacks with their wooden slippers, and grabbed young Joseph and brought him home.

Joseph grew to be a very tall, big man with a beard. He was known as a strict, stern and serious man but he was very good to the children, sometimes even too good. He was a real farmer and could go out on the land and determine just what would be suitable for that piece of land. He had little traces of chicken pox marks in his cheeks. As there was no vaccination for smallpox in those days, Joseph had apparently been afflicted with it.

He married Leah and they had five sons and one daughter in the following order: Hyman, Rebecca, Ernest, Abraham, Jacob , and Moses. She was about five feet tall and very nice looking, always very kind to her grandchildren. Leah died when she was comparatively young, about 40 years of age, after trying to help her son Ernest who died of dysentery and then catching dysentery herself. Her oldest son, Hyman, was also afflicted with dysentery at that time but recovered after having been taken to Kovna.

Eventually Joseph left Lithuania and went to England and lived there several years. Then he came to America and lived in New York. He never went to Lewiston/Auburn area to visit his children.


This is the story of Jacob Joseph Shapiro , fourth son and fifth child of Joseph and Leah. It follows from his early days in Lithuania, coming to America, early life in Lewiston, Maine, and his successful career.

Jacob Joseph Shapiro (JJ) was born in Altan Grostenitz, Lithuania that was a small village but moved to a farm when he was a small child. The largest city closest to the farm was called Yanavah (or Jonava as it is now called). It was a big farm. On the farm, they raised chickens, cows, horses, and various cattle. Also, they raised wheat, rye, barley, flax, oats and berries and fruit. The only fruit they did not have was apples. These were obtained from their neighbor Isaac, brother of Joseph. It was a double house that they lived in, one story high. Jacob’s father, Joseph, hired the land from a landowner (Polander). The farm was located in a township of Apertisck (Spelling not correct). They had various Polish families that lived on the land who helped them produce the crops at harvest time. They shared in the crops. Leah used to take care of the meals for the farm workers. At times, she had to feed 30 or 40 people at a time. At the end of a harvest, a banquet was held hosted by Joseph and Leah. In return, the men would place a wreath of straw around Leah’s head and would dance and sing well into the night.

Jacob went to Hebrew school from 6 years old to 15 years old. Jacob’s father, Joseph, would hire a teacher for 10 months a year who would live in their home. The other two months were vacation months during Passover in the spring and the High Holidays in the fall. Various children of Jewish families in the surrounding area would come to their home and learn Hebrew. The teacher also taught them Polish, Russian, Lithuanian, and German. The teacher was paid $50 a year with room and board.

One day Jacob and Shapsy (Ed: Louis Shapiro, son of Hyman and Rebecca) were asked to harness up the three horses and secure some kerosene as Friday night was rapidly approaching. Just as they were leaving, Grandmother, Leah, asked them to bring home a couple of herring too. They traveled a considerable distance and returned just as Friday night was falling, bringing the herring but no kerosene. Grandfather, Joseph, was so angered that he chased them in and out of the house with a broom ready to deal with them very harshly. Louis’ brother, David, watched this entire event with a lot of glee.

After completing 10 years of schooling, Jacob at age 15, began to learn the trade of blacksmith. As an apprentice, he worked two years for 30 rubles with board and room. For the third year, he was paid $40 a year and board. The fourth year he got $60 a year and the fifth year he got $150 a year. By this time Jacob was 20 years old and it was necessary for him to go into the Army. He left home instead and went to America around 1885. For a penalty fine, his father, Joseph, had to pay 300 rubles to the Russian governor.

Jacob was first to come to this country and was followed about two years later by younger brother Moses and nephew Louis.

Jacob first went to Niestadt (Holland?). Then he crossed the line and went to Germany. In Germany, he went to Hamburg and from there he took a boat to Hull, England. Then he took a train to Liverpool. Jacob stayed in Liverpool for a week and then took a boat from Liverpool to America. He stopped in this country at a spot where he can not recall. He stayed there over Sunday and then the boat arrived in Portland, Maine. From Portland, he went to Lewiston, Maine where he met a half brother named Amos Smolofsky. Amos arrived at least 4 or 5 years before Jacob had. When Jacob arrived, he stopped at the Lincoln House, which then became the Littleton Hotel on Main Street, Lewiston. There he rented a room, which cost $3.50 per week.

Jacob had been told that a lot of fellows sent money back to the old country after being here only three months and therefore was under the impression that all he had to do was come to this country and pick up the money off the streets. The first morning he got up and looked around the ground and expected to find money in dollar bills lying around. It wasn’t there!

So the first thing Jacob did was to peddle with a basket. He had a strap around his neck and a basket in front of him. Jacob sold small wares, like pins, needles, combs, stockings, etc. That first day, he sold 25 cents worth of merchandise and thought he made $100. The next day he went out and sold about $4.00 of merchandise but that was with the assistance of Amos who introduced him to the customers and that gave him the courage to continue. He traveled just in Lewiston, Auburn, Lisbon, Lisbon Falls, and Sabattus. Within a year, he had carried a pack on his back in addition to the basket. Light underwear, tablecloths, petticoats was what he carried in the pack. Jacob also did a little blacksmithing on Lincoln Street before he could speak English. Jacob’s work consisted of carriage work, horseshoeing, plows, axes, guns, and locks. In addition, he worked for $3.00 a week on Main Street cutting heels 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. Mr. Currier was the owner of the shoe shop where he cut heels. They cut all sorts of small pieces of leather from the shoe shops to make the heels. To make up the $.50 a week he needed for his rent, he peddled cigarettes at the Maine Hotel and the Park House. He also did errands around Lincoln House in order to help pay his room and board. However, when Mr. Charles Andrews sold the Lincoln House and a friend Mr. Dunham of the Elm House sold his house, they moved to Old Orchard (?????). Jacob and Amos moved with them and opened a candy store and a fruit store on opposite sides of the street where the Shul was eventually located. Jacob lost $300 in that venture and returned to Lewiston where he started to work for Mr. Tabatchnick for $7.00 a week.

Mr. Tabatchnick was a single fellow who arrived in this country before Jacob and had a store on Chestnut Street in Lewiston. He then moved to the corner of Chestnut and Lincoln where Thibeau and Fortier were located. He then opened a store in New Auburn and put his son, named Max Chase to run the store for him. (This store was located where the future store that Jacob and younger brother Moses was to be located in New Auburn.)

Back when Jacob was peddling in Lisbon Falls, he would try to stay at a farmer’s house because of the travel distances involved, but the farmers would all send him on his way since they normally did not put up peddlers for the night. In any event, Jacob would occasionally go on to Portland arriving just in time for yontif (or Yom Tov meaning good day or holiday ((holy day)). Jacob also had to travel to Portland, which was a long distance in those days, for a Minyan (or group of 10 Jewish men) because he couldn’t get one in Lewiston. To have Passover food and food for Roshashana and Yom Kipper, Jacob would also have to make the long trip to Portland.

After a couple of years, Jacob became an American citizen and became a ward clerk for Ward 5. He did this for two or three years and quit because he didn’t like doing this job.

When Jacob had saved up $300, he bought a block of stores in New Auburn from George Wiseman on a corner where the bank was located. Eventually Jacob renovated the block and enlarged his store to take in the entire first floor. There were twelve tenements above in the building above the store. Moshe Mackin was the first tenant, then 19657 Phillip Silverman, Myer Shapiro, and Berstein. Then Shapsy (Louis, son of Hyman) Shapiro and Hyman Shapiro and Max Berman.

The store was quite successful. At its peak, he did about $200,000 business a year selling yard goods, millinery, small wear, shoes, clothing for men and women including coats and suits, bicycles and sleds. He needed 22 clerks to serve all his customers.

Jacob had several difficulties with this store as was related in the original history. Around 1905, it snowed on Monday, had some rain on Tuesday, and then more snow through Wednesday noon. The snow was so heavy that the roof started to crack. The good news was that the store did very well during the storm selling 359 pairs of rubber boots, an all time high. Then on March 13, 1912, the building was destroyed by fire. He had a little insurance but it was insufficient to cover all the losses. Jacob had about $11,800 on the books but the account books got scorched and he was unable to read the book. As a consequence, he could only collect about $4.00 owed him. But he rebuilt the store and instead of having twelve tenements, he had six and occupied the other half himself. He needed only five or six clerks at this point. Then again in 1933, he lost the store to a fire and again lost everything due to insufficient insurance.

Jacob married Annie Goldie Aronson and they had five children. First was Ernest who married Miriam , then Leah who married J. Weinsier, and Then Helen who married William Bean, then Selma who married Arthur Blatt and last was Sherman who married Charlotte Cominsky.

Jacob was one of the original charter members of Congregation Beth Abraham.

Accounts of this is contained in Appendix A.

Appendix B contains some additional information on Jacob and Moses’ store in New Auburn.

Appendix C contains a picture of Jacob, Moses, and two of Jacob’s sons, Ernest and Sherman.


This chapter contains information about Moses, youngest son of Joseph and Leah.

Moses was born on the farm near Joanna in December 1874. Only a little is known about his early life in Lithuania and that is recounted here. Perhaps, hopefully, there is more information that can be supplemented at a later date.

Moses or Moe didn’t care to go to Hebrew school very much. He would pick nuts in the woods instead, when the season was in bloom. He would pick all day and would return just the time he would have returned from school. This went on for several days but finally the teacher of the school came to find out what was the matter with Moe. He was afraid that Moe was sick. When he saw the teacher approach, he realized the jig was up. Moe got a good spanking from his dad and also from the teacher when he returned to school. He was a good boy for five or six weeks then would start all over again.

Moe acquired a beautiful little pup for a bushel of potatoes from a Russia farmer. Moe fed him with cream until he was a big dog. A dog would keep strangers away. The Russians were very big thieves. They would even go to the extent of stealing a wheel from a wagon. They would steal anything. The family dog was very ferocious. Farmer’s wagons were afraid to go by their house. The dog would jump on a wagon and rip open a sack of potatoes. He also would chew away the rope holding down a wagon full of hay, causing the hay to be strewn all over the road.

But one-day Moe’s dog got bitten by a mad dog and got mad himself. Moe got on the roof with a gun and tried to shoot the dog but missed. Finally they had to get someone who killed the dog. Moe’s gun was five or six feet long and every time he would pull the trigger, Moe would fall over. Moe was a pretty good marksman as he got older and is was not uncommon for him to go up in a tree with his gun to ward off wolves. Wolves were plentiful in the area and attacked cattle, dogs, and even horses.

Moe was the only boy at home because all the other boys were away working. Moe was only about 12 or 13 years old at the time. His Dad, Joseph, sent him on a horse to a town named Gelvand about 12 or 13 miles away to buy some stuff for Passover. They had to cross a wide swollen river due to the spring floods so Moe climbed on the horse and they swam across. There was a bridge that he could have crossed but Polanders owned it and they wouldn’t let him cross unless he paid for it. He didn’t have any money so he swam across. At the time Dad traded potatoes for some goods for Passover.

About two years after Jacob left for America, Moe started out with Louis, son of Hyman and Rebecca, but in England, they had a different ticket, therefore, they left at different times. From England on, Moe was on his own. It was in England that Moe stayed at a lodging house for 3 or 4 nights. Moe took his grip at the time of boat leaving without paying his lodging. Moe took a boat to New York and a train to Brunswick, Maine. There he met a Jewish peddler who peddled with dusters. The man thought Moe was lost and gave him some peanuts. He arrived at the lower Maine Central (RR) which is across from the Littleton Hotel, then known as the Lincoln Boarding House. A cab driver gave Moe a long ride over the city before arriving at the Lincoln House, which was only 25 ft. from the train station, and he had to pay the large fare.

Moe’s first job was sticking nails for $3.00 a week at the Gay-Woodman Shoe shop. Moe worked there 2 years. He got a raise to $5.00 a week. He had to pay $3.00 a week for wash, room and board. He had just enough to meet his obligations. Jacob then bought the store on the corner of Broad and Third and Moe came there. Moe was sick for a year because he failed to buy rubber footwear.

Before he married, Moe was a heavy smoker but after marrying, his wife, Pauline , he stopped smoking for good because she hid his long pipe.

Moses and Pauline had two daughters, Annette who married J. Singer and Marcella who married F. Glazier .


This chapter contains some information about Abraham , third son, and fourth child of Joseph and Leah.

Abraham, Jacob’s older brother, was in the lumber business in the old country. Abram and older brother, Ernest, were both in the lumber business. When Abram came to this country, Jacob opened up a candy store for him on Lisbon Street. It was located on the corner where Bond’s Clothing is today (mid 1950’s). Eventually he sold out and went in the real estate business

Abraham was 5 ½ years old when he began Hebrew school. He went to H.S. until he was 13 years old. At 13, he went to work for a wood dealer, handling woodchoppers in the woods. He got $2.00 a week for taking the wood from the choppers. He kept all the time records and all the records of the wood chopping. He did that work for two years until he was 15. Then he went to Meretch in Grodna Geberna where he was paid $10.00 a week and where he became the man in charge of the lumbering. He was there until he was 21. That place was about 40 miles from his home. He only came home once a year for Passover. By train travel it took five or six hours. Abraham had 300 or 400 working for him in the woods. He shipped the wood to Germany and Kovna. One summer he lost 40,000 rubles apparently because he had a large quantity of lumber lying on the ground and a flood came and washed it away resulting in a substantial loss.

When he was 21 years old, he had to give 500 rubles to get out of the army.

Abraham got married in the old country in Joanna to Gittel Leah Goldsmith . She was a Joanna girl too. Quite a girl! Morris came first as a child, then Frances, Myer, Sam and then Hyman, and Sophie (Ed: Sophie was born in America). At 30 years old (circa 1896), Abraham took his wife and six children (Ed: five children – Sophie was born here) and came to this country. (Ed note: unclear whether Abraham came to America followed a few years later by Gittel Leah and the five children)

The first year here, Abraham worked for Jacob in his store. Then Jacob bought a candy store for Abraham on Lisbon Street on the corner where Bond’s Clothing store is now (mid 1950’s). He worked there for six or seven years and then sold the store. Abraham then went in the real estate business.


This chapter contains a small amount of information concerning Ernest, third child, and second son of Joseph and Leah.

They wanted to take Ernest into the Army. Ernest was 20 years old at that time.

Of course Ernest didn’t want to go to the Army so every night, Ernest would hide himself in a neighbor’s house at night to avoid being caught by the Russians. One night the Russian men came down and surrounded Joseph’s house. The youngest, Moses, had just been born a few weeks before. So the Cossacks came in the house. When the Lithuanians and other men entered the house, Rebecca grabbed a long iron poker and struck two men down before the group was able to hold her so she wasn’t able to do any more damage. They looked all over the stables and the house for Ernest, but they could not find him to take him to the Army. His father Joseph tried to get outside to warn Ernest that they were here, but the big men on the other side of the door held the door. Joseph pulled from inside, the other men from the outside and the handles flew off and the door opened. Joseph gave the excuse that he wanted to go to the toilet and was followed outside by a Lithuanian. Joseph was dressed lightly because of being indoors, and he only had light shoes on. The Lithuanian was dressed up in heavy coats and boots. When they had gone some distance, Joseph jumped a fence and ran through the deep snow in his light garments to the next neighbor and asked if Ernest was there and they told him that he was not there. That automatically meant that Ernest had gone to the other side of the village where Joseph found him and warned him that they were coming after him. The boy dressed himself up and left the Polish village and ran to the next village, which was Lithuanian and hid himself there. The searchers had found his aferkmphis (prayer shawl) in the Polish family’s house but did not find Ernest.

Ernest married Annie at 20 years old. At 26, he had three children. The oldest was Nathan, then Hyman, then Rose. Unfortunately, a dysentery epidemic swept the village in which many died. Ernest was one of them. Rose was only six months old at the time. Hyman, the youngest son came to this country and stayed in Auburn with Jacob for 3 or 4 months. He was a smoking pipe maker in the old country. Jacob then took him to Boston to get a job where they manufactured pipes, but the place burned down just before they arrived. Hyman then continued on to New York. There he started peddling merchandise instead of manufacturing pipes, eventually opening a store to sell the merchandise.


This chapter recounts very little information about Rebecca, only daughter and second child of Joseph and Leah. Hopefully we can add some information in the future.

Rebecca was about 21 or 22 when she married Moses Hyman who came from Joanna. They were married in her house on the farm. They had the following children in this order: Polly was the oldest, then Hyman, Ernest, Leah and Sam. Polly got married to H. Kaplan in England and came to New York first. Ernest came next by way of England and then came to Jacob’s home in Auburn. Then Rebecca came with Leah and Sam. Rebecca’s husband, Moses, died in the old country in Joanna.


This chapter is reserved to Hyman Eser, oldest son and first child of Joseph and Leah. Hyman married Rebecca and they had children in the following order: Louis (also know as Shapsy), David , Israel, Hyman, Rose, Fannie, and William. Fannie was the only one who was born on the farm while the other children were born in Janava (in that part known as Kovna, Gerberna). The family came to America. First to come was Louis (Shapsy) in company with Moses as noted earlier. Then Rose came. Then Hyman came alone in 1901. Then in 1902, he sent for his wife together with Fannie and William. Apparently, Hyman worked in Jacob’s store for some time and then moved to New Bedford, MA where he died.

But since so little is known at this time about Hyman Eser, most of this chapter deals with David, second son of Hyman and his wife Rebecca. David related this part of the narrative to Sherman Shapiro.

David went to Hebrew school from six years old to 15. At 15 years old, he began to learn the tailor trade. He worked as an apprentice for four years for no pay just room, clothing and a little spending money. Then he began to work on piecework and made fairly good money but he had to help in the family as it was a big family and his mother, Rebecca, was sick. They sent her to Bierstand where they would give her hot baths, which helped her to get well. She had rheumatism. David worked until he was 20 years old. Then he had to go into the army. He went in the army but bought himself out and got married to a girl by the name of Dinah, who was his childhood friend in Janava. Her father’s name was Abraham Cohen; her mother’s name was Esther Cohen. Her father died a year before they got married. Her mother died in 1922 in the old country. She was about 85 years old when she died. Her father was about 75 when he died.

When David got married, he opened up his own tailor shop and had about a dozen people working for him. He did a good business. He worked about 6 or 7 years and then got tired of running the shop. So he left Dinah and the workers in charge of the shop and left for South Africa for a vacation with his brothers. Israel and Hyman were in South Africa at the time near the Kimberly South Africa diamond fields. David arrived in South Africa and found a very good opportunity for a tailor business and decided that he would not continue his tailor shop in old country. He wrote to his wife, Dinah, to give up the business. He worked in South Africa for two years as a tailor and cleared a few thousand dollars.

Brother Hyman went to England to buy some material for their store in South Africa and while there, received a letter from David and Israel. It was suggested that Hyman go to the United States to see their parents because the travel rates at the time were quite cheap. So Hyman went and then decided to stay here. He wrote back to David and Israel to sell out their business and come to America as well. At that point, they decided to go the United States so they sold the shop and went to England. Then David returned to Europe to get his wife and brought her back to England. Then David, Israel and Dinah proceeded to the United States and arrived in Boston. They came right from Boston to Lewiston, Maine. When David arrived, he opened a tailor shop. Israel and Hyman together opened up another store.

Abe was about 5 years old when David left for South Africa. Joe was born there too but was a young baby when David left. (Ed: Abe and Joe must be David and Dinah’s sons)

Last Updated : October 10, 2009

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