Friday, November 4, 2016


This column first appeared in the November 2016 edition of GreeneSPEAK! 

Like most small towns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Waynesburg’s garment trade was dominated by successful Jewish merchants who with their families were respected members of the community in business, civic and social circles. 

The Grossman Brothers "Gent's Furnishings Department," 1907

The story of Isaac and Lee Grossman—“the Grossman Brothers”—is typical of many Jews who came from Eastern Europe seeking economic opportunity and escape from religious oppression. The brothers were born in Posen, Germany, an area that was historically Polish but controlled by Prussia from 1798-1918. 

They arrived early in the massive migration of Jewish families to the United States. Large enclaves established themselves in trade in the commercial, industrial and cultural centers of the North East: first New York, then Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, and Chicago in the Midwest. Although the Jewish merchants of Waynesburg lived and worked in a small town in southwestern Pennsylvania, they procured their goods, and later meet their wives, in these cities.

When Issac Grossman died in 1925, he was remembered as "one of Waynesburg's leading citizens, interested in the welfare of the community and generous in his support of charitable causes."

Isaac Grossman arrived first, in 1877, at the age of 18. It’s not known why he chose Greene County, but within four weeks of stepping off the boat, he was in Waynesburg peddling goods by foot. Within three years, he had purchased a horse and wagon, allowing him to sell throughout the county. Two years later--in 1882—younger brother Lee arrived and began selling by foot. Within a year, he too had his own horse and wagon. 

Lee Grossman managed the women's wear and dry goods departments while Isaac was in charge of men's clothing.  Lee survived his brother by many decades, dying in 1953 at the age of 92.

In 1885, the Grossman Brothers opened their first store on High Street, a business that grew into Waynesburg’s first department store. For many years, they were among the town’s most prominent merchants.

In 1903, they built the 4-story Grossman Building next door to the Downey House Hotel. Its modern design was the “talk of the town” with Waynesburg’s first elevator and first use of glass sidewalk panels that emitted sunlight into the basement. The department store occupied three floors, including the basement. Above were two floors of offices. Customers entered through an elegant lobby with marble wainscoting and a marble staircase with brass rail.   

In 1907, Grossman Brothers was described as the largest business in Dry Goods, Carpets, Clothing, Gent’s Furnishing Goods and Ladies’ Suits ever carried on in Greene County. Ten clerks and assistants waited on customers. 

The photo caption in Waynesburg Prosperous and Beautiful (1907) boasted: “This store is to Greene County what Wanamaker’s is to Philadelphia, what Marshall Field’s is to Chicago and what A. T. Stewart’s once was to New York City.”  

Tragically, the building and business were destroyed in the Downey House Fire of December 1925. One month earlier, Isaac had died in a Philadelphia hospital. Lee sold the site to local businessmen who erected the Commercial Building, now known as the Ben Franklin Building, and retired to Danbury, CN.

At the same time, Barney Grossman’s clothing store was half a block away at the corner of High and Washington Streets. 

Although seemingly unrelated to Isaac and Lee, Barney Grossman was another well-known merchant in Waynesburg of about the same era, ca. 1896-1906. He owned the first automobile in town and lived in a big new house, just like the Isaac and Lee. Advertising first as “Barney Grossman’s Bargain Store” and a few years later as “King Clothier,” his store occupied the prominent corner where Mickey’s is located today. 

Barney and Minnie Grossman built this yellow brick house at the corner of South Morris and West Lincoln Streets.

Barney had emigrated from Poland in 1892. His father and brothers were also in the “rag trade” in Pittsburgh and Brooklyn, NY. Unfortunately, Barney was a large creditor of Farmer’s & Drovers Bank. When it failed in late 1906, federal officials forced closure of his stores in Waynesburg, Washington and Cameron, WV.  Selling the Cameron branch to his brother Minor, he moved to Washington, PA, then Brooklyn, NY, where he died in 1915 at the age of 47.

In 1906, Isaac Grossman sold this house on East High Street, across from St. Ann Church, to A. P. Smith.

Next month, read about other early Jewish merchants: Harrison & Cohen, R. H. Goldberg and A. Levino.

All photos are from the second edition of Waynesburg Prosperous and Beautiful by Fred High, ca. 1907.