D. Poliakoff, Abbeville, SC

D. Poliakoff, the dry goods store opened in 1900 by my grandfather David Poliakoff, was in business on historic Court Square in Abbeville, South Carolina, for more than 100 years, from February 19, 1900 to August 26, 2000. The intertwined histories of the store and the Abbeville Poliakoffs are reflected in the documents and images attached to and/or referenced in this article, including the 1995 edition of D. Poliakoff Times, marking the store’s 95th anniversary. And yet there remain boxes of unexplored documents, invoices, price lists, and ledgers that still await review.

Official records in the State Historical Archives of Belarus contain references to David Poliakoff as “David-Shmuel” of shtetl Kamen. An 1865 document records that David’s grandfather Mendel, …“petty bourgeois of shtetl Kamen, owns a wooden home with thatched roof and a barn”. An 1882 document listing licensed melameds (Jewish religion teachers) records that David’s father Itsko was licensed to teach Torah and that he had 7 students (listed in the document) who each paid annual tuition of 10 rubles. A May 2, 1893 passport application records that “David-Shmuel, son of Itsko Poliakoff, petty bourgeois of shtetl Kamen, 20 years old, soldier in reserve, Jew, single, applied for foreign passport, purpose of the trip is to earn money”. And a June 17, 1893 register of passports states that David paid a 20 rubles fee and received a foreign passport.

A few brittle wholesaler invoices addressed to “Poliakoff Brothers, Clifton, SC,” some in Yiddish, remain from the years David Poliakoff was in business with his brother Mendel, 1894 to 1898, first in Clifton (near Spartanburg), then in Gaffney, SC. During 1898-1899 he was in Aiken County. Family lore has it that David was a peddler who initially picked McCormick, SC, to open his own store and paid the first month’s rent, but quickly decided to settle in Abbeville.1Jewish Heritage Collection, College of Charleston, May 1, 1995 interview of Rosa Poliakoff (hereinafter referred to as “Jewish Heritage Collection interview of Rosa Poliakoff”) available at http://lcdl.library.cofc.edu/lcdl/catalog/lcdl:86550 Years later, in an interview for a November 1937 Abbeville Press and Banner article titled “Poliakoff’s Next to Oldest Firm in Abbeville,” he said he came to Abbeville after leaving his brother S. (Samuel) Poliakoff in Graniteville, SC. Abbeville’s population had more than doubled between 1890 and 1900, perhaps a reason he decided to settle there.

The 1900 US Census for Abbeville Township listed David Polliaskoff (sic), “clothing merchant,” born in Russia in 1872, as a boarder who could read, write, and speak English. In June 1901, the Press and Banner proclaimed, “He Is One of Us Now,” reporting “(a)n interesting and not very usual proceeding” in Abbeville County Court of Common Pleas: David Poliakoff had become a US citizen and, as required by law, in his Petition for Citizenship had renounced allegiance “to every foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty whatever, and particularly to the Czar of Russia of whom he was born a subject.” His Petition stated that he was a merchant, that he was born in Minsk, Russia, that he arrived at New York on or about August 15, 1893, and that he previously resided in New York state and in Aiken and Spartanburg counties, SC. Affidavits supporting his petition were submitted by J. S. Poliakoff of Langley, SC, a cousin, and M. (Mendel) Poliakoff of Gaffney, SC, a brother. Regarding the reference to Minsk, the gravestones for David Poliakoff and four of his brothers at Sons of Israel Cemetery, Aiken, SC, identify their place of birth as Kamen, Russia, consistent with the Belarus Archives documents referred to in this paper. Kamen is about 112 miles northeast of Minsk in today’s Belarus. Researchers say that immigrants and/or immigration officials in that era sometimes listed the nearest well-known city instead of the immigrant’s shtetl.

The store’s original location on Abbeville’s Court Square was “next door to (the State) dispensary,” as noted in its March 1900 ad in the Abbeville Medium. A 1900 ledger shows cash sales the first month in business were $433.98. The store, along with the dispensary and several other businesses, got electric lights in March of that year, according to an article in the Medium. A policy issued to D. Poliakoff in 1907 by Germania Fire Insurance Company of New York had an Electric Light and Power Permit allowing use of electricity for light and power.

The Abbeville dispensary was shut down in November 1909 and its office furniture sold off at auction. The Press and Banner reported that the dispensary’s massive Diebold iron safe, the most expensive item sold at auction, was purchased by David Poliakoff for $35.50 ($946 in 2018 dollars). The safe was used at D. Poliakoff’s for generations and remains today in the store’s former location. A 1911 letter shows David Poliakoff engaged Atlanta attorney Walter W. Visanska for collection of two checks, each for $6.26.

A July 1904 article in the Abbeville Medium reported on the wedding of David Poliakoff and Elka Rachel Axelrod. The ceremony in Augusta was performed by Rabbi Abraham Poliakoff, a cousin and the first spiritual leader of Augusta congregation Adas Yeshurun. Rabbi Poliakoff was married to David’s sister, Rebecca. A 1937 Press and Banner article looked back and recounted:

Mr. Poliakoff had not been in Abbeville but four years when he sent back to Russia for his sweetheart. His marriage to Miss Rachel Axelrod . . . showed him to be man of outstanding wisdom and good judgment. Mrs. Poliakoff has truly been a helpmeet. She has not only kept a fine hospitable home, reared a large family, but has been his true partner in the operation of his store.2“Poliakoff’s Next to Oldest Firm in Abbeville,” Abbeville Press and Banner (November 1937).

In 1920 the Press and Banner article ran a story subtitled “Mrs. Poliakoff of This City Hears from Sister For First Time Since 1914, Shoes in Russia $300 a Pair.” Rachel Poliakoff, the paper reported, had just learned that her old home near Minsk had been destroyed by fighting “between the Poles and the Bolsheviki. . . .Before the trouble in Russia Mrs. Poliakoff’s family were people of means being engaged in the wholesale grocery business, but now have lost everything in the depredations of the Bolsheviki. . . . Mr. Poliakoff has endeavored to send some money to their relatives but it is not possible to get it through to them while the Bolsheviki are in power.”

David Poliakoff died on June 9, 1940. The Press and Banner reported that “Mr. Poliakoff had been at his store throughout the day and was sitting in his chair at home when the end came. . . . Mr. Poliakoff prospered in Abbeville but in prospering he won the goodwill, the respect and esteem of a great circle of friends.” The paper noted he was the oldest living member of the local Masonic Lodge and a regular attendee.

Elka Rachel Poliakoff died at home on June 8, 1956 after a brief illness. She was described in the hometown paper as a “prominent Abbeville businesswoman and a resident of this city since 1904.” David and Rachel Poliakoff are buried in Sons of Israel Cemetery, Aiken, as are their sons, Ellis, Marion, Myer, and Samuel, and David’s brothers, Moses, Samuel, Mendel, and Nathan. A plaque on the cemetery’s brick gate post reads “In Memory of the Poliakoff Family,” installed with the proceeds from a 1977 family-wide donation campaign organized by Dr. Ben Poliakoff, a cousin originally of Anderson, SC.

David and Rachel raised five sons and a daughter, maintaining an observant Jewish home a block away from Court Square, and residing next door to Trinity Episcopal Church. Throughout its one hundred years the store was closed on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. On a handwritten September 1906 ledger David wrote down sales for each business day in the month except the 29th, for which he wrote “Yom Kipor.” In 1920 the Abbeville paper extolled Ellis, their first-born, in an article entitled “The Knowledge of Hebrew Not Now Confined to Preachers.” “Young Ellis Poliakoff,” the paper reported, “returned this week from Anderson where for the past month he has been under the tutelage of a professor of Hebrew and . . . has mastered the intricate characters of the Hebrew language.” David Poliakoff “is the proudest man you ever saw when he is listening to his son read so fluently the language of his fathers.”

Sons Ellis, Marion, Myer, Arthur, and Samuel graduated from the University of South Carolina, where over a period of more than 15 years at least one Poliakoff brother occupied the same dorm room (#48) in Burney College, according to an October 29, 1935 article in the USC Gamecock. Myer was a pitcher on the Gamecock baseball team, on a few occasions pitching on an empty stomach when the Passover food parcel his mother sent by bus from Abbeville did not arrive on time.3Jewish Heritage Collection interview of Rosa Poliakoff. Each of the brothers served their country during the World War II era, three in overseas service. See “Aboard the Huddleston: WWII Diaries of Dr. A. Ellis Poliakoff, Cpt., US Army Medical Corps,” Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina about the service of the five brothers. Ellis was a respected physician who served the people of Abbeville County his entire professional career, excepting wartime service. Marion was a gentleman merchant who established a top-line men’s apparel store in Walhalla, SC. Myer is discussed elsewhere in this paper. Arthur (Bud) was a beloved pharmacist in Atlanta, excepting three years overseas wartime service, and became the senior practicing pharmacist in the state of Georgia. After military service Samuel was a prominent physician in Atlanta and a discerning collector of Western American Indian art. He bequeathed to Abbeville County Public Library, “in honor of the Poliakoff Family,” his unique collection of pottery, textiles, and paintings along with a monetary bequest, establishing in Abbeville one of the most significant public collections of this genre. Readers are invited to visit the collection in person or online at poliakoffcollectionofwesternart.org

Daughter Eva Poliakoff, who later was a school teacher and lived with her husband and family in Marblehead, MA, graduated from Agnes Scott College, where her roommate was Rosa From of Union, SC. Eva and Rosa became roommates at the suggestion of Eva’s brother Myer, who had met Rosa at Jewish dances in Columbia.4Jewish Heritage Collection interview of Rosa Poliakoff. Rosa was the daughter of Israel and Bertha From, who had emigrated from Lithuania. Israel was a successful merchant –“I. From, Dry Goods and Notions” was a household word in Union—and Bertha a religiously observant homemaker. After graduating from Agnes Scott College, Rosa became a teacher in Atlanta, while Myer completed his degree at USC and returned to Abbeville to work with his parents in the store, eventually taking over its management. On February 20, 1940, Myer Poliakoff and Rosa From were married at the From residence in Union.

As his business grew, David Poliakoff had moved the store from its original location next door to the state dispensary to another storefront on the east side of the Square which, for many years after D. Poliakoff left it, housed the Rough House tavern. The store moved again in 1935 when David purchased what would be its final location, the large two-story-plus-basement building on the northeast corner of Court Square at Washington Street, located on the site where John C. Calhoun’s law office once stood. It was constructed in 1873, only eight years after the horse-drawn entourage of Jefferson Davis, Judah P. Benjamin and others in the fleeing Confederate war cabinet came up Washington Street from the train station to the Square, en route to the Abbeville residence where the last meeting of the cabinet was held.

The D. Poliakoff building is on the National Registry of Historic Places as part of Abbeville Historic District, listed as Knox Corner after John Knox who developed it. Its large second-floor corner front room with multiple windows overlooking the Square was originally a parlor meeting room; one of its doors still features a speakeasy-type sliding panel. In 1948 Myer Poliakoff contracted with Richmond Dry Goods Company for installation of custom-designed wooden and glass display cabinets on the main floor, to accommodate the store’s huge inventories of women’s, children’s, and men’s apparel. Jeans and work clothes were stacked on display tables in the basement, and the second story was used for storage.

Myer Poliakoff ran D. Poliakoff’s for more than 50 years, in later years with Rosa’s help. Like his father he was a life member of the Abbeville Masonic Lodge. He was an officer of the local development board, a 17-year member of the school board, and a longtime board member, treasurer, and ardent supporter of the Abbeville County Library system. His portrait, a gift of former store employees, hangs in the Library’s Poliakoff Art Gallery and Meeting Room.

D. Poliakoff was an Abbeville institution, where a visit to the store, and a welcome from the Poliakoff in charge, was a custom for generations of Abbevillians. Over the years it was not unusual for an Abbeville child to be outfitted at Poliakoff’s through the school years, employed there as an after-school clerk and, finally settling down, to raise a family and depend on the Poliakoff in charge for proper fitting their own children’s shoes. Myer and Rosa were regular attendees at apparel shows at the merchandise marts in Atlanta and Charlotte. My sisters, Doris and Elaine, and I grew up in Abbeville, about a mile from the store, where we helped out after school and on the weekends. Store specialties included the expert fitting of children’s shoes—with Myer routinely declining the sale if he was not satisfied with the fit—and women’s and children’s apparel. At merchandise shows Rosa frequently selected women’s apparel with specific customers in mind.

Over the generations D. Poliakoff ads in the Press and Banner illustrate the evolution of styles in apparel and marketing. There were ads welcoming reunions of Confederate Veterans in 1925 (“May your stay in Abbeville be numbered among your most pleasant memories”) and Spanish-American War Veterans in 1928 (“May your hearts be light and each moment memorable while you make our town your home and our good people your own Folks.”) Before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, ads informed customers the store would be closed for the holidays. In later years Rosa Poliakoff placed ads after New Year’s featuring a 1905 photo of David and Rachel Poliakoff and celebrating another year in business on Court Square. Myer Poliakoff died August 10, 1985. Rosa took up the reins and ran the business with paperwork assistance from her children.

Myer and Rosa Poliakoff were strong advocates for maintaining the 19th-century charm and grace of Abbeville’s Court Square, a frequent subject for artists. A 1987 painting by Oscar Velasquez, AWS, later reproduced as a postcard, makes artistic reference to Myer (bow tie and red vest) and Rosa in front of the store. A 1990 Location Agreement with Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, for which the filmmaker paid D. Poliakoff $200, permitted interior and exterior shots of the store during production of “Sleeping with the Enemy” starring Julia Roberts. And in 1995 NationsBank TV ads featured Rosa Poliakoff and the store interior.

Still family-owned, the D. Poliakoff building was renovated a few years after the business closed, renewing its heart-pine flooring, high pressed-tin ceilings, and clerestory windows, and retaining on its corner sidewalks its pre-electric-era translucent panel vault lights and grate-covered basement light wells. The building’s front parapet and side wall still display “D. Poliakoff” in the large letters once common on storefronts. Current tenants operate an apparel boutique.

The store’s 90th anniversary was celebrated in April 1990 at a public event near the Square. Speakers included former Governor Dick Riley, former Congressman W. J. Bryan Dorn, and state senator Billy O’Dell, who presented the congratulatory resolution adopted by the General Assembly. State Senator Isadore Lourie was the keynote speaker, praising the generation of Jewish immigrants who established businesses in the South around the turn of the century. The Press and Banner printed excerpts from Sen. Lourie’s speech: “I shall always stand in awe of that generation,” he declared, adding that he hoped the descendants of those Jewish immigrants would remember their forefathers’ twofold heritage and be proud of it: “Proud to be the sons of the covenant between God and Abraham . . . and proud to be Americans.”

On April 29, 1990, Greenwood’s Index-Journal, in an article entitled “90th Anniversary’s Not a Swan Song for Rosa Poliakoff,” quoted Rosa’s observation that what separated D. Poliakoff’s from other stores for most of the century was personal service and attention: “We always said you can’t come into the store without being greeted by a Poliakoff . . . people like to be remembered by their names.”

The 95th anniversary was celebrated in April 1995, in conjunction with a meeting in Abbeville of the newly organized Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina (JHSSC). A congratulatory letter from President Bill Clinton was presented to Rosa Poliakoff. The keynote again was delivered by SC Senator Isadore Lourie, the Society’s founding director.

A 1998 event at the Abbeville Welcome Center marking the 125th anniversary of Knox Corner, the store’s historic building, featured State Senator John Drummond, a representative of the state tourism agency, and local historian John Blythe, as recounted on October 28, 1998 in the Press and Banner. Artifacts from the Poliakoff family and D. Poliakoff store figured in A Portion of the People: Three Hundred Years of Southern Jewish Life, a major museum exhibition produced by the College of Charleston’s Jewish Heritage Collection and the Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina, in partnership with McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina that opened in Columbia in 2002 and traveled for two years.

Rosa Poliakoff was determined D. Poliakoff would reach its 100th anniversary in February 2000. She died October 26, 1999 and was buried alongside her beloved Myer in Aiken’s Sons of Israel Cemetery. Family and devoted staff kept the store in business until after the anniversary was reached, and D. Poliakoff closed its doors for good on August 26, 2000.

The following images illustrate the intertwined histories of D. Poliakoff Store and the Abbeville Poliakoffs.

The Jewish Merchant Project is supported by the generosity of the Norman and Gerry Sue Arnold Foundation and the Stanley B. Farbstein Endowment at the Coastal Community Foundation. Longtime members of the JHSSC, Mr. Arnold obm, a merchant himself, and Mr. Farbstein obm were both children of South Carolina Jewish merchants.

JHSSC Office
Sylvia Vlosky Yaschik Jewish Studies Center
96 Wentworth Street
Charleston, SC 29424
Phone: 843 953 3918
Email: jhssc@cofc.edu