Rails to Retail: Mercantile Pioneers in St. Stephens

Above: Read Store,  St. Stephen. Courtesy of Deborah Lipman-Cocheline 

Long before Jews arrived in today’s northern Berkeley County, the area south of the Santee River served as a refuge from religious persecution for a portion of the French Protestants actively recruited by the English Proprietors of Carolina after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. The Huguenots, as they came to be called, some of whom had been wealthy landowners in France, were drawn to Carolina by the promise of religious freedom and large estates, advertised in glowing terms by the Lords Proprietor, who envisioned profits from trade generated by an agricultural colony. By the mid-1700s, dozens of rice plantations, cultivated by enslaved Africans, had been established along the Santee. In this region, about 50 miles north of Charleston, a town grew up around historic St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, erected in 1767, now a national landmark. In 1871, the town was incorporated under the parish name of St. Stephens, which was officially changed to St. Stephen in 1952.

Northern Berkeley County has remained rural since the days of the Huguenot planters. Today, St. Stephen and nearby towns are economically depressed and thinly populated. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, the region profited from South Carolina’s extensive network of railroads. Sawmills sprang up near rail lines, and Charleston merchants saw opportunities to build shops in towns like Moncks Corner, about 30 miles from Charleston, and Bonneau, another 10 miles farther north. According to Maxwell Clayton Orvin’s history of Moncks Corner, the names of Jewish merchants who set up shop in Berkeley County just before the turn of the 20th century include Seligh (Zelig) Behrmann (whose nephew was Ben Barron, founder of Barron’s Department Store in Moncks Corner), Sol Lurie, Louis Glick, Sol Goldberg, Mendel Dumas, Frank Read, Isaac Read, and Abe Read.

Not until about 1900 did the first known Jewish merchant settle in St. Stephens. Gus Rittenberg (brother of Sam Rittenberg and my great-great uncle) arrived in the town with a young wife, Henrietta (Hennie) Behrmann, who had emigrated in 1893 from Russia, and three very young children, Anita, Corinne, and Walter. In the 1910 census, Gus was identified as a merchant with a general store, and the number of his children had doubled, now including Morris (Maurice), Arthur, and Rose. Also listed as members of the Rittenberg household and workers in the store were two brothers, Herman and Isadore Sanditen, Russian immigrants related to Gus’s sister’s husband, Samuel Sanders (Sanditen).

Around 1910, the enterprising Gus Rittenberg built a sawmill on his land not far north of St. Stephens Station, on the west side of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad’s track, with a spur that would enable him to ship finished lumber to growing markets. On August 6, 1912, a train of passenger cars running south went dead on the track about 40 feet from the mill, idle at the time. A local train from Florence soon came behind and began to push. Cinders from the laboring engine were churned up by the wind and blown into the lumber yard. Sawdust and waste lumber caught fire and spread to the mill, causing much destruction. Rittenberg prevailed in his lawsuit against the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad and was awarded damages for the destroyed mill, inventory, and machinery.

Disaster from the railroads struck again early on a Sunday afternoon in March 1918. Shortly after a freight train of 36 loaded cars passed through St. Stephens, a fire was discovered on the roof of a house, which jumped to adjoining buildings and burned until most of the row was destroyed, including Gus Rittenberg’s store. The railroad company was held liable for damages in the amount of $69,000, in what was considered to be St. Stephens’ worst fire.

By the time of the 1918 fire, the Rittenbergs were maintaining homes in both St. Stephens and Charleston. Corinne graduated with distinction from Ashley Hall that year. Gus and Hennie first appear in the Charleston city directory in 1917 and, over the next few years, some of their children are listed as well, including Edward, born in 1916. The 1917 directory shows Gus is in business Southern Jute Products, 154 East Bay Street—with his brother Sam, who had served in the state legislature in 1913–1914 and was running Carolina Advertising Agency. A year later, the brothers established another company, Rittenberg Wood Yard, at Meeting Street near Magnolia Crossing. By 1920, Southern Jute and Rittenberg Wood disappear from the city directory, and subsequent listings note that Gus is a general merchandiser and merchant, perhaps a reference to his St. Stephens store. He died in 1924 in a car accident near Moncks Corner.

In February 1920, the U.S. census lists my great-grandparents and their children living in St. Stephens: Rachel (Rae) Rittenberg Sanders (Gus Rittenberg’s youngest sibling), her husband, Sam Sanders (listed as a naturalized citizen from Russia, a general merchant, and a former book peddler in Brooklyn, New York), and the children, Sara (Lipman), Hilbert (Bert), Wilfred, Leonard, and Charlotte (Karesh).

Lipman Store Sign, Bonneau, SC. Courtesy Deborah Lipman Cochelin

Max Lipman, my paternal grandfather, was working as a bookkeeper for Mendel Dumas in Bonneau when someone suggested that he meet a young lady teaching at the public school in St. Stephens. The day he visited the school, however, the teacher was a substitute. He peered into the schoolhouse window thinking the substitute was the young lady he was to meet. Max asked her for a date, and the rest is history. Max Lipman and Sara Sanders were married from 1922 until Sara’s death in April 1981. Their wedding was officiated by Rabbi Jacob Raisin of K. K. Beth Elohim in Gus Rittenberg’s home on Huger Street in Charleston, as recollected by a very young guest, Henry Rittenberg (1918–2012), son of Sam Rittenberg. During the time the Rittenbergs lived in St. Stephens, it is believed they kept the Sabbath and observed other Jewish traditions.

Arthur (Adolph) N. Lipman may have learned of opportunities in St. Stephens when attending his younger brother Max’s wedding. By 1922, he had served in the navy during World War I and was working in sales for I. M. Pearlstine & Sons in Charleston. Like Max, Arthur was born and raised in Ridgeland, South Carolina, to Bavarian parents, Solomon and Theresa Krapf Lipman, who had immigrated to America in the early 1880s. Arthur arrived in St. Stephens in 1925 and opened a mercantile business; after a fire destroyed the store, he went into furniture—Read & Lipman—with Paul Read.

Arthur also worked at Paul’s general merchandise store. Paul’s children Sallie Kate and Robert shared with me their memories of the store and growing up in St. Stephens, as did town historian Elizabeth Carroll. Arthur stationed himself most of the time on the bench near the meat case. If someone needed something from the locked furniture store on the north corner of the block, he escorted the customer to the building. Although Arthur never married, he showed affection for children, letting the Read siblings ride along with him in his pickup truck when he delivered groceries or furniture, and giving many local children rides on the handcart used to carry purchases to a customer’s car. Since the Reads did not have a television until the late 1950s or early ’60s, their children watched shows on TV sets in Arthur Lipman’s furniture store.

In the 1930s, Arthur purchased a cottage at Folly Beach, where the Reads and other St. Stephens residents would stay during the summer; my family stayed there in the late 1950s. Arthur’s Sunday visits to my Lipman grandparents on St. Margaret Street in Charleston during the winters of the 1960s brought such delight as he swept through the front door with his great shock of tumbling white hair with a slight curl. He greeted us in his Gullah-Geechee accent, with his ever-present broad smile and cheerful countenance, while toting a bushel basket of sweet potatoes or other seasonal vegetables. I remember the earthy smell clinging to his large overcoat, wafting in with the cold air that followed him into the living room.

Spanning the decades, Arthur’s exhaustive and selfless contributions to important town affairs garnered him the Municipal Association of South Carolina’s Public Service Award in 1973. He was responsible for organizing the town’s fire department in the early 1930s, served as the fire chief and water works commissioner, acted as mayor pro tem for numerous terms, and functioned as the acting mayor to complete unexpired terms of office. Arthur was a charter member of the St. Stephens Lions Club and a member of the St. Stephens American Legion Post 62 and Mt. Hope Lodge 128. His health declined in the 1970s, and he died in August 1979 at the age of 86. Although his grandfather had been a rabbi in Wurzburg, Germany, Arthur was never an observant Jew. However, his character and deeds epitomized the Jewish concept tikkun olam (repair of the world) and were memorialized in his epitaph, “Gentle, Kind, Beloved.”

Frank Read (1868–1940) arrived in America from Latvia through Ellis Island. The original family name was spelled “Redt” but was legally changed to Read after the ladies from Pinopolis, who had been teaching him English, insisted that “Redt” was not the proper way to spell his name, based on his European pronunciation. Frank married Fredericka (Fanny) Lief (1868–1958) and later brought over his Latvianborn son, Daniel, and his wife’s mother, Dina Lief. Four more children were born to the Reads in South Carolina: Riva, Ludvig (Ludie), Joseph (Joe), and Paul.

In 1886, Frank Read and his brother Abe built and opened a large store on the south side of West Main Street in Moncks Corner. It was about a block long, where shoes, clothing, and groceries were retailed; mules were sold from the yard. Since there were no undertakers in Moncks Corner, Frank also sold caskets, a business practice that Paul Read continued from his store in St. Stephens until at least the early 1960s.

Their sister, Esther Read (1879–1949), who married Mendel Davis Dumas, of Dvinsk, Lithuania, arrived in Moncks Corner about 1890. (Dumas operated a store in Bonneau before moving to Charleston, where he went into business with Frank Read.) In November 1898, their younger brother, Isaac Read, joined them, and Frank built a large two-story frame house, now known as the Coastal Hotel, a short distance from the present railroad station.

Frank and Fanny’s son Paul was born around 1905; he lived in Moncks Corner until the family moved to Charleston, where he attended the High School of Charleston and The Citadel. After venturing into some real estate deals in Florida, Paul was ready to settle down. Upon returning to South Carolina, he met Sephra Savitz at a social event where it was love at first sight. Sephra, whose family were merchants in St. Matthews and Columbia, had been the roommate of Paul’s brother Joe’s wife, Florence Panitz.

In the early 1920s, Franklin Turner of Turner Lumber Company, Louisiana, opened the Santee River Hardwood Mill in St. Stephens. It drew many workers to the town, whose population tripled by 1930. This boom may have influenced Paul to build his first store, with a residence on the second floor, in 1928, the year he and Sephra were married. The store burned down but was rebuilt in 1931, coinciding with the birth of their first child, Robert. This time, the residence was built behind the store, as was a warehouse for storing supplies and dry goods. The Read family expanded with the birth of two more children, Frank and Sallie Kate.

Paul and Sephra Read managed to maintain their Jewish traditions while raising their family in St. Stephens. Sallie Kate recollects going to Sunday school at KKBE, which gave her parents the opportunity to meet with Charleston’s Jewish wholesalers who were open on Sundays.

Paul sold everything from farm supplies to groceries, clothing, and fabric. Robert remembers the big cookie jar, from which he filched cookies when his mother was not looking. He recalls his mother working full time in the store and his father breaking up dog fights with a broom. During the Depression, a truck transporting slot machines broke down on the highway near St. Stephens. Paul helped finance repairs of the truck by purchasing the slot machines. He installed them in his store and, for some time, he paid his clerks using money that was deposited into the slot machines.

Even in the 1930s and ’40s, St. Stephens, along with other towns in Berkeley County, was described as the “wild, wild West.” Shootings occurred often, sometimes on Main Street in front of Paul Read’s store. One time Sephra was so annoyed by the shooting that Paul went into the street and asked the gunmen to stop firing because it was disturbing his wife. Incredibly, they obliged, stopping long enough for Sephra to leave for home, before resuming their shootout. Time stood still in St. Stephens until at least the 1950s, when a vacant lot next to the store accommodated customers needing a place to leave their mules, horses, and wagons.

Christmastime was always a memorable and exceptionally busy time for the Reads. Since they could not stop working for lunch, their cook brought platters of sandwiches to the store. Family members who were merchants in Columbia and St. Matthews came to St. Stephens on Christmas day for a big dinner and fireworks.

The main street in St. Stephen (as it is spelled today) may be a shell of what it was when these pioneering Jewish merchants had a presence, but the street named Lipman Drive and the annual Arthur Lipman Day are reminders of their legacy. The town still is notable for grand houses on its outskirts and the historic church. An Army Corp of Engineers facility called the St. Stephen Powerhouse grows sweetgrass for use by Lowcountry basket makers. Berkeley County’s economy is on the rise again, this time with 21st century industries, such as Google in Moncks Corner, and J. W. Aluminum and defense contractor W International in Goose Creek.

Sara and Max Lipman with Wilfred Lipman. Image courtesy of Special Collections, College of Charleston Libraries.
Rachel Sanders and Deborah Lipman. Image courtesy of Special Collections, College of Charleston Libraries.
Gus Rittenberg's ledger, open to Baltimore Bargain House page. Images courtesy of Special Collections, College of Charleston Libraries.

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.

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