As Jewish people across Europe were trying to flee their homes to escape the Nazis, the population in Orange was celebrating the election of a Jewish mayor.
Abe Sokolski, a local businessman and six-year member of the City Commission, handily won election as mayor in 1940.
One citizen wrote a letter to a local paper saying “What is your answer to Hitler? Our Mayor-elect, the honorable Abe Sokolski? Our Abe!” The information comes from the Institute of Southern Jewish Life’s website. The article says “To this Orange voter, electing a Jewish man highlighted America’s freedom in contrast to the anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany.”
Orange had a prominent Jewish population during the late Nineteenth Century and into the Twentieth Century. Though the local Jewish community never built a synagogue, they established a cemetery, Hebrew Rest. The cemetery is along North Eighth Street in what is now the Brownwood neighborhood. When the cemetery was established in 1907, the land would have been a few miles north of town.
The late historian W.T. Block wrote that “Orange developed a small nucleus of Jews even before Beaumont.” He found that James Solinsky and Wolf Bluestein arrived in Orange in 1876, which would be two years before Henry Jacob Lutcher of Pennsylvania moved to town with his Lutcher and Moore Lumber Co.
Bluestein would later relocate to Beaumont. But he led to Sokolski’s family moving here from Indiana. In 1965, Sokolski’s widow told the Orange Leader, that Bluestein was the maternal uncle of her husband. The newspaper did the interview at her home, 402 W. Orange Avenue.
She said Bluestein had opened a business at Front and Fifth streets. Even though the Bluestein building had burned at one time, another building was constructed on the site, she said. Abe’s Incorporated, which included Sokolski’s menswear store, operated at the address from 1918 until 1949, the year Sokolski died.
Brothers Julius and Leopold Miller moved to Orange in 1881 from New Orleans. The Historical Review of Southeast Texas, in a story about Leopold Miller, said he was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1853. The Millers’ father, Adolphe, was a cigar maker. Leopold moved to New Orleans in 1869 and married Camilla Kaiser in that city ten years later. They moved to Orange 1881.
Leopold Miller died in 1916 in Orange and had operating his mercantile store for 25 years. During the years he was in Orange, he compiled a long list of accomplishments and accolades, along with accumulating a fortune. The Historical Review of Southeast Texas reported he established a shingle mill in 1898 and improved the plant. Four years later, he sold the plant to the Lutcher and Moore Lumber Co., one of the largest in the South.
He served as president for the Orange & Northwestern Railroad, the Orange Rice Milling Co., the Orange Wholesale Grocery Co., and the Eastern Land and Lumber Co.
He was a vice president of First Bank and part owner of the grand Holland Hotel in downtown. In addition, he served on the Orange City Commission.
The Orange Daily Tribune on August 26, 1903, reported that several of Orange’s prominent, and wealthiest, citizens went to Nome to see an oil gusher. “Mr. L. Miller is fortunately possessed of nearly 1,000 acres of land almost alongside of the new well and his holdings at that point alone are likely to make him a millionaire. There is no one in Orange who knows this veteran merchant and financier who does not feel gratified at this strike simply for the good it will do Leopold Miller.
Another prominent Jewish businessman was Harry Crager, who was born in New York and was living in Orange by 1895. He owned and operated Crager’s Dry Goods Store. He was elected to the Orange City Commission in 1903. The Institute of Southern Jewish Life said Crager died in 1904 and his widow, Freda, a native of Louisiana, continue to run the store.
M.B. Aronson emigrated from Russia to the United States in 1890 and opened a grocery store in Orange in 1894. His brother, Goodman, also moved to Orange and the business grew to become a small East Texas chain. M.B. Aronson’s brother bought his share in 1918 and ran the company for the next 20 years.
Max Goldfine also moved from Russia and came to the United States in 1907. He and his wife ran Goldfine’s in the early 1920s days of the Orangefield oil boom. He also had a department store in downtown Orange. He opened a shoe store after World War II and it remained opened through the mid-1960s.
The Institute of Southern Jewish Life also said Orange’s first physician to specialize in ear, nose and throat was Dr. H.J. Kaplan, who moved to Orange in 1939.
One of Orange’s leading citizens for many years was Joe Lucas, who owned a jewelry store in downtown. In the early 20th century, jewelers also served as opticians who made eyeglasses. For decades, Lucas provided the gold medals to the valedictorians of Orange High School. In addition, his store carried the gold watches awarded to the boy and girl winners of the Stark Reading Contest at the high school. He served as an officer in a number of business ventures and was a witness to the will of Frances Ann Lutcher, the matriarch of the Stark and Brown families.
Lucas and his wife, Annie, built a two-story house at 812 W. Pine Avenue in 1907. Additions to the house turned it into a grand showplace. Today, the house still stands and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and it has a Texas Historical Marker. Joe Lucas died in 1944 and his wife continued to live in the house until 1965. She died in 1978 when she was 99 years old.
Descendants of the pioneering Jewish families did not stay in Orange and gradually the population decreased. The Joe Spector family operated businesses through the post-war years and the Joe Grossman owned a jewelry store.
-Margaret Toal, KOGT-