The Dry Goods Era
Aaron Burtanger was the building’s first owner. He also owned and rented out 117 W. Elder. Above the dry goods shop, the family resided at 115 W. Elder—then numbered 51 Elder—and rented out rooms in the building. Many members of the family worked to keep the business alive. Henrietta worked as a saleslady, and Aaron’s sons at different times also worked as salesmen there.
In the mid-1880s, Aaron and Julia rented 51 Elder to Charles E. Basler and Charles Lorentz who ran their own dry goods shop there. Charles and Charles then moved their business to 53 Elder a few years later. Their business remained there until the turn of the 20th century at which point they sold their merchandise stock.
Charles Basler (1861-1927) was born in 1861 in St. Louis, Missouri; his father was from Austria (but spoke Czech suggesting he was actually Czech, or “Bohemian” as they said back then). Charles was married to a German woman, Louise (Betscher).
After his business with Charles Basler at 115-117 W. Elder ended, Charles Lorentz started a similar venture on his own—Lorentz’s at Race and Elder at Findlay Market—which lasted until 1924 when he sold that business. The Burtanger family lived at the Market for many years, although they also owned a house on Ohio Avenue. Indicative of financial troubles, in 1888, their Findlay Market property was advertised for sale. Local papers stated that if no one bought it soon, it would go to public auction. The family somehow managed to hold onto the property, though.
The following year, Aaron began to rent out his Ohio Avenue house as well. Julia passed away in 1898 at 115 W. Elder from liver cancer. Aaron passed away in 1906. In his will, he specified his desire to be buried next to his wife and that, 115 W. Elder eventually passed to Susan’s daughter Charlotte and son Louis; they owned it until 1937.
Next Door at 53 Elder
Next door, from the late 1860s until the 1880s, John Feldman and his family ran another dry goods store. John and his wife Elizabeth were both German immigrants. Like the Burtangers, John, Elizabeth and their children lived upstairs at 117 W. Elder, then numbered 53 Elder, as they ran their business. In the late 1880s, the Feldmans left Findlay Market.
In their place, George Wetter ran a dry goods business at 53 Elder, yet, he sold that business in 1888 due to financial troubles. Basler & Lorentz then moved into that space where they remained until 1893.
Early 20th-Century Businesses at 115-117 W. Elder
In the years just before the century turned, 51-53 Elder became 115-117 W. Elder. Basler & Lorentz moved out of 117 W. Elder, and in its place, the Great Western Tea Company sold its tea, coffee and grocery products.
Run by Gus Loewenstein Jr., the Great China Tea Company—a grocery store despite the name—utilized several storefronts in Findlay Market over its tenure, including at 111 W. Elder, 133 W. Elder and 117 W. Elder. With multiple locations in addition to the Findlay Market address—including the northeast corner of 6th and Mound, 75 Court near Vine Street, 117 Wade near Cutter and at 528 McMillan—the Great China Tea Company was one of Gus’ many business ventures throughout his life.
August “Gus,” born on February 21st, 1854 in what is now Germany, immigrated in 1870 to America. His family soon became prominent German Jews in Cincinnati. Their home was in—and remained in for generations to come—Avondale, a neighborhood then populated by many other Jewish immigrant families.
Gus’ first business was that of butchering, though he went on to run multiple grocery businesses. During his time at Findlay Market, he graduated from Hebrew Union College, located on W. 6th Street under Rabbi Isaac Wise. In 1905, Kroger acquired the Great China Tea Company. Thereafter, Gus—free of that business venture—continued to sell tea and grocery goods under his own name. While he did not utilize a Findlay Market storefront anymore, he continued to work downtown and in Walnut Hills, like he had for the Great China Tea Company.
He passed away in 1928, ten years after his wife. Both were buried at the Clifton United Jewish Cemetery. After its acquisition, Kroger used the storefronts at 115 (and soon 117) W. Elder—as well as 133 W. Elder—for its produce and goods. The son of German immigrants, Bernard H. Kroger (1860-1938) grew up in the dry goods business with his father being in the trade.
Sadly, his father’s store ended with the financial panic of 1873 and the subsequent economic depression. Bernard—commonly called Barney—then worked in his teenage years in a drugstore and on a farm to support his family. He soon became a door-to-door salesman for the Imperial Tea Company on W. 6th Street in Cincinnati, selling tea and coffee for that business.
But in the early 1880s, he branched out on his own and, with his friend and fellow grocery clerk Barney Branagan, started the Great Western Tea Company at 66 East Pearl Street. Bernard himself for a time went out every day on a wagon to solicit people’s orders around town. First selling only tea and coffee, Bernard installed a store apparatus for brewing and tasting the coffee and tea onsite. He soon expanded to offer affordably-priced groceries (as a way to cut out the competition) and grew his stores to thirty by 1900. In 1902, the name was changed to the Kroger Grocery and Baking Company.
By the time Kroger absorbed the Great China Tea Company, it owned 119 stores. Innovative and hardworking, Bernard also sought to have an edge on his market. He ordered the construction of Kroger bakeries and a packing-house so his stores had fresh bread and meat departments. As Kroger’s used 117 W. Elder in the early 1900s, next door, one could find Moses Goldsmith’s notions shop. Moses (1848-1912) was a German Jewish immigrant from Prussia who ran a notions store at 121 W. Elder (now Luken Warehouse) in the late 1800s.
An early immigrant to Cincinnati, he started as a peddler, selling shoestrings and popcorn around Findlay Market. He then invested his savings in his notions business, using real estate acquisitions and sales to finance his company. It worked, for he became a millionaire. His wife Lena (Black) (1849-1932) was his business partner. . Around World War I, Augusta Pandorf (1857-1952) ran her own notions business at 115 W. Elder (the Pandorfs had worked as sales clerks under the Goldsmith business).
During the 1920s and early ‘30s, the Loshinsky Brothers—Morris and Hyman—turned 115 W. Elder into a clothing and dress goods shop. They ran their Findlay Market operation in conjunction with a shop on W. Court Street. A Polish Jewish immigrant, Morris was born in 1880 in the tsarist Russian Empire (in Grodno, now in western Belarus). He immigrated to the U.S. in the first years of the 20th century (sources listed 1902, 1903 and 1907 for this) with his wife and members of his extended family. Morris’ younger brother and business partner, Hyman (1894-1960), was born in 1894.
He immigrated in the early 1900s with his family, like Morris did, and also went to New York City. As Morris and Annie lived with Samuel and Ida in Manhattan, Hyman—who was quite a bit younger than his older brothers—lived with his parents, Israel and Jennie, and his siblings, Sarah, Zacharie, Beckie and Dora, in the city. Hyman moved to Cincinnati with Morris but soon left again, as he served in the Army during World War I. Once back from the war, though, the two brothers went into business with each other, selling dress goods. After the Loshinsky brothers’ business, beginning in 1933, Adolph Saphir (1890-1979) ran a dry goods operation at 115 W. Elder, known as Saphir Dry Goods, and August P. Steffler sold meat cuts at 117 W. Elder.
Born in 1890 in the heavily-Jewish village of Kovno, Lithuania (in what was then the Russian Empire), Adolph Saphir—a carpenter by training—immigrated to the U.S. in 1909. On his World War I draft registration, he listed himself as five feet and four inches tall, with black hair and grey eyes. It seems he went to Cincinnati first where he set up his own dry goods establishment at 103 W. Elder by the First World War. But he also spent time in Chicago, as that was where he married Rose Drury (1898-1988), also from Lithuania, in 1922. Adolph and Rose did well for themselves as Findlay Market merchants, eventually owning property in the West End.
By World War II, Adolph moved his shop, which eventually specialized in women’s clothing, over to 110 W. Elder on the Market where he remained into the early 1960s. Only in 1964 did he retire. He passed away in 1979 and his wife in 1988. In the early 1930s, 117 W. Elder housed a baking company—the American Baking Company—and midway through the Great Depression, August P. Steffler (1903-1972) was a butcher who worked next door to the Saphir’s business.
Born in Germany in 1903, he came to the U.S. in 1920. Married to a German woman named Augusta who immigrated one year after him, August raised three daughters, Helen, Hilda and Ruth, with her.
The Elder Street Gas Explosion
Joseph Boehnlein, the butter and eggs dealer at Findlay Market, purchased 115 W. Elder from Charlotte Fernberg in 1937 (Joseph ran his business at 113 W. Elder from 1915 to 1945). At this time, 117 W. Elder was then used by Joseph K. Koebbe (1907-1940) and Elmer Jack Campbell for their heating appliance shop; inside 115 W. Elder, Benjamin Burgin (1894-1973), a Jewish immigrant from Russia, ran a wholesale outlet shop.
On Tuesday, December 17th, 1940, at 3am, an explosion ripped through 115-117 W. Elder, leveling the two buildings and killing fourteen people, including Joseph Koebbe, Elmer Jack Campbell (the last body to be found) and many others who lived in the buildings and were sleeping.
A dense cloud of smoke and dust followed the explosion; then fire broke out. The explosion “pushed apart” the buildings, as the Post reported, and one cellar door from either 115 or 117 W. Elder was blown 200 feet. Telephone poles were similarly wrecked, with wires strewn about. There was glass and debris all over the Market. The south frame wall of the market house carried scars from the blast, as did all the other nearby buildings.
The (only) good piece of news was that the joist from the upper floors at 115 W. Elder fell in such a way that it created a kind of tunnel over one hallway to upper floors which allowed a mother and her small children to escape.
The rear of 115 W. Elder was barely still standing, as was the rear of 117 W. Elder. Attending police—who had been on their beat near Race and Green Streets and heard a strange sound accompanied by windows of nearby buildings shaking and then breaking—said the wreckage looked like a scene from the blitzkrieg of London that was occurring then, as it was World War II. Investigations involving the City of Cincinnati, with help from the University of Cincinnati chemical engineering department, ultimately concluded that a gas leak was the culprit.
Most of the evidence suggested its origin was in the basement of Koebbe’s shop (from a ventless gas heater). Hours before the accident, Benjamin Burgin had noticed smelly fumes coming from Joseph’s shop.
After this tragedy, the current building that stands at 115-117 W. Elder was built in 1961. From then until the 1990s, Whitey’s Produce occupied this new space. Evelyn Manis (1916-1999) and her husband Floyd (1921-1975) owned the store. In 2002, the City of Cincinnati purchased 115-117 W. Elder. The one-story building currently houses Mama Made It, a gourmet popcorn shop.