The Benows and Schoenbergers: Jewish legacies of downtown Scottville.

December 12, 2020

Schoenberger Food Store about 1950. This section of the store was the former Henke Meat Market.

The Benows and Schoenbergers: Jewish legacies of downtown Scottville.

Around the County is a presentation of Preferred Credit Union, www.preferredcu.org, located locally at 266 N. Jebavy Dr., Ludington.

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.

Hanukkah 2020 began Thursday evening and continues until evening of Friday, Dec. 18. While Mason County has seen some increase in ethnic and racial diversity over the past several years, it is not exactly known as a destination for those of the Jewish faith. However, during much of the 20th century, downtown Scottville was the home of two prominent Jewish-owned stores, Schoenberger Food Store (later known as Schoenberger’s Market) and Benow’s Department Store. The two stores held a connection beyond a shared faith, they also shared a family connection as well. 

Benow’s Department Store, located at 120 S. Main St., was started in 1917 in the N. Gordon Building by Abraham “Abe” and Anna Benow. In the early 1950s, the store was taken over by Abe’s son Norm. In 1977, the business was sold to Robert “Bobby” Pinkerton, Jr. and his wife, Marlene, who ran it until it closed in the early 1990s. 

Schoenberger Food Store was located at 121 S. Main St. in Scottville and was started by Abraham “Abbie” Schoenberger in 1931, in the previous location of Henke Meat Market. Abbie was joined by his wife, Genevieve, after they were married in 1937. The Schoenbergers owned the business until selling it to Kenny Stark in 1983. 

An early photograph of the Gordon and Pierce bulidings, 120, 122, and 124 S. Main St. Benow’s occupied 120 S. Main from 1917 until the early 1990s.

Abe Benow was born Dec. 12, 1890 in the town of Oshmena, Poland near the municipality of Wilna (In 1947, the Curzon Line drew new boundaries for Poland and Oshmena became Ashmyany, Belarus and Wilna became Vilnius, Lithuania.). According to U.S. Census records, he immigrated to the United States in 1906 and by 1920 had moved to Scottville. 

Anna Orwant Benow was born March 21, 1888. Records on ancestry.com indicate that she also was born in the same town as Abe. Immigration records show that she arrived in the U.S. in 1895, 11 years before Abe.

According to local historian George C. Wilson, Lithuanians were the last of the European immigrants to come to the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They often were brought here to work on the railroads or often in places such as lumber camps in northern Michigan. Jews were often merchants who made their ways into small towns across the country. There are no records of why Abe came to Scottville but it would make sense that his combination of being from the Poland-Lithuanian Commonwealth and also being Jewish, brought him to Mason County, which was home of several successful lumber companies. During the dominant lumber company was owned by Justus Stearns. 

Abe Benow and Anna Orwant were married in Grand Rapids, where they were residing at the time, on March 5, 1912. The following year, on May 9, 1913, their son, Norm, was born while they were living in Stanton in Montcalm County. While this is speculation, it is likely Abe was working in another family business during this time — which is common, even to this day, among immigrant families/ethnic groups that follow a particular trade. A 1916 Polk City Directory lists the Benows as living in Flint and lists Abe as a merchant. 

It’s likely they came to Scottville because of an opportunity to purchase an existing business. An early photograph in the author’s collection shows the N. Gordon Building, built in 1915, with another business name (unreadable) on the awning. This business probably was sold within a couple years of opening. 

The Benows resided at 109 S. Columbia Avenue in a home that exists to this day. His phone number exchange was 87. 

Not much is recorded about Abe Benow’s parents. One family tree lists his parents names as Morris, born in 1876, and G. (Gittleman) Benow. Several articles published in the Ludington Daily News in the summer of 1930 told the tale of Abe Benow’s much anticipated trip back to his homeland of Poland. A June 29, 1930 article stated that Abe Benow was returning to his paternal home after an absence of 24 years. He was set to sail on the steamship Stuttgaard out of New York City harbor on July 7. “His home is at Oshmena, a small town near Wilna, on the extreme west boundary near the Russian boundary.  On his return Mr. Benow will stop in Berlin and Danzig and will come through Warsaw. He plans to be away several months, expecting to return early in September.”

An Aug. 10, 1930 article tells how Anna Benow received a letter from Abe’s mother telling about the visit. 

“He was greeted by a large crowd of relatives including his mother, sister, and brother. He then spent time with mother and sister at summer resort at Zarney-bor.

“Mr. Benow spent three days in Berlin on his way to Poland.”

This would have been a time of the early days of the Nazi Party’s rise in Germany and the beginning of the Great Depression, though Germany had already had many economic and political challenges since the end of World War I in 1918. However, the article makes no reference to any concerns of antisemitic activities. 

Genevieve Schoenberger brought dance instruction to Mason County.

There are no further articles about Mr. Benow returning back to Europe again. There also are no further online references to his family. Since his father isn’t mentioned in the articles, it’s quite likely he had already passed away when Abe visited. It’s unknown if Abe’s mother or siblings escaped the Nazi occupation that killed 3.3 million Polish Jews, who at the time consisted of 11% of the Polish population. Only 369,000 Jews, 11 percent of the Jewish Polish population, survived the Holocaust. 

Abe and Anna Benow had two children, Norm, born in 1913 (died in 1998), and Betty Loraine, born in 1923 (died in 2008). 

Abbie Schoenberger was born in Ludington in 1907, to Russian immigrants Morris (1861-1940) and Mollie Elisohn (1867-1945). 

According to U.S. Census records, the Schoenbergers arrived in the U.S. in 1885. They were married on June 14, 1894 in Milwaukee. Mr. Schoenberger’s 1940 obituary stated that he had been a butcher in the Ludington area for over 50 years. The 1920 Census lists them as living at 601 E. Danaher St.

Morris and Mollie had five children, four daughters: Dora (1897-1990); Bessie (1899-1975); Clara (1901 to 1994); Sarah (1904-1983); and one son, Abraham “Abbie” (1908-1980). 

The author will continue to research the history of the Schoenberger meat store legacy in Ludington to find out when Morris went into business and where it was located. A published article stated that Abbie owned stores in Ludington, Scottville, and Baldwin but the Scottville store was the business that flourished and outlasted the others. 

Abbie was a bachelor working in his store when he spotted Genevieve Siegel, the niece of Anna Benow, walking past his store. He declared he was going to marry her and he did, in 1937. 

Genevieve’s legacy in Mason County could be its own story. She was a business partner to her husband, working the cash register at the Scottville store for over 40 years. She also introduced formal dance classes to Mason County. 

Genevieve (1910-1995) was the daughter of Abraham and Hattie (Orwant) Siegel, also Jewish Polish immigrants. A 1940 Census record indicates the Siegels were divorced. According to an article posted on the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan’s website, Hattie raised her children alone. Genevieve’s siblings included Harold (1917-1980); and twins Mary Ann (1921-1996) and Ruth Ann (1921-2004). She was a 1929 graduate of Grand Rapids Union High School and then worked as a cleaning lady and au pair to pay her way through Michigan State Normal College, now Eastern Michigan University. She graduated in 1932 and taught school in Mt. Clemens and Grand Rapids before marriage. 

Genevieve paid for her twin sisters to take dance lessons in Grand Rapids. They later performed as the Dolly Sisters during World War II. 

Abbie and Genevieve operated an anchor business in downtown Scottville but lived in the anchor home of Ludington, the Cartier mansion at 409 E. Ludington Ave. The Schoenbergers had three children, Marlene (1939-2002), Maurice (born in 1941) and Lana (born in 1942). 

South Main Street in the 1940s.

In the 1940s Genevieve drove her children to dance and Jewish education classes in Grand Rapids. When she found a qualified dance teacher to come to Ludington, she dropped the trips to Grand Rapids and opened the carriage house behind the mansion as a dance studio. Local dance instructor Letha Fulton began her training under Genevieve. 

In her 40s, she began her own dance training in ballet and Spanish dance. For years she took a Greyhound bus to Detroit to study with noted teacher Theodore Smith.  

George C. Wilson described the Schoenbergers as some of the most generous people Scottville and the rest of Mason County has ever had. He said Abbie had a very outgoing personality (and a little bit of a temper) and gave to many local charities, especially those that helped children. 

Genevieve was also an advocate for expanding the Ludington State Park. 

Abe and Anna are buried at Greenwood Cemetery in Grand Rapids while Abbie and Genevieve are buried at Oakhill Cemetery in Grand Rapids.

The Schoenbers and the Benows families were just two of the many families that helped to make Scottville a bustling town in the 20th century. They were accepted with open arms and integrated into the community while still maintaining a pride and connection to their heritage and religion. Their businesses, which once were dominant fixtures on South Main Street, are no longer here and can never be replaced. But, for those of us who were lucky enough to grow up in a time when those stores did exist, we are thankful they chose Scottville as their home and thank them for the memories. 

Editor’s Note: The Benows and Schoenbergers were not the only Jewish families to do business in the Scottville area in the 20th century. Michael Shwartz, a Holocaust survivor owned Sugar Grove Market, located on the northeast corner of US 31 and Sugar Grove Road in Sherman Township. Mr. Schwartz passed away in September of this year. It is the author’s hope to feature him in the very near future. 

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