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Thanks to a recent donation of photographs, the stories of prominent Canton businessman Leo Abt and his store have been rediscovered. Included in the donation were photographs of Abt’s store, the clerks, portraits of the family, and more pictures whose backstories remain a mystery. The captions on the back of the photos were minimal, often providing only basic information. More research had to be done to uncover their stories. An article found by volunteer Sue Henry gave a valuable start to uncovering Abt’s story. This Canton Repository article, written by Gretchen Putnam in 1937, included a photograph of Abt’s clerks, matching a photo that came to the library in the donation. In her article, a part of the series Canton’s Family Album in the Canton Repository, Putnam identifies the clerks and gives an overview of Abt’s millinery. Using the clerk’s names and this new information, I began researching. Throughout my investigation, I discovered Abt’s personal life story, his professional accomplishments, and overall developed a picture of life in Canton in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Leo Abt was born on December 31, 1850 in Melzungen, Hesse Castle, Germany as the youngest of twelve children. At the age of sixteen, Abt immigrated to the United States. Abt later married fellow German immigrant Flora Ury in New York City on November 8, 1873. On November 22, 1875, the couple had their first son, Arthur Loeser Abt, in the town of Aurora, Indiana on the western border of Ohio. Later, the family moved to Circleville, Ohio, a city just south of Columbus. Here, Leo and Flora had two more sons. Edwin I. was born on March 19, 1878. Two years later on July 9, 1880, Oscar Moses Abt was born. The Abt family arrived in the city of Canton on April 1, 1888.
In his personal life, Abt was a deeply religious man who fostered Canton’s Jewish community from the ground up. In 1915, Abt, with committee of other devoted Jews, began working passionately to create a synagogue for their religious community. Today, this structure is the Canton Pentecostal Temple, located at 950 McKinley Ave Northwest. After Abt’s passing, he was described by Charles I. Cooper as the “father of Jewish communal life in Canton.” Further, he was the beloved president of the Canton Hebrew Congregation at the time of his death. The congregation recalled Abt’s memory as being the “most efficient and faithful member and worker” who “was especially fitted in every way for the position of president.” His congregation also described him as being a “friend to all, and really a father to many.” It is clear that Abt was greatly respected and treasured by his community in faith.
In addition to being a leading figure of the Jewish community, Abt was a prominent Canton businessman. For over thirty years from the time of his arrival in Canton until his passing, Abt was an industrious and hardworking merchant. In early May of 1888, Leo Abt’s New York Bazaar was announced to be opened in the Evening Repository, as the Canton Repository was known then. At the time of its opening, the bazaar was advertised as being located at 21 South Market Street. Today, this would be the lot at the corner of Market Avenue South and 2nd Street Southwest. Days after the opening was announced, on May 14and 16, the bazaar’s grand opening was declared a “great success” in the Evening Repository. The advertisement describes “throngs” of customers in attendance, and apologizes for not being able to help every patron due to the mass of shoppers. The millinery department was particularly popular. In 1937 in the Canton Repository, historian Gretchen Putnam described the busy workroom filled with young female employees, referred to as “trimmers.” These girls included Katie Mintzenburger, who was the head trimmer, Inez E. Allensworth, who later owned and operated her own millinery, sisters Olivia Fierstos and Rosia Victoria Halter, and many more.
Abt continued his business under several different names over the years, including Leo Abt & Sons, and the Leo Abt Company at the time of his passing. In several newspaper advertisements and the photographs of his storefront, the cursive logo from the Abt & Sons era can be seen. Abt’s resiliency as a businessman is demonstrated through his handling of various challenges. For example, in October of 1915, Leo Abt & Sons was declared bankrupt by the United States Bankruptcy Court and was immediately sold. Not even six months later, Abt announced the opening of his new store, the Leo Abt Company in March of 1916.
During my research, I found various newspaper articles that gave insight to what life was truly like for Abt and his employees, both the good times and bad. In June of 1897, Abt’s employees gathered for a pleasant evening of entertainment at the home of W. S. McClelland, just north of Canton. The Evening Repository gives a vivid image of the night: “The spacious lawn was elaborately decorated with Chinese lanterns, and admitted of many outdoor games and pastimes.” The contemporary article mentions the delicious dinner the guests enjoyed, and how the party continued until a late hour.
The newspaper also provides an image of hard times the employees endured. On November 20, 1899, the Repository reported the death of young trimmer Rosia Victoria Halter. This employee was only twenty-five years old when she developed appendicitis. She later passed due to the operation for her illness. The article describes Rosia as being popular with the other girls she worked with. She worked at Abt’s with her younger sister, Olivia, nicknamed Ollie, Fierstos.
Finally, the Evening Repository illustrates how the Abt family celebrated special occasions. On March 26, 1895, the Abt home hosted the wedding of Leo’s sister-in-law Clara Ury and Reverend David Klein. This article describes the beautiful event as “one of the most delightful weddings of the season.” The Abt family’s faith is also shown in the “impressive rituals of the Hebrew ceremony.” These photos and articles offer a brief peek at daily life for Abt and those close to him. They hold the hints left by those who came before us. Following the clues in these documents, you can uncover the most forgotten details to piece back together lost stories.