In The Ice Palace Waltz by Barbara L. Baer, two Jewish immigrant families—the rough and ready Western pioneers and the smooth, “our crowd” New Yorkers—come together in a riveting family saga amid the financial and social tumult of early twentieth century America. Below is an exclusive excerpt from the novel.
Leadville, Colorado 1889
In the Leadville bars during long and frigid winter nights, the main topics of conversation went from universal disasters, earthquakes and fires, to local particulars, mine collapses, fires and the falling price for silver. Any gloomy mood was lifted by stories of miraculous wealth from metals, first from gold along the Arkansas River, then silver from the Little Pittsburg and the Bonanza, the Matchless, Fairview and Climax mines. Each story of Leadville’s boom days increased the drinkers’ thirsts and revived memories of that time a decade and more earlier when the snowbound mining camp in the Rocky Mountains had been the richest square mile on earth, a time when veins of silver washed like rain from the Mosquito Range into the Arkansas River Valley.
Maximillian Selig was equally at home at the Elk’s Club Bar, the Texas House or Hyman’s Lodge where Leadville’s leading citizens gathered to play cards and be served drinks by ladies too scantily dressed to be declared decent. Max Selig, his companions might say, was an all right kind of Jew. He told a good story, held his poker hand steady, his blue eyes on his cards. When he won the night’s purse, he stood all his companions, from the mayor to fire and police chiefs, to drinks.
Max justified his evenings out to his wife Sara as necessary to their survival.
“My dear, do you remember that the fire wagons didn’t come fast enough to keep poor Chaim Levy’s shop from going up in flames when his stove exploded? With my connections, the fire trucks won’t wait to come to us.”
Sara visualized fire consuming Selig Bros Groceries and Dry Goods, not an idle fear in a town built of wood where entire streets had burned like match sticks in the past.
“And Sara, beloved wife, I pick up the business news and the politics from men who are making it before it comes out in the Herald Democrat.” Drinking together, Max explained, made Leadville more democratic.
“You’re right, husband,” Sara answered as she returned to her mending. In the morning, she knew her husband’s nose would be redder than usual and he’d wipe it often with his handkerchief, telling customers, “Morning chill in the air, early this year.” But soon he’d be hauling the bags of grain and flour from wagons into the store as briskly as a young man.
When Max had a big win at Faro, or if miners repaid his grubstake, he came home with arms full of flowers, a bottle of champagne for Sara, and a silver dollar for his “Leadville babies,” June and May, the two youngest of the family’s six children, born in the mining town. “Not the cheap stuff,” he said, pouring the girls a bubbly sip, “that’s no more than sugar and water with some yeast, but real champagne all the way from Paris, France. To our own Champs de Élysées!”
Max pretended the champagne bubbles were going to run off the glass before he sucked it all up. “We didn’t know the hard times here, girls. No Harrison Avenue as you see it today. No raised sidewalks with timber supports as we have now. If you can imagine, there weren’t lodgings enough for all the men arriving in carriages or on horseback. They kept coming faster than the camp could put up shelters for them. I’ve heard tales that the poor men slung themselves over ropes to sleep, one on top of the other, like wet clothing your mother hangs on the line. After a few hours rest, back they went into the cold where avalanches and cave-ins threatened. That was the kind of silver fever they had.”
“The miners are still poor, Papa,” said June, the youngest, only twelve, but more outspoken than May, a year older but quieter, who let her sister take the lead.
“Yes, they are, and you both have good hearts to care about them,” Sara said.
Sara never stopped May or June from adding a few more beans and a little extra flour for a miner or his wife. The girls saw how the men never stood up straight and how the women covered their sunken mouths with their hands to conceal their missing teeth. Every Saturday, Sara and her daughters delivered food baskets to shul to be distributed to the Orphan and Widows Home because that was tsedakah, charity that Jews performed to help those less fortunate than themselves.
Max and Sara also liked telling stories about the Jews who’d made fortunes in Leadville. “Meyer Guggenheim, our co-religionist,” Max recounted, “no sooner bought up another man’s hole in the ground than a silver vein gushed up. His sons inherited his Midas touch and got even richer in the smelting business.”
“And don’t forget Mr. Charles Boettcher and Mr. David May.” Sara looked up and smiled. “They arrived with hardly more than supplies in their carriages and now they’re rich men with department stores across the country.”
“Two ladies showed us pistols today, Papa. They said that if we asked them to, they’d fire them out the window for us.” June looked at her father to know if he’d be angry they’d spoken to the parlor girls at Miss Lil’s.
“The poor soiled doves still have to defend themselves, human nature being what it is.” Max turned to share a look with Sara who sighed. “Dears, though our family does not enjoy the luxuries of the rich, there are many less fortunate than ourselves. We have not made the fortunes our co-religionists managed, but we are a happy family.”