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A Peddler's Progress

Date of First WritingMarch 6, 1939
Name of Person InterviewedMr. Nathan Schapiro
Fictitious NameMr. Pollykoff
Street Address33 South Street
PlaceUnion, S. C.
Name of WriterCaldwell Sims
Name of ReviserE. F. Kennedy


Nathan Pollykoff [Schapiro], one time cobbler and peddler, paused a moment, his head bowed in thought. Then, looking up, he began the tale of his life:

From the time I was three, fear of the Russian Czar was instilled in me. Alexander III was a cruel despot, feared by all his subjects. All that my parents made to keep their family up was taken by the state. It was cold and my parents did not have enough to keep me in warm clothes or give me proper food, but the Czar lived in royal splendor. His subjects were forced to loyalty under the strict militarism of the regime.

When I was twenty I went into the Russian Army, by compulsion. Every boy who did not enter the service was punished by life imprisonment or death.

From the time I was a little boy I heard of America where one could choose to do what one desired and where one did not have to take military training. I wanted to come to America when I was eighteen years old, yes, even before I had reached that age, but my parents did not have any money for me to come on. I think they would have willingly let me come if they had been able to furnish the money.

While I was being trained in the Russian Army, Alexander III died and Nicholas II came to the throne. The new Czar gave his soldiers three pounds of black bread a day a few ounces of grits, and one-half pound of wormy beef. We had our clothes furnished also. They were not sufficient for the rigors of the climate, but we could not get any more, for we were paid only forty-five cents every two months in the Russian Army. He [Nicholas II] had the entire family of Alexander beheaded as soon as he came into power. Civil warfare went on for over a year. I made up my mind that I would sail to America as soon as I could save enough money to get me across.

I was born on the edge of the Baltic Sea and learned my father's trade, that of a shoemaker. In the army I drilled and cobbled shoes for the regiment. When I was discharged from the army we were stationed on the Black Sea. Then I was twenty-five years of age. I immediately took up my trade of cobbler. I ate little and had little, and I saved every penny I could to get enough to go to America. I had a cousin who had escaped and gone to live in Baltimore. He was doing well as a peddler in that city. I worked and stinted in Cozark, Russia, and people came to me in steady numbers to get me to make their shoes. When a year had passed I slipped out of Russia and made my way to Bremen, Germany, because I could speak good German, and of course Russian. Here I went in with a German cobbler and made shoes for six months. Then I went steerage to Baltimore on a Dutch boat, the name of which I do not remember. We were on the ocean twenty-two days, but as it was spring the sea was calm and we had no unusual experiences.

When we docked in Baltimore I had twenty-one cents in foreign money. It was exchanged for American money before I got off the boat and I had seven cents! My cousin Levine in Baltimore met me at the boat. We stopped in a drug store and I bought a package of cigarettes and two boxes of matches, paying five cents for the cigarettes, and a cent each for the matches. I was broke. Levine took me with him and kept me. The next day we went to a broker and Levine bought me a set of tin ware - buckets, dippers and pans. I set out to peddle with him, but I could not speak one word of English.

For one month I peddled the tin ware, but my sales were slow. I did not know American ways. A few people could speak German in Baltimore, but none but my cousin could speak Russian. So at the end of the month I went to a German cobbler and got him to take me into his shoe shop. My cousin was planning to go into the South to peddle. The old German cobbler's shop was on Eutaw Street. He told me that I had to work two weeks free, to learn the trade. I told him that my father had brought me up in the trade. But you do not know the American way he replied. So I worked two weeks for nothing but my board. I got along well here and kept busy.

When spring came, Levine left for South Carolina. He stayed a year and spent most of it in Union. When he came back to Baltimore I was still in the shoe shop. He and I lived together again. Another summer and winter went by and Levine planned to go to South Carolina in the spring. I wanted to go with him, but I did not have enough money to go on the train, and that was the way he was going. So one day he said, Well you have paid all back that I advanced you when you first came over here, so if you want to I'll take care of you until you can get South and make good. Then you may pay me back what you owe me with interest on my money this time

So we came to Union on the train. That was forty-two or forty-three years ago now. We got a room with a Mrs. Porter, whose husband was on the police force. They lived in front of the courthouse. Levine had stopped with them when he had been there the year before. Jim Porter was so nice to us. His wife gave us board and room for only $1.50 a week! She had good food and our room was very nice. I could hardly believe it. Things were so cheap. People came up to us to talk, and they liked to hear us. They were friendly; and although they seemed amused at our expressions, they were kind and trustworthy.

There were more Jews in Union than there are now. They all had rooms at Porters. Often Mrs. Porter had the things to eat that we wanted, especially on holidays. She bought geese and we fattened them and killed them according to the way we were taught in our religious rites. All game that we ate at Mrs. Porter's was prepared for cooking by us, and only goose grease and butter were used for frying. You see we never use hog lard or hog meat in our diet. Both Mr. and Mrs. Porter were kind-hearted people, and when we fixed our meats the way we had to have it, the Porters just ate it as we did. I liked American cooking, however. We went to Spartanburg to the synagogue there. I still go there to worship. Things in the South were very different from what they were in the north. People talked more slowly and moved more slowly, like they did in Germany. I began to pick up more English in Union than I had been able to do in Baltimore. A rural town is quite different from a city anywhere.

My cousin got us both a pack the first Monday morning and we walked into the country together. He wanted to show me how to approach country people and how to display my wares. After that first day we went separate roads. There were five peddlers at Porter's then. They worked all over Union County. I sold notions, needles, pins, buttons, belts, suspenders, hair pins, linens and piece goods. Forty-three years ago farmers never came to town over once a month. Their wives hardly ever came more than twice a year! Peddlers were welcome with joy and great curiosity. Women and children would hang over a peddler's pack for hours admiring his goods. Nearly all the things dear to a woman's heart, for her person and for her house, were selected in those days from peddlers.

My cousin told me that when the sun began to go down I must inquire how far it was to the home of a propserous farmer, so that I could reach his house for shelter and a night's lodging. I soon learned how to do this. People were very kind in those days, and, whether acquaintances or strangers, travelers were always asked to stop over for the night, if they happened [to be] at a home near dusk. Peddlers were welcomed by all classes as night guests. They could give so much current and local news, and in those days to have company over night was an event. In winter no one travelled over the muddy roads except peddlers. People lived quiet, upright lives in those days. As a stranger in Union I had no difficulty in borrowing a sum of money as high as twenty-five dollars without a note or any kind of paper as security. In those days a gentleman's word was his bond. All Union county seemed like one big family to me then.

Never shall I forget the first time that I spent the night in a farm house. I was working in the Cross Keys community. I, a stranger who spoke very broken English and who did not know a soul, found night falling. A Negro told me that I was not far from the home of Mr. Wylie Humphries. My pack was heavy and my feet ached, for I had peddled all day. When I arrived at the gate, dogs began barking. Four of them ran to the gate and growled angrily at me. But they were hounds, so in a few minutes they were wagging their tails in welcome over me and barking friendly at me, as their master came down the front walk. You know a dog can tell a good and honest man quicker than a human and why I do not know; but when a dog and a little child won't warm up to a stranger, there is something wrong with his character. Mr. Humphries held his hand out to me; and I knew he was welcoming me when he pushed the dogs back and opened his front gate. He took me into the house and his wife came out. I could not tell them in English that I wanted to spend the night, but I made signs and they made signs back. I knew more of what they were saying than they did of what I was saying. Well, they gave me my supper, a comfortable bed and a nice breakfast. The next morning, when I offered money, they shook their hands and waved the offer away. Then I opened my pack and spread everything in it out on the furniture and the floor of the Humphrie's(sic.) parlor. Neither wanted anything, and I could not make them understand that I did not want money. I wanted to make them a gift in appreciation of their kindness to me over the night. But I could not say that then in English, and I did not know how to make them understand by making signs, so I held up some things that I thought they would like. When they said pretty,I laid the articles aside. Finally when I had held up everything in my pack there were three things that they had said pretty over. One was a pair of suspenders, one a piece of Irish lace, and the other was a piece of four-cents calico. So these I pressed into their hands when I closed my pack. Then they caught on to what I was after, and they invited me back any time I wanted to come. I stopped there often, and the Humphries became warm friends of mine, and they still are.

When I stopped at a farm house where the people were renters, they sometimes charged for the night lodging twenty-five cents. They always explained that they hated to do so, but were poor and not wealthy land-owners. Even then, if I wanted to, I could pay in material. I was strong then, and even though I went all day on foot it did not bother me. Roads were bad and I got along faster on foot than I would have in a wagon. When the days were hot, I would sit down on the bank of a stream and rest, often removing my shoes and bathing my tired feet for perhaps twenty minutes in the cool water of the stream. Another thing, in those days all of the streams of little consequence were forded and the larger ones were crossed on a flatboat. Now, as I ride along the highways, I have to stop and think where I am crossing Tosh and Shoaly and Tinker. They are hidden far below the fills by culverts. But those streams were pretty, and the approaches to them on the old county wagon roads were mighty restful sights on hot summer days. Open springs were plentiful in those days forty-odd years back, and they were used by travellers(sic.) to refresh themselves as well as to quinch the thirst of the beast that pulled the vehicle. Things went slowly in those days. If I made ten calls a day I thought I was doing fine, but out of those ten calls I averaged at least seven sales.

The farmers depended on the peddlers. When they got to know you well, they bought all the things that they needed from you. If a farmer wanted something you did not have, you got it and brought it on your next visit to his house. Some of my good customers would not buy from any of the other four peddlers in the county at all. The other four had their exclusive customers as well as I. If a new peddler came into a community, and the old ones did not take a fancy to him for some reason, all we had to do was to let the word go around that the new peddler was no good and he had to leave soon or either starve. Some of my customers that I made when I peddled in the country were my best store customers as long as I was in business.

Often I stopped at McKissick's crossing. Mr. John McKissick ran a gin there then and had a general mercantile store. He liked me and he used to ask me how much my pack weighed and if it did not tire me. I never had weighed it, so one morning when I took it off my back he put the pack on his cotton scales and it weighed 210 pounds! I myself was surprised that I could carry so much on my back. If anyone had told me that it weighed that much I would not have believed it. But I saw what the scales pulled. Often I spent the night at McKissick's Crossing. This was a great community center thirty years ago. The train stopped there then. After Mr. McKissick and I became friends I would be his guest over night. He lived in the house that you call the Ellis Palmer place. The place then was in better shape than it now is. There was a double row of cedars up the drive then and the front yard was laid off in flower beds bordered with little boxwood. I did not know the name of any flowers, but I liked to smell the boxwood in the garden, and the cedar, and in the spring the flowers in the beds gave off a pleasant perfume.

I was beginning to make some money for myself. I had been in Union three years. Levine has long since bought a horse and buggy. All the peddlers had buggies but me. Berlewortz went as far as Whitmire with his outfit, while I on foot could not make more than seven miles any day. Those fellers with turnouts could make ten miles in two hours! I had saved about $200.00[.] I had made up my mind, when I started out, that everytime I got that amount I would make a change. So I bought my first horse from Mr. Perry Whisenant for $138.00 and named her Nell. I arranged for her to stay in the Porter livery stable. Mr. Porter gave me a bridle(sic.) for Nell and Mr. Whisenant gave me a set of old harness. I wanted a light one-horse wagon, so I went to Mr. L. G. Young's store and bargained with him for a wagon for $57.00. I needed a little ready cash every Saturday, so I did not pay cash for the wagon, but signed an agreement with Mr. Young to pay him so much the first of every month, until I had the wagon all paid for. Mr. Porter and Mr. Whisenant taught me how to put the harness on Nell and how to hitch her up. They had a lot of fun off of me when I did not know how to cluck to her; and neither did I know how to drive. Mr. Porter went driving down by Gage Spring with me to show me how to handle the reins on a hill. Nell was very gentle and I got along fine with her. She did not have to be hitched when I stopped, but would wait on me with the reins dropped over the dashboard until I finished a sale.

Soon I got a cover for my wagon and a blanket for the horse. Then we fared better in wet weather. I carried a lantern in cold weather to warm my hands and feet. Then I carried a large can of kerosene to sell to the farmers. This can was fastened under the back of my wagon. Once the road was so muddy that I lost my can of kerosene off in the red mud on the Gist Bridge road. But I got it back the next day. As I made better time, I went into new territory.

The Gilliams lived in the Governor Gist Mansion then. It belonged to Governor Gist's granddaughter, Mrs. R. P. Harry. Mr. Gilliam was Mrs. Harry's overseer. He laways(sic.) [always?] insisted that I spend the night with him. I liked to stay there, and I slept in what was known as the ball room. Then it was furnished with Gist antiques. My bed was a heavy mahogany four-poster with a featherbed under you and a light one to cover you. At night after supper Mr. Gilliam would sit around the fire and drink brandy until he became very drunk. When we retired he always wanted to sleep with me. When I could, I got to my room and barred the great door before he could get up the steps. Then I waited in the darkness until he had called. I did not answer and he would go away. The next morning at breakfast he would mention how quickly I got to sleep. I would tell him that his supper and the brandy had such a soothing effect on me. When he did get into the room I got no sleep for he would talk until way in the night; then when he did fall into a drunken sleep he would roll all over me so that it was impossible for me to rest. As he never caught on to my foolin' I spent the night there a lot and usually managed to dodge him. Before I left the next morning he would buy a large supply of things for [from?] me, after I had made the proper gifts for the night's lodging. After I got Nell and the wagon, if people charged for the night, they fed me and the horse and sheltered us both for fifty cents and gave us breakfast and supper.

Roads were bad around that community and sometimes I spent several nights in the week at the Gist Mansion and worked out from there every day. From there I could work lower Cross Keys and the western part of Goshen Hill. All of the ladies in Goshen Hill bought from me many linens and laces. I also sold goods to several stores in that section. All these people were my friends and they were good customers.

Pea Ridge was not as properous then as it is now, and the people there were much rougher than those from Goshen, Fish Dam and Cross Keys. But up in Pinckney Township I again found people of culture and wealth like those of the old world, and I spent the night often at Mr. Dunne's. He was an old Charleston merchant who had retired except for his country store at his estate Leonard Hall. From there I went down the river road to Lockhart, to Santuc township, to the Meadors and Crosbys and on to the Hawkins. That old road made these places closer together than they are now by our present roads. It is grown up in woods now. Time has erased a lot of familiar landmarks.

Every Saturday night found me in Jay Cohen's store. Mr. Cohen credited me with the very first pack that I started out in Union with. Levine introduced us. Each week I settled with Mr. Cohen by paying him up on Saturday night for the pack of goods that I had taken out Monday morning. Then I refilled my wagon before I left the store on Saturday night so that I could get an early start on the next Monday morning. Mr. Cohen had started as a peddler himself. After a few years I had saved another $200.00 and so I thought of opening me a store. Levine had returned to Baltimore, for good, to go into the paint business there as a wholesaler.

Mr. MacBeth Young was running a little confectionery store. I bought this place and Mr. Young's stock of goods for $200.00 in cash. Just about this time I married the first time, A Gentile lady of Union, who lived only ten years. She helped me to sell in this, my first store. She spoke excellent English and stayed at the front. We were married about 1905 or '06 by the Rev. Lewis M. Rice. We had no children. Soon after my wife's death I sold out to a Mr. Sligh who also paid me in cash money $350.00. I never kept any books while I was in this store, but we had a comfortable living and we owed no money when my wife died. But in those days a lot of little merchants never kept books. Unless you ran a credit business you did not dream of keeping books! In those days I had no business worries.

After my wife died, I was sad, restless, and unsettled. When Sligh bought me out, I went immediately to Baltimore to visit Levine who was making quite a success of his paint business. I stayed there a long time and helped him in his store. But I was not satisfied in Baltimore and then I knew that I felt more at home in Union, so I returned to Union and decided to open a dry goods store, for I knew the dry goods business best.

I had deposited my cash in the Merchant's and Planters Bank in Union of which Capt. F. M. Farr was then president. Dr. S. S. Linder was one of my friends and also my physician. One day while we were talking he told me that he had about $200.00[.] He laughed, for he knew how I always dealt with denominations of $200.00. So the conversation ended by my getting that amount from old Dr. Linder. Then I went into the bank to have a talk with Capt. Farr. I told him that I wanted him to go on a note with me for $200.00 and also told him about getting the like amount from Dr. Linder. He said, Well, you have a little over that amount deposited here, I told him that I wanted to leave that for my drawing account. He thought the plan a good one. My next step was to rent a place for my big new store. I rented a place from Doc Foster on Gadberry Street, a big place for me.

One of the peddlers in Union at that time was not a Jew, but a Frenchman, Delevierre´, who was an old man at that time. He, too, roomed at the Porters and we had been friends now for a number of years, So, as he was getting too old to peddle on the road, I took him in my store as my clerk, for I wanted to stay out on the road as much as I could.

Delevierre´ could talk snappy English and at the last of the sentence drop into French again. He knew merchandise better than I. Since my wife's death I had a hard time talking English. I had not learned the language as well as I had the customs here. With Delevierre(sic.) getting my store cleaned up, I bought a round-trip ticket to Baltimore and went up with Mr. Cohen to help me select my stock from the Baltimore Bargain House, a big concern in those days. This time I stopped in a hotel with Mr. Cohen and only visited my cousin, Levine, whom I had always stayed with on previous trips. We had him to dine with us at our hotel several times. He brought with him on one occasion, a beautiful young Jewess, whom I became infatuated over.

I bought such a large stock of goods that I spent all of my cash before I knew it. The House extended me credit, which made me feel quite important. I used $25.00 worth of this credit at this time. When we boarded the train for home, I was broke again, for cash, but still had a nest egg of $200.00 in the Merchant and Planters Bank.

Well, when the Frenchman and I got our stock up and the store opened, things looked mighty good to me. All of my old customers on the road came to the opening and my friends in town came. From the start I made money. After six weeks in the new store, I decided to take Arthur McNeese, a school boy, into the store in the afternoon. His mother wanted him to have some extra work.

Arthur kept our books and helped me prepare my papers, for I had engaged a tutor to teach me English and writing. She was a teacher in the city schools here and Mr. Spencer Rice was the principal who advised me to get this lady to coach me in English and writing. I went to her at night, to her home, for my lessons. She took a lot of interest in me and soon I could write and speak English much more fluently than ever before. From this lady, I also took a course in elementary bookkeeping. She charged me a small fee of $1.50 a month and I took three lessons a week. Arthur helped me with my problems in the store, and I paid him $1.50 a week for his services there. My teacher had studied German and she would get me to speak it for her sometimes. Besides German, I knew Russian and Polish, and I found English was the hardest of all for me to learn. This lady taught me for a year. Then Arthur went off and I began keeping my own books, so my tutoring ended. My store had prospered and I had paid back all of my borrowed money and had a good-sized bank account.

When I had been a widower two years I went on an extended visit to Baltimore on business and married the girl whom Levine had brought to dine with Cohen and me in the hotel. So, with my second wife and a new supply of merchandise, I came back to Union. I had come into possession of a lot on Douglass Heights when the street was cut there and lots were first sold. Here I built me one of the prettiest little bungalows in Union. We were very happy here, and to us a son was born during the World War. His mother contracted influenza and died. I carried her remains to Baltimore for burial and left my little son with relatives of his mother's.

Even though I was sad and restless again, my business prospered. I made frequent trips to Baltimore to see my child and to get goods when I needed them. In 1920 I married for the third time, a charming and beautiful Russian Jewess, who had been born and reared in Baltimore. This my third wife came to live with me on Douglass Heights and we brought our little son, Lewis, two-and-a-half years old, to live with us. Again I was happy, and I have been blessed with two fine children by this my last marriage. Although financial difficulties have smothered us since then, I remain happy with my little family.

In 1920 I moved to a larger store on Main Street, where the Blue Bird Ice Cream Parlor now stands. Here I employed several clerks and did well until the depression of 1929. That year I was worth in the neighborhood of $50,000.00. Almost over night it seems, I lost it and my store was closed. It was a horrible nightmare from which I shall never recover, for I had a severe stroke when I had to mortgage my pretty home. In 1935 we moved from that pretty home to rent a place on Perrin Avenue. I was able to be out again, so I resorted to peddling once more.

This time I went over Union in an old second-hand Chevrolet. My old customers and friends who had not died were glad to welcome me again. But they, like me, had had severe reverses. They had no money to buy anything with, and most of them were having as great a struggle as I was to keep soul and body together. Customs had changed. Those who were able to buy had cars and thought nothing of going to Union every day, or even to Spartanburg if they cared to do so. I was often invited to spend the night in the homes of old friends in the rural communities, but there was no need of staying from home over night. Roads were top-soiled, and even in winter did not become impassable. The road to Whitmire and to Carlisle was paved, and that problem of slow transportation was a thing of past history. People wanted to go shopping in the neighborhood towns and cities; and modern farm conveniences allowed the farm woman to go about each day, just as her city sister was able to do. No longer were rural people timid and backward. The good roads, automobiles, and the radio had brought everything to their door-step, and I found then just as up-to-date as the housewives from Baltimore or any other city. I realized that what had taken place in Union had occurred in every other rural community and hamlet throughout the land.

Years ago I had come to America to be progressive. I had succeeded through this new world progress; and I had fallen under the strain. When I was confined to my home from my stroke, a new era dawned, and things advanced so rapidly that I was left behind. I am a Jew, and I was a peddler. In my day I was a success; but the day of peddlers is past.

My son has gone out into the world to make his mark. He is abreast of the times. My two younger children are being educated to the new era, and they will make for themselves a place in the world. But I have given them a good name for honesty, and their mother makes for us a comfortable home, on meagre savings that she invested in Baltimore, which survived the depression. How much I would like to have continued in propsperity, and given my children what I once had, but American progress changed things so fast that I have been left out.

But I still have my wife, my children, my home, and the freedom that only America offers to its citizens. I have my friends, many who are in the same boat that I am. I love America and her President. I am glad that I did not stay in Russia, for in Russia one never gets rich, and one never has the things that I still have here. I like money, but money does not make one happy, because it cannot buy freedom and friends. My wife loves Union, and so do the children; and a new day in business is dawning that my children will take part in, after I am gone; and for their mother they will earn, so that she can again have the things that she wants. The United States is the place to rise and bring up children in. Germany is better than Russia, or it was when I was there, but it is not like this country, and of course I do not know how working folks live under Hitler. I know that I'll never see the old country again, but I would not go back there now, even if I had $50,000.00.

We are all looking for better times; and things change in this country so rapidly that I may even see better times myself. Who can tell?