Going West on the Road to Happyville
Is there anything more American than the long automobile trip en famille? For some families, like that of writer Calvin Trillin, who grew up in Kansas City, Mo., during the 1930s and ’40s, taking to the road, especially in the years following the war, was a kind of annual contest, pitting endurance against distance. Writing in his poignant memoir, “Messages From my Father,” Trillin recalls the way “we covered the miles in great gulps of driving; as an American driver, my father was always interested in how many miles we had traveled each day.”
For my family, in turn, taking to the road in our snazzy new Oldsmobile was a chance to encounter America, a wild and woolly America with cows, horses, gunslingers, lots of non-Jews and that most exotic — and expensive — of concoctions, the “California fruit salad.” Armed with various and sundry AAA guides and maps, my parents and their three young children made their way one summer during the 1960s from their Long Island home to California, stopping en route to watch the corn grow in Iowa, to huddle under the stars in Yosemite and to experience the thrills of Disneyland, our final destination.
In heading out West, little did we know that we were actually living up to a call issued decades before by John Foster Carr, founder of the Immigrant Publication Society and sponsor of “Guide to the United States for the Jewish Immigrant: A Nearly Literal Translation of the Second Yiddish Edition Published Under the Auspices of the Connecticut Daughters of the American Revolution.” Seeking to ease the immigrant’s transition from the Old World to the New, this 1912 text offered a wealth of logistical and practical information on how to “become an American as soon as you can.” The fastest route was to visit or, better yet, to settle out West. “The immigrant’s best chance is not in New York,” Carr advised. “It is in the interior.… In fact, not until you know the interior, can you know much of true American democracy.” Toward that end, he provided a map of the United States whose cities, towns, mountain ranges and waterways were rendered all in Yiddish.
Some intrepid immigrants, taking Carr — and his map — to heart, found their way to the nation’s heartland on their own. Still others were assisted by the Industrial Removal Office, which was founded in 1901 by several leading Jewish philanthropists of the time — the United Hebrew Charities, B’nai B’rith and the Baron de Hirsch Fund — to help Eastern European Jews to find jobs and settle in areas well outside the all-too-familiar radius of New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago. Despite its unfortunate sounding name, the IRO was a Jewish organization with the noble purpose of lessening urban congestion — and, in turn, diminishing the potential for urban friction. New arrivals, entering through the port of Galveston, Texas, rather than Ellis Island would be greeted by an IRO representative and then, based on a number of variables including family size and occupation, pointed in the direction of one seemingly suitable Midwestern or Southwestern town or another. This, by the way, is how Trillin’s grandfather, and hundreds of his Eastern European compatriots, ended up in St. Joseph, Mo.
The public sector also did its part to attract immigrants. Down South, South Carolina’s Department of Agriculture, Commerce and Immigration, eager for “desirable” white settlers, made a point of wooing Jewish immigrants. It even went so far as to publish a pamphlet, in Yiddish, extolling the many virtues of the “Garden of America.” Claiming that South Carolina was an “ideal place” for “homeseekers, farmers, gardeners, fruit growers, cattle raisers, businessmen, manufacturers, health seekers and tourists,” this 1905 text hoped to persuade Eastern European Jews to call South Carolina their home. “Many immigrants have no concept of this state and, instead of finding there a good home and making a quiet life, [they] stay in the close-by over-crowded cities, where they suffer very much.” Were they to opt instead for the Palmetto State, they would be sure to find a “good and peaceful home,” “pleasant” weather and “help… with all problems.”
Several thousand Jewish immigrants took South Carolina’s Department of Agriculture, Commerce and Immigration at its word, greatly augmenting the state’s Jewish population in the process. While most settled in Charleston and Columbia or in the small towns that peppered the region, 25 Russian Jewish families banded together to form an agricultural colony a few miles outside of Aiken. They called their community Happyville.
A victim of the weather and of economic miscalculations, Happyville, alas, did not last long. Even so, its all-too-brief history, along with the efforts of helpful individuals such as John Foster Carr and concerned institutions such as the Industrial Removal Office, remind us of the promise inherent in the phrase “Jewish geography.”