Jacob Izenstatt and the Jay Shoe Factory on Fulda Street / by Jason Turgeon

Every once in a while, life throws you a historical bone.  Today is one of those occasions.  I went to the main branch of the BPL to see the Orange Line Exhibit, only to find that it was closed for unspecified reasons.  Since I had some time to kill, I headed over to the newspaper archives to take advantage of the Globe archives that are digitized but only available onsite.

On a whim, I searched for Fulda Street.  The second of the 400+ results was an obituary for Jacob Izenstatt, who had owned a shoe factory on Fulda Street from the 1920s until the 1950s.  Could this be the shoe factory that Barb mentioned to me this summer?  A quick look at the maps suggests that there was only one factory on Fulda, and although it was owned by Louis Buff as late as 1931 (the date of the last historic Ward Map available for our neighborhood), it seems quite plausible that Buff leased it to Mr. Izenblatt.

The obituary, dated July 1, 1975, notes that Izenstatt had moved to Roxbury in the early 1920s from Lynn, where he already owned a women’s dress shoe factory, and that he later owned additional factories on Tremont Street in Boston and Potter Street in Cambridge.  The obituary cites his son, Norman, who reported that at its peak the firm was manufacturing about 4500 pairs of shoes a day and employed 900 workers.  In 1958, he closed all of his Massachusetts operations and set up shop in Norway, Maine, where the business remained until he shuttered it in 1971.

Izenstatt even patented a shoe design in 1935:

So now we finally know a bit about the old factory on Fulda.  But what about Mr. Izenstatt?  Fortunately, he has both a unique name and an excellent trail of digital breadcrumbs.  Half an hour of sleuthing turns up the following info:

He was born about 1894 in the town of Vileyka, Russia, in what is now Belarus near the Polish border.  The townspeople, known as Vileiker, sent over a group of 5 emigrants in 1890.  Three of the five moved to Lynn, and the Lynn group brought over many more friends and family over the next few decades.  Among these was Basevke Callnens (aka Bessie), who arrived sometime around 1913.  Bessie’s fiance, Jacob Izenstatt, came over just days before the start of WWI, when he would have been 19 or 20.  He worked in Lynn’s famous shoe factories for 6 years before he started Jay Shoe in 1919 or 1920, living at 124 Shepherd St.  We know this early history thanks to a letter written in 1971 that was transcribed onto a website detailing the history of Jewish Vileiker in the US.

The factory appears to have been successful, as he was able to start his manufacturing operation in Roxbury in 1922 and move his family to the large Jewish area then flourishing in our neighborhood.  They first lived at 69 Lawrence Street, between Blue Hill Ave and Columbia Road, but later settled closer to Fulda Street in a very tony house at 159 Ruthven Street.

According to the 1940 census, he lived there with Bessie, Norman (then 23), Norman’s 18-year-old sister Frances, and a maid, chauffeur, and the chauffer’s 17-year-old wife.  Apparently he weathered the depression in style.

There is a sad note to this story, though.  Although the Jewish Vileiker who made it over to the US prospered, those who stayed behind were slaughtered in a ghastly massacre at the end of June, 1941, when Hitler’s forces captured the area from the Soviets.  Not to be outdone, the Soviets killed several hundred Polish political prisoners before they retreated.  The American Vileiker had been sending money home for decades and Bessie had even paid a visit home in 1929.  The news that 15,000 of their townspeople, including more than 6,000 Jews, had been killed in one day must have been beyond devastating.  

Mr. Izenstatt, however, lived out the American dream.  Next time you walk by Fulda Street, tip your cap to the boss of the factory that was once there.