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08 September 2014

The Jewish Community of Leadville, Colorado

The history of Leadville, Colorado can be traced to the early Gold Rush of the late 1850's. In 1859, Gold was discovered in California Gulch which started the Pikes Peak Gold Rush. In 1860, near present day Leadville the town of Oro City sprung up and by 1861 its population had grown to over 5,000 people, all trying to make their fortunes. The boom in Oro City was brief as the mining was hampered by the presence of heavy black sand.

It wasn't until 1874, however, when the gold miners from Oro City, discovered that the heavy sand that had hampered gold mining actually contained a high content of silver. They traced that sand back to its original source and found several silver lode deposits. The city of Leadville was founded near these deposits in 1877, which started the Colorado Silver Boom. By 1880, Leadville, which at an elevation of 10,152 feet is the highest incorporated city in the United States, had become one of the worlds largest silver camps, with a population of over 14,000 people.

The first Jews began arriving during the boom times of Oro City, in the early 1860's. While there may have been a few who came to mine, the majority are listed in the various census records as merchants, tailors and business owners. In fact, one of the most well known of these merchants was David May. May, who was born in Germany in 1849, arrived in Leadville in 1877, and got into business with Moses Shoenberg. He also became very involved in the Jewish community and in the City itself. He was one of the organizers of the Hebrew Benevolent Association and later was elected vice president of Temple Israel and was chairman of the building committee. He served Leadville as County Treasurer.
In 1877, he opened a new clothing store in Leadville. That first store would over time become The May Department Stores Company, which would go on to become a multi-billion dollar company. In 1880, he married Rosa Shoenberg, the sister of his business partner. They however left Leadville shortly before the turn of the century and moved to Denver. The 1900 United States Census (below), shows the couple with their three children. His occupation, listed as Clothing Manufacturer, is very understated for what he would become.

 During the summer of 1884, the synagogue in Leadville was built. That synagogue,  Temple Israel, took only two months to build and was dedicated on Rosh Hashanah on September 19th, 1884. That synagogue survives to this day, although it is mostly used as a museum reflection on the rich history of the Jewish community in this old frontier town.
In the late 1870's it became very clear that the community had a need for a burial ground. In June of 1879, Gustave Jelenko, known as Fred, died, and in early 1880, became the first to be buried in the Hebrew Cemetery. By 1880, over 100,000 square feet of land in the southwest corner of Evergreen Cemetery had been transferred to the Hebrew Benevolent Association, to become the final resting place of the Jews of Leadville.

The burial ground (above) sits in a beautiful wooded setting and the Jewish community has done a tremendous amount of work to reestablish the missing markers and preserve this beautiful place. It was truly a beautiful, peaceful place that I enjoyed visiting very much.
The information from the markers was documented and will be a part of the Knowles Collection - Jews of North America after our next update.

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