The following is the second in an occasional series of posts drawn from Generation to Generation, a website I helped compile for the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center. The website profiles more than 150 Jewish families in Western Pennsylvania.
Baruch May was the son of a Bavarian farmer and cattle dealer. His first job was bringing lunch and beer to the field hands, who worked several miles from town. His second job was working in the fields. His third job was peddling trinkets through Quebec and Ontario, where he immigrated in 1858, at fifteen, to join his sister and brother-in-law, who had opened a jewelry store in Montreal. On the road, he learned English and started going by “Barney.” His fourth job was prospecting for gold in British Columbia with his older brother. (This was before the transcontinental railroad. May travelled from Quebec to British Columbia through the Panama Canal.) The brothers established a camp they called Mayville. “Being wise in their generation, the Mays attempted no actual mining operations themselves, but preferred to develop the claims, to which they held title, on a share basis with practical miners,” George M. P. Baird wrote in The Story of Barney May, Pioneer in 1917. They stayed in British Columbia for four years, until an outbreak of “mountain fever” forced them to seek medical care in San Francisco. Barney May’s fifth job was in New York City, where two of his sisters had opened a millinery shop. (This time, to get back across the continent, May sailed to Nicaragua and crossed the isthmus on foot.) The New York hat market proved to be a little too crowded, and so the siblings started over in Williamsport, a growing logging town along the West Branch of the Susquehanna River, just northeast of the geographic center of Pennsylvania. Barney May was a travelling salesman for the Williamsport operation. This was his sixth job. He spent time in the western half of the state and took note of the booming oil economy. In 1872, Barney May married Pauline Fleischman, who came from one of the oldest Jewish families in Pittsburgh. They moved to Philadelphia, where the older brother had started a wholesaling business. This was Barney May’s seventh job. The business was destroyed in a fire in 1884.
Remembering wealthy western Pennsylvania, May moved to Pittsburgh. He started a dry goods business with his brother-in-law Solomon L. Fleischman under the name Fleischman & Company. This was his eighth job. The business closed during the Panic of 1893, amassing huge debts. Creditors trailed the former proprietors until Congress passed the Bankruptcy Act of 1898. Fleischman & Company filed in late 1899 and, for a short time, had the distinction of being the largest bankruptcy case in U.S. history. Their 210-page petition listed some 675 creditors. Fleischman told the court he had $300 in assets and $189,160 in liabilities. May said he had $150 in assets and $181,160 in liabilities. The court discharged the former partners in January 1900. But before that, in 1894, May started his last job. Using a series of personal loans, he opened a patent medicine counter in a rented corner of a storefront on Market Street. This became the May Drug Company. Continue reading