Interview with Sam Wahnish

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Interview with Sam Wahnish
Wahnish, Sam ( Interviewee )


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Leon County Oral History Collection ( local )

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University of Florida
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University of Florida
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Interviewee: Sam Wahnish

Interviewer: Stanley Garfein

G: This is the second interview on the early Jewish community
in Tallahassee. I am Rabbi Stanley Garfein, and I am
speaking with Mr. Sam Wahnish, a native Tallahasseen of the
Jewish community. Sam, do you remember when your family
came to Tallahassee?

W: We moved here right after the Jacksonville fire in 1902 or

G: So that means you were already alive at that time. When
were you born? Do you mind answering that question?

W: 1894.

G: How many Jews were in Tallahassee at that time? Do you
remember the names of the families?

W: I do; I can give you the names of most of them, in fact, all
of them. [There were] the Diamonds, the Hirschbergs, the
Apts, the Cohens, the Jacobs. That is about it, as far as I

G: Were they mainly relatives of one another?

W: They were all related.

G: They were all related. [What about] the Levy family?

W: Oh, yes, and the Levy family. Pardon me.

G: But the Levy family was not related.

W: They were separate and apart.

G: The fire chief Levy is yet a different family.

W: No relation whatsoever.

G: And the fire chief Levy's family evidently never did
associate with the Jewish community?

W: No, they never associated with them.

G: They must have intermarried quite a bit back then.

W: Way back, and they lived mostly in the Lake Bradford

G: I see. Now, what about Levy Park?

W: Levy Park? That was named after the Levys, the Jewish

G: The ones who were affiliated with the congregation.

W: You could identify them that way.

G: Good. So there were less than ten families at that time.

W: Less than ten families.

G: Was your father in business?

W: Yes, the tobacco business--farming, packing, and cigar

G: Did he have a farm here in Tallahassee?

W: Two thousand acres.

G: Where was that?

W: Out about three miles from the city. We sold it to Collin
English. It is now one of the show places of Leon County.

G: What is that name?

W: Collin English, formerly the superintendent of public

G: Is the farm named in any way?

W: Wahnish Plantation.

G: It is still called Wahnish Plantation?

W: It is still called Wahnish Plantation.

G: What road is that?

W: It lies between the Belairstone Road and St. Augustine Road,
right back of the golf links. It is approachable from two

G: I see. Now, where was your father from?

W: Dad was from Casablanca.

G: From Casablanca. So you are Sephardic Jews.

W: Yes. And my mother was from Louisville, Kentucky.

G: Oh, that is where I am from. We had spoken about that. How
did your father and mother happen to meet?

W: My father got in trouble with the school teacher in
Casablanca. His father was a merchant, so my father knew
the ships and the ship owners and the ship captains. When
my father knocked a school teacher down, he started running.
Somebody said, "Wahnish, you killed the teacher."

G: Was that so?

W: No. He ran to the wharf to see his father, but his father
was not present at the place of business at that time. So
Dad kept on running, and he got on board a ship. The
captain knew him, and he hid out. When they pulled out,
why, my father was still on the ship, and they arrived at
Boston. Then the captain got in touch with my grandfather,
and my father stayed away for fifty years before he went
back. But he corresponded with his mother and father. His
mother lived to be ninety, and his father ninety-five years
of age. They corresponded frequently.

Dad often said [he got] his first job walking down the
street in front of the theater. A man asked him if he
wanted to earn a dollar, and he said yes. The captain had
given him some money when he left the ship, knowing he would
collect it from his father on the return trip. It was some
grand opera. Anyway, Dad's job was to walk back and forth
on the stage at the proper time with a spear and a helmet
on. That was his first job. Then he got various jobs until
he went into business for himself, in the cigar business in
Boston. In traveling around selling cigars, he happened to
go to Louisville at a very tender age, and that is where he
met my mother. My mother's father had a shoe business, and
she was in the store when [my father went in].

G: What was your mother's maiden name?

W: Clara Metzner. It was the Metzner shoe store. My mother
was in there, and Dad said he bought five pairs of shoes he
did not need. [laughter] So that was the courtship, and
they married. They went to New York, and Dad was still in
the cigar business. Then they went to Jacksonville.

G: What year was that, Sam?

W: It was in the 1890s.

G: There were good ship connections between New York and

W: Oh, yes. It was wonderful. There was the Cloud Line and
the Merchant Miners. The reason I know is because we ship
tobacco from Tallahassee to New York and Philadelphia by the
Merchant Miners steamship company and the Cloud Line.

G: I see.

W: They built a big factory in Jacksonville, and when the fire
burned us out (burned him out, rather), why, he moved to
Tallahassee. He had heard about Tallahassee. There were
3,000 people.

G: Did any others come over from Jacksonville at that time?

W: Some of the cigar makers followed him over here and located.
They built up a big business in cigars; [they were] shipping
cigars all over the state and all over the eastern states.
Then my father decided that instead of buying tobacco, he
would raise it. Oh, yes, I left out another family:
Ginsburg. That was an old prominent family, and they owned
the farm. My father bought this plantation from Ginsburg.
It was 800 acres. The farm adjoining it was the Bushnell
farm; he was a state surveyor, Captain Bushnell. My father
bought his place, [which was 1,200 acres]. Eight hundred
and 1,200 made 2,000 acres.

Father built tenant houses and had as many as forty tenants.
They worked the crops, and he gave each one of them a
certain amount of land to do their own farming. They raised
hogs, and that was their own little outfit. They had a
commisary there. At a tender age, I would open the
commisary. The plantation was only three miles from town.
I had a bicycle, and I rode up to the commisary at 3:00 and
kept it open until 5:00, and then I went back to town. I
was a merchant; my father was never a merchant.

We stayed out there during the tobacco season, for two
months. We had a country home out there. We lived on the
corner of Calhoun and College, where that elevated parking
[garage] is now. We lived there fifty-some-odd years. When
my sisters married and my brother married, Mother [wanted to
travel]. My father passed away in the meantime, so I sold
the plantation. I sold it to Collin English. My mother
wanted to go to Miami and Orlando where my brother and
sisters were. I sold the home then, and I built out in Los

Tallahassee was very rough in those days. There was a
carnival down on Monroe Street. They blocked it off to
traffic and had confetti and barrooms open and horseback
riding tearing up and down the sidewalks. It really was a
frontier town.

G: According to what I have read in the newspapers, there was
very little enforcement of the laws.

W: Very little. Very little.

G: Why was this?

W: Laxity. They patterned themselves after the western states.
Most of the men carried guns, and the barrooms flourished
here. Most of the barrooms were owned by Jewish people.

G: By the ones that you have mentioned?

W: Yes.

G: Was Prohibition ever enacted in those days?

W: No. Along in 19 something (I forget the exact year), a
group of ladies in Tallahassee decided they had had enough
of these barrooms. They decided they wanted Tallahassee
dry, and they held an election. Mr. Hirschberg, who
employed about 350 cigar makers, on the building that was
occupied lately by Sears Roebuck (that two- or three-story
building that has been demolished since then; that is where
the talk of this eighteen-story office building is going up
on Monroe Street) appeared before the crowd at Lewis State
Park. The name of the factory was the El Provido Cigar
Company. It was run by Hirschberg and the Apt boys.

G: Now, these were uncles of Ruby Diamond.

W: That is right. Mr. Hirschberg was the money man, and the
boys were working for him. They had about 300 Cubans here.
They had their own restaurant. The restaurant was where
Millard Caldwell [governor of Florida, 1945-1949] and Maddie
Hume [had their law offices]. That long, wooden building on
Calhoun Street that has been bricked up now was the
restaurant. Mr. Diamond was a big merchant here, and he got
a lot of their business. So did the Levy brothers. Anyway,
at this speech they had their own band, and Mr. Hirschberg
said, "If you are dry in this county, my factory will

G: Why would that be?

W: Because the Cubans would not work where they could not get
their liquor and beer.

G: And rum?

W: And rum. Notwithstanding that threat in the election, the
drys won. The bars had thirty days to close up. I remember
my father's bringing over a basket full of wine. The
barrooms were selling it wholesale to get rid of it; they
had to get rid of everything. He brought a basket full of
wine home, and he told Mother it was just a few dollars a
basket. I said, "Well, let us go get another basket," but
Dad said, "This is enough." The bars all closed, and in
sixty days' time Hirschberg closed. He was a man of his
word. The Cubans all went back to Tampa. He rented the
building . [fades out]

G: Prohibition was behind the push to move the capital away
from Tallahassee.

W: Yes, that started also along that time.

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