Solomon in Ottawa
Posted: 13 March 1997
Updated: 15 January 1999
These stories are from David Golden and Connie Putterman, are based on the recollections of Uncle Joe, and are annotated with comments by Stanley Emerson.
The Day The Cholen Got Cold
Over the years, Zalman acquired more and more rental properties in Ottawa and slowly became better known in the general business community. Among his business friends were two brothers who owned the Ottawa Electric company. In the early part of the century, the sale of electricity in Ottawa was highly competitive. The two brothers from Ottawa Electric had obtained the rights to generate power from the nearby Chaudiere Falls, and were therefore able to sell electricity cheaply in the Ottawa area. Since Zalman was arranging power hookups for his growing number of rental properties, he became a valued customer.
In addition to selling electricity, the Ottawa Electric Co. also sold and leased electric appliances, in particular, electric stoves which were then becoming more and more popular. The Epstein family, being modern and up to date, had a new Ottawa Electric Co. stove installed in the kitchen at 160 Stewart St. On a weekly basis, that stove helped prepare traditional shabbat meals for the family. Cholent and kugal were kept warm on the stove, ready for the family to return from shabbat morning services.
On one particular shabbat, young Goldie and Fanny stayed home while the others went off to shul. When the family came home, Goldie and Fanny were waiting at the door crying their eyes out. Slowly the story emerged. While most of the Epsteins were at shul, a couple of burly men from the Ottawa Electric Co. showed up and claimed that they were instructed to repossess Solomon Epstein's electric stove. The cholent and kugal were removed just before the stove was carried out the door. Zalman was beyond angry.
On Monday, he called his two friends at the Ottawa Electric Co. At first, they insisted it was not possible that Solomon's stove had been repossessed, but later realized that a mistake had been made, Solomon Epstein-the shoemaker- was behind on his stove payments. Even before the invention of computers, addresses got mixed up too! Zalman's advice to his friends was that he would be suing immediately. The brothers didn't want a lawsuit nor did they want to lose Zalman's business to the competition. After some friendly Epstein negotiating, Zalman got everything he wanted. A profuse apology, a new and improved electric range AND a promise of free electricity for the family home on Stewart St. for as long as the house remained in the Epstein family- which it did until the 1950's. And we got a great little story- another bit of Epstein lore.
The Epsteins Get Rolling
The year was 1919 and Zalman decided it was time for the Epstein family to enter the automobile age. For four hundred dollars, he agreed to purchase a three year old "Overland" model car. In those days, it was the responsibility of the seller to teach a car buyer how to drive the vehicle. Government issued drivers' licenses hadn't been invented yet. So arrangements were made for the owner of the Overland to deliver the car to the Epstein house on Stewart St., pick up his four hundred dollars, and provide the obligatory driving lesson.
Zalman had already decided that young Joe (14 years old at the time), would become the Epstein designated driver and get the driving lesson. But before the lesson was to start, the seller of the car insisted on drinking a l'chaim to close the deal. Zalman asked Joe to go down into the basement and bring up some 'slivovitz' schnapps stored in one of the barrels. Joe obliged. Apparently, the seller wasn't satisfied with a simple shot glass, but insisted on full tumbler of schnapps. After wishing everyone a hearty l'chaim, he gulped down the whole glass- without stopping- and promptly collapsed on the kitchen floor.
When the Epsteins were unable to revive him, an ambulance was summoned and he was taken away to hospital. Three days later, the poor man died. The suspected cause of death was poisoning! But the Overland had been paid for, ready to go.
Stanley Emerson adds:This was possibly related to the existence of Prohibition in Canada after the First World War. Prior to the enactment of Prohibition, Solomon stockpiled the basement full of liquor. So while the rest of Canada was dry, the house on Stewart Street was definitely wet. It may be that the car salesman was parched by Prohibition and knew of Solomon's supply. If Prohibition was not yet in force, it definitely was factor in another story, albeit one without quite the same tragic ending. Solomon had supported one of the Ottawa mayors and, in fact, Uncle Joe had helped by providing the use of the family car and his own "chauffeur" services. The mayor's son had an alcohol problem and appeared one day at the Epstein residence requesting access to the basement cache, of which he was apparently aware. He was later found unconscious on the basement floor. A discreet call was placed to the mayor's office and the mayor dispatched some policemen to retrieve his son.
My father also related that people thirsty for a drink on Simchat Torah knew that they could always have lechaim at Solomon Epstein's house.
Unfortunately, for obvious reasons, Joe never got the driving lesson. Not to worry. Sadie's brother David (Zalman's brother-in-law) volunteered to teach Joe how to drive the car. It didn't seem to matter that Uncle David didn't know how to drive either. So off they went in the Overland to practice driving around Ottawa's Rockliffe park.
Stanley Emerson adds:It is definitely true that Uncle Dave(grandma Sadie's brother) taught Uncle Joe how to drive. However, what was omitted from the story was that the site of the driving lesson, Rockliffe Park, is located at the top of the cliff overlooking the Ottawa River. As my dad related the story to me, Uncle Dave instructed him to drive straight in the direction of the precipice edge and, shortly before they reached their "destination", told him to apply the brakes. Applying the primitive brakes in those days took considerable strength but my dad managed to stop the car none too soon. It was a hair-raising experience that he related to us many times.
It worked - and Joe continued driving for the next 75 years plus.
Stanley Emerson adds:Another story had to do with the article of ladies' underclothing that was found under the back seat of the family car. After some questioning within the family, Bobba Rosenfeld (Sadie's mother) confessed that, on return from one of the regular family shopping expeditions to Watertown, New York,she had stashed some newly purchased bloomers under the seat to hide them from the Canadian Customs officer at the border. Apparently, she had neglected to retrieve this one pair, which showed up some years later.
My dad told me that as the only driver in the family at that time, it was his job to drive the family on those trips over the border to Watertown. Roads were not paved and tires were such in those days that they punctured every ten miles or so. This necessitated removing the wheel and tire, patching the inner tire tube and replacing all of it until the next blowout. Quite a job for a teenage novice driver! (The tire was reinflated by a compressor which was powered by the car engine. A compressor was necessary as each tire in those days had 60 pounds of pressure.)