Peeking through the window of the Reher Center for Immigrant Culture and History into the dust-covered former Reher Bakery is a tantalizing glimpse back into a moment of time, but the potential of the lower Broadway site is much more — a Tenement Museum-style cultural center that tells the richly layered history of the building and the neighborhood.
This past summer and spring, interpretative planner Sarah Litvin and archivist Samantha Gomez-Ferrer have begun that process, combing through the array of artifacts associated with the building at 99-101 Broadway, most of them from the former kosher bakery that was operated by the Reher family on the property from 1907 into the 1970s. The fruit of that initial effort is an exhibit at the Persen House, located at 74 John St. and free to the public. It’s entitled “Rising Time” and is on display this Saturday and next, Sept. 9 and 16, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
This Saturday at noon, Litvin, who formerly oversaw the living history programming and accessibility at the Lower East Side’s Tenement Museum, will give a talk about the exhibit and recent research as well as future plans for the center’s programming. She hopes to collect stories about the bakery and its famed rolls from former customers: people from the community are encouraged to record or write down their memories.
The center was founded after Hymie Reher donated the space to the Jewish Federation of Ulster County shortly before his death in 2004. Under the guidance and efforts of Geoffrey Miller, who is also the Ulster County historian, the committee overseeing the Reher Center has obtained about $500,000 in grants to shore up the building. Now the next phase is underway — cataloging and interpreting the building’s contents, which will form the nexus of the living history museum.
The oral history outreach on Sept. 9 is an outgrowth of Litvin’s “Sunday List” project, in which she has been interviewing people whose names were scribbled on a paper bag found at the bakery — the list of customers ordering rolls for pickup after church Sundays. So far, she has interviewed six people from the list and dozens more who remember the bakery. She hopes to collect more stories from people whose names are on the “Sunday List” to create a digital exhibit that links the stories to the names. She is also interested in interviewing others with strong memories of how the bakery operated, what the experience of patronizing the retail store or getting a delivery was like, and details about the role of the rolls and other baked goods in the community. Such information really “is the story of the community as told through one particular space,” said Litvin.
The Rondout’s heyday
The artifacts on display at the Persen House are organized chronologically, starting with the 1870s, when the current buildings are first recorded on the site, through 1905 — an era in which Rondout was a bustling port. It ends with the period from 1965 through 1980, when the other side of Broadway and much of the old city was torn down in a federally funded urban renewal program.
The exhibit consists of three types of artifacts: objects discovered in an archaeological dig of the courtyard, which accompanied stabilization of the building and the removal of a falling-down garage, in 2013; personal papers, photographs and other documents left in the building that were placed in three huge Tupperware containers after the Jewish Federation took over 14 years ago; and objects left in place on the shelves and counters and in cabinets in the shop and oven room.
Litvin said the artifacts excavated in the dig, which was mandated by the state under its environmental review law, provide a fascinating glimpse into the early history of the buildings. They include a tincture bottle of Kemp’s Balsam, which might have belonged to the Cloonan family, who were listed in the Kingston City Directory of 1877 as living and having a soda water business at 101 Broadway. A piece of leather likely was a remnant cut by James Van Buren, who operated a leather, findings and hides business on the site from 1883 to 1900. The tiny porcelain doll’s head, plate and spoon dating from 1890 to 1910 likely belonged to one of the working-class immigrant families who rented the third-floor apartment.
The story of the Reher family begins in the next section, which covers the years 1885-1940. Ade Reher was a Russian-Jewish immigrant and Frank’s second wife who purchased the building in 1907, after which the family opened a kosher bakery on the first floor and lived upstairs in the second-floor apartment. (They continued to rent out the third-floor apartment.) A photograph circa 1913 depicts the large family, including parents Frank and Ade and five of their six children. Willie and his sisters Sadie, Mollie, Elsie and Gertie all later helped run the bakery (Hyman was born two years later and hence is not in the photograph). Two daughters from Frank’s first marriage, Yetta and Minnie, also worked as “sales ladies” in the shop.
The next section shows photographs and documents dating from 1940 to 1965, the era of the Sunday List. One of the most valuable documents is the photograph of Sadie standing in the bakery in the 1940s — a rare depiction of the interior of the bakery, showing the shelves of rice and lentils and jarred and bottled goods. The Classic Price Stamper, dating from about 1950, is significant in that it represents not just the Reher bakery but all the others in the neighborhood, including Victory, Speizman’s and Guess’, noted Litvin. Each had their own specialties, including crumb buns and German pumpernickel, according to the written guide that accompanies the exhibit. “The point [of the artifact] is to say there were many bakeries that used a similar stamper,” said Litvin. “Each one had its own following.”
Skipping ahead many decades, to the sad days when hundreds of buildings were being torn down across the street, is the bill of sale for the Chevrolet purchased by Willie in 1967. It is included in the last display case, which covers urban renewal and the subsequent gradual rebirth of the neighborhood. Litvin said the document indicates the increasing significance of home deliveries, which were made by Willie, in the urban renewal years, when it seems that the store was no longer open regular hours. “People remember Willie delivering rolls all over Kingston, after he buys the new car,” Litvin said. The artifact is an example of how “we use specific details gleaned from one building and one family to tell the larger story of change in Rondout.” Actually, during the urban renewal years the Rehers’ business boomed thanks to a new line of business with a summer camp in New Paltz, which led to the bakery delivering rolls to the camp all summer.
Including the Rehers, “we know of nine families who lived in the building between1900 and 1940,” said Litvin. “They included immigrants from Germany, Austria and Poland [the Reher family], Italy, and Russia as well as American-born families. I’ve tried to gather some of those stories. Most of the things we have belonged to the Rehers, and our first tour will be of the oven room and shop, but the thrust of the entire project is larger than the Reher family.”
Were there any unexpected discoveries in digging through the material? Many, responded Litvin, noting that there were “a million million little things we learned as we dived deeply into the details in order to come back up again with a story that’s both specific and universally meaningful.” For example, “we found out that Frank Reher had a sister named Yetta who had a bakery in Paterson, N.J., with her husband. We’re trying to find descendants of that family and have reached out to historical societies in Paterson.” Frank came from Krakow, Poland, and his sister’s parallel business in Paterson indicates “they must have brought knowledge of baking from the old country.”
Another exciting find was the receipts for the beaver and lamb coats purchased in the 1940s for two of the sisters. “Clearly these were very special things,” Litvin said. “We think the actual coats are in the closets, and there’s a photograph of them wearing their fur coats.” There was also an envelope addressed simply to “Hyman Reher, Kingston, N.Y.” from an Army buddy of Hymie’s in which he wrote in the letter posted inside, “Let’s see how well-known you are there.” The fact that Hymie received the letter though the address was incomplete shows how prominent in the community he was and the tightness of that community.
Litvin said she also hit paydirt when interviewing Buddy Cohen, who was the son of Frank’s second daughter by his first wife and was a half nephew of Hymie. Cohen, who drove up from his home in Florida for the interview, visited the bakery every summer when he was a child in the 1930s and recounted his vivid memories of how the oven room was set up and how the bread was made. That information is vital in re-creating the look of the bakery when it becomes a living-history museum.
The next step will be the removal of the dust-covered artifacts in the bakery and oven room in preparation for re-creating the retail shop as it was in the 1950s and 1960s. Both Litvin, who is back in Brooklyn working on her Ph.D. at the City University of New York, and Gomez-Ferrer are away for a couple of months, and when they return in the late fall, “it will be time to move the stuff off shelves and protect it, then start setting up the space to tell stories.” The process includes cleaning, making reproductions of the period goods on the shelves and counters, and otherwise re-creating the space when it was an active business.
The Reher Center has “such great potential,” concluded Litvin, who will conduct public tours of the center in the late fall. “Every stop along the way has opened another door.” The work of slowly transforming the bakery site into a compelling cultural center in which to tell the story of the evolution of a Kingston neighborhood, culminating in a re-creation of the business during the mid 20th century, has yielded many answers. But a central mystery remains: how the rolls were made. So far, no recipe has been found. Maybe one will turn up in Paterson.
“Rising Time,” exhibit hosted by the Reher Center for Immigrant Culture and History at the Matthewis Persen House Museum, Sept. 9 and 16, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Talk with interpretative planner Sarah Litvin Sept. 9 at noon; also on Sept. 9, come record your memories of the Reher bakery, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. The Persen House is located at 74 John St. in Uptown; entrance is free.