Digitized Family Photos and Oral Histories Provide a Fascinating Look at Fifty Years of Development Along Columbia Pike
The really amazing thing about archives isn’t just the collecting, preserving, and sharing of collections– it’s the magic that happens when collections come together to give a richer, deeper picture of the past.
The Center for Local History has recently completed digitizing the Ruth Levin Photograph Collection.
Coupled with the center’s extensive oral history collection, this small collection of photographs, donated to the library in the 1990s, provide a fascinating window into the changing nature of family life and small business ownership along the Columbia Pike corridor between the 1910s and the 1960s.
Ida Sher moved to Arlington in 1918, when she was 8 years old, along with her parents, Menasha and Esther Sher, and her four brothers. They bought a country store, the former C.F. Burner’s Emporium, at the current location of the Arlington Cinema & Drafthouse. In an oral history with her brother Charlie conducted in 1975, he recalled their early years at M. Sher’s General Merchandise in a manner that might seem quite foreign to us today.
The family lived in the back of the store, which had no electricity, no heat, and no running water. Columbia Pike was unpaved, with just a few other businesses.
Deliveries were initially made with a horse and wagon, and the same wagon would make the trip to Washington Terminal at 11th and E St. SE to get ice three times a week– ice being a necessity to keep meat and other perishables fresh at the store.
There were no restaurants in the area when they first moved there, and Sher states that “I don’t think [my parents] ever went to a restaurant to eat.” In 1924, however, Andrew Norton opened a restaurant, Norton’s Café, almost across the street from the Sher’s, at Columbia Pike and Edgewood. He had a son, Everett, who was the same age as the Sher’s youngest children, the twins Hyme and Joe.
In an oral history with Everett Norton, we can see that even the nine-year age difference between Charlie and his youngest brothers meant experiencing a very different Arlington. He remembers a boyhood in an Arlington that was, by comparison, far more urban.
Norton recalls many more shops in the area, and where Charlie talks about taking a horse and wagon into DC to get ice, Norton remembers hitch-hiking to DC along the bus route:
I remember one time when Hymie Sher and I and Roy Pearson were–we were thumbing our way to Washington–and Bob May, the man that owned the bus company, came by; and he stopped. We thumbed a ride, and he stopped. And we said, “Are you going into Washington, Mr. May?” And he says, “No, but a bus is coming by here in five minutes.” He wanted to make that 15 or 30 cents.
It was still a very different world, however – while Joe and Hyme were among the earliest graduates of Washington-Lee High School, they were also perhaps the school’s first bus drivers. Mr. May, whose bus yard was in the Sher’s neighborhood, lent the school a bus, and the twins would drive and pick up students.
Ida Sher went on to meet and marry Sol Cohen, a young man who ran Cohen Brother’s Jewelers in Alexandria. But then her father took sick and needed help running the store. Sol and Ida moved back into the store where she had grown up to help mind it when her father could no longer do so. A few years later, their daughter Ruth was born, and her brother Charlie, who had been working at the store since 1918, opened Dependable Cleaners down the street.
Renamed Sher & Cohen’s Market, the business continued to do business throughout the Depression, despite often having to trade and barter with members of the community, while their suppliers demanded cash. In the late 1930s, they even managed to move across the street to a more modern building. When the US entered World War II, however, Sol was worried about being drafted, and sold the market.
His brother was still running several jewelry stores, and he opened a gift shop adjoining one in Arlington Village, which did a brisk business selling gifts to workers from the Navy Annex and the Pentagon.
At the end of the war, he decided to change businesses and locations again, building a new hardware store only 200 yards down the street from the old M Sher General Store. The new Columbia Hardware & Appliance Company did a brisker business in furniture and appliances, and would eventually change names around 1956 to Columbia furniture.
In addition to selling home goods, the store– much as Sher’s had in the 1920s and 1930s– served as a place for the community to gather. Sol would keep the store open late so people could come by and watch the Friday night fights on television.
Their daughter, Ruth, would later recall how this practice led to her meeting her future husband, Dan Levin:
In those days many people didn’t have TVs. My father had the appliances and hardware and stuff so on Friday nights they used to have fights until ten o’clock or something so he used to keep the store open on Friday nights so people could come and watch TV.
When Danny’s family moved down here from New Jersey, they had moved here that week and on Friday night his mother and father went out for a walk, and they were out there out there watching the TV…[M]y sister, my mother and I and we came to the store. My aunt and a cousin were there. My aunt said to my cousin… “Well, Mrs. Cohen, are you ready to go home?”
[H]is mother heard “Mrs. Cohen” so she went up and said, “Which one of you is Mrs. Cohen?”
My aunt said, “I’m Mrs. Cohen. This is my daughter-in-law, Naomi Cohen, and this is my sister-in-law, Ida Cohen.”
This lady said, “Are you Jewish?”
Of course my aunt said, “Yes.”
She said, “Well, we’re Jewish and we just moved here from New Jersey, and I have two sons and they’re tired of eating dairy, they want meat. Can you tell me where to find a Jewish butcher, a kosher butcher?”
…She said she had these two sons and of course here I am this bold little girl and I said, “How old are your sons?”
She said, “fifteen and seventeen.”
I said, “Do they like to bowl?”
In just a single generation these photos and oral histories show us so much about the rapid changes that happened to Arlington in the first half of the twentieth century. Columbia Pike goes from being a rural outpost with dirt roads, dairy farms, children working in shops and going swimming in creeks, to an urban area with a larger and more diverse population, paved roads, swimming pools, and teenagers going bowling in Clarendon.
We hope that by digitzing them and making them available online, we make these stories– and others like them– more accessible to people in Arlington and beyond, so that you can pore through them and make your own discoveries. These are very rich documents. Dig in!
- Ruth Levin Photograph Collection
- Oral History with Charlie Sher
- Oral History with Everett Norton
- Oral History with Ruth Levin