When Scrap was Golden
Hamilton Jewish News
Hamilton Scrap Families recall the Golden Age of Scrap Metal
Ellen Hoffman outlines the location of Jewish scrap yards
Jewish history is filled with tales of people who, barred from most other trades and professions, built lives and fortunes in fields no one else wanted. In Europe, centuries ago, that was money changing, an enterprise scorned by Christians at least until they needed to finance a war or a new castle.
For many of the Jewish immigrants who flooded to North America in the last years of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth, that field was recycling scrap metal and other waste material. Hamilton, with its booming base of metals industries and steel mills, was a centre of that enterprise. It was a tough, gritty business but from it rose a Jewish community.
Veterans of that once thriving enterprise gathered recently at the Jewish Community Centre to lunch on lox, bagels and egg salad while remembering the way it used to be. The gathering was one part of the Working Families Stories and Treasures of the Hamilton Jewish Community project.
The project is an effort to preserve the history of the work of Jewish families, reminding today's children of the efforts made by their parents and grandparents to build a strong and vibrant community Ð whose community centre, houses of worship and other buildings are marked with the names of men who sweated and toiled in dirty yards hoping for a better future.
Frank, Goldblatt, Hoffman, Hotz, Lax, Levy, Paikin, Posner, Rochwerg, Waxman is only a partial list.
Many of the stories told around the table that day had similar starting points Ð a poor man from Latvia, Poland, Russia or a similar place lands in Canada with a few words of English and a few coins in his pockets and drifts into the only trade open to him. Sometimes, there was a helping hand and for many of those who got their new start in Hamilton, that helping hand belonged to Jacob Goldblatt.
"My zaydie came here from Poland and started with a horse and buggy he got from Jacob Goldblatt," recalled Harvey Waxman.
He's not related to the Waxmans of I. Waxman and Sons Ð his family made their name in the scrap auto part of the industry - stripping reusable parts from retired cars and then selling the metal skeletons to companies that cut them up and eventually sold the steel back to the blast furnaces of Stelco and Dofasco.
Harvey Waxman reminisces with Larry Paikin
Larry Paikin tells a similar story - his grandfather left the Old Country because Goldblatt offered to set him up in the scrap business here. Like so many others, Paikin recalls his grandfather working with a horse and wagon, plodding the streets of Hamilton crying out for "rags, bottles and bones" and keeping the horse in a small stable behind their home in the centre of the city.
Another theme that weaves through memories of the industry is the camaraderie of those who made their living from it.
"What got me as young girl growing up and working in the scrap industry was that it didn't matter what happened during 6 and 5, if your brother needed you they banded together," recalled Ellen Hoffman whose father Sol ran yards first downtown and later in the far east end. "These men, there were very few women at the time, built an entire Jewish community. They made sure we had everything."
Hoffman has memories of her father and Morris Lax, the best of friends away from business, yelling and screaming at each other over the phone fighting over a few cents a pound and then meeting that same evening to raise money for Adas Israel and the Hamilton Hebrew Academy.
Sometimes, recalled Skippy Caplan, the meetings were about blowing off steam rather than community building.
"They would have meetings after hours, but it really wasnÕt a meeting, it was a drinking party," she said.
Harvey Waxman has the same memories of his father dealing with Lax.
"We'd send him 100 batteries and he'd count them as they came off the truck and it would always be only 92 or 93, never 100," he recalled. "Then they would yell and scream at each other in English and Yiddish for a while and eventually saw it off somewhere between."
Norm Levitt spent 50 years working in the industry, starting with his father who would take a truck to places like Wyndham Centre and when he had a full load of scrap metal would bring it back to Hamilton.
The basic structure of the business was simple Ð smaller operators like Hoffman would buy from peddlers and other small dealers and then sell to larger firms like Lax which could assemble enough material to sell to Stelco or Dofasco. There was also money to be made taking scrap steel from the mills, or waste paper from The Hamilton Spectator or other products from other businesses.
"A lot of guys would do that," Waxman recalled. "They'd buy from peddlers and then stockpile until they had enough. The smaller guys would sell to the bigger players."
While some of the old Jewish families are still in the scrap business - Posner Industries is one example - others have faded. Sol Hoffman, for example, sold his yard to Posner in the 1970s and died within a couple of years. I. Waxman and Sons has vanished although a grandson of one of the founding brothers now operates a new firm, Waxman Industrial Services.
Part of the change, Harvey Waxman said, simply reflected the growing prosperity of those families and their fierce determination their children would never have to claw for a living in the same way. The collapse of old prejudices - the years of Jewish quotas for university enrolment for example - also opened new possibilities.
"At one time it was all Jewish because it was the only business they could get into," Waxman said. "As the next generation came up, their parents wanted them to have more. They wanted them to be doctors and lawyers and be educated. They wanted a better life for their children, not to have to get their hands dirty in the scrap business."
A scrap peddler
Many of the stories being collected through the Working Families project will be turned into art work. A map showing all of the locations of the Jewish scrapyards in Hamilton is also being assembled. More information on the project is available by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.