Equine Passion: The Cohen Family at Pimlico Race Course Pt. 1

Posted on May 7th, 2018 by

generations 2004 copyArticle by Robin Z. Waldman. Originally published in Generations – 2004: Recreation, Sports & Leisure. This particular issue of Generations proved wildly popular and is no longer available for purchase.

Part I: Out of the Starting Gate

Like a soothsayer of old, Ben Cohen predicted his future. In 1933, he was wracked with typhoid fever, and his family was concerned that he might not live. His illness was so severe that his dreams became rambling hallucinations. In his delirium, Ben mistakenly believed he owned a racetrack. He repeatedly called out to his wife Zelda, asking her about conditions at the track, and if the chauffeur had brought her to him. It was the Depression, and the Cohens did not have much money, but Ben recovered and went on, together with his brother Herman, to become an owner of Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Track, home of the well-known Preakness Stakes.[1]

Ben and Zelda Cohen lead a victorious "Hall to All" after a race at Pimlico. Courtesy of Rosalee Davison.

Ben and Zelda Cohen lead a victorious “Hail to All” after a race at Pimlico. Courtesy of Rosalee Davison.

Ben Cohen’s story is one of remarkable successes. He was born in Baltimore in 1900. His parents were Jewish immigrants, and Ben was one of eight siblings raised on South Broadway in the Fells Point neighborhood. He was forced to quit school after completing the sixth grade but became a respected businessman who spent almost his entire career in Baltimore until his death at the age of 94.

As an eight-year-old boy, Ben began working for his father’s men’s clothing business. When foreign-flag shops entered Baltimore’s docks, Ben rode small launches out to greet them and sell them merchandise as a “ship’s tailor.”[2] By fourteen he was working in a relative’s shop in North Carolina, and at seventeen he was back in Baltimore, where he went into business with his brother Herman, who was then 23. The Cogen brothers began as wholesale merchandisers. “Sweaters, shows – it wasn’t particular, whatever we could buy cheap enough to re-sell,” Ben once said.[3] Shortly thereafter one of their retail customers in York, Pennsylvania went bankrupt. Rather than cut their losses, the Cohens bought the entire store and then liquidated it. Throughout the Depression they bought and liquidated bankrupt businesses. Ben described the businesses they bought as closing wuickly, “almost as quick as a horse race.”[4]

From liquidating businesses Ben and Herman moved into real estate and construction. They began in 1930 on Norfolk, Virginia, building homes to accommodate the need for expanded housing near the shipyards, where damaged British vessels were being sent for repair. Over the next few years the Cohens built 15,000 housing units all along the East Coast.[5] The business they founded to oversee construction and real estate development, Mount Royal Management, is still run by members of the Cohen family.

Among other ventures Ben and Herman bought a steel mill outside Philadelphia in the 1940s, which they operated profitably for many years until competition from larger mills became too intense. Additional, after watching an Army-Navy football game in 1946 on a 5-by-7-inch television set, they decided to bring television to Baltimore. WAAM, Baltimore’s first television station, went on the air on Election Night in 1948. The Cohen brothers kept that business for nine years, until they sold the station to Westinghouse, who renamed it WJZ.[6] The brothers’ business transactions got larger and larger, until December 0f 1952, when they decided to buy Pimlico Race Track.

Ben’s involvement with horseracing was inextricably linked with his marriage to Zelda Greenberg Cohen. Zelda, also a first-generation American and Baltimore native, was raised on Whitelock Street. After her graduation from Eastern High School in the early 1920s she took a job in sales at the downtown Hahn Shoe Store on Lexington Street.[7] Herman and Ben’s early entrepreneurial efforts included shoe sales, and Herman had become acquainted with Zelda. Herman introduced Ben to Zelda and the two were married in 1928. Even while they were dating, long before their marriage and well before Ben’s bout of typhoid fever, Ben and Zelda often attended races at the track. Ben would call on Zelda in the car he shared with Herman,[8] and the two of them would go up to the small track in Havre de Grace to enjoy the races there.

Continue to Part II: Pulling Ahead

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all information from this article derives from an oral history conducted by the author with Rosalee Davison, one of two daughters of Ben and Zelda Cohen, May 13, 2003 (JMM OH 565).

[2] Transcript of oral history interview of Ben Cohen, March 26, 1990, p. 1 (JMM OH 241).

[3] Eric Siegel, “Pimlico’s Cohen Brothers: Building a Fortune on the Fast Track,” Sun Magazine, The Baltimore Sun, December 4, 1983, p. 35.

[4] Ibid., p. 36.

[5] Ibid., p. 36.

[6] Ibid., p. 36.

[7] “Zelda Cohen, 99, racehorse enthusiast,” The Baltimore Sun, January 30, 2003, p. 6B.

[8] Albert Sehistedt Jr., “Herman Cohen dies at 95; revitalized Pimlico course,” The Baltimore Sun, May 18, 1990, p. 1D.

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Family Fare: Baltimore Jewish Food Businesses Part 1

Posted on May 8th, 2017 by

Article by Jennifer Vess. Originally published in Generations 2011 – 2012: Jewish Foodways

Pauline Lozinsky, Lilly Lozinsky, Elwood Sacks, Morris Freiner, Bernard Davis,  Joseph Lozinsky, Al Caplan, and Alex Levenson  inside Joseph Lozinsky’s Deli located at 3523 Park Heights Avenue, 1939.  Courtesy of Pauline Weinstein.  JMM 1999.35.2

Pauline Lozinsky, Lilly Lozinsky, Elwood Sacks, Morris Freiner, Bernard Davis, Joseph Lozinsky, Al Caplan, and Alex Levenson inside Joseph Lozinsky’s Deli located at 3523 Park Heights Avenue, 1939. Courtesy of Pauline Weinstein. JMM 1999.35.2

In 1894 Solomon Rodbell, a baker by trade, left Poland with his wife Fannie and their two-year-old daughter, Dora, to settle in America.  They chose to make Baltimore their home, probably to be close to Solomon’s brother Abram, who had immigrated several years before.  Abram Rodbell was also a baker, had in fact been Solomon’s teacher back in Poland, and ran his own shop in Baltimore.  For a year Solomon worked for his brother until he and Fannie moved into a bakery shop on Pratt Street to start up their own business.  The bakery was also their home.  They lived in the basement with their growing family until finding a new shop some years later on Lombard Street.[1]

At age seventeen their oldest child, Dora, married Isaac Silber, a young immigrant who also worked on Lombard Street.  Isaac, called Ike, grew up in Poland where he had been apprenticed as a baker.  He, too, came to Baltimore to be closer to family who had left Poland before him.  At first he worked for other bakers (most notably Parisers, well-established at the time and still in existence today), but eventually he opened his own shop and after he a Dora married they took over her father’s business.  This became Silber’s Bakery, an institution in Baltimore, first in the Jewish community, then all over the city.  Dora and Ike’s children grew up in the bakery, just as Dora had grown up in her father’s.  They worked there as children and took over its operation as adults.  The business passed through successive generations of Silbers, expanding into thirty-six stores around Baltimore before closing in 1980.[2]

Tthe Rodbell family: David, Dora Rodbell Silber, Isidore, Fanny Kirsch Rodbell, Solomon, Kathryn Rodbell Sollins, and Jacob, 1905. JMM 1995.160.1

Tthe Rodbell family: David, Dora Rodbell Silber, Isidore, Fanny Kirsch Rodbell, Solomon, Kathryn Rodbell Sollins, and Jacob, 1905. JMM 1995.160.1

This story of a Jewish family making a living through food is one that has been repeated dozens, perhaps hundreds of times in the Baltimore Jewish community since the nineteenth century.  For many people, providing food for others was and still is how they survive, and how they thrive.  Food is their business.  And in the Baltimore Jewish community, business is often family.

As the Jewish population in Baltimore grew during the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, the number of delis and dairies, butcher shops and bakeries, restaurants and grocery stores, fishmongeries and confectionaries owned by Jews grew as well.  Families saw these businesses through every stage, opening as small local operations, directing them through the excitement and turmoil of decades of technological and market changes, to the thriving or closing of the business.  These food businesses, which lined Lombard Street, peppered the inner city, and opened along Park Heights Avenue, impacted not only those who owned them, but the people who ate their goods.  Whether or not these food businesses still continue today, they influenced the community around them – the Jewish community of Baltimore and the larger community as well.

Continue to Part II: Immigration: “In the United States they would have an opportunity.”

 Notes:

[1] The story of the Rodbells and the Silbers can be heard through five oral histories at the Jewish Museum of  Maryland. Rosalie S. Abrams interview, January 23, 1977, OH 46, Jewish Museum of Maryland; Dora Silber interview, June 11, 1978, OH 76, JMM; Rosalie S. Abrams interview, November 30, 1979,  OH 98, JMM; Dora Silber and Kathryn Sollins interview, n.d., OH 123, JMM; Kathryn Sollins September 1982, OH 164, JMM.

[2] ibid.

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