Bernard Silberstein

Bernard Silberstein. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Bernard Silberstein and his wife Nettie were two of the most remarkable residents of the East End, moving there at the apex of a successful life together into a home that epitomized their rise in economic and social status. Bernard Silberstein was a Hungarian Jew born in 1848 who immigrated to the United States at age 18. Only four years later, after a short stay in Detroit, he came to Duluth and was the first known Jew to settle here. Once he had established a business he returned to Detroit long enough to marry his sweetheart “Nettie” (Ernestine Rose Weiss). She was born in Budapest, Hungary and had immigrated at age five with her family to that city. The Silbersteins honeymooned in Duluth and were said to be the first bridal couple to settle in the community. He began his business career as a door-to-door salesman then opened Duluth’s first general store, where Nettie worked by his side. Over fifty plus years he parlayed his mercantile instincts into one of the largest department stores in the Northwest—Silberstein & Bondy, organized in 1881.

As with so many Duluth pioneers, Silberstein got involved in civic works and local politics. He served on the library board for two years, the park board for nearly 20 years and much credit is due him for Duluth’s splendid park and boulevard system, as he often advanced cash to the city for the purchase of park property so it could obtain the best possible deals at a time when the city had very little money. His financial backing is the reason that today Duluth has an exemplary park system worthy of pride. Silberstein ran for mayor in 1913—the first election held under the commission form of government—but was defeated by W. I. Prince by eight votes after one of the closest political contests in the history of Duluth. Two years later he ran again, this time for commissioner of public safety and was elected by one of the largest majorities given a candidate in local elections. During his tenure on the city commission he served as president and often acted as mayor in the absence of Mayor Prince. In 1919 Silberstein declined to run again, choosing instead to concentrate his activities on his successful business and possibly the secret building of a house (named “Highpoint”) at 21 North Twenty-first Avenue East to give his bride of 50 years on their golden wedding anniversary, which was completed and occupied the same year as his business celebrated its golden anniversary,
1920.

Silberstein was also a central figure in the Jewish religious community of northeast Minnesota. The Covenant lodge, Independent Order of B’nall B’rith, held a jubilee banquet and ball in 1920 to honor his half century membership in the order. His 1922 obituary attests to his noteworthy life:

Bernard Silberstein, owner of Duluth’s first general store in the early pioneer days and head of the Silberstein & Bondy department store for the last fifty years, died at 6:30 o’clock this morning at his home, 21 North 21st avenue east. After an illness of several months, caused by infirmities due to his advanced age, Mr. Silberstein, who was 74 years old, passed away peacefully with all the members of his family at his bedside. Death, however, had been expected for the last month, as he had been failing rapidly…Half Century of Usefulness. Rounding out more than half a century of successful business operations and public service in Duluth, Bernard Silberstein, Duluth pioneer, leaves a record that has rarely been equaled in this city. Coming to Duluth in 1870, he began his business career in the small lake village by selling goods from house to house. And now with his death, he leaves one of the largest mercantile establishments in the Northwest. His life story reads like a romance. Two years ago Mr. Silberstein celebrated his golden wedding anniversary shortly after moving into his newly-erected home at Twenty-first avenue east, having been surrounded at that time by all the members of this family, including several grandchildren from New York city. A few months later the Silberstein & Bondy store observed the golden anniversary of its organization and Mr. Silberstein was the recipient of hundreds of letters and telegrams of congratulations from all over the country. And within the same year Covenant lodge, Independent Order of B’nall B’rith, entertained at a golden jubilee banquet and ball in honor of Mr. Silberstein’s half century membership in the order. The occasion was the most brilliant ever staged by the Jews of Duluth, Superior and Northern Minnesota and, in a small measure, indicated the esteem with which he was held by the people of his faith everywhere. Active at Late Age. Although 74 years of age, Mr. Silberstein had been exceptionally active for a man of his age. Up to a few months ago he was at his desk in the Silberstein & Bondy store daily and busily engaged with the various business duties that fell to his attention. He attended lodge meetings and was often present at public functions. In earlier days he was one of the most active men in Duluth, participating in almost every event of importance in the city. He served on the park board for many years and for four years, from 1915 to 1919, was a member of the city commission. About three months ago Mr. Silberstein began to fail in health and a visit to the Mayo hospital at Rochester, where he was given personal examinations by Dr. William Mayo, failed to help his condition… Pioneer to City. Bernard Silberstein was born at Budapest, Hungary on March 4, 1848. After finishing grade schools and high school at Vienna he came to America when 18 years of age. Following a short stay at Detroit, he came to Duluth, ‘only to look aroung,” as he often expressed it, but deciding to remain and make this city his future home. Mr. Silberstein was 22 years of age when he reached Duluth and started his business career here by selling goods from house to house. A few months of this was followed by the organization of Duluth’s firs dry goods store by Mr. Siberstein and William Farrell, an uncle of Commissioner J. A. Farrell. It is interesting to note that both Mr. Silberstein and Mr. Farrell were elected members of the city commission at the same time in April, 1915, while the partnership between the latter’s uncle and Mr. Silberstein was started eight years before the present commissioner of public works was born. Back in those days of ’70, Duluth was a small village and the old Siberstein-Farrell store sold everything imaginable. Shortly after this partnership was formed, the two young merchants were anxious to expand and a Mr. Witcher joined the organization. This trio conducted the first “big general” store in this section of the country. After a few years this partnership was broken up, because of Mr. Silberstein’s desire to ‘spread out’ and get into a larger business. As a result he formed the B. Silberstein company, and in 1881 he organized the Silberstein & Bondy company, which is still the firdm name. Mr. Bondy died a number of years ago, but the firm name has been retained. In Public Service. Mr. Silberstein was on the park board fo nearly twenty years and to him, it is claimed, it largely due the credit for Duluth’s splendid part and boulevard system. With great foresight and optimistic as to the future of Duluth, he often advanced the money to the city for the purchase of park property. It was the cash that brought the best deals and in those early days the city had very little money with which to do any high financing. But he took a chance and advanced the money that Dulth might have a park system to be proud of. Mr. Silberstein was a thirty-third degree Mason and one of the leading men of this fraternity in the Northwest. In the earlier days he took an active part in lodge work and was instrumental in the organization of several lodges. His last public appearance was last spring at a weekly dinner of the Scottish Rite, when he participated in the Lodge of Perfection. In 1913, Mr. Silberstein ran for mayor at the first election held under the commission form of government but was defeated by W. I. Prince by eight votes, after one of the closest political contests in the history of Duluth. Two years later he ran again, this time for city commissioner, and was elected by the largest majority ever given a candidate in the local city elections. Both he and Mr. Farrell, who had also been defeated in 1913 by a small margin that was decided only after a fight in the courts, swept Duluth in 1915 with tremendous majorities. Although 67 years of age at the time of election as city commissioner, Mr. Silberstein was one of the most active men in office and took a prominent part in helping establish the commission form of government, then but two years old. He was given the post of commissioner of public safety, holding this office until the election in 1919, when he refused to run for another term. He also served as president of the commission and often acted as mayor in the absence of Mayor Prince…[MISSING SECTION] he had none. However, he told the credit man there that he was honest and would pay. Mr. Silberstein was eventually given the credit and an opportunity to establish himself in Duluth as the pioneer merchant of the city. It was while in Detroit, just before coming to Duluth, that Mr. Silberstein met his wife. After having located here and the new partnership was established, he returned to Detroit, where he and Mrs. Silberstein were married fifty-two years ago. Later they came to Duluth to make their home. For many years they lived at the corner house at First avenue west and Second street, where all their children were born. Shortly before their golden wedding anniversary in 1920 they moved into their new home at 21 North Twenty-first avenue east, where Mr. Silberstein spent the last hours of his life and where death came to him today.

Nettie Silberstein continued to live at Highpoint House until her death in 1932 and was recognized for her contributions to the community as well:

One of the pioneer women of the city, Mrs. Silberstein played an important role in activities of welfare organizations and Temple Emanuel, of which she was a member.

Sources:

  • Larson, Jill. Intensive Survey of Historic Resources in Duluth’s East End (Part 1). City of Duluth, Duluth Heritage Preservation Commission, Duluth, Minn.: August 2007.
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