Early Chronicles of West South Midwood Part 8 (June 2016)

The Immigrants of West South Midwood
by Joe Enright

Immigration has been much discussed this Presidential election year. Some proposals advanced to stem illegal border crossings have recalled some darker periods in our history, particularly the 1882 ban against the Chinese signed by Chester A. Arthur, probably the most forgettable President in American history. In 1892, as immigration swelled to unprecedented levels, Ellis Island was opened to weed out anarchists, criminals, the sick, the crazy and presumably some Asians. But by 1910, almost 15% of Americans were foreign-born, with Brooklyn at 35% and Manhattan at an amazing 48% level. Today, 37% of Brooklynites are still immigrants, including a substantial number from China.

Brooklyn Chinese-American Family Reading Repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943

But what about West South Midwood, which is what Argyle Heights was called for the first five decades of its existence?  Were we brimming with immigrants in our early days?  To answer that question I consulted census records, which collected the birthplace and US-entry date of every resident and their parents. 1910 would have been the first census conducted here because only six years earlier we were still an uninhabited woody tract on the western end of the John A. Lott farm, recently purchased by the Germania Real Estate and Improvement Company. 

Part of the 1910 "Enumeration" of West South Midwood. Note the Street Names Scrawled Sideways in Far Left Margin.

This research proved to be time consuming because the census-takers – officially called enumerators – scrawled the street name sideways on the edge of their forms, printing only the house number in the address column. That dumb format has forever prevented scanning into databases the most important piece of data (for me, anyway): the exact location of a resident. The closest surrogate to an address that was searchable turned out to be the Ward number, a political subdivision that was abandoned in New York more than 80 years ago. Now safely filed in my brain under “Information You Will Never Need to Know Again. Ever” is that West South Midwood was in the 31st Ward. I thought that factoid would be a great help until I discovered the 31st Ward encompassed all of Brooklyn south of Foster Avenue to Coney Island. Oy vey, the frustration! Frankly the only thing that kept me going was the thought that the West Midwood Newsletter would probably pay big bucks for this story.

Per map below Ward 31 Was Equivalent to the Town of Gravesend (Maps courtesy of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society)

Gravesend was annexed to the City of Brooklyn in 1894. The tip of its spear - where it met Flatbush - was East 17th St. and Foster Ave.  Its western border was Gravesend Avenue, renamed McDonald Avenue in 1933 to honor "a now-forgotten Brooklyn alderman who had died suddenly, having choked on a chicken bone" (http://forgotten-ny.com/2008/04/forgottentour-33-gravesend-brooklyn/).

In the end I was able to chronicle 203 households in West South Midwood (if you consider the north side of Avenue H to be the border) and 51 more in what was then Oak Crest (expanding the border to the LIRR cut). There were 44 buildings with multiple households while on the other hand some addresses were simply not found, most likely because they were temporarily unoccupied during the census canvass, or had yet to be built. For instance, in 1910 the future site of the church on Argyle Road was still an empty lot, as was the southeast corner of Glenwood Road and Coney Island Avenue. And Marlborough Court was then a vacant patch, not graded or added to the city's street grid until 1914.

Well, here now the news: 78% of the 254 combined households of West South Midwood and Oak Crest had a foreign-born occupant and/or at least one resident with a foreign-born parent. If you don't have time to wander through the complete list I am uploading as Part 9 of this series ("1910 Census Data for 254 Households in West South Midwood And Oak Crest") here are some interesting facts:

· 21 different countries of origin were found for the immigrants who owned or rented our houses. Germany (39), England (22), Canada (16), and Ireland (14) accounted for the most.

· 33 different states were represented among the birthplaces of our non-immigrants, but only two hailed from the Rocky Mountain or Pacific time zones.

· 67 foreign-born maids were living in our households (one family, at 1121 Glenwood Road, even had two). Norway, Ireland, Sweden and Finland accounted for 41 “servants” (the official census term) – most arriving in the U.S. during the decade before the census. And 18 more homes had African-American maids, the majority of whom were born in Virginia.

· Most home-owners were in their 30s and 40s. The oldest resident turned 81 in 1910, and only three others were older than 70. And, underscoring the reduced life expectancy of a century ago (almost half of what it is today), 45 households had at least one occupant who was widowed. We found only one divorced person.

· The single biggest employer of our residents was the City of New York: 9 school teachers and 10 public servants were found, ranging from a police officer to a “City Hall messenger”. The 11 attorneys in general practice represented the most commonly found profession, followed closely by retail shop owners, traveling salesmen, and bookkeepers. Of interest, three residents made their living from the burgeoning motion picture industry and we had two stage actors, three book and magazine publishers, a newspaper reporter, an editor, and even a cartoonist. Some occupations have long since disappeared, among them, telegraph operators (we had two), a “wagon materials” salesman, and a “lecturer on temperance”.

Argyle Heights, The Neighborhood Formerly Known As West Midwood, F/K/A West South Midwood

Finally, it would be hard to present individual household stories without taking up the entire Newsletter but here's one I couldn't resist reporting: The owner of the two family house at 745 Westminster Road was John Vagts, who was born in Germany in 1840 and immigrated to New York in 1857 where he met his wife, Sophie, herself the daughter of German immigrants, and they married in 1873. Vagts owned a butter store at 235 Fulton Street in lower Manhattan which produced enough income for him to get a mortgage in 1905 and buy his T. B. Ackerson home for $10,000 – about $262,000 in today's coinage. Even then, he was probably dependent on rental income from his ground floor tenants to make ends meet. Unlike their neighbors, the Vagts had no maids.

745 Westminster Road

But they did have an interesting story that unfolded in 1909 when their 30 year old daughter, Margaret, moved into the home with her two children. It seems her husband of 14 years, Joseph Van Winkle, with whom she had been residing at 2714 Glenwood Road in South Midwood, had disappeared. Van Winkle was Brooklyn's Deputy Tax Commissioner and a well-liked member of the Cortelyou Club, located on Bedford Avenue between Newkirk and Avenue D. But on Washington's Birthday in 1909 he left his house and was never seen again.

Cortelyou Club On Bedford Ave Near Avenue D in 1910

Glenwood Rd At Flatbush Ave in 1910. Van Winkles Resided in a Row House on Left
When the story of his disappearance ran in the press, a widow named Katie Lauer (another German immigrant) came forward, suggesting that Van Winkle had run off with her daughter, Ernestine, a 24 year old music teacher, who was also active in the Cortelyou Club. The mother remembered a distinguished gentleman caller named Joe who frequently came to see “Tina”. As news of the scandal spread, Van Winkle's father, Asa, an orchestral musician, placed a personal ad in the Brooklyn Eagle, imploring his son to come home and all would be forgiven. But public records indicate that after waiting more than 10 years, Margaret, who had become a manger for the National Surety Company, divorced the disappeared Van Winkle. And neither Ernestine nor Joe were ever heard from again. There were 253 other stories in West South Midwood in 1910.  See Part 9 for the entire list (http://argyleheights.blogspot.com/2016/06/early-chronicles-part-9-1910-census.html).

1906 Cortelyou Club Program Lists Henry A. Meyer As First Trustee. Meyer Was President of Germania Real Estate And Improvement Which Purchased The Lott Farm Which Extended from Flatbush Avenue to Coney Island Avenue. Also Note James Van Winkle – Cousin of Joseph. The Club Had 400 Members in 1910.

Some Photos and Notes and Stuff

The 1910 Census
One of the questions asked during this census was whether a resident was a Civil War vet and if so, with which Army or Navy  (per https://usa.ipums.org/usa/voliii/inst1910.shtml).  Unfortunately, in Ward 31, that data was not collected.  Instead the column was used by reviewers in Washington to tabulate data on the page.  Bummer.  

Here's a summary of the spreadsheet posted as Part 9 of the Early Chronicles of West South Midwood:

Country Maids Oak Crest Maids WSM Owners/Renters Oak Crest Owners/ Renters TOTAL Owners/Renters Total Grand Total
Germany 3
33 6 39 42
Ireland 12 1 11 3 14 26
England 1
18 4 22 23

10 6 16 16
Norway* 15

Sweden 9
4 4 13
Austria 4
4 4 8
Russia 5
3 3 8
West Indies 3
4 4 7
Finland* 5 2

Hungary 3
2 2 5
Denmark 2
2 2 4

4 4 4
Poland* 4


3 3 3

2 1 3 3
France 1
1 1 2

1 1 2 2

1 1 1

1 1 1

1 1 1

1 1 1

1 1 1
Totals 64 3 102 26 128 195

Total Maids 67

Total Owners 128

Total Foreign Born 195

* Countries represented by maids only

The Location of the Cortelyou Club
Some modern writers have claimed the Club was located on Cortelyou Road. Wrong. Compare the post card below left with the 2015 Google Maps photo of the southeast corner of Avenue D and Bedford Avenue on the right and tremble before me, mere mortals!
Cortelyou Club in 1908--Note Brick House to Far Right
Same Brick House Today, One Door South of  Corner of Ave D and Bedford Ave
West South Midwood Scenes, 1907-1915

1907: LIRR and Coney Island Ave Trolley Intersection (looking north and east up Coney)

1907: LIRR and Coney Island Ave Trolley Intersection (looking due north up Coney)

1907: LIRR and Coney Island Ave Trolley Intersection (looking north and west up Coney)

1907: LIRR and Coney Island Ave Trolley Intersection (looking east toward West South Midwood))

1907: LIRR and Coney Island Ave Trolley Intersection (looking east to rear of houses on Westminster visible in distance)

1911: Avenue H and southeast corner of East 15th St

1911: Avenue H (south side) between E 15th and Brighton Station

1911: Glenwood Road (north side) looking east from Rugby Road toward Brighton cut

1911: Glenwood Road (north side again) looking east from Rugby Road toward Brighton cut

1911: Glenwood Road (south side) looking east from Rugby Road to footbridge over Brighton cut. The span was removed  circa 1970 and the brick base was removed circa 1990.

1911: Glenwood Road looking west and north to Coney Island Ave from Westminster Road. Steepled roof on right is still there.

1911: Glenwood Road looking due west to Coney Island Ave from Westminster Road

1911: Glenwood Road, north side, looking west to Coney Island Ave from Westminster Road

1911: Rugby Road, west side, looking south from Glenwood Road to Avenue H

1915: Avenue H and East 15th Street in West South Midwood Which Is Labeled "Fiske Terrace" on This Post Card.  Adopting Argyle Heights as our Name Would End 111 Years of Mis-identification.
It appears that electric trolleys, street level and elevated, were the preferable means of transport in 1910, with local roads, mostly strewn with dirt, predominantly used by horse-drawn carriages.

1910: A Slice of Brooklyn Life
The marvelous restored photograph below has been sliced and diced to show scenes outside the Long Island Railroad Terminal at Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues on a warm day: the elevated train had no windows...the streets are remarkably clean...a newsstand advertises the Brooklyn Eagle...an ad on the landing leading to the "EL" shows a play at the Brighton Music Hall.  In any event, the major factor that brought people to the emerging suburbs of Brooklyn was transportation. In a decade of minuscule car ownership, the key was the electrification of surface and elevated lines that connected Brooklyn to lower Manhattan via the Brooklyn (1883), Williamsburg (1903) and Manhattan (1909) bridges. 

1910: NYC Elevated Train Above; LIRR Entrance at Ground Level. Everyone Is Wearing A Hat.
Close-Up of the Landing Below the EL. Ad On Left for Brighton Music Hall (Replaced By Brighton Beach Baths).
Same Photo Showing What I Cropped from Above Version. Brick Structure in Foreground Still Stands - See Photos Below.

Compare And Contrast. Missing from Both 1910 and 2015 Photos? The Endless Vehicular Traffic.

1912 Painting By John Sloan, "Six O'Clock Winter".  Based on Atlantic Terminal Milieu? 

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