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Borderlands: Kohlberg, Krupp, Zielonka Became Business and Civic Leaders 20 (2001-2002)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Kohlberg, Krupp, Zielonka Became Business and Civic Leaders

Article first published in Vol. 20 (2001-2002)

By David A. Belford

El Paso, Ernst Kohlberg wrote his parents in Westphalia, Germany: " If I had known what I know now I would not have come here." He would change his mind in a few years, however, and he, along with other young Jewish immigrants from Germany, Russia and other eastern European countries, would find fortune and stability in the rapidly growing town.

""Image caption: El Paso businessman, Haymon Krupp, circa 1910. Photo courtesy of the El Paso County Historical Society

As early as 1848-1849, a young Jew named Solomon Jacob Spiegelberg supplied goods for Colonel Alexander William Doniphan, the leader of the first regiment of Missouri Mounted Volunteers, formed during the war with Mexico. Spiegelberg was a sutler, a person who sold supplies to the military. He traveled to El Paso, then known as Franklin, to trade and sell supplies from Santa Fe for E. Leitensdorfer and Company.

In 1875, Ernst Kohlberg, age 18, came from Germany to begin his career in sales in El Paso. His father had contracted with Solomon Schutz for Ernst to work at his two stores, Schutz Brothers, for six months to one year to pay for his passage and his first year's living expenses. From Schutz he would learn the business of general merchandising.

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In letters he sent home to his parents, Kohlberg told of frustrations and unhappiness in the desert town. He wrote that El Paso "was nearly the end of the world and the last creation."

Another time he wrote to his family, "Enchiladas are thin slabs of dough that have been fried and covered with red chili on both sides. At first, chili and everything connected with it was a hellish kind of food for me, but one becomes accustomed to anything and now I can swallow it like a Mexican, and I miss it if it is not served."

In several letters, Kohlberg complained about the terms of his contract with Schutz, but he was generally positive about his relationship with the Schutzes. In one letter, Kohlberg wrote, "I am treated very well in the house of my boss." Before long, Kohlberg also remarked on El Paso's "wonderful climate."

Eight months later, Kohlberg was given a salary of $250 a month. In his letters, the young man repeats his diligence in learning both English and Spanish in his spare time as well as keeping account books in both languages.

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Kohlberg's letters also reflect the wild nature of the growing El Paso-Juárez community. Kohlberg and his friends often traveled across the river to attend parties and dances given by Mexican families. They would ride their horses back and forth across the Rio Grande late at night, "six-shooters in [their] hands."

Ernst Kohlberg's letters were translated by his son Walter and published in 1973 by Texas Western Press. They also became the basis for the fictional character of Ludwig Sterner in "The Wonderful Country" by the late Tom Lea.

Following an unsuccessful mining venture in Jesus Maria, Mexico, Kohlberg traveled to San Francisco, first clerking for a grocer and then working at a wholesale tobacco firm, Esberg, Bachman, and Co. There, Ernst learned the tobacco business, including how to make cigars.

Armed with this business know-how, he returned to El Paso and talked a younger brother, Moritz, into joining him in business in 1881. The two started Kohlberg Brothers, a wholesale and retail cigar business.

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Life became even better for Ernst when he returned to Germany and married Olga Bernstein in June 1884. The Kohlbergs had four children, three sons and a daughter.

Kohlberg added a cigar factory to the store in 1886. Kohlberg Brothers was the first manufacturing establishment in the city. It was located where the Camino Real Hotel now stands. The brothers used Cuban tobacco, which was shipped through Mexico. The factory's specialty was a cigar called "La Internacional."

Ernst Kohlberg also started and became part of other businesses in the community. With four partners, he founded the Electric Light Company of El Paso. He was also a director of the City National Bank and the Rio Grande Valley Bank and Trust Co., and he owned two hotels, the St. Regis and the St. Charles Hotel.

He was a member of many clubs and organizations, including the El Paso Country Club, the Progress Club, the McGinty Club, the Pioneer Society and Temple Mount Sinai. He was a member of the Masons, Scottish Rite, Shriners and the Elks.

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In 1910, Kohlberg leased the St. Charles Hotel to John Leech, a compulsive gambler. When Leech got behind in his rent, he received an eviction notice. Leech went to Kohlberg to beg him to stop the eviction. When Kohlberg refused, Leech drew his revolver and killed him. Ernst Kohlberg died on June 17, 1910, but his improvements, dedication and love of El Paso lived on through his wife, children and their heirs. (See photo of Kohlberg in other story in this issue.)

Ernst Kohlberg's son Walter took over the business when his father was murdered. Historian Floyd Fierman says that by 1915, Kohlberg Brothers had an annual payroll of $75,000 and employed 125 cigar makers. Moritz Kohlberg sold his share to Walter, and the business prospered until 1924, having been killed by the popularity of cigarette smoking.

Among other early Jewish businessmen were Haymon Krupp and Adolph Schwartz

"Haymon Krupp is an unforgettable Texan, " wrote Floyd Fierman, in his book Roots and Boots. Krupp, born in Russia on March 14, 1874, came to New York as a young boy, later moving to El Paso in 1890 to work for his brother, Harris. He worked in the wholesale clothing business, H. Krupp and Brother, located at 233 San Antonio Street, which expanded to the building next door in 1900.

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After years of working with his brother, Haymon Krupp opened his own store called the Bazaar, located at 101 North Mesa, a wholesale and retail dry goods store, specializing in upholstered goods but also featuring men's boots, shoes, hats and other clothing. He remembered stores in New York putting sale items on the street to attract customers, and he became the first merchant in El Paso to do so.

Haymon Krupp opened a second wholesale dry goods house at 310 South El Paso Street that had upstairs rooms for rent. One person who often occupied a room was Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. As one story goes, each day Villa went down into the street to relax, get some air and talk to Krupp. After some time, the two became friends, and Krupp became responsible for fitting Pancho Villa's men with clothing.

Willing to take risks, Krupp invested in the oil business with Frank Pickrel and the University of Texas at Austin. He walked away with $5 million from a $500 investment. A most successful businessman in El Paso, admired by many, Krupp did not forget the poor and made sure they had coal and food.


Image caption: A young Martin Zielonka came to El Paso in 1900.  Photo courtesy of the El Paso Public Library

Along with these and other Jewish businessmen came Rabbi Martin Zielonka, who not only began several charities but also helped establish a college in El Paso.

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Zielonka, born February 15, 1877 in Berlin, moved at age three with his family to the United States. Ordained in 1899, he came to Waco, Texas, where he met his future wife. On August 12, 1900, Temple Mount Sinai elected Zielonka their rabbi. Located at Oregon and Yandell Streets, Temple Mount Sinai had been dedicated on September 3, 1899. The Zielonkas left Waco and arrived in El Paso on September 6, 1900, to serve a group of prominent citizens. Rabbi Zielonka developed several organizations in the rapidly growing city, including the El Paso Jewish Relief Society, now the Jewish Federation of El Paso. He also worked with the Associated Charities, the Family Welfare Association and B'nai B'rith. Meanwhile, his son David was born a native Texan.

While in Austin for a lecture to university students, Rabbi Zielonka spoke to leaders of his idea for a university in El Paso. The College of the City of El Paso became the first summer school and moved from the Ysleta Summer Normal School to the newly opened El Paso High School the summer of 1916. The school functioned until 1920 when support and attendance dropped, and it merged with the School of Mines.

Zielonka also had served Jewish soldiers at Fort Bliss and he made plans for a recreational clubroom for them downtown at San Antonio and Kansas Streets, the first such club in the country. He also served as President of the "Memorial Park Plan," an organization which raised money to build a memorial for soldiers who died in the war. For these and other community, educational and spiritual contributions, Rabbi Zielonka holds a special place in the development of El Paso into a city.

These early Jewish men made significant contributions to the economic and civic growth of El Paso. They were men with foresight who wanted to make their new country a good place to live and raise their families. They truly represent the United States as a country of immigrants. 


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tags: biography

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