Louis Padnos was adventurous, adaptable, frugal, brave and sociable. He also had a strong work ethic.
He was born in 1888 in present-day Belarus, between the cities of Minsk and Pinsk, into a family of blacksmiths. When he was 13, life was dangerous as Russia tried to absorb Finland. To get the soldiers they needed, young men were drafted into the infantry for 25 years—a virtual death sentence.
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Luckily, at this point, Louis had a sister who lived in Chicago. So in 1901 his father asked him to leave Russia for America. He obeyed. Before he left, the family sewed money into his clothes out of concern for their child.
After getting partially under railroad cars to a port on the Baltic Sea, Louis boarded a ship bound for the Netherlands. Because he knew Yiddish – a West Germanic language – and was good at learning languages, he quickly learned Dutch, found work and saved money.
After a year he booked a passage to New York. Although his name was on the ship’s register, he had no immigration papers. When his ship docked in the United States, he somehow managed to get off Ellis Island by mingling with another Jewish family.
He then found work on a railroad that took him through Chicago to Iowa. There he stayed, found odd jobs and made money. Unlike his peers, who frivolously spent their money on payday, Louis didn’t take his pay right away — he chose instead to accumulate it.
When he finally picked up his earnings, he had enough money to roam the western border. There he used the skills he had learned in Russia and found work helping farmers clear land and harvest crops. He also bought wild horses, mounted them and sold them to the railroad and traded with indigenous peoples. Again he saved money.
Louis returned to Chicago. He managed to track down his sister after meeting a Russian Jewish family who guided him to the right neighborhoods. When he arrived, his sister convinced him that his money would be safer with her than if he were carrying it across town. But really, she had a family to support and her husband had left her.
Louis found work as a blacksmith and car mechanic at American Express. But he was bored, so he quit his job, thinking he could use his savings to support himself again. Unfortunately his money was gone.
He met a chandler who supplied men with goods on commission and sent them to the surrounding villages to sell his wares. When the merchant discovered that Louis spoke Dutch, he encouraged him to travel to Holland, Michigan. In 1903 Louis did.
When his boat docked in Macatawa, he saw signs reading “No Peddlers” and “No Jews.” A man named Miller confronted him and told him to leave.
In Holland, Louis disembarked and began exploring the city. Finally he spoke to a man who had been watching him. That man turned out to be Ben Van Raalte, the son of Holland’s founder, Albertus Van Raalte. But unlike Mr. Miller on the Macatawa dock, Ben welcomed Louis and invited him to rent an empty storefront.
Louis also rented a room from Sarah Kelley at 190 River Ave. near Sixth Street and a carriage and horse from Boone’s Livery Stable on Seventh Street and Central Avenue.
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To get clothing products for his business, Louis took a steamer to Chicago to visit the Italian neighborhoods, where he bought large suits at a discount – suits the dealers couldn’t sell – and brought them back to Holland.
Louis didn’t like being tied down in a store, preferring to sell goods door-to-door, as far away as Wisconsin and Michigan’s upper peninsula. When his customers couldn’t pay, he would take items from the trade such as rags, animal skins, bones and furs, clothing and household goods, and scrap iron and metal.
In 1910 he opened a junkyard at 157 River Ave. In 1916, at the start of World War I, he joined the military and served his new country.
We’ll continue next week.
— Community columnist Steve VanderVeen is based in Holland. Contact him via start-upacademeinc.com.