Ligonier Indiana's Jewish Heritage
Today Ligonier looks like a typical midwestern town of about 4,500 residents. You wouldn't expect to find a large Jewish community, and there isn't one. If fact, there isn't a single Jewish resident today, but there was once over 200 Jewish citizens here.
If you look, you can find evidence that they were once here. The former synagogue, with the Star of David in stained glass, is now home to the Ligonier Historical Museum. You can also find the Star of David symbol in the local cemetery, where 180 former Jewish residents are buried. There was once a section of town known as "New Jerusalem" because so many prominent Jewish families lived there.
Frederick Straus & Solomon Mier
Frederick Straus & Solomon Mier were two Prussian Jews who came to America. They were drawn to Ligonier in 1854 when they heard a railroad would soon pass through the town of 300. Sensing the opportunity to move into a town that would soon be growing rapidly, they moved to Ligonier. Initially working together, they soon had a falling out and began operating separate businesses. As their friends and relatives came to town, they prospered.
Frederick Straus formed Straus Brothers Company when his two brothers came to Ligonier. They started with a general store in 1860 and opened a bank in 1868. Later they went into real estate and manufactured buggies. Frederick and one of his brothers retired and moved to Chicago in the 1880s, which left the third brother, Jacob, and his family to run the company. They continued to expand and recognized the potential of the telephone. They formed the Warsaw Telephone System
Like Jacob Straus, Mier was successful in the banking and carriage making. He also ran a clothing store before selling it in 1873. The Mier Carriage and Buggy Company targeted the luxury market, and later manufactured automobiles.
Ahavath Shalom Reform Temple
The first congregation was formed in 1865 and and a synagogue was built in 1871. Originally an Orthodox congregation, in 1876 they switched to Reform Judaism.
The Ahavath Shalom Reform Temple was built in 1889 to serve the town's Jewish community, which totaled over 200 at that time. Many became civic leaders, including three mayors. Although Jews comprised 10% of Ligonier's population by 1900, their numbers dwindled as the younger generations moved away. In 1904, the congregation had only a part-time rabbi. By 1948 there were only 14 members left. The building was sold and used by various Christian churches before becoming home to the Ligonier Historical Museum. The last Jewish resident in Ligonier passed away in 1981.
As of January 1, 2019, the former synagogue is now for sale, with an asking price of $59,000. The property belongs to the local library, which is trying to reduce its debt. This puts the future of the property & the museum in question. Fortunately, Indiana Landmarks has a preservation easement which prevents alterations to the exterior of the building. It is my hope that whoever purchases it will allow the museum to continue operating there.
One of the artifacts in the Ligonier Historical Museum has the Ten Commandments carved in Hebrew. A lady at the museum said someone told her she had it upside down, (If you aren't familiar with Hebrew, it's hard to tell), so she turned it around. When a Jewish couple visited the museum shortly thereafter, she pointed out the wood carving. The gentleman replied "It looks nice, but you've got it upside down."
The museum also has numerous other items relating to Ligonier's history. The town once had a large plant that produced marshmallows. Although the plant has been shut down, the Ligonier Marshmallow festival is still held each year in September.
Ligonier now bills itself as "The City of Murals". The town's symbol is the clock that was donated to the city in 1924. It was donated by John Cavin in honor of his father, Ligonier founder Isaac Cavin. If you visit Ligonier today, you can stay at Solomon Mier's house, which is now a Laura's Victorian Inn Bed and Breakfast.
- Legends of Ligonier - Historic Cavin Clock
- ISSUU - City of Murals - Ligonier by KPC Media Group
This is a feature publication of Ligonier, Indiana, highlighting the beautiful murals throughout the city.
- Noble County's Jewish History