Leo Harris, Early Jewish Pioneer Merchant of the Antelope Valley of California

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Leo Harris / Hirschkowitz

Values Codes: I-E-L

 

One of the most respected and well-known families in the Antelope Valley from 1909 to the early 1920s, was that of Leo L. Harris.

When the Antelope Valley Mall opened in 1990, it included an upscale Harris Store.

This chain of stores was started by Leo Harris’s family in San Bernardino in 1905.

 

Leo Harris was born in a small Polish town (perhaps in Lautenberg) in the Province of Posen, which at this time was under control of Prussia.

He was one of seven children born to Morris and Johanna (Lesser) Hirschkowitz/Herschkowitz.

Leo’s older brother, Lewin Hirschkowitz, arrived in Los Angeles in1853.

Lewin changed his name to Leopold Harris, [Click Here for more about Leopold] as did each of his siblings as soon as they arrived with the exception of his oldest brother, Lesser. 

 

According to census records, Leo Harris immigrated to the United States in 1887, (perhaps with his younger brother Herman), and was naturalized in 1894.

 

Along the way . . . .

Leo Harris first settled in Santa Ana, California and worked with family members in The White House, a general mercantile store, which had been established by his brother, Herman Harris.

 

 Antelope Valley

During the early 1890s, Leo’s brother, Phil Harris, entered the mercantile business in Bakersfield and then traveled to mining camps in the neighboring Tehachapi Mountains to sell his goods.

Leo Harris either went with him or came soon after (c. 1893/94) to the little community of West Greenwich/Tehachapi.

He claimed, at 17, to have owned his own general store.

He remained in the mercantile business here until 1909.

 

Leo Harris was also involved with the Bank of Tehachapi.

In August 1906, Dave Hirshfeld was the bank President, Albert Ancker the bank Cashier, and Leo Harris was a Director.

 

The Lancaster Years

In 1909, looking to relocate in a new community,  Leo Harris bought a general merchandise store from Paul Bachert on the best Lancaster business location—the southwest corner of old Antelope Avenue (present-day Sierra Highway) and 10th Street (Lancaster Boulevard), directly across the street from the Southern Pacific Railroad depot.

The Harris Store in Lancaster, Antelope Valley, CA circa 1913.

The Harris Store in Lancaster, Antelope Valley, CA circa 1913.

In his store he sold a variety of items which he usually obtained from his family in San Bernardino.

Through the years Leo Harris expanded his L. Harris & Co. General Merchandise Store, which also was home to the Lancaster Post Office from November 1, 1914 to February 1925.

In addition to non-Jews, his general store also employed a number of Jewish residents, which was very small in number in the greater Antelope Valley at this time.

They included: Julian Steinberg, Harry Marx, J. Mendlewitz/Mendelowitz and Murray Bleiberg.

German-speaking Leo Harris  (although he did speak English) also hired young neighborhood boys such as Glen Settle (a later prominent valley historian) to wash the store windows or help deliver customer orders.

A Leo Harris & Co. advertisement from the Antelope Valley-Ledger Gazette (1916).

A Leo Harris & Co. advertisement from the Antelope Valley-Ledger Gazette (1916).

 

In addition to his mercantile business, Leo Harris  had large real estate holdings, (residential and alfalfa fields),and  took an active role in local freighting.

He also owned part of the Rogers-Gentry Gold Mine near Neenach, which was located in the western portion of the Antelope Valley.

 

In 1913, Leo Harris helped to establish the Antelope Valley Implement Company in Lancaster, which in addition to implements was part of a vehicle business.

At this time there were very few automobiles in the Antelope Valley but Leo Harris  recognized their future importance.

 

While living earlier in Tehachapi (1905), he and a friend, George Lovejoy, applied for a government patent for “A New and Useful Means for Lubricating Wheels,” particularly for plow usage.

Always thinking of new ideas, in Lancaster (July 1917), Leo Harris applied for another new patent; he had invented: “New and Useful Improvements for Folding-Bed Attachments for Automobiles.”

 

Civic

In 1915, Leo Harris was also a Bank Director with the Lancaster-based Antelope Valley Bank.

 

Fraternal

Leo Harris was an active community member of the Masons.

 

Community

Although there were no synagogues in the greater Antelope Valley in 1910, there lived in town Cornelius Epp, a 25-year-old boarder whose spoke Yiddish and whose occupation was listed as “Minister.”

As there were only two to three other possible Jewish residents living in downtown Lancaster at this time, perhaps services were conducted by Cornelius Epp in private residences. Otherwise, Leo Harris  would have had to travel to Bakersfield or Los Angeles.

Family

In 1909, Leo Harris  (32) married 23-year-old Esther H. Hirshfeld (Hirschfield) in Los Angeles.

Esther, who was born in Bakersfield, California in 1888, was the daughter of Marcus Hirshfeld  and Minna Asher Hirshfeld.

Leo and Esther’s children included Helen Marion (1910-1983), who married Julius Jay Myers; Mildred Ruth (1912-1955), who married Emanuel Tanchuck (1909-1996); and Irving Milton (1914-1989), who married Shirley Jones.

Prominent Jewish families from different areas of Southern California would often come to visit Leo Harris  and his family.

They included Albert Ancker, the Hirshfelds, the Ashers, and his brother, Dr. Lesser Hirschkowtiz, who was one of the earliest Jewish physicians in Los Angeles.

The Harris family home was often the site of happy children’s events; they sometimes had Helen Field, an early silent movie child actress—and Lancaster resident, perform at their parties.

 

Later Years

In 1925,  Leo Harris and his family moved to Los Angeles.

Eventually his store was taken over by the Lancaster Department Store.

However, his son, Irving Harris, continued to live in the Antelope Valley for several more years.

 

Leo Harris died in 1951.

Esther Harris died in 1954.

 

 Sources

  • “The Remarkable Harris Family: Inland Empire and Los Angeles”
  • “Other Early Interconnected Pioneer Jews of Kern County, California” for additional Harris family information and photographs.
  • Old newspapers, census records, family diaries and earlier publications.

Norma Gurba-Kleit is our Curator for this Leo Harris Exhibit.

A view of the Leo Harris & Co. General Merchandise Store in Downtown Lancaster (c. 1913).

A view of the Leo Harris & Co. General Merchandise Store in Downtown Lancaster (c. 1913).

 

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