The Old Man and the Sea: My Great-Grandfather, from Latvia to Key West

Ben Sandler and friends, Key West, early twentieth century.

My great-grandfather (bartender in center) and friends, Key West, early twentieth century.

The way I understand it, Key West, way back when – way back before the spring breakers and Girls Gone Wild, back before the pride parades, back before Jimmy Buffett and Margaritaville, back before the leather shops on Duval Street, back before the Conch Republic, back before Tennessee Williams, back even before Papa Hemingway and his six-toed cats – was a rough-and-tumble Wild West town misplaced out in the bright blue waters of the Caribbean Sea.

Before it was Key West, it was Cayo Hueso – bone cay – and moved back and forth between Spanish, British, and private ownership until 1822, when Commodore Perry, famous for “opening” Japan to the West, planted the American flag in its sand. Over the next few decades, a town grew up on the island, attracting a diverse mix of Anglos, Cubans, and Bahamian “conchs” to the Gibraltar of the West. Fishing and salt production were prevalent, and Cubans fleeing war at home in the 1860s and 1870s brought a tradition of cigar-making, but for much of the nineteenth century, salvage was king. After ships would run aground on the reefs surrounding the island – and nearly a ship week wrecked on the Florida Reef in the mid-nineteenth century – the town’s inhabitants would rush out to the wrecks to salvage (legally, by license from the federal courts) what they could. By 1860, Key West was the largest and wealthiest city in Florida and the wealthiest per capita in the country, and its homes were known to be decorated with the fineries taken from the wrecks.

The city remained relatively isolated until 1912, when the railroad finally reached Key West. An engineering marvel, dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World by its fans and Flagler’s Folly by its detractors, the Overseas Railroad stretched 156 miles from Miami to Key West through swamps and over barrier islands. On January 22, 1912, Henry Flagler – the man singlehandedly responsible for much of Florida’s growth in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including the development of Miami, Palm Beach, and Daytona Beach – rolled into Key West in his own private railcar Rambler, proclaiming to the assembled crowd, “Now I can die happy. My dream is fulfilled.” He died eighteen months later at his mansion, Whitehall, in Palm Beach.

Ben Sandler (seated) on Rambler.

Ben Sandler (seated) on Rambler.

This would all be just history, ancient and irrelevant history to the Key West revelers, except that my great-grandfather, Ben Sandler, was there. In the early twentieth century, he moved to the island with his young Baltimore-bred bride, Yetta, in tow. She hated it, I’m told. It was everything Baltimore, then the nation’s sixth- or seventh-largest city, was not: rowdy, isolated, buggy, subtropical, provincial. But business, a mercantile at 328 Simonton Street called “The Square Deal,” was good. And he was there when, in late January of 1912, Flagler’s railcar chugged into Key West from across the sea.

The Square Deal, 328 Simonton Street, Key West.

The Square Deal, 328 Simonton Street, Key West. The store later became the home and gallery of artist Sandford Mallary Birdsey.

Some years ago, my father brought a souvenir book of Key West to my grandmother, Ben’s daughter. Flipping through it, she found a picture of the inaugural run of the Overseas Railroad on January 22, 1912. Behind Henry Flagler and the mayor of Key West stands a man who appears to be my great-grandfather.

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Photo from Yesterday’s Key West by Stan Widhorn and Wright Langley.

Ben’s life was, in a way, characterized by the sea. He later settled inland in Petersburg, Virginia, where my grandmother and father were born and raised, and spent a short while in pre-Mouse Orlando in the mid-1920s, but it was the seas surrounding Key West that had established him and it was the Atlantic Ocean that had brought him to America.

Ben was born around 1888 in what is now Aizpute, Latvia. (I’ve always known it by its German and Yiddish name, Hasenpoth, or “rabbit hutch.”) The town was a center of the Jews of Courland, a community straddling the Eastern European and German Jewish traditions. (An episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, featuring Rashida Jones, explored the town’s Jewish past.) But I imagine life was hard there, and, around the turn of the century, when Ben was only 13, he was put on a boat headed for Newport News, Virginia, never to see his family again. Ben, barely a teenager, was on a new continent in a new world with a sister and some much older half-brothers who helped him along the way.

Ben Sandler, aged 13 (left) and 21 (middle), and Jacob Sandler (right).

Ben Sandler, aged 13 (left) and 21 (middle), and his father, Jacob Sandler (right).

I know very little about Hasenpoth other than what I have read about it. I know essentially nothing of my family’s history there, and there are only a scattering of photos, mostly of people whose names have been lost to time. (The photo of my great-great-grandfather Jacob, above, is an exception.) There aren’t even stories. Even the most basic facts (the uncertain name of Ben’s mother, for example) are forgotten or barely remembered, quite a contrast to our own time when every thought and activity is documented. I’ve never been to Hasenpoth, I may never go there, and I have never spoken with anyone who has.

A forgotten photo from Hasenpoth, possibly my great-grandmother, Ben's mother, possibly named Miriam.

A forgotten photo from Hasenpoth, possibly my great-grandmother, Ben’s mother, possibly named Miriam.

And yet, a couple years ago, Google added Latvia, and Hasenpoth with it, to Street View. Suddenly, I was able to wander its streets (circa September 2011). I could see the weathered wood and plaster buildings in its center that must have stood there in the first decade-and-change of my great-grandfather’s life. (Compare the image below to this image from the mid-nineteenth century.) Hasenpoth, once a sort of family fairy tale, became a very real and tactile place that solitary sepia-toned photos alone could never truly conjure.

It’s incredible to time-travel like this, to experience an ancestral town I’ve only ever heard of in semi-hushed tones, to feel a real connection to my past, to see the red tile-roofed houses and the lake and the little bridge across it, to see the people walking about – the woman in the pink sweater and the white dress covered in black hearts carrying a letter, the two women sitting in the park, the men at the bus stop, the little girl on the little blue scooter, the crowd of people in their Sunday best, the three boys on their bicycles, the family crossing the bridge – all very blond now and different in appearance from my family’s but whose ancestors must have known of or interacted with my own. I’ve spent hours walking the town, peering through its doorways, down its alleyways, and into its gardens, translating its signs, reading in its parks, and fishing in its waterways.

But, stepping back, I’m not quite sure what I’m looking for in this town I’ve never been to – maybe for history, maybe for my great-grandfather, maybe for his people’s marketplace and his parents’ graves, probably for a missing piece of myself.

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