In 1896, a gangly young Jewish boy got off the train at Atoka carrying his worldly possessions with one hand. It was a hot dry Thursday and J. T. Cline, proprietor of the Bates Hotel, was at the station to greet his guests. It was Mr. Cline who picked up the boy, welcomed him to the Indian Territory and entertained him until he re-boarded the train for his final destination.
Next to encounter the weary traveler was Mayor Charles H. McPherren of Caddo. Little did he realize that the boy who stepped off the depot platform would change the course of the town’s destiny.
Benjamin Siegel, born in Lithuania, had already survived much hardship in his young life. Moving to America hadn’t been easy. Then after his family settled in St. Louis it suffered one of the worst tornadoes in history, leaving hundreds dead, thousands injured, and the city in chaos. As a final blow Ben’s mother died, leaving him with a profound sense of duty to help support his five sisters. Ben had spent his whole life training with his father as a peddler so he headed west to test his skills in the Indian Territory.
Once settled in Caddo, Ben put together a pack of goods and sold them from household to household, but it wasn’t long before he was prosperous enough to move into a small wooden building. He stocked it with quality goods and began advertising “The Famous” store. Thus, he built his business on the two principles that formed the foundation for his lifetime of success: wise purchases and flagrant advertising. Ben Siegel was the master of the “deal” and an expert promoter of all things “est”- the biggest, greatest, cheapest, finest, latest, and best.
February 17 and February 24, 1899
Mothers- Bring your boys to the best and cheapest store in Caddo. The bargains are here. Boys’ overcoats and all sorts of fine long and short pants. Suits are selling for less than cost. The Famous, Ben Siegel, prop.
By all accounts Ben was also honest and reliable. And while some thought he was “stern,” most just remember a quiet man who went about his business, raised his family, and contributed generously to the community. One former customer said, “I never much liked him when I was a kid, but my mom sure loved to shop at his store!”
In 1900, Ben Siegel moved his goods into a fine new brick building built by fellow businessman, W. J. Moon. The large building on Buffalo Street allowed him to expand his stock and serve more customers, but it wasn’t as grand as his dreams, so he quickly purchased his own lot and spent the summer building a new store. The editor of the Caddo Herald commented, “The Famous sign has been discarded because the people ask for Ben Siegel. They all know Ben and it is he who is famous…”
It should be noted that Mr. Siegel’s Jewish faith played a large part in his life and though accepted by the citizens of Caddo he did not always find it easy to practice that faith. The Territories were one of the last areas to be occupied by Jews because for years they were not allowed to settle permanently among the established Indian tribes. The Herald often reported that Ben and his friends went to the synagogue in Lehigh. In 1947 The National Jewish Monthly reported that “Ben Siegel is the head of the only Jewish family in Durant, OK and the county’s oldest merchant. He belongs to McAlester Lodge, 70 miles away, but also attends B’nai B’rith functions in Sherman and Denison, Texas.”
As part of his business routine, Ben often traveled to St. Louis to buy goods, so it probably wasn’t a surprise when he returned from the city in 1901 with his bride, Fannie Lossos. That same year he also sponsored a young relative, Isadore Sachaffer from Russia. Isadore worked with Mr. Siegel, learned English, and soon opened his own business.
Ben and Fannie built a fine residence on Buffalo Street, raised two children, Allen and Pauline. Their family was frequently mentioned in the newspapers in connection with business, social, religious, and civic events. They spent a great deal of time assisting other Jewish business owners and Ben was in partnership with some of them from time to time. He and Mr. Damie owned the “Surprise Store” from 1917 to 1922.
Mr. Siegel was a member of the Knights of Pythias and it seems fitting that he was the “Master of Exchequer.” He also served as vice-president of the Caddo National Bank.
In 1920, Pauline Siegel began to stay for extended periods with her grandparents in St. Louis. In May of 1922, Fannie left Caddo to join her, and Ben stayed behind to take care of business and sell their household goods, including his “good Columbia phonograph with forty records.” The Caddo Herald said he did so “because the health of one child demands that he go.” It seems that his intention was to stay in St. Louis, but three years later, he and Allen drove back to Durant to open a new clothing store. He conducted his business in Durant just as prosperously as he had in Caddo. In 1935, the Durant Weekly News reported that he sold fifty-five white sweaters to the local girls’ glee club, landing the order “against all competition.” The Durant paper is filled with ads and stories of his success.
Allen worked six days a week in his father’s store. Pauline recovered her health, married Sidney Segal of Dallas, and he also worked in the Durant store. In 1929, the list of Ben Siegel’s employees included Buford Whitt, Charley Duckworth, Red Roberts, Miss Margaret Elting, Mrs. Sam Price, Mrs. George Jones, Mrs. Felix Tidwell, Mrs. Foster Damron, Miss Ruth Miller, and Miss Margaret Sample. Mrs. Price, Mr. Whitt, and Mr. Duckworth were still working for him in 1934. The obituary for Ida Mae Bowen, who passed away in 2007 said that she worked for Ben Siegel for “many years.”
Ben Siegel’s slogan, “The Oldest Store with the Newest Stock in Bryan County,” served him well and he served the people of Durant until his death in 1960. The prosperous peddler truly left a lasting impression on generations of Bryan County residents. Allen and Sid continued to operate the store until the late seventies. Allen died in 1976, Sid in 1984.
Note: Every story told about Ben Siegel’s life is a bit different. Each anniversary tale recounted by the local newspapers changed his age, the circumstances of his early life, his arrival in Atoka/Caddo/Durant/Calera, and the year he opened his business in Durant. Most papers don’t even acknowledge that he ever left the county. His draft cards, funeral record, and headstone each carry a different birth date. I have chosen to rely on the earliest and most direct sources I could find. I’m not sure the details really matter anyway — the success of Mr. Siegel’s business is indisputable.
Mary E. Maurer writes historical features for the Democrat.