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Tacoma's Founding Mothers: Sarah Wolff

Written in Spring 2020 by Karen Haas, Museum Volunteer

Edited for blog publication by Holly Stewart, Program Manager

This is the second in a three-part series about Tacoma's founding mothers from the 2020 living history presentation Breaking Molds & Building Community, by Karen Haas.

The first post about Janet Elder Steele Fuller is available here.

The third post about Rebecca Pitman Carr Staley is available here.

In February of this year, I presented a living history performance for Job Carr Cabin that featured 3 women from “Old Tacoma”. The second of them, Sarah Wolff presented a challenge as there is a great deal of information about her husband, Louis Wolff, some information on her children, but very little on Sarah herself. And so, I tried to put myself in her place, seeing the world through her eyes. ~Karen Haas

Sarah Wolff

1835 - 1912

Stained glass window at Temple Beth El in Tacoma, courtesy of Deb Freedman.

While still a young married couple, Sarah and Louis Wolff immigrated from Germany to the west coast of North America. They most likely shared the dream with other Jewish immigrants that this would truly be the “land of opportunity” for them. Unlike the structured European communities with long-established, rigid social strata - especially when religion was involved - the new towns of the American west offered greater opportunity for Jewish merchants. If there is but one mercantile in town, one will give that shop their trade, regardless of the religion of the shopkeeper.

The Wolffs first settled in the established Jewish community in San Francisco. This community had been there since the start of the Gold Rush - perhaps you have heard of Levi Strauss? - and was building a legacy of philanthropy. Louis started making his name in dry goods, and Sarah set about in the expected role for a wife: raising a family. Anna, their eldest, was born in California in 1858.

Louis always seemed to be looking for new ventures and greener pastures. The young family moved to Victoria on Vancouver’s Island the following year. Named after Queen Victoria, Victoria is one of the oldest cities in the Pacific Northwest, established first as a Hudson Bay Company (HBC) outpost in 1848. With the discovery of gold on the mainland ten years later, the city’s population exploded. Its muddy streets were suddenly filled with people seeking supplies and equipment to use in the goldfields up the Fraser River. Louis Wolff rightly thought this was a perfect place for expansion, and so, he established a store on Yates Street.

The hordes of men streaming north from played-out California gold claims brought new nationalities, races, and beliefs. Victoria’s Jewish community grew quickly. Temple Emanu-El was built in 1863. Its dedication was marked by a procession of benevolent societies representing most of the religions and ethnicities present in the city, including the Hebrew Benevolent Society, the French Benevolent Society, the St. Andrew’s Society, a German Singing Club, and the Masons. The band from the British Royal Navy’s HMS Topaz provided music for the occasion. One can only imagine Sarah’s wonder at this display of ecumenism! Such a thing would have been unheard of back in Europe.

Sarah was busy with her growing family. Rosa, William, Rachel and Gustave were born in Victoria. Louis was busy with growing his financial empire. He began investing in real estate while he grew his mercantile, traveling to procure goods from as far away as Honolulu.

He partnered with Jacob Morris to create an establishment of “boot and shoe dealers and clothiers”. They also had a store in Barkerville up the newly built Cariboo Road, an engineering feat started in 1860. The Cariboo Road wound more than 300 miles through the hazardous, narrow Fraser River canyon, past the HBC outpost at Yale, and on up into the mountains. Louis, no doubt, knew the best way to get rich in the goldfields was to “mine the miners” by selling them much-needed supplies. Records do not show if Sarah or Louis ever traveled the Road to experience the wild town with its voracious black flies, bitterly cold winters, and warm-hearted Hurdy Gurdy Girls who danced (yes, only danced, they were out in the cold if they did more!) with the miners.

In Victoria, the Wolffs were active in the community. Louis was on the board of the Union Hook and Ladder Company, and was a founding member of the local Oddfellows Lodge.

The Wolff children were educated at St Ann’s Convent School and Orphan’s Asylum. One might wonder, “why did Jewish children attend a Catholic school?” It was where they could get the best education. The Wolff children excelled musically and scholastically. As early as 1872, the girls were listed in the British Colonist as playing for celebrations. The children frequently received medals for their academic achievement in such varied subjects as history, mythology, grammar and assiduity. A word all but lost in our time, “assiduity” is defined as “outstanding diligence and effort”. Sarah, no doubt, was proud of her children, proud of being on the list of donors for St. Ann’s, and would encourage us all to excel in assiduity.

View of Second Street (now N 30th St) in Old Tacoma, ca. 1873.

The Wolff store would have been located near the deciduous tree in the center of the photograph.

Sarah’s established life in bustling Victoria was about to change. In 1872, amid much excitement and conjecture of the location of the Northern Pacific’s new terminus, Louis opened his Old Town Tacoma mercantile store. The third mercantile in town, it was located next to the Steele Hotel on 2nd (now N 30th) Street. From advertisements, we know Wolff’s sold Men’s, Women’s and Children’s clothing, groceries, notions and such at “San Francisco Prices”. The family settled into a house on what is now 29th Street, just around the corner from St. Peter’s Church. Louis continued growing his real estate investments, which expanded to include properties on Pacific Avenue in “New” Tacoma and lots in Port Townsend, while retaining properties in Victoria.

Newspaper article about Louis Wolff's general store in Tacoma.

Sarah’s children continued to be a source of motherly pride. In 1874, a family arrived from San Francisco who were short of funds to pay the ship’s captain for their passage. So, they auctioned off some of their household goods, including a parlor organ. St. Peter’s church was lacking an organ, but was also lacking both the funds to purchase the organ and an organist to play it. Sixteen year-old Anna Wolff stepped up. She paid off the $120 debt in three years by giving concerts and lessons; played for the church’s worship services; and taught congregational members how to play the organ. She also worked an extra four years to pay off the church’s debt to Hanson and Ackerson Mill for lumber. The organ and a plaque commemorating Anna can still be see at Old St. Peter’s Church. One can only imagine how Sarah’s motherly heart swelled with pride at Anna’s ecumenical generosity.

Commemorative plaque on a pew at Old St Peter's Church in honor of Anna Wolff who served as its first organist.

Music was a large part of the Wolff family’s life in Tacoma. Anna, Rose, and Rachel taught music and were noted musicians who frequently provided entertainment for citizens of “Old Town”. Their home was the site of many parties, musical evenings and community gatherings for all ages. Singing and dancing often played a large part in these festivities.

The pump organ at Old St Peter's Church which was played by Anna Wolff.

In 1887, Louis purchased a Decker Brother’s parlor grand piano from New York for $1000. Quite the extravagant purchase for those times! The Tacoma Ledger claimed it to be one of the finest instruments that had ever been brought to Tacoma.

When the Old Town fire department was established, Gustave, the youngest son, served on Eagle Hose Company #2, as did Job Carr’s son, Howard. The girls would often help with decorating for the fire department’s festivities such as Christmas Eve and July Fourth dances.

Louis continued his involvement in community affairs, joining organizations such as the Masons.

Sorrow struck in 1888 when, after several years of ill health, Gustave died. The closest Jewish cemetery was in Olympia. With the Jewish tradition of burying the dead within 24 hours, and the length of time it took to visit the graves, this created a substantial difficulty. The Wolffs became active in the effort to establish a benevolent society for the Home of Peace Cemetery here in Tacoma, an organization that continues to this day.

In 1889, Anna married Leopold Lefebvre of San Fransisco. One assumes Sarah felt a bittersweet mixture of motherly pride and sadness at the loss of the companionship of her eldest daughter.

But, life was more than full for Sarah in Tacoma. In 1893, Temple Beth Israel opened, thanks in great part to the determined fund-raising of the women, including a hosting a grand fair. The rabbi declared, “Open unto us the gates of righteousness!” as the doors swung open for the dedication. The first sermon by Dr. Danzinger proclaimed that this building did not require the five to six foot walls necessary to protect worshippers from the fury of fanaticism as was necessary in Europe. Sarah most likely joined the congregation as they all gave thanks for the welcome they had experienced in this land, and prayed that it would continue.

Postcard of Temple Beth Israel, courtesy of Deb Freedman.

Though, even in the new community of Tacoma, social strata and divisions were forming. When the women’s club with the welcoming name of “Aloha Club” would not admit Jewish members, they formed their own women’s group “Entré Nous”, French for Between Us”.

The Wolff women were active in the “Lady Judith Montefiore Society”, named after the wife of a famed philanthropist. Lady Judith was more than philanthropic herself. She was dedicated to providing a Jewish education for children and aiding the sick.

This Old Town home on N 28th St was built for the Wolff family between 1885 and 1890.

In the 1900 census, William Wolff was listed as the head of the household.

Louis operated his general store until just weeks before he and Sarah sailed to visit Anna in San Francisco 1896. There, he was suddenly struck ill. Sarah was at his bedside when he died. Rachel soon moved south to join sister Anna. Rose, William and Sarah remained in Tacoma for a while, but the Oakland, California directory shows that they had joined Rachel by 1903.

Rachel died in 1908. Sarah died in Oakland, California on January 27, 1912. Her obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle on January 29th gave her age as 76 years, 10 months and 27 days. She was remembered as the beloved mother of Mrs. Annie Lefebvre, Rose and William Wolff.

Sadly, no descendants of the Wolff family remain. And we have no known photographs of Sarah. But we do have fleeting glimpses of a wife and mother who traveled so far from her birthplace in Germany to make a home in the Pacific Northwest. While her husband strove to amass riches, Sarah’s story reminds us that the most valuable treasures are those of the heart.

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