For about a year now, I’ve been doing some research about what was, at one time, a pretty significant Jewish community here in Carbon County. This topic arose out of personal interest initially. But over the months, I have come to see that like any social history, the study of this area’s Jewish immigrants is, in truth, simply a way of looking at the place in microcosm, providing me with a wealth of information about the evolution and development of the County as a whole over the last 150 years.
A prime example may be found in the case of Isadore Bolten, born with the name Israel Boloten in Mogeloff Province, Russia on March 28, 1885. He grew up in a peasant family in White Russia, where he experienced a difficult childhood. At the age of 18 months his father, an officer in the Czar’s army, sent him to live with an uncle after his mother passed away. He was given no formal education, though he did learn a trade – shoemaking.
He arrived in New York – alone – on March 13, 1907 at age 22. He had no knowledge of English and, according to the ship manifest, had $5 in his pocket. He then continued on to his final destination, Chicago, where he secured a job at the Marshall Fields Department Store making $12/week. He took classes at night, and also spent time working on a dairy farm in nearby Wisconsin.
By 1910, he had moved still further west to Routt County, Colorado where, as a young man in his 20s, he claimed a homestead which he began to farm. Initially his interest had been in the area of cattle ranching, but he struggled due to the challenges of holding cattle in the rough and rugged Colorado terrain. It was then that he determined to try sheep ranching instead. Though he found this business challenging as well, by the early 1930s he had expanded his ranching activities into Carbon County, where he found the grazing lands particularly conducive to the raising of sheep.
In time Bolten became quite a successful rancher and entrepreneur. In addition to his ranching business, he bought several bison (buffalo); in the mid-1940s he used them as attractions, sponsoring bow-and-arrow “hunts” on his ranch during which thousands of spectators paid to watch this unique – if not questionable – spectacle. Though popular, these “hunts” attracted a great deal of criticism as well, both locally and even in the national press.
Despite the occasional controversy, Bolten’s place in Rawlins’s society at large was very positive, and continued to grow as word spread of his various activities in the community. He and his wife Ethel (Etta) were well-respected residents of Rawlins for some years. She served as a librarian in the local library in the Osborne Building on Cedar Street. Though Isadore became a man of some means over the years, he often referred to their marriage as his “greatest asset.” They had no children, and his formal education was, as noted, limited at best. Still, the couple made considerable contributions to local youth initiatives, as well as to educational programs throughout the county.
The Boltens planned to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary in April 1951. Unfortunately, Isadore died on February 16, 1951, at their home at 315 West Maple Street at the age of 66. His body was sent to Chicago, and he was buried in the Jewish Graceland Cemetery where some of Ethel’s family was also interred.
When Bolten died, his estate was valued at about $2,000,000, equal to about $20,000,000 in 2019 dollars. He left the City of Rawlins a gift of $100,000 – the equivalent today of nearly one million dollars – as a trust for future generations of the town’s children. A park was created in his honor which exists to this day – Bolton Park. According to town officials, Bolten’s gift was conditional; only interest from the gift may be spent while the principle must remain untouched. Still, between the year 2000 and 2019 alone, the city was able to spend over $30,000 on equipment in the park without ever touching the initial investment provided by Bolten.
Isadore Alia Bolten was one of many immigrants who came to this town and, once here, took full advantage of the opportunities that America had to offer. But he contributed greatly as well. He was highly regarded by his fellows and, though he was known to be a competitive businessman, he also had a reputation for honesty and fair play. In this regard he left a legacy which, to this day, is still remembered fondly by some of the city elders who I talked to in the process of my research.
But then, Bolten himself recognized his own success, saying at one point “I’ve been most fortunate. There was nothing for me in Russia – absolutely nothing. I had the whole world to move about in, but some kind destiny pulled me to America. It is remarkable that there is a place in this distressed world where a penniless alien, knowing not a world of the language, can work out a place for himself. I would be grateful to America even if she had given me nothing—but she’s been kind to me beyond my fondest dreams. I am truly grateful and I do love this country of ours.”
The “rags-to-riches” story of Isadore Bolten well-symbolizes the story of many of the immigrants who have made this County their home over the years. It is the story of Wyoming and indeed, of the history of America. It is a story of promise, of devotion, and above all else, of love between a man and the land he came to call “beit’i” – my home.
Steven C Dinero, Ph.D., is Executive Director of the Carbon County Museum.