b. September 20, 1838, Posen, Kingdom of Prussia
excerpt from "History of Paterson and Its Environs" by William Nelson and Charles A. Shriner - 1920
Nathan Barnert was born in Posen, Kingdom of Prussia, on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement Sept.20, 1838. His education was begun in his native city, and in 1849, a lad of eleven years, he came to the United States. He worked first in his father's tailoring shop on Forsythe street, near Grand, New York, and his spare time was devoted to home study and study in the Talmud Torah on Henry street. At this time the gold fever was rife in the country and thousands from all classes were hurrying to the newly discovered fields of wealth in California. The boy determined to join the quest and earned money for the journey by selling candles and soaps. Despite the attempt of his parents to dissuade him, in company with another lad of h;s own age, he secured passage for Nicaragua. His comrades on this voyage were an oddly assorted crowd, comprising men of all ages, to whom fortune up to that time had not been favorable. The passage on the vessel did not include meals and the two companions worked as stokers during the trip, each earning thirty-six dollars. Proceeding to Marysville, Cal., and then to Sacramento, Nathan Barnert, observing closely the varied fortunes of the miners, decided that there was still another pathway to wealth. He went to San Francisco, purchased a supply of candles and scented soaps, and in a successful tour of the mining' camps saved $1,400. Mr. Barnert to-day, as an object lesson to those similarly tempted, tells how in one of the glittering gambling halls, with all its brilliant attractions, he lost all of his p05sessions, after which he took an unbroken pledge never again to play cards. Taking up his work anew he worked tirelessly selling his wares among the miners, then became an office boy in a store maintained by a Mr. Dixon, the largest establishment of its kind on the coast. He was well received by Mr. Dixon and his family, and he afterward had the opportunity, at the time of the San Francisco fire, of aiding Mrs. Dixon in her misfortune. After several months in this occupation, he once more entered independent business, purchasing a mule and peddling outfit and resuming his early work in the mining regions. This was successful in a satisfactory degree, but Mn Barnert, seeking new fields of endeavor, sold his equipment and branched out into the express business, the field then principally occupied by the Wells Fargo and Freeman's Express companies. After a brief career in this line, he visited the Hawaiian Islands, and later joined the hunt for gold on the Fraser river. While his efforts to "make a strike" were unrewarded, his experiences during this time are among his most pleasurable memories.
Returning to New York City in 1856, a strong, healthy, broad-sbo~dered man, with ii broadened outlook, strengthened character and courageous purpose, he at once entered the clothing business. For two years he continued in this line of business, then made Paterson his home and opened a tailoring establishment in partnership with Marks Cohen. Their store was on Main street, and Mr. Barnert afterward became associated in the same field with Solomon Mendelsohn, whose interest he subsequently purchased. The store was then located at No. 149 Main street, in the middle of Van Houten street, before that thoroughfare was cut through. The outbreak of the Civil War followed soon afterward, and throughout the course of the conflict Mr. Barnert executed large contracts for clothing for the Union forces, giving employment to hundreds whom unsettled economic conditions made idle. The site of the business was, in 1863, changed to No. 134 Main street. Mr. Barnert's clothing business expanded steadily after the return to peace conditions, and he invested largely in real estate. He at one time stated that he "could have bought all of Main street on one side of the street from Market down to Ellison, forty-seven years ago, for $100 a foot front. I bought the property where the Five and Ten Cent Store is now located for $50,000, and people thought I was crazy, that something was wrong in my head."
Mr. Barnert continued in mercantile life until 1878, when he retired to devote his entire attention to his extensive real estate interests. These attained very large dimensions, his holdings chosen with the sagacity and judgment that have marked his entire business course. He fostered the founding of a new industry in Paterson, the furnishing of supplies for paper mills. He formed the Annandale Screen Plate Company in association with Robert A. Haley and William C. Martin, Mr. Barnert retiring from the company in 1893. He was one of the first to undertake the erection of great modern mill structures as a speculative project, and in these undertakings he was uniformly successful. The first of these buildings was the Barnert Mill at the corner of Railroad avenue, Grand street and Dale avenue, which was completed in 1882.
The generous portion of Mr. Barnert's time that at the urgent solicitation of his fellows has been spent in public office is one of the most interesting chapters of his active life. Paterson was normally a Republican city, with the representatives of that party in control of municipal affairs. Mr. Barnert, a lifelong supporter of Democratic principles, was, in 187o, delegated by the board of aldermen to make a special investigation of the city's finances and tax accounts. He delved deep into the financial standing of the city, armed himself thoroughly with exact information, and overcoming apparently insurmountable obstacles rendered a report that disclosed the maladministration of the public business and deplorable municipal dishonesty. A part of the result of his work was the prosecution and imprisonment of a number of officials. Mr. Barnert's influence, not only in his party but for the entire cause of reform, became a byword in the city, and in 1876 he received the Democratic nomination for alderman from the sixth ward, then strongly Republican. At the end of an unrelenting campaign he was victorious over his opponent, "Bob" McCullough, by a generous majority. At the end of his two years' term he was reelected for ~ like period. This term of office was an almost continual conflict between Mr. Barnert and the exponents of privilege and graft, and his sturdy companionship of the people's cause brought an insistent demand that he run for the office of mayor. He finally acquiesced in the wishes of his friends, and in the following spring became a candidate. Opposed to him was David T. Gilmore, and in a keen election, hard and fairly fought, Mr. Barnert was elected by a safe plurality. On the day after the election, Prosecutor Stevenson, later a vice-chancellor in the New Jersey Court of Chancery, made the following statement: "It
has been the cheapest campaign on both sides that ever took place in Paterson. Both parties had detectives employed and I had detectives watching them both. I have not heard of a case of suspected bribery. It was the most honest election we have ever had."
As chief magistrate of Paterson, Mr. Barnert entered upon the herculean task of securing desirable results, unsupported by a sympathetic Board of Aldermen, and harassed at every turn by the incumbents of political office. His was not a new situation in politics, but the unwavering courage and persistence with which he attacked his problem were a revelation even to those who had the most confidence in his ability. He went to all lengths to prevent the improper use and waste of the public funds, and in all traction questions, sewerage improvements and all public work he guarded well the best interests of Paterson. That reputations fell and officials were discredited in the course of his earnest pursuit of his duty was a matter of regret to him, but deterred him not one particle. When he felt that the occasion demanded he unhesitatingly broke precedent and appeared in person in the council chambers. He had everything to gain for the people of the city and personally nothing to lose. In his own words: "My 'political aspirations' are overestimated. Public office has no charm for me. To be serviceable to the people who have put their trust in me as executive is my aim. It is my only object to accomplish a more careful, honest, systematic method of business." Mayor Barnert each month gave his official salary as mayor to the hospitals and to the poor, irrespective of creed. He was defeated for reelection at the end of his term, the Republican party, always a power in the community, placing in nomination Charles D. Beck with, a highly honored and esteemed member of the city. It was a bold master stroke the Republicans played, although not a new one, and with the aid of every agency known in those days, Mr. Barnert's defeat was encompassed. In 1886 a delegation of prominent Democrats endeavored to persuade Mr. Barnert to accept the nomination for Congress. He had at that time, however, undertaken an extensive program of charitable work, and was also busy in building up the business interests neglected in the heat of the campaign. Through his influence Mr. Cornelius Cadmus was nominated, and he was subsequently elected. In 1888 Mr. Barnert responded to the universal request that he reenter politics, and was nominated by his party for mayor, opposed by Peter Ryle, Republican. The spirit in which he made his fight is exemplified in the following speech of acceptance of the nomination:
Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen: To accept this nomination or not, that is the Question presented for my consideration. If I were to consult my Inclination for rest, my health and comfort and my private affairs, I ought certainly step hack into private life. But I have the feeling within me that I ought not desert the cause now, when the success of the hungry pack around the City Hall would embolden them to do holder acts of plunder.
Mayor Barnert then launched into a defense of the city charter form of government for Paterson, which was being advocated in the legislative halls at Trenton, rehearsed the various scandals brought to light during his administration. He continued:
I may he stepping on somebody's toes, hut I cannot help it. Some of our newspaper men belong to cliques and are compelled to write at the dictation of their party bosses. One of the main features of the new charter is to do away with this system. as it provides for a commission, which would regulate that part of the city's business in such a way that no newspaper would ever be handicapped by bossism. * * * Now my friends let me tell you right here that I have not sought this nomination and will now willing give $100 to the Sisters' Hospital and an equal amount to the General Hospital, if you will relieve me and select another candidate. I know I need rest as I have been abused by those rascals in the City Hall. It was the "ring" connected with the City Government that defeated the new charter, and I am prepared to prove it with the assistance of others who were with me at Trenton. * · *
Likewise indicative of his zealous pursuit of what he felt his duty as mayor is the incident related by Mr. Arnold Levy:
Alderman-we will call him Gallagher-at a regular meeting of the Board of Aldermen, proposed that the city purchase street lamps. The Mayor made up his mind to investigate, and one day on his rounds, discovered at the old city scale house on Bridge Street, something like 1,100 lamps, which were new and not paid for. He naturally meant to mention that at the next meeting of the Board. However, to his amazement, at the next Board meeting, Mr. Gallagher stated that 1,500 lamps had been purchased from a New York firm at a cost of $1.75 each. The Mayor knowing something about the value of lamps, made up his mind to investigate the matter very thoroughly. He secured the name of the firm who supplied the lamps and made a trip to New York, going to the lamp concern and stating that he was from )1'ittsburg and that the city of Pittsburg needed 1,000 lamps. If they would quote him the closest possible price, no doubt they would get the order, providing their samples were satisfactory. They were glad to take the order at $1.75 per lamp and were told by the Mayor to send a sample lamp to a wholesale clothing house (where the Mayor was doing business at the time), and mark them for Mr. Blank, of Pitta burg. In the meantime he instructed the clothing house to forward the lamps to him by express.
The night of the meeting of the Aldermen when the bill for the lamps was to be presented arrived, and the city fathers were assembled and duly called to order, when Mr. Barnert, with an imposing looking package under his arm, in strange contrast with his usually dignified bearing, strode in. There was an onimous shifting of feet, for the entrance of the Mayor on these occasions invariably meant that there would be a crossfire of questions, with consequent disastrous results to those whose interests were inimical to that of the city.
Mayor Barnert, being given permission to address the Aldermen, arose and made this startling announcement: "I am going to sell some lamps!" From the audience there came half suppressed laughter, in which several of the Aldermen, believing they scented a joke, also joined. "Yes, gentlemen: I am going to sell you some lamps," reaffirmed the Mayor. "Yesterday," he continued, "I underwent the painful ordeal of going under an unassumed name. to-night I am Nathan Barnert." The Mayor then told of his investigation and his trip and purchase, and then presented his bill together with the lamps which he had bought for $1.75. There was an uproar at the meeting where all sorts of charges were made and the matter was finally dropped after an opera bouffe attempt to remedy matters.
Before undertaking the narration of Mr. Barnert's philanthropic and charitable works, it is well to pay tribute to her who was his constant inspiration and co4aborer in such endeavors, his wife, Miriam Barnert. They were married, Sept. 2, 1863. Mrs. Barnert was, before her marriage, Miriam Phillips, daughter of Henry L. and Jane (Chapman) Phillips, a member of a wealthy Hebrew family, one of her brothers being twice alderman of London. She had come to the United States when a young girl, the family for some years residing on 42nd street, New York City, her father at the time a furrier on Grand street, and property owner of Paterson.
That Mr. Barnert owes as much of his success to Miriam Barnert as he does to his own endeavors, he has often stated. What aspirations, ambitions, ideals he held were strengthened by her gentleness, her soothing touch, her magnetic personality, her nobility of character. The couple were happily mated. Through the splendid spirit, the kindly administrations of that charming woman, the granite texture of his nature gradually under-went a change, followed by a rich vein of imagination, poetry and romance. Over their intense identification of the present hovered the mellow afterglow twilight of the past Pathos, research, logic, wit, humor, knowledge of mankind, were her instruments and she played them all for the best service to humanity. Miriam Barnert was the friend of all members of the Israelitish race. Many times had the press published news of the apprehension of poor Jewish peddlers for selling wares without licenses. Later in the day, Mrs. Barnert's carriage would stop at a police station and the fine would be paid. Usually Mrs. Barnert would send for the unfortunate man and try to ascertain his condition. Were he poor, Mrs. Barnert would present him with a purse of money and send him on his way with her best wishes. Was there a sick or ailing family of the Jewish faith in Paterson, the carriage of Mrs. Barnert would be seen at the door and money, provisions and delicacies would pour in. The same spirit of philanthropy animated Miriam Barnert in her family life; she was devoted to her nephews and nieces and a constant watcher of their welfare. In the fraternal world she was the dominant spirit. In various entertainments planned for charity, Mrs. Barnert was always in the lead. She was an excellent impromptu speaker, and her advice and instructions were invariably complied with. When Miriam Barnert's lifelong battle ended on Sunday afternoon, March 31, 1901, men, women and children mourned her. They had lost a friend, whom they had deeply revered, one upon whom they had placed so much reliance and faith, a woman whose charity was unbounded and whose sympathy had quickened the pulses of those with whom she had come in contact. And what of her lifelong partner, whose sorrows and joys she had shared? Ordinary measures of estimate, stereotyped terms of descriptions are instruments which fail in this analysis. The intense love, the admiration, the reverence for Miriam Barnert have found expression in the handsome memorials which have been built and which are in the building to-day. How well Miriam Barnert was beloved can be judged when it is said that for the first time in its history, a woman was buried from the Barnert Temple, an unusual honor, for none but women who' have distinguished their lives by learning, benevolence or holiness are accorded this privilege. At the home on Broadway and at the Temple, thousands, rich and poor, came to pay homage to their friend and benefactor. The funeral service was in keeping with her lovable character-unostentatious. At the Temple, the Rev. Dr. A. S. Isaacs, rabbi of the congregation, delivered a most intimate eulogy. He was assisted by the Rev. Raphael Benjamin, of New York City. There was no floral display, a simple cluster of forget-me-nots being the only adornment on the casket of a woman whose life had made adornment unnecessary and whose memory will live through the years to come. On the heights of Mount Nebo, looking down the valley of dead in Laurel Grove, is an imposing tomb, where is hidden the mortal frame work of her
Who gave her honors to the world again,
Her blessed part to Heaven, and keeps in peace.
Throughout his Paterson residence, Mr. Barnert has been a leading member of the Congregational B'Nai Jeshurun, more generally known as the Nathan Barnert Memorial Temple. On May i6, 1889, he and Mrs. Barnert deeded the plot of land at the southeast corner of Broadway and Straight street, running westerly on Van Houten street, to the trustees of the congregation, for the erection of a synagogue to be designated as "The Nathan Barnert Memorial Congregation B'Nai Jeshurun." The deed of transfer simply stated the end and aim of the gift, with the provision that after the decease of the said Nathan Barnert, and also after the decease of the said Miriam Barnert, a memorial service "Kaddish" shall be held in the said synagogue on each and every anniversary of his and her decease. Considered in their collective aspect, Mr. Barnert's gifts to the congregation B'Nai Jeshurun cannot otherwise be described than as truly munificent. As already noted, he first donated this valuable parcel of land in one of the most conspicuous and select sections in the city, and then purchased an adjacent strip and presented it to the congregation with a considerable sum of money to start the building fund. Later he assumed the entire expense of construction and, in addition, paid off the first debt of the congregation. At the dedication of the Nathan Barnert Memorial Temple President McKinley was the guest of honor, entering the synagogue arm in arm with Mr. Barnert.
On May I, 1902, Mr. Barnert deeded the land at the Erie crossing and Broadway for a home for the Hebrew Free School Association of Paterson, N. J., to be named "The Miriam Barnert Memoral Hebrew Free School." The school was dedicated Sept. 27, 1904, with impressive services, and at the present time its graduates are prominent in the business and professional channels of the city, and the school in its solution of the problem of religious instruction has already attained a national reputation. On an average, 500 pupils, ranging in age from six to fourteen years, are in daily attendance, excepting Saturday, between the hours of four in the afternoon and seven in the evening. Instruction is given in Biblical and Post-Biblical history, reading and translation of Hebrew, together with a comprehensive knowledge of the Jewish ritual and ceremonies. The first requisite of attendance is that the applicant must be an attendant of one of the public schools. The expense of an efficient staff of teachers, headed by the principal, together with text books and stationery, is defrayed by voluntary contributions and membership in the Hebrew Free School Association. Donations from the Gentiles are not infrequent.
One of the most beneficial of Mr. Barnert's philanthropies has been the Nathan and Miriam Barnert Memorial Hospital, first incorporated as the Miriam Barnert Dispensary Association, Nov. 28, 1908. On June 26, 1911, additions were made, with the creation of several wards, and patients were admitted for regular hospital treatment on July 6, 1911.On April 6, 1914, the name of the institution was changed to the Nathan and Miriam Barnert Memorial Hospital Association.
On his seventy-fifth birthday, Mr. Barnert donated $450,000 and sixteen city lots, situated on Broadway, between 30th and 31st streets and 13th avenue, for the erection of a new hospital building. With this splendid structure in full operation, Mr. Barnert has recently added to his gifts in the building of a suitable and comfortably equipped home for the nurses.
The above are those of Mr. Barnert's gifts that are most familiar to his townsmen, by whom they are appreciated in a degree that has brought warm pleasure to the heart of their donor. Those that are not so well known are his gifts of a synagogue in Santomischel, Germany, the building of an orphan asylum in Jerusalem, and others equally obscure, but conveying the same message of generous service and faithful stewardship. Under Mr. Barnert's direction a band was organized among the boys of the Jewish Free School, and he equipped the organization with instruments and uniforms. All of its members are required to pass a rigid examination for admission, and the musical standard is thus kept high, the services of the band being given to the city free of charge. Mr. Barnert's ready fund of humor and keen wit are proverbial among his friends and acquaintances. Despite his close devotion to the more serious things of life, this geniality and love of fun form one of his most marked characteristics. His practicality and sentiment are combined in an interesting degree in a plan that he has followed for many years. Whenever a young man and woman are united in matrimony through his aid, he makes a gift of $1,000 to each couple. Ninety-one dowries have been paid by him in this manner, in one instance to three generations of one family.
Volumes have been written, in the public press and published works, of the life and work of Nathan Barnert. He has been a tower of strength to the cause of reform in Paterson, a pillar of cloud and fire to the unfortunate, a citizen true to the duties imposed by citizenship, a Jew stalwart in his faith, a man loyal to his fellows. He belongs not to Paterson, no business contains him, Jewry cannot compass his spirit, for he is an American, a citizen of the world.