My Family’s History Is a Prop at Cracker Barrel
A random photo sent me down a rabbit hole of learning more about my immigrant great-grandfather, his employer Endicott Johnson, and the era of welfare capitalism
I left my hometown in Central New York as soon as I graduated college. Not because I hated the town, nor because I wanted to detach from my community. I adored my childhood as the granddaughter of the Main Street business owner; our staff and customers were family. Leaving my loved ones to head west was tremendously difficult, but there were zero chances of upward mobility in the career path I was interested in.
At one time, my hometown region was a bustling outputter, filled with flourishing factories manned and womanned by European immigrants — mostly Italian and Slavic. And much like a Springsteen song, the factories ultimately folded or moved elsewhere, and with them went decent-paying, steady employment. Today my hometown is a juxtaposition of the past and present — a swirl of abandoned factories, boarded-up Victorian homes, well-groomed midcentury ranch houses, a struggling Main Street, and a SUNY college that keeps the city from falling into the canyon of broken dreams.
One of the millions of immigrants who played a minor part in the American industrial movement was my great-grandfather Herman — a Russian who moved to the new world in his late twenties. He landed a job at Endicott Johnson, a shoe manufacturer in Endicott, New York, as a leather tanner. He made decent enough pay to care for his wife, a nonpracticing Jew from Poland named Sophie, her son, Harry, and her daughter, Katherine, and their own child, Nettie Mae, my grandmother — the Main Street business owner I mentioned above.
On a Facebook group for my hometown, a man posted a photo of an Endicott Johnson advertisement he saw on display at a Cracker Barrel in Pueblo, Colorado — 1,700 miles away from Endicott. The man inquired about purchasing it, but it was not for sale. Endicott Johnson is now reduced to a prop in Cracker Barrel’s nostalgia display. Seeing this photo of my great-grandfather’s employer piqued my interest and made me dig deeper into the company’s history. What I…