The role of the Ottenheimers in building the economy of Arkansas and its capital is a remarkable story.
As the family began to settle in the state before the Civil War, brothers Leonard and Gus Ottenheimer played particularly prominent roles in 20th-century Arkansas.
As the late historian Carolyn Gray LeMaster noted in her outstanding history of Judaism in Arkansas, “A Corner of the Tapestry” (UA Press 1994), the Ottenheimer brothers were industrialists, manufacturers, and real estate developers, and their philanthropy continues today through a foundation. .
Like many Jewish immigrants who settled in Arkansas before the Civil War, the Ottenheimer family was originally from Germany. Louis Ottenheimer was the first to immigrate to Arkansas, settling in the late 1840s in St. Francis County, where he began his long retail career as a peddler.
At age 18, Daniel Ottenheimer immigrated to Arkansas, settling in 1853 in Murfreesboro; younger brother Phillip came two years later, settling in Norristown near present-day Russellville.
While Daniel was away from the Civil War in California, Phillip joined the Confederate Army, where he saw action as a member of the First Arkansas Mounted Rifles and later in Kentucky as a member of the Army of General Albert S. Johnston. Another brother, Abraham Ottenheimer, came to Arkansas during the war; he too joined the Confederate army.
After the war, Phillip and Abe opened a store in Pine Bluff and soon moved to Little Rock. The Ottenheimer & Brother dry goods store opened at the right time to take advantage of Little Rock’s booming post-war growth.
Abe Ottenheimer was community-minded, serving as an alderman, joining Masonic and Pythian lodges, and contributing to the Hebrew Society.
Abe Ottenheimer’s children were prominent in Little Rock, especially his daughter Addie, who married Morris M. Cohn, one of Little Rock’s most prominent postwar lawyers and an organizer for the American Bar Association.
Phillip Ottenheimer, like his brother Abe, was involved in the greater Little Rock community. He was a member of Congregation B’nai Israel, the Jewish social club Concordia Association and the United Confederate Veterans. Phillip’s wife, Charlotte Netter Ottenheimer, was one of the founders of the Temple Aid Society in Little Rock.
Daniel P. Ottenheimer, Phillip and Charlotte’s son, joined his father in the haberdashery business, later owning a bookstore and stationery store in Little Rock. He married Hannah Berger of St. Louis, the daughter of a Civil War Union veteran. Daniel died in 1908 at the age of 42, leaving Hannah to raise their four children.
Daniel’s eldest son, Leonard, dropped out of high school to support the family. Unsurprisingly, Leonard went to work in dry goods, starting as a lowly assistant at Doyle-Kidd Co., a large wholesale company. He quickly rose through the ranks to eventually become director of home furnishings. At that time, Leonard was ready to start his own business.
On a cool fall day in 1924, Leonard J. Ottenheimer Ladies Ready-to-Wear, a wholesaler representing multiple manufacturers, opened its doors at 108 E. Markham St. in Little Rock. It became a success.
Gus Ottenheimer was able to stay in school after his father’s death. Along with his good friend Jim Penick, he attended Washington and Lee University School of Law. After working for a time as a lawyer in Rhode Island, Gus returned to Little Rock in 1926 and joined Leonard’s tailoring business. Soon the Great Depression hit, forcing Ottenheimer Brothers to start making the dresses they sold, cutting out the middleman.
Once again the brothers overcame the economic peril and their business prospered. Carolyn LeMaster noted that “At first they made sportswear and more expensive dresses, but by the late 1930s they saw a strong demand for low-cost cotton dresses”. Eventually, Ottenheimer Brothers became one of the nation’s largest women’s clothing manufacturers. The brothers sold the business to Kellwood, a division of Sears Roebuck, in 1955.
Gus and Leonard were considered ahead of their time in many ways, including starting a sewing factory for black workers who were paid the same as white employees. The business did not do well after being sold to Kellwood, becoming the site of a bitter strike in the late 1960s.
The brothers ventured into real estate development in 1955 when they built the Cloverdale subdivision on 145 acres in southwest Little Rock.
Many who remember Leonard and Gus Ottenheimer associate them with their activities on the social and civic fronts in Little Rock. Gus was known for his dedication to Rotary International. He joined the Rotary Club of Little Rock in 1928 and was instrumental in establishing programs within Rotary to promote international exchange, a priority that continues today.
The Ottenheimer brothers were active in an array of community projects. Gus took a particular interest in higher education, including chairing a task force to make Little Rock University a four-year institution. The Ottenheimer Library at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock is a reminder of the family’s contribution to this school over a long period.
Many organizations and institutions in Arkansas have benefited from the Ottenheimer Brothers Foundation, incorporated in 1965. Neither man married, and they hoped the Foundation would perpetuate the Ottenheimer name in Little Rock.
Leonard Ottenheimer died in 1984 at age 92, and Gus died a year later at age 87. They are buried in Oakland Jewish Cemetery in Little Rock. The Foundation and the name endure.
I’m working on a story about Little Rock’s Hollenberg Music Co. and the family that started it. Do not hesitate to contact me if you have information or documentation on the company or the family.
Tom Dillard is a retired historian and archivist living near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected] An earlier version of this column was published on May 26, 2013.