Reuben Cohen never returned from his February 1928 trip to Shoal Lake, Saskatchewan where he went to buy cattle for the Winnipeg market. A few days after leaving home, he was found dead, tied across the saddle of a horse he had borrowed, or perhaps rented, from Alfred Schwartz, a Jewish farmer. Murder was assumed at first but later questioned since the substantial sum of money that Cohen had withdrawn from a local bank was found on the body. The case remained unsolved and a promised reexamination a few years later never turned up anything, if indeed it ever happened. The Jewish Post and News wrote about this in its February 2, 2022, issue with some research help from the Jewish Heritage Centre.
Who was Reuben (or Ruven) Cohen? It’s clear that he existed since a descendant brought this case to our attention recently, but he left few traces. The Free Press identified the Cohen family as living on Jarvis Avenue but the only Reuben Cohen in the1927 Henderson Directory lived at 241 Pritchard and worked for Standard Shoe Stores. The 1926 Census also lists a newborn infant named Ruben Cohen on Magnus Avenue, and a Ralph Cohen on Lorne Street. The 1921 Census lists several more R. Cohens but no one in the business or anyone resembling the unfortunate cattle buyer.
Contemporaries had no doubts about Mr. Cohen’s existence and sad death. Winnipeg Jewish cattle dealers arranged for Isaac Smith, a Russian-born Jewish cattle dealer who lived on Flora Avenue, to go to Saskatchewan to bring Cohen’s purchases to Winnipeg and sell them. After deducting costs, Smith turned over $84 net profit to Cohen’s heirs.
Cohen and Smith were not the only Jewish cattle dealers in Winnipeg. In fact, there were probably enough to start another specialty synagogue to join the Butcher’s Synagogue and the Dairyman’s Synagogue if the cattle men had wanted their own shul. The 1927 Henderson’s Directory lists 55 cattle dealers and 27 cattle buyers, ranging from A to Z (Jacob Ashkenazy to Joseph Zeriff) with Samuel Cohen, Aaron Hershfield, Reuben Levene, Abraham Shore, Max Silverberg and others in between. Some livestock workers had Slavic-sounding names including Jews such as Aaron Filkow, David Kosasky, Ben Pavlotsky, and Solomon Ruchitsky. Almost all lived on North End streets such as Aberdeen, Boyd, Flora, and Selkirk. Of course, not everyone in the cattle business was Jewish. A very few names like Johnson, McGloughy, and Macdonald popped up. They mostly lived south.
When Smith came back from Saskatchewan with Cohen’s cattle, he probably sold them to the firm of Harry Kalensky & Pelly that had offices at the Union Stock Yards in St. Boniface. Both were Russian-born Jews. Kalensky lived on Manitoba Avenue while Elias Pelly, whose first name does not appear in the firm’s listings or advertisements, lived at 852 Westminster Avenue in today’s West End. Before that, he had lived on Gertie Street, near the former Shaarey Zedek Synagogue on Dagmar and the William Avenue Library.
Jewish cattle men were nothing new in 1928. The first was probably S. Narvolansky who started buying cattle for kosher slaughter in 1894. (Narvolansky may have been part of a family in the Jewish farming colony at Pine Ridge MB, near Birds Hill). Also in 1894, Russian-born David Balcovske bought a dozen short horn bulls in Whitby, Ontario for the ranch near Medicine Hat Alberta that he owned with his partner, Russian-born Moses Finkelstein. After a few years, Finkelstein left ranching to set up the Northwest Hide and Fur Company in Winnipeg and Balcovske moved his livestock operation to Gull Lake Saskatchewan, near Swift Current, and later gave that up to open the Laurel Abbatoir in St. Boniface. Despite business operations further west, both Finkelstein and Balcovske lived primarily in Winnipeg, maintaining houses in the South End along with other members of the city’s economic elite. Maintaining two residences may have been common. David and Louis Fainstein, also discussed in the February 2 issue of The Jewish Post, lived part-time in Winnipeg and part-time at their Saskatchewan ranch. Louis later opened an abattoir in Winnipeg.
According to the historian Rabbi Arthur A. Chiel, the high point of Jewish involvement in the meat business came in the mid-1940s when the Jewish population of 18,000, many of whom were traditional, supported several hundred Jews in the cattle business. This figure probably included a variety of occupations such as clerks and salesmen since Henderson’s Directory for 1948 only identifies 47 individuals as buying or dealing in cattle. Some Jews still worked in the business after twenty years including Harry Dorfman, Aaron Filkow, and David Kosasky but others had changed. Harry Kalensky moved to Calgary and Elias Pelly died in 1948. The leading Jewish firm had become Slotin, Fainstein & Trepel which also kept offices at the Union Stock Yard. The owners achieved greater acceptance in the post-war period. A.I. Slotin and Elia Trepel each served one year as President of the Winnipeg Livestock Exchange Board and Harry Fainstein served as Vice-President.