Tom Dillard: Memories of a powerful band of brothers live on in Little Rock

The role of the Ottenheimers in building the economy of Arkansas and its capital city is a remarkable story.

While the family began settling in the state before the Civil War, brothers Leonard and Gus Ottenheimer played especially important roles in 20th century Arkansas.

As the late historian Carolyn Gray LeMaster has noted in her outstanding history of Judaism in Arkansas, "A Corner of the Tapestry" (UA Press 1994), the Ottenheimer brothers were industrialists, manufacturers and land developers, and their philanthropy continues today through a foundation.

Like many of the Jewish immigrants who settled in Arkansas prior to the Civil War, the Ottenheimer family was 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 career in retail as a peddler.

At age 18, Daniel Ottenheimer immigrated to Arkansas, settling in 1853 at Murfreesboro; younger brother Phillip came two years later, settling at Norristown near modern Russellville.

While Daniel sat out 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 part of General Albert S. Johnston's army. Another brother, Abraham Ottenheimer, came to Arkansas during the war; he too joined the Confederate army.

Following the war, Phillip and Abe opened a store in Pine Bluff and soon relocated to Little Rock. Ottenheimer & Brother dry goods store opened at just the right time to take advantage of the burgeoning growth of Little Rock following the war.

Abe Ottenheimer was community spirited, serving as a city alderman, joining the Masonic and Pythian lodges, and contributing to the Hebrew Society.

Abe Ottenheimer's children were prominent in Little Rock, especially daughter Addie, who married Morris M. Cohn, one of post-bellum Little Rock's most prominent attorneys and an organizer of the American Bar Association.

Phillip Ottenheimer, like his brother Abe, was involved in the larger 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 a founder of the Temple Aid Society in Little Rock.

Daniel P. Ottenheimer, Phillip and Charlotte's son, joined his father in the dry goods business, later owning a book and stationery shop in Little Rock. He married Hannah Berger of St. Louis, the daughter of a Union veteran of the Civil War. Daniel died in 1908 at age 42, leaving Hannah to raise their four children.

Daniel's oldest son, Leonard, dropped out of high school to support the family. Not surprisingly, Leonard went to work in dry goods, starting as a lowly helper at Doyle-Kidd Co., a large wholesale business. He moved up the ladder quickly, ultimately becoming manager of household furnishings. By then, Leonard was ready to make a business of his own.

On a cool autumn day in 1924, Leonard J. Ottenheimer Ladies Ready-to-Wear, a wholesaler representing several manufacturers, opened at 108 E. Markham St. in Little Rock. It became a success.

Gus Ottenheimer was able to stay in school after his father died. Along with 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 dress-jobbing business. Soon the Great Depression struck, forcing Ottenheimer Brothers to begin manufacturing the dresses they were selling, thereby cutting out the middlemen.

Once again the brothers overcame economic peril, and their business prospered. Carolyn LeMaster noted that "at first they made sportswear and higher-priced dresses, but in the late 1930s they found a high demand for low-cost cotton dresses." Eventually Ottenheimer Brothers grew to become one of the nation's largest manufacturers of women's clothing. The brothers sold the company to Kellwood, a division of Sears Roebuck, in 1955.

Gus and Leonard were considered ahead of their time in numerous respects, including starting a sewing plant for Black workers who were paid the same as white employees. The company 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 recall Leonard and Gus Ottenheimer associate them with their activities on social and civic fronts in Little Rock. Gus was known for his devotion to Rotary International. He joined the Rotary Club of Little Rock in 1928 and was instrumental in creating programs within Rotary to promote international exchanges, an emphasis which continues today.

The Ottenheimer brothers were active in a spectrum of community projects. Gus took a special 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 that school over a long period of time.

Many Arkansas organizations and institutions 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 at Oakland Jewish Cemetery in Little Rock. The Foundation and the name live on.

I am working on a story about the Hollenberg Music Co. of Little Rock and the family which started it. Please contact me if you have information or documentation on the company or the family.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected]. An earlier version of this column was published May 26, 2013.

Upcoming Events