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OPINION | TOM DILLARD: From immigrant to philanthropist

by Tom Dillard | May 9, 2021 at 8:48 a.m.

One of the pioneering Jewish families to settle in Fort Smith was headed by Louis Tilles who, before his early death in 1875, made an impact on the economy of the growing frontier town.

Perhaps he is best known as the father of a remarkable family. One son, Andrew "Cap" Tilles, came to control much of American horse racing after relocating to St. Louis. George, the oldest child, would grow up with Fort Smith and become the city's biggest promoter.

Louis was born in 1829 to German-speaking parents in what is today Krakow, Poland. He was descended from Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. Not long after his mother died in 1847, Louis immigrated to the United States. He settled in Kansas, where he met his wife Rosalie Peck, a recent immigrant from Prussia.

In the late 1850s Louis and Rosalie moved to St. Louis, where he went into the tobacco and cigar business. Not long after moving to St. Louis their first child, George, was born in 1859, followed over the next five years by two more sons, Emanuel and Andrew, who went by the nickname "Cap." Two daughters came a little later. Emanuel died an early death of tuberculosis.

Louis became a sutler for the federal Army, eventually ending up in Fort Smith. He liked the town and decided to stay after the Civil War. Though an immigrant who spoke with a heavy German accent, Louis found Fort Smith a welcoming place. He was elected to the newly created Fort Smith School Board, and was proud that the city's first two public schools opened during his tenure. In January 1869, Louis was elected Fort Smith city treasurer.

He established a trading house which provided goods to Indians and settlers, usually in exchange for buffalo robes, pelts, great wooden barrels of beeswax and tons of pecans. He also invested in real estate, and never gave up the tobacco business.

Tragically, the young family was thrown into disarray when Rosalie died in 1872, becoming the first person buried in Fort Smith's Jewish cemetery. Louis remarried two years later; when he died in 1875, his new wife put her five stepchildren in a Catholic orphanage in Fort Smith.

Various members of the Jewish community then took in the Tilles children except 16-year-old George, who took up his father's work as a cigar maker. Thus the young man began a career marked by a willingness to work hard and take chances.

George made a success of the cigar factory, expanding it several times until it became the largest in the state. By age 20, he had a payroll of 25 employees. He also diversified, adding a book and stationery store in 1877. George was fascinated by the newly invented telephone, and when Fort Smith banker and former U.S. representative Logan H. Roots obtained a franchise from the Bell Telephone Co. in Arkansas and Texas, George opened the first phone system in Fort Smith.

While his telephone work did not prove successful in the long run, George found a permanent niche in life insurance, opening an agency in 1885 for the Mutual Life Insurance Co. of New York. He advertised widely, urging consumers to "talk with Tilles" before buying insurance. While Fort Smith had a population of about 5,000, George was able to sell 450 policies during his first six years in business.

George never lost his faith in financial diversification. At one point he established a daily paper in Fort Smith. In the 1880s he opened the Grand Theater, an opera house for the frontier town. It was a large undertaking, having eight "elegant" boxes, a stage that was 36 by 65 feet, 12 dressing rooms, and 23 stage sets.

Among those who performed at the Grand Theater was Emma Abbott, billed as the "people's diva" for her tendency to include popular tunes along with operatic offerings. Joseph Jefferson, nationally known for his portrayal of Rip Van Winkle, attracted large crowds.

George also initiated a lecture series at the theater, with prohibitionist Carrie Nation being popular. At the other extreme, religious skeptic Robert G. Ingersoll also drew large crowds.

George Tilles married Ella Wormser of Little Rock in February 1883. She was the niece of Max Hilb, a co-owner of Probst & Hilb, a prosperous wholesale grocery and liquor dealer. They had five small children when Ella died in 1899. George then married Ella's sister Lillian, with whom he had a daughter named Ella.

Immense energy and an optimistic outlook caused him to undertake many causes and good works. He loved the old settlers of Fort Smith, eventually establishing the Pioneer Club to "keep the fires of sentiment and loyalty for the older regime alight ..." Though not especially religious, George was a member of the United Hebrew Congregation.

He was also an active member of the Masonic order and worked with other Masons to establish a children's unit at the Arkansas Tuberculosis Sanatorium in Booneville. George visited the sanatorium often, making sure that every child received a Christmas gift.

An active Republican, he was a strong advocate for high tariffs. He was an unsuccessful GOP nominee for Congress in 1922.

George died in November 1929 at age 70, following emergency surgery for a strangulated hernia. His funeral attracted hundreds of friends and customers, testimony supporting what one newspaper reported as local love for a man who "regarded the city as his big family."

Among the bereaved was George's brother Cap, who had stayed close to his brother despite living out of state. When their parents died, Cap had been taken in by Mrs. Josephine Adler, the wife of a local merchant, and he became very close to his adopted brother Samuel Adler.

Cap attended the newly-created Arkansas Industrial University in Fayetteville before going to work at George's cigar factory. In 1886, Cap and Sam Adler moved to St. Louis, where they embarked on a long and fruitful business partnership, eventually joining with wealthy businessman Louis A. Cella to form the Western Turf Association. Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs was one of many tracks controlled by the Tilles-Adler-Cella group.

After a long career in which he became quite rich--and after more than one brush with the law--Cap Tilles devoted his life to philanthropy. In 1912, he and his surviving siblings endowed an orphanage in Fort Smith in memory of their mother, the Rosalie Tilles Children's Home. Cap established the 12-acre Tilles Children's Park in Fort Smith in 1924. Much of Cap's philanthropy went to improve life in St. Louis. He lived a long life, dying in 1951.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com.

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