Morris Schapiro, interviewed by Bruce Pollock for the occasion of his 70th birthday party on December 15, 1953. JMM OH 332.
In 1904 I sailed to New York, changed ships for Providence and took a train to Boston.
I was born in Yenisborn and worked as a milkman in Lidya. My father was a trader – grain, flax, whatever he could. He died of a heart attack when I was nine. I started working at eleven. There were five kids in my family, my youngest brother was born three months after my father died and was named after him.
I was the first to come to America. It took me eight years to save up enough money to go. Why leave Europe? I needed 100 rubles (fifty bucks) to make the trip. I was working at a summer resort on the Black Sea in the resort town Dublin. I had a horse and wagon and used it to transport luggage to the hotels and the beach. In a restaurant I ate at one night a policeman came and demanded to see everyone’s papers. He saw mine, leaned in close and said, “you’re a Jew” and it went right through me and right then I decided I wanted to leave. The next day I sold my horse and wagon and started to move, but I had to steal across the border because I was of drafting age and couldn’t get a visa. So, I went to the Lithuania/Germany border, it was only eighty miles or so away and early in the morning before daybreak I crossed the German border. I rode a cattle car past Berlin (they wouldn’t let me off there) to Hamburg and waited one week for the ship.
The trip to America took two weeks, and by the end of the trip I was sick of it all., Someone had pickpocketed me on the boat (there were five hundred people to the room, and it was cramped) and taken my last ten dollars. So, when the boat landed in New York I had twenty-five cents to my name.
I took a boat from New York to providence and then a train to Boston, for I had an address for distant relative sin Boston. I got a job at a butcher shop for $4 a week. I worked that for two months and then got another job delivering for a wholesale grocery truck wagon with gorses. All this was 1903. I then got a job in Brighton, Mass in another slaughterhouse ten miles from Boston. I drove the wagon to Boston to make the butcher shop deliveries. I worked that job three months. It was a very cold winter between 1903-04.
Then my cousin said I should go South, so when I had another hundred dollars saved, I went to Tifton, Georgia by boat and was to go peddling. I did that one day and didn’t like it. I told my cousin that I didn’t like it and that I was going back up north. I took the train to Savannah. My money was running low – I had twelve dollars and seventy-five cents left. Walking along the waterfront I saw a boat that looked like a passenger boat. I got on and asked where the boat was going. It was going to Baltimore, and the fare was twelve dollars, so I went. If that boat was headed to Chicago, that’s where I’d be today. I picked up English, I wasn’t taught it. I learned to read signs and newspapers.
My first night in Baltimore found me on the corner of Exeter and Lombard streets on a gloomy night. I saw a man peddling fish. I asked him if he knew a boarding house. This man looked me over and said he was boarding with a woman and maybe she would take me on too. So, he took me to meet her. She looked me over and told me the rent was $3.50. Mrs. Weinstein at 1021 E. Lombard Street. She took a chance on me and let me stay on my word that I would have rent by the end of the week.
My first job was in a saloon tending soup. In those days you could get beer and soup for a nickel. 3 days later I was fired. No reason. He gave me a dollar and told me not to come in tomorrow. The city was in ruins. The great fire and happened two weeks before my arrival. I got a job cleaning bricks at the corner of Redwood and Calvert up to the Southern Hotel. I worked there four days. I made ten cents an hour there. I stole a ride on the streetcars to work and one day I got there five minutes late, so I was fired. I worked in a bakery making matzah for two weeks on High Street.
I wanted a steady job, which I got with B&O tending warehouse at Camden and Eutaw for twelve and a quarter cents an hour. I worked overtime, weekends, nights, and got $55 per month. I was living on South street with Mrs. Book for a while. It was only one block to Camden Street. I worked at the warehouse for three months and sent money home for the first time since I moved from Boston. Eventually I brought my uncle Oscar over. We were hauling and unlading stuff into an elevator and something fell loose from above and fell on and killed the man next to me, so I quit. I asked the foreman for a letter of recommendation, which I still have to this day.
So, I had $30 cash in my pocket the summer of 1904. My relatives from Boston had moved to Baltimore without my knowing it until I chanced upon them by the harbor. They had a little junk shop on Fayette Street, and they (my cousin) wouldn’t give me a job. He was afraid that I would become his competition and didn’t want to teach me the business. So, I went into the business on my own, and in a few weeks, I had another hundred dollars in my pocket. One of my cousins talked me into partnership and we opened a little shop on Caroline Street. Louie Schapiro, my third cousin, was his name. One day Louie says to me he’s got a great deal down at the docks and wants all the money I can give him. So, I give him my hundred dollars and he scams me – skips town with his family. I was once again penniless. I borrowed some money and worked some more, and, in another month, I had another hundred dollars. My uncle and his son Barney wanted to go into business with me, so we do – Barney and I each put in a hundred dollars and my uncle puts in two hundred. We rented a coal yard for $20 a month and opened Boston Iron and Metal Company. This was October 1904. I’d buy what I could find. The old many stayed in the office and Barney played pool. I made $6 a week. This lasted one and a half years, until I heard that my uncle had been telling people I worked for him, and not that we were partners. I confronted him about it, he denied it, and refused to show me the books. The whole thing elevated into a fight and it ended with him telling me if I wanted, I could have my hundred bucks back and be out of the business This I gladly did.
So, I took my money and started my own business with a guy named Jacobson for about four or five months. It was called Canton Iron and Metal Company, because it was on Canton Street. In the meantime, Barney, my uncle’s son, had a fight with him and he (Barney) moved back to Boston. So, the Boston Iron and Metal Company was for sale. I bought it back four months after walking out. I paid $250 for it and reopened it.
I was engaged to be married at this time. I decided no more partners. My intended brother in law lent me the money to buy the company.
I met my fiancée Isadora in Annapolis on a boat. She was the girl of my cousin Barney and we went on a picnic on a six-horse drawn bus and that’s where we met in September 1905 and were married April 5, 1906. I was worth $500 then, and that was considered pretty wealthy. Uncle Oscar worked for me, and I brought over my brother Isaac (Ike) and he worked for me too.
I stayed at Thames and Broadway until 1908 when it got too small, and I moved to 305 Holliday Street by Consolidated Gas and Electric. I stayed there two years and then got into partnership with Roening. In 1910 I have $5,000.
My first son was born in 1907, and for one year I lived with my brother at 1804 Bolton Street. One year later I bought a house for $200 down on Woodbrook Ave near Druid Hill Park. I used to take Joe (my son) to the park in the carriage on Sundays. It wasn’t a great house, so we rented a house on Woodland Ave near Park Heights. There two kids, Doris and Jay, were born.
In 1910 I got a partnership and in 1911 we became incorporated. There were six partners total in the Boston Iron and Metal Company and the annexed Ball Anchor Company. Each partner had 1/6 of both companies. Harry Clapp? Just my competition, nothing special. He kept going but he never had enough working capital.
In 1914 John was born. In 1915 I had my knee operated on and I walked with crutches for the next three years. In 1912 we moved to Freemont Street. I bought a house with a railroad track in the yard and built a building around it that still stands today. It was just recently sold.
Mine was now the biggest scrap yard in Baltimore. I moved to a house on Baltimore and Chestnut – an unlucky house. Everyone was sick there. In 1916 I got a house on Bateman Ave. This was nice house. I got off my crutches in 1917. Actually, it’s an interesting story of how.
In 1917 I bought a car in Washington; a bright green car called a Pathfinder. Well, by the time I got it to Baltimore it didn’t work. I spoke to the dealer, who said the only thing he could do is contact the plant in Indianapolis and see if they’ll fix the car, since he had needed the money to pay for the car. So, on a hot July day I went to Indianapolis to see what could be done. I get into a sleeper car with my leg in a cast and another man comes in. He asks me where I’m from and where I’m going, and he asks about the cast. He tells me that if I got to Hot Springs, Arkansas I’ll get better, and by the time the train pulled into Indianapolis I was set on going to Arkansas. The car was sent on its way back to the factory and I was off to the hot springs. The guy who I met in the train never thought I’d actually go there. I saw him in Arkansas and I’m still friends with him now. Well anyways, in eleven days I was off crutches and walking without a problem with a cane. So, all the family came out to visit. My youngest son was precious then. Every morning he would eat watermelon ice cream for breakfast. We stayed six weeks, and then came back and worked for the war.
I bought the first ship, Bertha, in 1905, a little tugboat, and sold it for a profit. In 1912 I bought an old frigate, Warbass. It had to be taken to Maine to be disassembled for all the wood and copper bolts. We stayed in Maine all of that summer of 1913. Then I got some passenger ships, they’re hard to break up. They had to be cut by hand in 1914. Oxygen was in use, but it wasn’t economical yet. Scrap iron was cheap those days. Dismantling took a long time. I got another ship, the Morgan, and when the war was over, ships came in by the dozens to be sold by the US shipping board. I started buying ships, but I had no yard, so I got other yards to let me cut up ships in their yards. In 1921-22 I got a lot of army ships and had a contract to break them up. Then I bought two battleships, the Louisiana and the New Hampshire, the North Carolina, the South Caroline, the Delaware, and the Michigan. We were the only company really buying them and in 1923 we got our own shipyard in Curtis Bay. We bought many destroyers too.
[The whiskey business:] We were the custodians of the whiskey found in the boats and had to dispose of it according to the law, but in 1920 I decided to make whiskey. So, we made 10,800 barrels of whiskey over two seasons and held it, and eventually sold it for over one million dollars.
At this time I bought the destroyers. I wanted to buy the Pennsylvania and could only get it by buying six other battleships with it: the Von Steuben, the Mercury (formerly the Bob Roser), the Nancyman (Pennsylvania), the Cohen, the Amphian, and two freight ships.
[1932 Depression:] You couldn’t give scrap metal away, and I owed lots of money to the banks. The shipping board asked me about creating some jobs. I f I could buy ships and spread out the payments, I said I would be interested, and we got a plan. The board put out 124 ships in one lot. Bids were made by competition, but we got it and began to break them up. The job was so big that it took 1923-33 to complete and by the time the job was done there was a new administration in office with the New Deal.
One time in 1928 we (me and my wife) were going up to New York state to see John at camp, but we ran off the road and couldn’t go across a down bridge anyways and had to go 100 miles out of our way, so we decided we just had to go to Montreal and never did get up to see John at camp.
In 1932 you couldn’t sell anything. We owed a lot to the banks but somehow managed to finance the shops anyways. We sold the scraps to Japan at $6 a ton. We broke even on the first lot of ships. After that with the new administration came Yuri Weinmetzer, a new assistant to the secretary of commerce, who wasn’t going to give up any more ships despite our contract. So, I went to see Senator Tidings of Maryland about this. He said that if I had a legitimate claim, he’d fight for it. He took the matter seriously. Washington found no flaw in the contract and still wouldn’t give up the ships. It took twenty-two months until the secretary of commerce compromised and gave us 40 of the 85 ships promised. But 40 in 1936 was worth more than 85 in 1928. The price per ton had gone from $6 to $26 in ten years. Senator Tidings was wonderful. McGuiness came to work for me in 1928 to take care of real estate but he had ambition, so I let him work other stuff. In 1935 I helped him to buy the UB&A Railroad. Made him secretary of Ball Anchor Co. in 1939.
On a side note, Ball and Anchor had been sold in 1916 and in 1921 it was failing, so it was bought back for scrap and has been open ever since. Made lots of chains and anchors for World War One, actually made the largest percentage of the anchors for the Navy during the war.
In 1919 I bought a brewery that I knew was on the market. I went to speak to the owner about the possibility of buying it. His secretary, Miss Winters, was so rude to me that I decided right then that I would buy it. The highest price asked for the place was $200,000. I offered $250,000 and bought the brewery.
Two days after I bought it the employees came to me asking me to please keep the plant going. I twas the only job some of these people had ever had. There were 104 people working there. I said not anymore – shorten that number by one Miss Winters. She had already said she’d refuse to work for me. I made George Beagle the head of that company, and he did good advertising and made the plant quite profitable until the home brewers began invading the market.
In 1924-25 I fired Beagle and hired Joe Katz to do the advertising for the plant. He was with the brewery until last year . His campaign slogan “tastes positively illegal,” did wonders for sales. Eventually I sold my interest in the brewery.
I was going to buy the brewery outright, but it was sold to someone else after I had already had a deal to buy it, so I took the Ball and Anchor Company and McGuinness instead. The anchor company makes ten times as much profit as the brewery and still makes money while the brewery loses money. So, I made McGuinness a real exec and he’s doing a good job. The last ten years of my partnership with Roenig were horrible anyways. 1939 on was better.
[Dorsey Hall:] I always wanted a farm to retire to. In 1918 I said to myself that if I had $50,000 and a farm I’d retire, but that’s just about when work really started to happen. But I bought the farm in 1918, and I liked it so much that we lived there for a while, 1919-22. But when the kids got big and needed to go to school, we got a house in the city, 907 Lake Drive. The folly quarter house I bought in 1923 was too big for us.
The Old yellow mansion sold in 1925 to the Patiscan Fathers. I kept the farm, all 1,000 acres of it. I was thinking about building a log cabin there in 1926, just a place to go and play poker with friends on the weekend. I owned a building on Charles Street that was rented, one floor to a tailor, another floor was a store, and the third floor was an architect. I never met the man, but one day his wife came to me asking for a little bit more time to make the rent. I asked her what her husband did, and she told me. I asked her if he’d ever built a house and she said yes, so I told her to have him stop by so we could talk. I turned out to like his work, and together we decided to quarry stone from the property to build the house, and built the house without a crew, only a foreman. Joe Shelfmunder was his name. There was lots of time to build the house, so it took two years to finish. 1937 we had our first Thanksgiving dinner there.
The farm manager at that time was Scott Schwartz. He raised and maintained one of the finest dairy herds in the country. Most of the milk got shipped to Washington. There were 325 head of cattle, including a champion bull.
[1932 Howard Bruce:] Buying scrap from Bruce at the end of 1917, we were junkies and he discovered that I owed him $350,000. Alarmed, he called me in. I told him I only needed a month to pay him back, and fifteen days later I gave him his money. This story is one of his favorites, and gets told time and again, as recently as last week. Mr. Bruce is the chairman of Baltimore Trust Company, did everything he could for me and even loaned me $25,000 in the start of the Depression when I needed it the most. A fine gentleman.
A man named Newman introduced me to a strong invitation to buy a newspaper, the Kansas City Journal in 1944. So, I sent my lawyer to check out the deal. He says it looks good, so I got to Kansas City to check it out and close the deal with Newman. I make him the president of publishing. The first day he stole $74,000 out of the kitty and it went bankrupt. I had to go through three courts to get my money back. That was hard work, a lot of stress, and the only time I ever ventured into newspapers.
[1944 Gulf Springs and Racing]: Gulf Springs was built in 1939 by Jack Horning, who only ran it three days before it went bankrupt. I was introduced to Jimmy Downing who wanted to run it and I financed it and he got franchised to race 40 days in Florida. I loaned him $200,000 to open the track. He ended up double crossing everyone the first chance he got so I pulled out my money in 1948. But the experience got my interest in racing. I bought up stock in Maryland Jockey Club. I didn’t go out looking for it but I was the only one buying, so if someone wanted to sell, they brought it to me. So, I ended up with one third of the Maryland Jockey Club! The club got into a jam and ended up selling me the Laurel racetrack, which I bought for fun and profits. Fun first, profits second. Now, everybody knows me for the track.
[Nick Joffee:] A coincidence – I went on a telephone call in 1945 to go to a dealer bond’s 30,000 tons of scrap in LA. I was called by Louis Dooley, who didn’t have the money to finance it. I told him to go ahead and make a bid and I’d go in with him to finance it. His bid got it. At his first chance he double crossed me, so I bought him out. I taught Nick Joffee the business here in Baltimore, and when he wanted to move to California to marry his sweetheart, I decided to employ him and gave him a better salary than his other offer to take care of my business and that was the beginning of National Metal. We organized that company and bought more stuff, and, in a year and a half, he bought a shipyard. Today it’s one of the biggest companies in America, well established, good rep, good name.
[Association with Government:] I never had particular dealings with the government – never got or gave extra favors. I was asked by Mr. Bruce, the director of military aid program in 1949, to help organize and make a bilateral agreement with NATO and I spent six months in Washington between 1949 and 1950 working in the state department. I had lots of fun and lots of work. We constructed the foundation of the military aid program in Europe.