Immigrant Junk Dealer Whose Family Used Their Fortune For Good Causes Settled On Cameron Hill

  • Monday, October 3, 2022
  • John Wilson

An immigrant junk dealer whose sons turned the business into a fortune settled on Cameron Hill. The sons used the millions they made from the scrap and steel businesses for a variety of good causes.

Robert Hyman Siskin had arrived at Ellis Island in 1888 after a long and arduous journey. He had been born in Russia and as a youth was facing conscription into the Czar's army. To flee the country was difficult since anyone leaving the borders had to have a pass.

Young Siskin was afraid if he sought the pass, he would immediately be ordered into military service. So he secured a wagon from a neighbor and placed hay in the bed. He then hid himself so hopefully he would not be found by the Czar's guards. It was said that "after about three nights of hide and seek with the officials and many thrilling encounters which resulted in his near-capture, he reached the German border."

The teen made his way to the seashore and boarded a ship to America. On the way he met Harry Winer, who would later settle in Chattanooga as well. They became lifelong friends.

In New York City, Robert Siskin took a job with a firm that sold chair pads to residents of The Bowery. He then met one of the Blumberg brothers from Chattanooga, who was recruiting peddlars in the South. Siskin, described as a strong, red-haired six footer, was assigned a pack. Though he spoke very little English, he began this work that led him through the rural South. Siskin "spent many nights resting his head in haystacks, barns and farmer's dwellings." 

On one occasion a jokester got him in serious trouble with a farmer. When the farmer's wife came to the door, the newly arrived immigrant was told to say, "Madam, Can I spend the night with you?"

Meanwhile, in 1895 he had sent for Anna Trumpekousky from Russia and they were married. His brother, James Barney Siskin, and two sisters also joined him in Chattanooga. The James Barney Siskins also made their home on Cameron Hill, living at times on Cedar Street and on Pine Street. Another brother, Sam Siskin, was killed in November 1913 at a grocery that he was operating at Washington Street and Missionary Avenue. Two masked men had come into the store, and one of them shot him. Some 400 people attended the funeral at the Jewish Cemetery in North Chattanooga.

Robert and Anna Siskin lived on Leonard Street and West 10th Street, then around 1912 they moved near the top of Cameron Hill. They acquired the house at 10 East Terrace that was one of the first homes built at the northern end of the fashionable street. James W. Oliver, a conductor, was at 10 East Terrace in the late 1880s and Henry O. Friedrichs, bookkeeper for the Chattanooga Powder Co., was a later resident.

The Siskins had a daughter Sarah and then sons Mose and Garrison. January 29 was always a happy time at the Siskin home since it was the birthday for all three children - even though they all were born in different years. Sarah later married Phil Prigoff.

Robert Siskin left the peddlar business and, with $7 worth of scrap iron acquired from T.H. Johnson, set up a scrap yard at 1726 Chestnut St. At the time, dealers "would go about in wagons, buying what little batches of junk they could and selling for as much as they could get for it." He earlier had a partner, but that was dissolved and his son, Mose, who had been raised in the junk business, joined the firm. He did so after quitting Chattanooga High School in 1914 to work full-time for his father. Later, Garrison became part of the enterprise after he graduated from Chattanooga High in 1920. Garrison had a scholarship to Syracuse University, but it was said that at the time he did not have the train fare to get there. The boys had earlier attended Second District School. They sold newspapers on the streets of Chattanooga and milked the two family cows kept on the side of Cameron Hill along with some chickens.

It was decided to purchase four lots from the South Chattanooga Land Company at the old Tannery Flats. The brothers proved to be expert business people. It was said that "no other junk yard in Chattanooga had a better equipped yard than Siskin. They watched all moves on the junk market and never let one advantage get away from them. By constantly keeping on guard they began to expand their business every year. New customers were added to the list. They were not satisfied to remain in Chattanooga to search for business, but looked outside."

As the business was beginning to prosper, Robert Siskin went on a business trip to St. Louis in October 1926. He bruised his foot while alighting from a taxi. The bruise developed into blood poisoning. He returned to Chattanooga, where on the day before Christmas in 1926 he died at a local hospital. He was 58. By then the family had moved to a house on Pine Street where the funeral was conducted by Rabbi L. Maisel. Anna lived on Pine Street until her death in November 1930 when she was 65.

Mose and Garrison Siskin proceeded to take over the company and build it into one of the city's leading industries. They began selling steel as well as continuing with the scrap business. They did millions of dollars of business with such industry giants as Republic Steel and Combustion Engineering just on a handshake.

The brothers still prized their father's "Good Deeds Box," which was an old cigar box that he dropped in pennies and nickels for charity.    

Garrison Siskin said of their parents' influence, "From my mother, we learned to mind our own business and not to engage in gossip, which she taught us was one of a person's worst faults. And my father taught me that a good name was something that you can't buy." Mose Siskin said, "Your parents give you an example to live by; when you see harmony and family love in the home, you learn to do right, too." 

Garrison Siskin's life took a dramatic turn in 1942 after his leg was crushed when a 50-pound steel platform fell while he was boarding a train at night at Johnson City, Tn. Hot wet towels were applied to his leg, but he was told later that was the worst possible treatment. He was advised by a doctor that it would be necessary to amputate the leg, but he said he spent all night praying to God and vowed that if he was healed he would help those less fortunate. His blood clot had disappeared the next morning, though there was still a lengthy rehabilitation.

The Siskin brothers followed up on the promise by founding Siskin Memorial Foundation in 1950. It led to the development of both the Siskin Children’s Institute and Siskin Hospital for Physical Rehabilitation in Chattanooga. Many of those working at Siskin Steel and Supply were those who had disabilities or had rough patches in their lives in the past. All were grateful for the second chance offered by the Siskin brothers.

Garrison, who was known as an inveterate matchmaker, was concerned that the wife of an acquaintance became very overweight after her husband's death. He promised that if she would lose 25 pounds he would send her on a trip to Las Vegas for a visit with her brother. The brother was instructed to "find her another husband."

The brothers, who were always inseparable, were the recipients of many business and humanitarian awards. The author Sidney Shallet wrote their story for the Saturday Evening Post. 

Mose Siskin married Eva Witt of Columbus, Ga. and they had Claire, who married Dr. Samuel Binder, and Robert H., who married Priscilla Flaster.

Garrison married Goldie Temerson of Tuscaloosa, Ala., and they had Anita, who married Lawrence Levine, and Helen who married Merv Pregulman.

Ironically, Mose Siskin lost his left leg in an industrial accident. He was fitted with an artificial leg at the Siskin Hospital and he began making the rounds at the steel plant in a golf cart.

Mose and Garrison Siskin lived in "modest but comfortable homes." The Garrison Siskins lived at 639 Battery Place, but the Mose Siskins stayed on Cameron Hill until near the end. They lived for many years at 402 Cameron St., which was just down from the old Robert Siskin home on East Terrace. This house was on the downhill side of Cameron, which was just below Boynton Park. The house had been built in 1927 and first occupied by Orville E. and Frances B. Johnson. Orville Johnson was a certified public accountant. Fred and Lydia Rulkotter lived there several years. He was a correspondent for Railway Express.   

James Barney Siskin was living at 509 Pine St. when he died in 1937. He left behind his wife, Sadie, sons Marvin, Meyer and Sam, and two daughters.

Charles Siskin, a son of Marvin Siskin, was well known as a gourmet cook and caterer in Chattanooga. He lives in Florida with his wife, Diane "Cookie" Siskin, former travel editor for the Chattanooga News-Free Press.



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