Collections Cameo, July 2012
By Julia Irons, Historical Society Intern
For more than half a century, Max Cohn’s grocery store was a key Lake Forest institution, providing residents with groceries seven days a week, 362 days a year. From 1913 to 1968, his small grocery was a primary source of fresh produce and canned goods for the growing town. The history of the store and its owners exemplifies the triumph of the American dream.
This receipt is one of a collection of 14 from Max Cohn's store listing the summer 1932 purchases of Charles Butterfield, who lived on Scott Street. Here you can see that on July 11 he purchased sugar, soap, and bread, for a total of $1.03. The receipts were donated to the Historical Society by Shirley Paddock. See an image gallery of all 14 receipts here.
Max Cohn emigrated from Russia in 1898, at age eleven, arriving with his mother to join his father and brothers in Waukegan. There he finished his education (completing first through fifth grade in one year) and began work in a plumbing equipment factory. He eventually earned enough money to buy a horse and wagon from which to sell fruit instead. He moved to Lake Forest in 1913 with one of his brothers, and shortly thereafter opened his first business, the aptly named Cohn Brothers Grocery Store.
In 1914 he met and married his wife Lena, recently arrived from Latvia. The future Mrs. Cohn had completed eight years of secondary education in Latvia, and spoke four languages—none of which was English. She had come to the U.S. to visit her sister in Waukegan, but ended up living in Lake Forest for the rest of her life.
Max Cohn’s brother left the business after a few years, and Max created a new store, Max Cohn Groceries, in 1919. The building stood at 1005 McKinley Road, just down the street from the couple’s home at 265 E. Woodland. The longevity of this one-man business is a testament to the dedication of its owners. The store remained open for five decades, and was closed only on the Jewish high holidays and Lake Forest Day. As recorded in the Lake Forester, their daughter Zelda recalled that even after the store had closed for the day, Mr. Cohn would open it if anyone came to the door in need of something. And the work wasn’t just his: for as long as the grocery was open, Lena Cohn was helping her husband to run it. When they opened in 1919 she was there with their seven-week-old baby, ready to work. When they were old enough, the couple’s three children also helped in the store. It was truly a family business, one of the last of its kind.
It was inevitable, though, that the store would eventually be driven out of business by competition from growing chains like A&P and Jewel and National. Its most profitable years had been those of the two world wars. But in the decades following, it and so many other small businesses simply could not compete with the emerging retail giants. The store closed in 1968, and the building was rented to Carlos Amidei. He opened Carlo’s Tailor Shop, which remains there to this day.
After selling the store, Mr. Cohn worked as a crossing guard at Cherokee Elementary School. He finally retired in 1975. Mrs. Cohn died in July 1976 at the age of 85, and Mr. Cohn died in April 1981 at 93. They were survived by their three children. The youngest, Ruth Harmatz, died in 1997, and her older sister Zelda Klass followed in 2000. The last of the children, George, continues to work as a professor of electrical engineering at California State University at Fullerton.
Although the Cohn family and their grocery store have left Lake Forest, they have not been forgotten. Max and Lena Cohn came to America with almost nothing, and built for themselves and their children a livelihood and legacy that lasted far beyond their years. Their children and grandchildren have attended universities, earned degrees and honors, have prospered and grown—all on the foundation of Max, Lena, and Max Cohn Groceries.