Louis Padnos was adventurous, adaptable, frugal, courageous and sociable. He also had a strong work ethic. 
He was born in 1888 in present-day Belarus, between the towns of Minsk and Pinsk, to a family of blacksmiths. When he was 13 years old, life was dangerous, for Russia was trying to absorb Finland. To get the soldiers it needed, it was conscripting young men into the infantry for terms of 25 years — in effect, a death sentence.
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Fortunately, by that time, Louis had a sister living in Chicago. So, in 1901, his father told him to leave Russia for America. He obeyed. Before he left, concerned about their child, the family sewed money into his clothes.
After making his way to a port on the Baltic Sea, in part by riding underneath railroad cars, Louis boarded a ship for the Netherlands. Because he knew Yiddish — a Western Germanic language — and because he was good at learning languages, he quickly learned Dutch, found work and saved money. 
After a year, he booked passage on a ship bound for New York. Although his name was on the ship’s register, he didn’t have immigration papers. Somehow, when his ship docked in the United States, he managed to get off Ellis Island by mingling with another Jewish family.
He then found work on a railroad, which took him through Chicago to Iowa. There he stayed, finding odd jobs and making money. Unlike his peers, who spent their money frivolously on payday, Louis didn’t take his wages immediately — choosing instead to let them accumulate.
When he finally did take his earnings, he had enough money to roam the Western frontier. There, using the skills he’d learned in Russia, he found work helping farmers clear land and harvest crops. He also bought wild horses, broke them and sold them to the railroad, and engaged in trade with Indigenous peoples. Again, he saved money. 
Louis returned to Chicago. He managed to locate his sister after meeting a Russian-Jewish family who directed him to the right neighborhoods. When he arrived, his sister convinced him his money would be safer with her than if he carried it around the city. But really, she had a family to support and her husband had left her. 
Louis found work as a blacksmith and wagon mechanic for American Express. But he got bored, so he quit his job, thinking he could again support himself with his savings. Unfortunately, his money was gone. 
He met an outfitter who supplied men with goods on consignment and directed them to the surrounding villages to peddle his wares. When the merchant discovered Louis spoke Dutch, he encouraged him to travel to Holland, Michigan. So, in 1903, Louis did.
When his boat docked at Macatawa, he saw signs that read, “No Peddlers” and “No Jews.” A man named Miller confronted him and told him to leave. 
In Holland, Louis disembarked and began exploring the city. Eventually, he spoke to a man who’d been watching him. That man turned out to be Ben Van Raalte, son of Holland’s founder Albertus Van Raalte. But unlike Mr. Miller on the dock at Macatawa, Ben welcomed Louis and invited him to rent an empty storefront. 
Louis also rented a room from Sarah Kelley at 190 River Ave. near Sixth Street, and a wagon and horse from Boone’s Livery Stable at Seventh Street and Central Avenue. 
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To get clothing products for his store, Louis took a steamer to Chicago to visit the Italian neighborhoods, where he bought large-sized suits at a discount — suits the merchants couldn’t sell — and took them back to Holland.
Louis didn’t like being tied down in a store, preferring instead to peddle goods door-to-door as far away as Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. When his customers couldn’t pay, he took items in trade like rags, animal hides, bones and furs, clothing and household goods, and iron and metal scrap.
In 1910, he opened a scrapyard at 157 River Ave. In 1916, at the beginning of World War I, he joined the military and served his new country.
We’ll continue next week.
— Community Columnist Steve VanderVeen is a resident of Holland. Contact him through start-upacademeinc.com.


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