A Lake County Frontier Synagogue
September 8, 2022
Minette Miller, born in Leadville, Colorado in 1894, worshiped at Temple Israel and is buried in Leadville's Hebrew Cemetery. Photo courtesy of Temple Israel Museum Collection.
The interior of Temple Israel in 1894 featuring the painted stars on the ceiling and the large chandeliers. Photo courtesy of Temple Israel Museum Collection.
(Above): David May, who founded the May Company departement stares, served as the Temple's vice-president and chair of the building committee in 1894. Photo Courtesy of the Temple Israel Museum Collection. (Right): Exterior of the Temple Israel today, Photo: Colorado Historical Foundation.
About the author: Brooke Keith completed her capstone project while serving as the Colorado Historical Foundation's Public History Intern.
Ms. Keith is an experienced creative and strategic marketer. Her passions include learning about, listening to, and sharing lesser-known histories that have, and continue to, shape our society. Ms. Keith graduated from Norwich University in June 2022 with a Master of Arts, Public/Applied History.
BY BROOKE KEITH
"The Temple was a very elegant building. The ceiling was blue with stars in it, and they had beautiful big chandeliers for lights. As a youngster, I can remember just being awed by that high ceiling with the stars in it. The bimah … was very elegant too," reminisced the late Minette Miller about the Temple Israel, a rare Frontier synagogue built in 1884 in Leadville, Colorado.
Leadville was booming in the years leading up to Temple Israel's construction. The discovery of silver inflated the local population to approximately 30,000 residents with about 350 of those being Jews. Leadville's Jewish residents were primarily merchants: clothiers and tailors; grocers; saloon keepers and liquor wholesalers; jewelers and pawnbrokers; and similar occupations. There were few “professionals” in that generation although many amongst their offspring. These Leadville residents were part of the development of American Reform Judaism during the mid-nineteenth century. Jews migrated west and adapted their spiritual life to transform their lives, and thereby the towns and cities they populated.
In 1880, Leadville had the second largest population in Colorado. By 1884, it was time to build a permanent place for the town’s Jewish population to worship. On Friday, August 8, 1884, the Leadville Daily Herald described the Temple’s building plans, "Its location at the corner of West Fourth and Pine streets, will be central and as convenient to all parts of the city that could have been selected … when finished the Temple will be an ornament to that neighborhood, and in fact to the whole city." Earlier that summer, Leadville silver baron Horace A.W. Tabor donated the property to build the Temple to David May as trustee for the congregation. May, who would create the ubiquitous May Company department stores, then served as the vice-president of the Temple and was chair of the building committee.
Built in the Carpenter Gothic style for $4,000, the building included typical Carpenter Gothic-style features such as pointed arch windows, rose (circle) windows, tall square steeples with narrow pointed spires, horizontal clapboarded walls, and a steeply pitched roof. Rabbinical student Morris Sachs, dispatched from the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, dedicated the Temple on Rosh Hashanah, September 19, 1884. However, like many rural Reform synagogues, after the dedication Temple Israel services were typically led by laymen through 1908, its last year of regular services.
Although the last recorded event in the Temple was a 1912 wedding, the building's colorful past continued throughout the twentieth century. In 1937, it became a home and radiator repair shop and later housed local miners during World War II. For eleven years (1955-1966), the Temple served as a vicarage for the St. George Episcopal Church located across the street. For the last third of the century and through 2006, the building operated as rental housing.
After being purchased by the Temple Israel Foundation in 1992, plans began to restore the entire building. The restoration was completed in 2008 with support from four separate Colorado State Historical Fund grants that were matched by private donations. In 2009, the Colorado Historical Foundation added Temple Israel to its historic conservation easement portfolio to help emphasize the frontier synagogue’s historical significance. The partnership supports the building’s vital role in the story of Leadville’s Jewish population. The Temple is also integral to the Leadville Historic District established in 1961.
Today the Temple Israel Foundation operates and maintains the Temple Israel Museum and the local Hebrew cemetery under the direction of William Korn. Korn noted, “Without the support of the State Historical Fund and the Colorado Historical Foundation this building would have been lost.” Visitors can explore the restored building that also houses the museum. If they look up, visitors can still see a blue ceiling filled with stars and big, beautiful chandeliers like the ones that illuminated the face of a young Minette Miller over a hundred and twenty years ago.
- The Canadian Jewish News. “A Synagogue and Cemetery Above Sea Level.” Accessed March 25, 2022. https://thecjn.ca/arts/travel/a-synagogue-and-cemetery-high-above-sea-level/.
- Jewish Leadville. “Building History.” Accessed March 25, 2022. http://www.jewishleadville.org/buildinghistory.html.
- Jewish Leadville. “Minette Miller: A Portrait.” Accessed March 25, 2022. http://www.jewishleadville.org/exhibit-minettemiller.html.
- Jewish Museum of the American West. “Temple Israel of Leadville, Colorado: Once the “Highest” Synagogue in America.” Accessed March 25, 2022. http://www.jmaw.org/temple-israel-leadville-jewish/.
- Leadville Today. “Jewish Life in Leadville in the 1800s, Part 2.” YouTube video, 57:15. June 2, 2018. https://www.leadvilletoday.com/2018/08/23/leadville-news-august-23/.
- Rabin, Shari. “A Congregation of Strangers: The Mobile Infrastructure.” In Jews on the Frontier: Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth-Century America, 103-122. New York: New York University Press, 2017.
- Rodriguez-McGill, Mariel dir. PBS Colorado Experience. Season 2, episode 212, “Jewish Pioneers.” Aired January 8, 2015, on Rocky Mountain PBS. 26:39. https://video.rmpbs.org/video/colorado-experience-jewish-pioneers/.