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Russian immigrants operated corner grocery serving mid town residents of Hannibal

The interior of Sonis Meat Market is shown in this photo from the Steve Chou collection. Max Sonis operated a grocery and meat market in Hannibal beginning prior to 1915. He died in 1948.


For the Courier-Post

The shoe industry changed dramatically during the early years of the 20th Century, when the time-honored work of shoe cobblers was unceremoniously replaced my machine-enabled mass production.

Max Sonis, a blue-eyed, dark haired 20-year-old Russian, went to work in the shoe factories of Boston soon after his arrival in the United States in 1904. It was there in Boston, two years later, that he met fellow Russian immigrant Lena Brassler.

The two married, and a family would soon follow. Sonis and family moved with the shoe business west to St. Louis, and shortly after their daughter Sara’s birth in 1909, north to Hannibal.

Once in Hannibal, Max continued employment at the shoe factories for a while, before setting that career aside and opening a meat market and small grocery store in a duplex located on the southwest corner of Seventh and Bird. Both living and working at the same location in 1916, the business address was originally numbered 219, and later changed to 221 North Seventh. This grocery business would serve the neighborhood and support his young family for a number of years to come.

The location was central to mid-town Hannibal, located a few blocks from Central elementary and junior high school, and down the street from the neighborhood known as Douglassville. Max Sonis advertised his grocery store in Hannibal’s 1929 “Colored Directory,” which is accessible via the Hannibal Free Public Library’s web site.

“M. Sonis – Groceries. Profits small, business great, that’s the way we operate. Fancy groceries, fresh fruits and vegetables. Phone 126. Hannibal, Mo. 221 N. 7th St.”

Childhood memories

Jean Moore remembers the Sonis family and their grocery business. Jean, the daughter of dairyman Franklin Otten, said that the Sonis family’s grocery stores were her father’s milk customers.

“It was a small typical corner store,” she said, referring to the original store at Seventh and Bird. “I think the Central School kids often visited it after school. (The Sonis family members) were considered ‘nice folk,’ so it was a busy place. My father delivered milk there every morning.

“Max was a very good butcher. In that small space, they also had a large counter for penny candy and the like as well as a soda cooler. It was there, at age five, I had my first soda. It was grape and of course I let it go up my nose. I wasn't used to the ‘bubbly.’”

When Sonis son Alec was old enough to manage that corner grocery, Max opened a second store, this one located at 623 Broadway.

“In the new store they of course, they had a large butcher space and all of the products of a grocery store, and they delivered,” Jean said.

“On my sixteenth birthday, (circa 1938) I was with my father as he delivered milk, so on the side I asked Mrs. Sonis if they could use help on Saturdays and was hired on the spot. Afterwards, when I told my father, he felt I took advantage. But I worked hard and kept that job for quite a while, until I found better pay at the Kresge store on the corner of Main and Broadway.

“Mrs. Sonis had the patience of Job,” Jean said. “She decided on the first day that I should use the cash register and I immediately jammed it by pushing two keys at the same time. While the register was being fixed, Mrs. Sonis made change from her lap in her apron.”

In an essay posted on the genealogy site “Geni,” Sonis granddaughter, Shirle Sherman Gottlieb of California tells about her grandparents’ religious affiliations in Hannibal.

“My mother went all through the Hannibal school system. In my mother's

youth, there were enough Jewish families to build a temple. But by the

time my parents were married and I grew up, there were not enough men to hold

a minion,” Mrs. Gottlieb posted.

“Since we lived in diaspora, our childhood was vastly different

from that of children in urban areas. The only time we went to temple was

on the High Holy Days, when the Jewish families in Hannibal joined

forces with those in Quincy, Illinois, and imported a rabbinical student from

St. Louis or Chicago to conduct the services.”

Max Sonis died March 1, 1948, at the age of 63. Alec Sonic left the grocery business after the death of his parents, investing in the Wendt Sonis Company at Hannibal. Alec died in 1968, and is buried beside his parents. Alec’s sister, Sara, married Abraham (Abe) W. Sherman, who operated Sherman’s Shoe Store at 209 Broadway in Hannibal during the 1940s. They later moved to California.

Max, Lena and Alec Sonis are buried within the iron fenced-enclosure of the southern portion of Riverside Cemetery – known as the Bnai Sholem Cemetery.

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