“Somebody will want to know” Family races to save history after fire in Meridian

Published 7:50 am Sunday, March 28, 2021

When workers demolished an old red building on Front Street in Meridian last month, they saved a stone of great importance to Sammy Feltenstein.

The keystone — a large piece of white marble above the building’s entrance – bears Feltenstein’s great-great-grandfather’s initials, as he once owned the building.

“I felt really good about saving that rather than have it torn down and hauled to the landfill,” said Feltenstein, who is 75 years old.

This circa-1950s article about Joseph Baum and his family was published in The Meridian Star. Feltenstein’s family has kept the article for many years.

Feltenstein, of Kewanee, worked with others to bring the keystone to Beth Israel Cemetery, where it now stands in front of his ancestors’ gravestones. The building, which was torn down after it was heavily damaged in an early morning fire on Feb. 4, played an important role in Feltenstein’s family history.

His great-great-grandfather, Joseph Baum, immigrated to the U.S. from Europe after the Civil War and ultimately settled in Meridian, where he founded a general store in the building that was demolished last month. Feltenstein estimates the store opened around 1880.

Baum’s business sold dry goods, shoes, clothing, gunpowder and other items, according to an advertisement from the time period.

“It predates the Threefoot Building,” Feltenstein said. “It’s one of the first large businesses in Meridian.”

Baum died in 1905. Feltenstein doesn’t know when the store closed, but it may have closed during the Great Depression.

RECOVERING THE STONE

In February, a massive blaze damaged the building that was once the general store. Feltenstein said that when he saw the smoke, he knew it was coming from downtown. He drove to the area and saw that the old store was on fire.

He said he wasn’t sentimental about the building, because his family ran the store long before he was born. He also knew that the building would eventually be torn down, because it was in poor shape.

He did, however, want to save the keystone at the building’s entrance. The letters JCB are written on the stone in a decorative font. The J and B stand for Joseph Baum. Feltenstein isn’t sure if the C is the first letter of Baum’s middle name, or if it stands for something else.

The City of Meridian helped him recover the stone, Feltenstein said. After the fire occurred, he spoke with the city about the keystone. Several weeks later, the city called him to say that the contractors working on the building demolition had retrieved the stone.

He used a trailer to pick up the keystone from the demolition site, and he brought it to his property. A few days later, he worked with J.H. O’Neil Monument Co. employees to place the stone at the cemetery.

This project involved several steps. The team drove the keystone to the cemetery, where they lifted it off the company’s truck using a crane attached to the vehicle. They then wheeled the stone to the gravesites using a dolly. Lastly, they had to place the keystone on a stone base.

“I don’t know how much it weighs,” Feltenstein said, “but at least 1,000 pounds — probably more.”

Feltenstein said the fact that they moved the keystone from the downtown building to the gravesite area makes him “really feel good.”

Feltenstein doesn’t have any children, so he is the last member of his family line. He wanted to share information about his family with The Meridian Star, in case it interests a member of the public.

“Somebody will want to know one of these years,” he said, “who Mr. Baum was and what the building was that burned.”