The Tampa River Walk

Bena Wolf Maas

Bena Wolf Maas (1863-1947)


Prepared by the Historical Monument Trail Selection Committee, Friends of the Riverwalk. For
further information, contact Doris Weatherford, Doris@dweatherford.com.


Bena Wolf Maas, born in Germany and a resident of Tampa since 1886, was an
important presence in Tampa business and charity communities during the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. With her husband, Abe Maas, she co-founded
the business that became Tampa’s longtime department store, Maas Brothers.
She was president of the non-denominational Children’s Home for twenty-five years, a
charter member of Congregation Schaarai Zedek, and a founder of the Community
Chest, the predecessor of today’s United Way. In an era when institutions for the
needy were random and unprofessional, her leadership skills contributed much.
Philabena Wolf, who was called Bena, was born to a Jewish family on March 9,
1863 near Dolgesheim, Germany. That is in the Rhineland of western Germany, which
borders Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg. People there, including girls, were more
likely to be educated than those further east. She immigrated to Cincinnati in her late
teens, along with two brothers, Fred and Morris Wolf. They joined an uncle who had
established himself there.


Abraham Maas, called Abe, was her “childhood sweetheart.” Also born in
Dolgesheim, on May 22, 1855, he had emigrated in 1875, when she was just twelve.
He joined his brothers, Solomon and Jacob Maas, who were merchants in Georgia, and
began corresponding with Bena. After he established his own store in Dublin, Georgia,
he went to Cincinnati with marriage in mind. They wed on September 19, 1883; she
moved to Georgia and bore a son on July 4, 1884. He was called Sol for his uncle.
Daughter Jessica, called Jessie, would be born on April 13, 1887, soon after their arrival
in Tampa.


Dublin, Georgia was not a booming community in the 1880s, while Tampa was
on a roll. Ybor City and the cigar factories began that decade; the phosphate industry
took hold with the coming of the railroad; and Henry Plant’s grand hotel soon would
attract people with money to spend. With a railroad boxcar of merchandise, the young
family moved to Tampa and began a store at the corner of Franklin and Twiggs Street.
Initially called Abraham’s Dry Goods Palace, it opened on December 10, 1886.
According to a family history, “Abe and Bena greeted every visitor that stopped by” –
even though Bena would have been well into her pregnancy at that point. Their first
sale that day was a pair of overalls, paid for with a fifty-cent note from 1855, the year of
Abe’s birth.


Less than a year after opening the store, however, they closed the new business
and briefly returned north, as 1887 marked the most damaging of Tampa’s many
yellow fever epidemics. Seventy-nine people died and another 750 became ill but
recovered. Combined, this accounted for 39% of Tampa’s population, and scarce was
the household that did not feel the effect. The strict quarantine placed on Tampa
virtually halted all business in the city, and of course the young couple was concerned
for the lives of their toddler son and infant daughter.


They had faith in Tampa, though, and fortunately that was the last killer
epidemic. With Abe’s bachelor brother Isaac (Ike) joining them, Maas Brothers soon
would evolve into Tampa’s most prominent shopping destination for clothing and
home goods. Although the name changed, “The Dry Goods Palace” remained
emblazoned in green and gold on its awnings, and despite the lack of her presence in
its name, Bena Maas was a working partner. Much later, a family member told the late
Tampa Tribune writer Leland Hawes that the business didn’t have fixed hours. “We
closed the store when the last customer departed,” Bena said, “and that might be
midnight.”


They did close on Sundays, as did every other store in Tampa, even though that
was not their Sabbath. Bena’s brothers did the same when they followed her to Tampa,
opening the longtime leader in men’s clothing, Wolf Brothers. Jerome Waterman, the
nephew of Ike and Abe, would come later. He was the father of Cecile Waterman
Essrig – and in 1967, voters would make her the first woman on the Hillsborough
County school board.


Tampa was more welcoming to Jews than many cities, and when the grand
Tampa Bay Hotel opened in 1891, Bena and Abe Maas were sufficiently socially
prominent that Margaret Plant included them as one of relatively few Tampans who
were “special guests.” The couple bought a house at 508 Morgan Street in 1893, and
about 1916, moved across the river to 601 South Boulevard.


They made a point of treating their employees fairly, and when the store
celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1986, many fondly remembered parties and picnics.
The family also prided itself on selling the latest styles, and Bena Maas accompanied
Abe on buying trips to New York and Europe. Yet though she could have lived a life of
luxury, she nonetheless immersed herself in work for those less fortunate.
The Children’s Home began in 1892 as a result of abandoned babies in an era
when unwed mothers – some as young as thirteen – left infants at churches or on
doorsteps. Initially the orphanage was a project of the Methodist Church’s Women’s
Home Missionary Society, but its supporters soon expanded to non-Methodists and
even non-Christians such as Bena Maas. It began in a house at Washington and
Marion Streets, donated by Mary Helen Clarke, and by 1899, included a day-care
service for working mothers.


The orphanage lost children to disease, though, and was described as “filthy” by
a new matron hired late in 1895. Board meeting minutes in the early twentieth
century, before Bena Maas began her long tenure as president, indicate Tampa’s
poverty – and its unwillingness to invest in children.
 

May 1906: Dr. Adamson appeared before the board on behalf of the sick children and pleaded for a cow to be bought.

July 1906: It was decided not to buy a cow at present.

March 1908: It was decided that the children should have three meals a day.

As in other cities in that era, some orphanage residents were not true orphans.
Instead, they were simply the children of widowed or deserted mothers who earned too
little to keep their youngsters at home. Nor was there much sympathy for these
women, as records for December 1915 indicate that they had to provide their own
celebratory food: “The Board let the mothers of the children bring their dinner and
enjoy Christmas dinner together with their children.”


By 1919, Maas had taken over as board president and the first reform that she
introduced was securing a source of milk: The board voted to buy two cows, and the
children named one of them for her. The next year truly tested her mettle, as the home
was destroyed by fire. Maas appealed to the public, and a Tribune headline soon read:
“Nearly $3,000 is Raised for Tots Burned out of Refuge.”


At the same time, she made clear her outrage that many Tampians thought that
the needy deserved no more than rags. She showed a reporter a pile of donated
garments that were useless, literally worn to shreds. Having often taken new clothing
off the racks at Maas Brothers for the orphans, she declared: “Our tots are not
ragamuffins, even if they are homeless. Just because they are fatherless and motherless
does not mean that they are without pride or a sense of neatness. And really, they do
have some self-respect; we try to inculcate it in them.”


Bena Maas expanded to a broader methodology of addressing community needs
in 1924. Under her leadership, the Children’s Home joined with four other charities to
create the Community Chest. The others were the Milk Fund, which has dissipated
with modern dairy practices, the longtime Salvation Army, and the Old People’s Home,
which is still extant in Ybor City as The Home Association. The Community Chest was
a new idea in philanthropy: instead of competing with each other, charities united in
asking businesses and residents for a single annual donation, with an experienced
board dividing the proceeds according to organizational needs and records of
responsibility.


As Hitler rose in Germany during the 1930s, the couple helped bring not only
their own family to safety in America, but also many other Jews. A family history says
that they “spent much money” to help these refugees get a new start in life. Truly
ecumenical, they also “contributed generously to Sacred Heart Catholic Church in
Tampa.”


The Children’s Home moved from downtown to North Florida Avenue in Tampa
Heights and finally to a rural area off Memorial Highway, where it remains a major
success today. Bena Maas lost both her husband and her son before she died on June
22, 1947. Daughter Jessie survived her, dying in 1965. Jessie married Jules Winston,
a New York jewelry merchant, and although he never was affiliated with Maas Brothers,
they made their home in Tampa. They had a daughter, Emily Winston Moody, giving
Bena one grandchild. With her husband Ashby, Emily Moody owned an antique shop
named “Grandma’s Place.” It was on the family’s old homestead at 508 Morgan Street.
Bena Maas was buried in Myrtle Hill Cemetery, with her funeral at Temple
Schaarai Zedek. One of a half-dozen cofounders of the Temple Guild Sisterhood in
1899, she spent more than a half-century leading good causes.