We were saddened to hear of the death of Sidney Unobskey earlier this week (January 20, 2021). His passing truly marks the end of an era in the St. Croix Valley. For over a century the Unobskey family has played a unique and vital role in the commercial development of Calais, for it was largely through the efforts of the Unobskey family that Calais became the commercial center of the eastern end of Washington County and much of Charlotte County New Brunswick and beyond.
The story of the family begins in 1906 when the matriarch and patriarch of the family, Sarah and Joseph Unobskey, arrived in Eastport as immigrants from Russia. After seven years in Eastport where it became apparent to them that Jews were not welcome in the city and the family only barely survived on Joseph’s earnings as an itinerant peddler, the family moved to a more welcoming Calais.
From Crossing Lines, a Jewish history of Maine:
The Unobskeys and the other Jewish families discovered that Calais harbored few suspicions about foreigners and no overt signs of anti-Semitism. The Unobskeys and the other Jewish families such as the Levys and Gordons — too few to form even a minority – easily joined in Calais’ civic and educational life. They maintained a strong Jewish identity even when the kids-such as Martha and Joe Unobskey dressed up for the St. Patrick’s Day parade.
In 1912 Joseph and Sarah Unobskey acquired the building on Main Street in Calais (now the Thrift Shop) and lived in the upper stories while opening a small clothing store on the ground floor. It was a risky proposition as there was little commercial activity in this part of town in 1912, but it was certainly a step up from their life in Eastport where Joseph spent many nights sleeping in farmers fields when on the road selling door to door.
The business grew slowly at first, but the boys more quickly. Sarah is shown above with her three sons, Charles, William and Arthur after the death of Joseph in 1925. After his death Sarah was left with much of the responsibility of running the family business although she was ably assisted by her sons, especially Arthur who had a keen business sense and an indefatigable work ethic not simply to advance the family’s fortunes but also those of the community which had welcomed the Unobskeys with open arms.
Still, no business decision was made without Sarah’s blessing. She was particularly insistent on acquiring property whenever it was available at a reasonable price. Having come from a country where Jews were not allowed to own land Sarah had been astounded to learn the same proscription did not apply in America and she had every intention of taking advantage this right, sometimes to the consternation of her sons. Soon the Unobskeys owned much of the property adjacent to their home.
In the 1920s they built the brick block shown above, expanded the store and opened the State Theatre, which became the center of entertainment in the St. Croix Valley for several decades. This block was the first substantial commercial development below the Boston Shoe Store and transformed this part of Main Street.
In 1940, they expanded the development in the other direction with Calais’ first supermarket (the A and P), and later enticed Rich’s department store to locate behind the Main Street block. This is now Marden’s.
Arthur Unobskey was a tireless promoter of Calais. He was determined to make Calais the business and commercial center for the entire region and he was largely successful. He brought national celebrities and performers to the State Theatre and held annual shows of the latest fashions complete with New York models.
Arthur was so confident in his vision that he encouraged the big chains to locate in Calais, assuming correctly that the more shoppers in town the better for everyone’s business. His brother Charlie was involved in local politics and served as chairman of the City Council, but Arthur was also consummate politician, organizing the President’s Ball during the war and traveling to the White House to lobby President Roosevelt on the Quoddy Project.
Sarah Unobskey was not afraid to take risks and the best example of this is the Unobskey
Professional Building across from the old Post Office on Main Street.
Built during the Great Depression when businesses in Calais were going
bankrupt including the city’s largest bank, the Calais National, Sarah
insisted over the objections of her sons on buying the property and
hiring a well known Boston architectural firm to design the building. It
was completed in 1932 and its construction provided much relief to the
stricken Calais workforce. It also turned out to be an astute business
decision although Sarah Unobskey did not live to see it become a financial success. She died in 1935.
MRS. SARAH UNOBSKEY
Friends heard with deep regret the passing of Mrs. Sarah Unobskey, widow of the late Joseph Unobskey, which occurred Thursday evening, following a heart attack. She was 57 years of age.
Born in Snovsk, Russia, Mrs. Unobskey came to this country about 30 years ago, living in Eastport for seven years before coming to Calais. She was head of the Unobsky firm in this city and one of the leading businesswomen of this section. Although the active managers of the business were her sons, Arthur and Charles Unobskey yet no important business transactions were completed without her advice and guidance.
Mrs. Unobskey was a keen businesswoman and was familiar with every phase. of their varied business and the success of the firm was due in great part to her initiative and foresight.
She took a keen interest in the development of Calais, and buildings erected under her direction added much to the appearance of the business section. On the State Theatre block, with the exception of the theatre itself, all plans were drawn by Mrs. Unobskey. She had faith in this city and although times were particularly hard and against the advice of her sons, built the Unobskey Professional Building, which has justified that faith.
She was always charitable, and many people were helped through her generosity in their time of need. Her greatest attribute was her devotion to her family, and her untiring helpfulness on their behalf.
She was active in the Jewish religious life of this community and was the major support of the Jewish Synagogue, which is named after her late husband, Joseph Unobskey. She will be greatly missed by her many friends.
She leaves to mourn their loss three sons, Arthur and Charles Unobskey of Calais and Dr. William Unobskey of New York City, one brother, Mr. Morris Holland of Calais and two sisters, Mrs. Louis Unobskey of Lubec and Mrs. Sam Greenstein of Boston. Services were held from the home of Mr. Sam Rudman of Bangor with the Rabbi of the Calais Synagogue and the Chief Rabbi of the Bangor Synagogue officiating. Interment was in the Bangor Jewish Cemetery.
After Sarah’s death the business was largely carried on by her son Arthur with some help from Charles. William had moved to New York to practice medicine. The above photo shows Arthur and his wife Lillian seated and standing, from the left, Joe, Martha and Sidney. Of the five Martha is the only one still living. She lives in Nashville Tennessee.
By the late 1950s, Joe and his mother Lillian were in charge of the family businesses which included the clothing store and all the operations related to the Professional Building and the expanded enterprises at the other end of Main Street. The Unobskey businesses were the largest taxpayers in the city. Joe was very involved in civic affairs as was Lillian. Sarah was a hard act to follow but Lillian proved an able businesswoman in her own right. The Professional Building was not sold until 1991.
Sidney Unobskey became an international real estate developer building commercial properties, notably shopping centers, in such far away places as Australia and Vietnam. He and his wife Nancy still own a home in Australia although they have spent most of the last couple of decades in San Francisco where Sidney was the City Planner in the 1990s.
Despite his world travels and business success Sidney has always maintained his Calais connection. He and Nancy own one of the most beautiful spots on the St. Croix just below Calais and they have continued to promote the St. Croix Valley both with their political influence and through generous donations to local educational and cultural causes. He will be missed.