14 Sep 2020


Lost Capitol Hill: Fritz Frager and His Store

Fritz Frager

For the next couple of weeks, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the opening of Frager’s Hardware Store, I am going to do what I do best: Look at its history, and particularly at the three men who carried the name Frager who were involved in its success.

The story begins in Russia. It was here that on March 15, 1883, Fritz Frager (that’s him on the left, much later in life) was born. He went by both Fritz and Frank during his time in the United States. While Fritz is a very Germanic name, short for Friedrich, Frager’s mother tongue was actually Yiddish.

In 1902, Frager came to the US along with his uncle Lazier Gozman, who left his wife and four children behind in the Volhynia region of Russia. Volhynia is today part of Ukraine, west of Kiev. The two men traveled by ship to New York, and then on to Washington, where a brother-in-law of Gozman’s, Samuel Shappiro, was operating a grocery store.

Shappiro had recently upgraded to a larger store in Georgetown and so sold his old one on Gordon Avenue to his brother-in-law for $35. While the name “Gordon Avenue” sounds quite grand, it was actually just an alley on which were 39 small houses, located between 2nd, 3rd, F and G Streets NE – today, that’s the location of Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan. Don’t look for it today; all the houses on Gordon were razed to make room for the school.

In spite of the somewhat insalubrious location, Gozman did well there, and within two months he was able to send home $25 – enough that he felt that he would be able to bring over his family in short order, as steerage passage across the Atlantic cost about $30 per person at the time.

Since no pictures from this era featuring Frager exist, here’s picture from 2013, when the store (not visible through the smoke) burned. (RSP)

Frager meanwhile found work as a carpenter, but still lived with Gozman at the store. While not exactly luxurious, it looked as if the two would be able to live the immigrant dream – until tragedy struck. On December 30, 1902, just two months after arriving in D.C., Frager came home from work around 5:30 p.m. As was his custom, he tried to get in through the front of the store, but found the door inexplicably locked. Frager went around the back and entered through that door and into the back room that doubled as Gozman’s sleeping quarters. He found the room in some disarray, but it was in the doorway between the living quarters and the store that Frager made his terrible discovery: his uncle, badly beaten and bloody, his feet in his bedroom, the rest of his body stretched out towards the front of the store. Gozman was dead, as the police that Frager called soon determined without a doubt.

Further investigation determined that the death had occurred between 2:30 and 5:30, with some witnesses stating that they had been unable to enter the store at 4 p.m. Unfortunately, this was as far as the police were able to get. While there were a number of suspects, and one was even indicted, the evidence was considered too weak, and the case was not prosecuted.

Next week: The (unsatisfactory) denouement of the story, and a new beginning for Frager.

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