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Biography of Ralph Rubin Whitehorse, an important Jewish and Native American vendor of the Old Maxwell Street Market

1894 – 1987

Website note: I helped create this website about Ralph Rubin Whitehorse through the good luck of meeting with (perhaps) a distant cousin Sandy Rubin Glass who is doing research about the Witz branch of her family tree. I am also a Witz, through my paternal grandmother Rose. In one of our family history conversations, Sandy mentioned Maxwell St. having been there as a child and as as a young adult going to UIC. She mentioned her cousin Ralph Rubin Whitehorse and I flipped out. His story is quintessential Maxwell St.. Someone with a background of poverty and struggle who used Maxwell St. to create a family life and an occupation for survival. I had seen photos of Maxwell St. vendors wearing Indian headdress selling patent medicines and the like. But I thought it was just shtick and they were not really Native American. But Ralph was authentic. His family name became Whitehorse and he was accepted as part of the (Winnebago) Ho Chunck nation. His kids and grandkids are in the Ho Chunk tribe too. I plan to add to this bio through interviews with other Whitehorse relatives. But I am greatly indebted to Sandy Rubin Glass for her interest in history and writing the core bio of Ralph. Maybe we can get the Chicago History Museum to have an exhibit about Ralph and his family. – Steve Balkin, Professor Emeritus, Roosevelt University

Ralph Rubin Whitehorse was born Raphael Rubinofsky in Odessa, Ukraine on April 5, 1894 as the first of eight children of Alex Rubinofsky and Bessie Rollnick. One of the children died at age 2 years while the family still lived in Odessa.

Ralph and his father immigrated to the United States in 1904 and settled in Dayton, Ohio. The next younger brother arrived a year later. Bessie their three living children arrived in 1906, the year her 2 year old died in Odessa. The three youngest and subsequent children were born in Dayton, Ohio. Alex was familiar with a bit of farming and became what was known as a “huckster” selling produce, typically from a wagon pulled by a horse through the alleyways. He never learned to speak English. While the family spoke Yiddish as their first language, the children attended school and learned English. Alex remained a religious Jew all of his life and held onto Yiddish as his only language; his descendents did not. This includes Ralph.

In Dayton, Ohio, Ralph was restless and had no patience for schooling. Most of the time, he played hooky and was a petty thief, while his siblings helped their father or attended school when they could. Ralph was eventually caught by truant officers and later the police. The judge sent him to reform school. Ralph managed to escape with a friend. They began riding the rails, hanging out with hoboes. He saw himself as being one of them. It was when he was hiding from security officers at a rail yard that Ralph made the poorest decision of all by hiding under a rail car. The car began to move and his legs got caught up under the wheels. Ralph lost both legs below just above his knees. He survived by the quick thinking of the security officer of the rail yard who used a tourniquet on his legs and saved his life.

Although he still loved his freedom, at some point he joined his family briefly when they moved to Chicago. He would find odd jobs to keep him going; rarely staying at his parents’ home. Ralph had a relationship with a young Polish woman that resulted in a son. His parents took custody of the child and raised him. He became an attorney and, later, successful in business.

Ralph eventually created patent medicines, soaps and shampoos, selling them on Maxwell Street in Chicago. I remember my father taking me with him to Maxwell Street (early 1950s) on the weekend where he would purchase Vienna hot dogs, all strung together. While there, he would stop and chat with his Uncle Ralph who had on his unusual hat with a feather protruding from the brim. He would be seated on a wooden platform with roller skate wheels on the bottom, making it easier to push himself around. At 5 years old, I would be eye to eye with this otherwise large man. It would be crowded with people, chickens and roosters running around. The experience was quite terrifying, but I held tight to my father’s hand for security and comfort. Ralph would occasionally visit his parents who lived with one of his siblings and her family. He would entertain the children with his lasso skills. Sometimes, he brought along his snake which was required to reside in a sack outside.

Ralph eventually met a Native American woman, Annie Greencrow, who was also earning a living on Maxwell Street. She and her family drove to Maxwell Street on weekends from Madison, She would dress in her native costume which garnered interest on the street. Ralph and Annie became a couple and eventually married. They lived in Madison, Wisconsin. Ralph was eventually accepted into the Ho-Chunk tribe (formerly, Winnebago) and given the surname Whitehorse. They had 7 children. The family would migrate to Florida in the winter, selling Ralph’s “medicines” and sundries along the drive south. They would all dress in tribal clothing to garner attention and boost sales. While his and Annie’s children were all successful, the most renowned is Harry Whitehorse. Harry was known nationally and internationally as a sculptor and artist. Annie taught at the University of Wisconsin Madison focusing on education and integrating the Native American experience. An elementary school in Madison is named for her; Annie Greencrow Elementary School.

Ralph died at the age of 93 years old in Madison, Wisconsin.

~ Sandra Rubin Glass
Grand-Niece of Ralph Rubin Whitehorse
August 4, 2023

Further reading:

Here is a link the website of one of Ralph’s sons, Harry Whitehorse, who is a famous artist.


Harry is deceased but his website is run by his wife Deb.

Here is a link to an interview with another of Ralph’s sons, Walter Whitehorse, who at 96 years old lives in Madison, WI



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