Gus Ottenheimer (1897–1985)

Gus Ottenheimer, an industrialist, became known nationally through his successful efforts in manufacturing women’s garments. He was a land developer as well, and he spent much of the last one-third of his life promoting higher education in central Arkansas.

Ottenheimer was born in Little Rock (Pulaski County) on July 18, 1897, to Daniel Ottenheimer and Hannah Berger. He was the youngest of four children. The Ottenheimers were a Jewish pioneer family, some of whom came to the state in the 1850s. Ottenheimer’s father died in 1908. The eldest son, Leonard, became the family breadwinner at age sixteen and forfeited his education to his younger brother. Ottenheimer graduated in 1918 from Washington & Lee University School of Law in Lexington, Virginia, with a Bachelor of Laws degree.

In 1926, Ottenheimer joined his brother Leonard in a ladies garment manufacturing business known as Ottenheimer Brothers. Leonard’s plant was opened at 108 East Markham Street in the early 1920s. After Gus joined the company, the brothers lost the lease on the East Markham building and moved to a three-story building located on the northeast corner of Markham and Main. As their business grew, they eventually rented the Kress warehouse near the Union Station; they continued to expand this facility until it ran the length of the block on Victory Street from Markham to 2nd Street. At first, they made sportswear and higher-priced dresses, but in the late 1930s, they found a high demand for low-cost cotton dresses. The business grew until it became one of the largest women’s garment manufacturing plants in America. They developed humane and workable labor policies, which, through the years, helped rebuff any efforts of labor unions to organize their employees.

As the firm prospered into the early 1940s, help became scarce when many workers left to serve in World War II. As a solution, the two brothers in 1943 established the Rocket Plant at 10th and Spring streets and hired Black workers. This experiment made history (until then, only whites worked in such industries in the South) and brought positive national attention to Little Rock. In 1955, the brothers sold their firm to Kellwood, a division of Sears Roebuck & Co.

Gus Ottenheimer served on the Board of Directors of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). In February 1948, he helped form the Associated Industries of Arkansas. He also was a founder of the Arkansas Economic Council and the State Chamber of Commerce (now Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce).

Ottenheimer joined the Little Rock Rotary Club in 1928, and he helped develop the club’s Venture in International Friendship, a program that brought European students to America to contrast its free enterprise system with that of communism, during the 1940s.

In 1955, Ottenheimer and his brother became land developers, establishing the Cloverdale housing subdivision on 145 acres in southwest Little Rock.

Seeing the lack of educational opportunities in central Arkansas, Ottenheimer headed a task force in the mid-1950s to make Little Rock Junior College a four-year institution. In March 1957, Little Rock University (LRU) was established, and in 1969, LRU became part of the University of Arkansas System as the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He served on the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Board of Visitors from 1969 to 1972. In 1978, he received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Ottenheimer never married or had children. He and his siblings established the Ottenheimer Foundation, which has funded scholarships, educational buildings, health centers, and other causes.

Ottenheimer died on March 16, 1985, and is buried at Oakland Jewish Cemetery in Little Rock.

For additional information:
LeMaster, Carolyn Gray. A Corner of the Tapestry: A History of the Jewish Experience in Arkansas, 1820s–1990s. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1994.

———. The Ottenheimers of Arkansas. Little Rock: Rose Publishing Company, 1995.

Ottenheimer Collection. The Ottenheimer Foundation, Little Rock, Arkansas.

Williams, Fay. Arkansans of the Years. Vol. 2. Little Rock: C. C. Allard & Associates, 1952.

Carolyn Gray LeMaster
Little Rock, Arkansas

 This entry, originally published in Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives, appears in the CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas in an altered form. Arkansas Biography is available from the University of Arkansas Press.


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