Guided by History is pleased to offer this guest post by Frances Dinkelspiel. Frances is a journalist and the author of new book — released today! — called Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California. It tells the story of Frances’ great-great grandfather, one of the premier financiers of the Pacific Coast, and the president of Wells Fargo Bank from 1905 to 1920. (CR)
Even though I am a fifth-generation Californian, and my great-great grandfather, my great-grandfather and a close cousin were all presidents of Wells Fargo Bank, I grew up not really understanding my family’s connection with the bank.
It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I figured out the relationship was something special. I had gone down to the Old Poodle Dog restaurant in San Francisco to have a celebratory birthday lunch with my father, who gave me a checking account as a birthday present. After we finished eating, we walked into the Montgomery Street office of Wells Fargo, a massive room decorated with marble wainscoting and crystal chandeliers. My father took me over to an elderly banker, who handed me a card of thick white cardstock with my name on it.
“Don’t lose it,” the banker said. “It’s identification for your checking account.”
The first time I whipped out the card I was amazed at the reaction I received. I was only 13 and could barely see over the counter, yet the teller treated me with exaggerated courtesy. She didn’t ask to see a picture ID, but just handed me my money.
That was my first clue that my family held special status at the bank.
Twenty-seven years later, after a long career as a newspaper reporter, I found myself researching the life of Isaias Hellman, my great-great grandfather and the president of Wells Fargo Bank from 1905 to 1920. Hellman had come to California from Bavaria in 1859 and started the first successful bank in Los Angeles. He moved to San Francisco in 1890 to take over the Nevada Bank, which he merged with Wells Fargo in 1905. Hellman, one of the most influential Pacific Coast financers of the late 19th and early 20th century, served as president or director of 17 banks and controlled more than $100 million in capital at the height of his power in 1910.
Yet it was amazing how long — and how hard — it was to find out that information. Even though Hellman had been famous during his lifetime, he was almost forgotten by the time I started my research in 2000. No one had ever written a biography of him. I didn’t even know the names of his brothers and sisters as I set out.
Finding out about Hellman’s life entailed an immersion into some of the state’s most distinguished archives — the California Historical Society, the Bancroft Library, the Huntington Library. I also was granted special permission to do research in the Wells Fargo Archives, one of the great repositories of western Americana. It is not generally open to the public, but since I was researching a Wells Fargo president — and a relative — I was provided access.
The archive was full of fascinating material. I found an old red and black ledger that was cracked and a bit musty. As I turned the pages, I realized this was the ledger Hellman had bought in 1865 when he opened his first dry goods store in Los Angeles. The town was more Mexican pueblo than American city then and only had a population of about 5,000 people. The names of the customers in Hellman’s store were the names of some of the pioneers of Los Angeles — Pio Pico , the last governor of Mexican California; John Downey , the governor of California during the Civil War; and Harris Newmark , a merchant and early Jewish resident.
I stumbled upon another document — a list of the people who had bought shares of stock in the Nevada Bank in 1890. The Nevada Bank had been created in 1875 by four men dubbed “The Silver Kings” for the massive fortunes they accumulated during the Comstock Lode . But by 1890, the Nevada Bank was almost broke, and Hellman agreed to buy it for $2.5 million. By that time, Hellman had such a sterling reputation that businessmen around the country clamored to invest in the business. “Millionaires stood in rows for hours waiting for their chance to subscribe to the stock and men feeble from age were among them,” a Los Angeles newspaper reported.
Some of those investors included Levi Strauss, the founder of the jeans company; Meyer Lehman, the founder of Lehman Brothers and Hellman’s brother-in-law; the Walter family, who had one of the largest rug and furniture stores in the state; and the Haas cousins, Kalman, Abe, and William, who had a string of dry good stores along the Pacific Coast (the Haas family are prominent philanthropists today and control Levi Strauss & Co ) and many more. What a thrill it was to examine this list.
There was so much more. Hellman played a vital role in restoring San Francisco’s financial system after the 1906 earthquake and fire, and the archives had descriptions of opening the bank vault to see if any money had survived the conflagration. Wells Fargo also took the lead in selling Liberty Bonds — really war bonds — during World War I, and it was fascinating to see how the entire country rallied during that crisis.
Eight years after I started my research, my book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, is about to be published. It tells the tale of the rise of California from a state dependent on the barter of hides and exchange of gold dust into one of the country’s most dynamic economies.
Isaias Hellman — and Wells Fargo Bank — were crucial to that transformation.