Saturday, October 24, 2015

J.C. Wilmerding Went from Riches to Rags to Riches

 A secondary school in San Francisco is named for J.C. Wilmerding, a philanthropist who left his affluent New York home at the age of sixteen to make his fortune in the West.  He initially found only poverty but despite his lack of education, his intelligence and energy in the liquor trade ultimately brought him fame, fortune, and the resources to help other young boys.

Jellis (sometimes given as Jillis) Clute Wilmerding was born in Moscow (now Leicester), a village in western New York in 1833.  He would be known throughout his life as “Clute.” His father was Henry Augustus Wilmerding, a well-off commission merchant and auctioneer with a reputation as “enterprising in business, of unquestioned integrity, and a very affable and pleasant gentleman.”  His mother was Nancy Clute who bore four Wilmerding children.

Clute’s life changed forever when he was 13 years old.  His mother, with whom he was very close, died and two years later his father married again, this time to Harriet Kellogg.  Henry Augustus would have six more children by this second wife.  Whether Clute did not get along with his stepmother or other reasons stemming from the changed situation at home, he determined to end his education early and seek his fortune in the West.  In 1850, when he was barely sixteen, he borrowed $5,000 from his father, and with his cousins, Edward and Felix Tracy, chartered a schooner, the Samuel M. Fox.  Built in a Manhattan shipyard, it was a brand new vessel.  The young adventurers filled it with merchandise, their goal California where the “Gold Rush” was at its height.

Wilmerding’s New York passport application for the trip contained no photograph but the document provided a physical description of the young man.  Clute was five feet, eight inches, tall, likely almost fully grown. His Dutch ancestry was evident.  He had blue eyes and brown hair.  His face was described as oval, with a high forehead, a “stout” nose, a large mouth, a round chin and an overall florid complexion.  Further identifying him was a scar on his right temple and a crippled hand.

With his cousins, Wilmerding sailed on the schooner from New York City, around Cape Horn, and reached San Francisco in September, 1849.  They pitched a tent on a beach about the spot where the Bank of California now stands at California and Sansome Streets and began to sell their wares.  The enterprise not successful, however, and Clute found himself virtually penniless far from home and owing his father a large sum of money.  In addition he had caught the gold fever sweeping the state and for the next year went prospecting.  That too failed to pan out and he returned to San Francisco determined to get a job and earn enough money to repay his father.  By dint of hard work over ensuing months he succeeded in paying off that debt.
Then his fortunes brightened.  As a 1928 biography tells it: “In addition to the amount which he had paid his father, he had saved a few thousand dollars and intended to go back to the mines and start a store. He missed the boat, which was to have taken him to Sacramento, and as there was but one boat a week, he was going back from the wharf to his lodging wondering what he would do next, when he changed to meet a Mr. Fargo, whom he knew slightly and who offered him a position as a salesman.”  What this account leaves out is that Fargo & Company was a liquor business.

The firm had been founded in San Francisco about 1865 by Earl and Jerome Fargo,  located at 214-216 Front Street.   Wilmerding was an immediate success in the whiskey trade.  Within a few years he was given an interest in the Fargo enterprise.  He was joined as a co-worker by Calvin W. Kellogg, possibly a relative of his mother.  About 1860, Wilmerding and Kellogg bought the firm, ultimately changing the name to Wilmerding, Kellogg & Company.

The company featured a limited number of brands.  One of them, “Days of 49.” was illustrated by a giveaway saloon sign with an attractive Western scene featuring Indians, cowboys and cattle.  It may have reminded Wilmerding of his own arrival in California that year.  A second label was a riff on his partner’s name showing up as “Kellogg,” “Kellogg’s,” and “Kellogg’s AA.”  He trademarked those brands in 1906.

Kellogg AA Old Bourbon was the flagship whiskey. Likely a blend and not bourbon, it sold with a striking gold and red label in quarts and flasks.  Under the paper label the bottle was embossed with the company name , the brand name, and San Francisco.  The Kellogg bottle also boasted a fancy silver cork closure held in place by a foil wrapper.  Like many local whiskey outfits, Wilmerding, Kellogg also gave away etched shot glasses with advertising.  

During this period, Wilmerding was increasingly recognized as a leading business and community leader, his success attributed by a biographer to his “genial and sympathetic nature.”  He is was accounted one of the most influential members of famous but controversial 1856 San Francisco Committee of Vigilance. These were groups of leading citizens who banded together to fight lawlessness and corruption in the Western tradition.  Together with an earlier committee,  these vigilantes were responsible for hanging eight presumed criminals and forcing a number of corrupt officials to resign.  In operation for only three months, the committee issued numbered medallions, shown here, to its members like Wilmerding.  Note the “All-Seeing Eye,” connoting vigilance.

Wilmerding also was active in more benign organizations.  The 1871-1872 records of the Society of California Pioneers listed him as one of its directors.  He was active in The Mercantile Library, the Academy of Sciences, a member of the Pacific Union Club of San Francisco and, with periodic visits there, of New York’s Union Club.  At the Republican National Convention of 1880 he was a California delegate.

In 1877 Calvin Kellogg departed the company.  Wilmerding continued to run the liquor business by himself for the next nineteen years, but for a time is recorded as having a silent partner named John Haviland.  Wilmerding introduced a new whiskey to the line of liquors, calling it “Larry’s Rye Whiskey.”  Shown here is a labeled quart bottle, front and back.  Note that embossed on the front is “32 ounces,”  emphasizing a full quart.  The back is embossed with the elaborate company logo and “Larry’s Whiskey.” One writer has speculated that this brand may not have been a good seller since it was never trademarked.

Clute Wilmerding never married but amassed a considerable fortune from his whiskey trade, as well as from important banking interests.   His generosity to a range of San Francisco charities was well known, many of them to assist children, in whom he is said to have had a special interest.  His contributions ranged from the Protestant Orphan Asylum, to the Hospital for Children, to the Golden Gate Kindergarten Association.  But his dream was to create a school “to teach boys trades, fitting them them to make a living with their hands, with little study and plenty of work.”

Some have traced Wilmerding’s passion for a vocational school back to having left home so early, with no opportunity to acquire a trade.  It has been suggested he felt the lack of one when he recalled his own grinding poverty in San Francisco as his early attempts to earn a living largely failed.  One biographer has speculated:  “Perhaps his early hardships in California, coming on him so suddenly, made him look with greater fondness of his interrupted boyhood.” 

As his health deteriorated in 1893, Wilmerding made elaborate legal arrangements to provide money for a educational institution that would be called  “The Wilmerding School of Industrial Arts” by willing it to the Regents of the University of California who were to create the school.  For the purpose, he left $400,000, the equivalent of $10 million today.  In February 1984, Wilmerding died.  
After his death the California Board, respecting his wishes, established the Wilmerding School, beginning its operations in buildings located next to the California School of Mechanical Arts, also known as the Lick School after its founder.  Over time the Wilmerding School merged with the Lick School and later with a training school for girls.  The main building is shown above as it looked in the 1930s.  Today it is known as the Lick-Wilmerding School and considered a prestige educational institution from which many students go on to college.
After Wilmerding’s passing, his company was bought by Louis Loewe.   Loewe had been part of a San Francisco liquor dealership known as Loewe Bros. that apparently had terminated operations the previous year.  Given the prestige associated with the founder’s name, the new owner called the revamped business the Wilmerding, Loewe Company and continued its popular whiskey brands.  This firm moved several times, once as the result of the San Francisco earthquake and fire.  National Prohibition forced it to close in 1919.

In death, Wilmerding’s left San Francisco, the city where he had made his fortune.  His body was carried back by train to New York and the Moscow cemetery where members of his family had been interred.  Earlier he had donated $10,000 to be used for maintaining and improving that graveyard, with an emphasis on preserving the burial place of his beloved mother, Nancy.  The devoted son was buried very near her.  Wilmerding’s “riches to rags to riches” life had come full circle.

Note:  Much has been written about the philanthropic efforts of Jellis Clute Wilmerding.  Virtually all of the articles, each praising his generosity, omit any reference to the source of his money — the whiskey trade.  It is as if the money dropped out of the sky on him, so sensitive has been the subject.  I hope this post will assist in correcting the record of Wilmerding’s life.

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