Sunday, November 26, 2017

Wolfe Londoner Lived a Novel Life

In 1899 liquor dealer Wolfe Londoner, with the help of two Western desperadoes, won the mayoralty race in Denver by a narrow margin.  How this Manhattan-born son of Jewish immigrants got to this place and what happened afterwards is the stuff of fictional characters in novels. 

Born in 1839, Londoner was the son of a wealthy New York merchant who gave him the educational and other advantages of money.  Of a “restless an adventurous disposition,” however, Wolfe left home before reaching 15 years and boarding a California-bound steamship chanced the “round the Horn” voyage to the Pacific Coast, disembarking at San Francisco.

There Londoner found a job working in a hotel for $125 month and board—San Francisco inflation wages. Perhaps more important, soon afterward he was hired by a auctioneer to sell goods from a platform three hours every evening.  Though still a youngster his glib auction patter soon earned him another $200 a month and boosted his confidence about making it in the adult world.  Saving his money, he opened a grocery with liquor a prime commodity.  Londoner was not yet 17.

Meanwhile, back in New York, his father saw more opportunity west and moved to Dubuque, Iowa, where he opened a large store. He called Wolfe to Iowa from San Francisco to help him.  They did a prosperous business there until the Panic (Depression) of 1857-1858 shattered their fortunes and sent the father, with the remnant of their goods, scrambling to St. Louis, hoping for better times. 

Wolfe was left in charge of seven remaining family members awaiting enough money from the father to book passage for them to New Orleans and up to St. Louis.  After receiving only an insufficient $20, Wolfe became impatient and using his gift of gab convinced a steamboat captain to take his family on board for $25.  Recognizing Wolfe was a very young man, the officer was surprised when a mother and six  children boarded.  “I married a widow,” the youth fibbed.  The captain was sympathetic and let them go.

Restless in St. Louis, in 1860 Londoner decided to join a wagon train going to Denver with a cargo of goods to sell.  When he tried to claim one of the paying seats, he was ordered by the wagon master to walk behind.  As a result he walked most of the way from St. Louis to Denver —more than 800 miles.  A fertile story-teller, Londoner later related that his boots began to hurt his feet:  “The nails tortured me so I walked barefoot one hundred miles.  We met some Indians and I traded my shoes for several pairs of moccasins.”  Wearing them he walked the rest of the way. 

Upon reaching Colorado, he delivered his goods and was put in charge of a West Denver store and subsequently sent out to manage stores elsewhere in Colorado, including at a mining camp called “Calfornia Gulch” that later became Leadville.  A photo of his Leadville store is shown here.  Only about 21 when he arrived there, Londoner began his political career in Leadville.  A gifted orator and wit, he spent four years variously as the elected county clerk and recorder, county treasurer and county commissioner.  Wolfe’s political success came despite his being only five feet, three and one-half inches tall.

Having saved his money, in 1865 Londoner returned to Denver and opened his own store at 15th and Blake. Still politically active, he became a friend to many local journalists, including the Eugene Field, the noted American poet and author who then was editor of of the Denver Tribune.  This is the way Londoner told of their jokes upon the other:

“Gene Field wrote an article, saying that I would present every color voter who called at my store with a watermelon.  They came in droves, all clamoring for melons.  Fortunately, I found a wagon of Georgia melons on Market Street and I passed them out.  The next day I put an ad in the News that Gene Field wanted a watchdog, and set a time for owners to bring dogs to his office.  At the appointed time there was yelping and fighting and scrambling of dogs in Gene’s office.  He climbed on a table and screamed for help, while the owners of the dogs fought lustily with each other.”

Requiring larger quarters by 1887, Londoner constructed his own four-story building at 1630 Arapahoe Street, shown right.  The bottom floor held his grocery and liquor store.  Shown below in a photo, it was a large establishment with well stocked shelves and what appears to a whiskey-tasting bar at the right.  The upper floors were for storage and also allowed him to mix up his own liquor.  Using stocks received from Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Maryland, Londoner was creating his own brands of whiskey, bottling and labeling it, and selling at retail.

Collectors long have sought out his jugs and bottles as Western rarities.  Shown above are two ceramics that held Londoner’s liquor.  The one at right is a Albany slip-covered jug with his name in raised letters. It likely held a quart of whiskey.  The item at left is a mini-jug with his name scratched under the glaze.  Shown above is a rare glass quart embossed with Londoner.  Below are two decorative decanters that would have been given to saloons, hotels and restaurants carrying his liquor.  Note that one is dated 1885.

Meanwhile, Londoner was having a personal life. In 1879, he married Francis, called “Frannie,” Anthony, a women 21 years his junior.  Like him, she had been born in New York of native New Yorkers.  In time they would have five children, three girls and two boys.  One boy, Herman, brought sorrow when he died at age nine.  In time as he became wealthy, Londoner built his family a mansion that became a Denver showpiece, illustrated below.

As recorded in Vicker, “History of the City of Denver, Arapahoe Country and Colorado,” Londoner’s trade soon extended far beyond the city of Denver, encompassing all of Colorado and into Kansas, New Mexico and Wyoming, amounting annually to $1 million (equivalent to $25 million today). Wrote Vickers:  “He is a hard-working man, giving his constant attention to even the smallest details of his  immense business.”

Londoner was also public spirited.  In 1883 the geographic boundaries of Arapahoe County were changed and the existing courthouse was rendered obsolete.  During ensuing years city planners, architects, mayors and struggled with where and how to build a new one — until Wolf stepped in.  In 1893, he volunteered to chair the building committee for the erection of a new courthouse and for the time it took to get the project off the ground, he gave his business over to other managers and devoted himself full-time to the task.  

Londoner was described by one author as “faithful and conscientious….He was proud that not a penny’s worth of graft occurred in the construction….”  The building, shown here, became the pride of Denver.   For the manner in which he had discharged his trust, city officials, as Londoner put it, “drew up a resolution which was good enough to put on my grave when I die.”

Throughout his years in Denver, Londoner continued to be involved in politics, being elected to local offices.  With his stock high after completion of the courthouse he decided to run for mayor.  Wolfe was a Republican in a city that tended Democrat over the free silver issue.  As friends and supporters, however, he could count on the local saloon and gambling bosses, who wielded political power in Denver.  They provided him with volunteers that included notorious Western gunslingers Bat Masterson and Soapy Smith.

Led by those “bad boys,”  Londoner’s friends stuffed ballot boxes and traded drinks for votes at local saloons on election day.  Londoner became Denver’s 20th mayor by a whopping 77 votes.  Even before he could take office, opponents were filing charges against him.  It took a while before the legal challenges could make their way through the courts and while they were, Londoner served more than a year as mayor, until forced by court orders to resign.  He was Denver’s first Jewish mayor and the only mayor ever removed from office.

Londoner seems not to have been daunted by his fall from power and devoted himself subsequently to the Denver Press Club, which had been founded years earlier at his store.  He also achieved a local reputation as a writer.  According to Vickers, his articles in local newspapers exhibited “the same happy vein of genial humor that is apparent in all his intercourse with his fellow-men.”  His Arapahoe Building featured what Londoner called his “cyclone cellar” where he was noted for entertaining local and visiting newsmen.  “It was no misnomer,” Wolfe wrote, “many met with a cyclone at home because of a visit to that cellar.”  Shown right is a photo of Wolfe and Fannie — she towers over him — in his later years.

In 1912, at the age of 70, Wolfe Londoner died, up to the endinvolved in his grocery and liquor business.  The cause of death was given as “apoplexy,” in other words, a cerebral hemorrhage.  With his family and army of friends looking on, he was buried in Denver’s Fairmount Cemetery.  Londoner’s gravestone is shown here.  A half century earlier when Wolfe Londoner first came to Denver he had $1.50 in his pocket and knew not a soul.  When he took his leave he was extravagantly wealthy and known by virtually everyone.   Of such men as Wolfe Londoner are novels written.  

Notes:  A principal source for this post was the previously cited Vickers history that contained a long biography.   Other sources were “Colorado Pioneers in Picture and Story,” by Alice Polk Hill and an article in the winter 2003 issues of Bottles and Extras by John M. Eatwell.  Photos of Londoner jugs and bottles also are from Eatwell’s piece.

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