This Day in Jewish History

1868: A Dry-goods Merchant Opens California's First Bank

Isaias Hellman started as a grocer and would build business empire, eventually help save San Francisco.

Isaias W. Hellman (1842-1920). Arrived in Los Angeles from Bavaria in 1859, became a leading banker and civic leader.
Bobak, Wikimedia Commons

On September 1, 1868, Isaias Hellman, a successful Los Angeles dry-goods merchant, co-founded the Hellman, Temple & Co bank. It was a small step in itself, but within a few short years, Hellman had assumed sole ownership of the bank and merged it into what became the Farmers and Merchants Bank, which became a key catalyst in the development of Los Angeles and California as a whole. It was also the start of a personal empire that would eventually include at least partial ownership of 17 banks, vast real estate holdings, railroads, utilities and vineyards. According to one local newspaper, he had become “the wealthiest Hebrew in America.”   

Isaias Wolf Hellman was born on October 3, 1842, in Reckendorf, in the Kingdom of Bavaria. His father, Wolf Hellman, was a master weaver. His mother, the former Sarah Fleischmann, was the daughter of a prosperous cattle dealer. Isaias was the oldest of their 13 children, only seven of whom survived childhood.

Unpleasant interlude with a drunken miner

Isaias attended public schools, which were supplemented by afternoon lessons with a rabbi. He then went to the College of Marktbreit, a business school that was unusual in accepting Jews, and where he acquired skills that served him well in the New World.

Between 1840 and 1870, more than one-third of Bavaria’s roughly 59,000 Jews left the country, often joining relatives who had already blazed a trail abroad. Isaias and his brother Herman left for the then-provincial Los Angeles, sailing by way of New York, Panama and San Francisco, and arriving in May 1859.

In 1865, after several years of working in a cousin’s emporium, Hellman bought a dry-goods store of his own. Along with the high-quality items he sold, he allowed customers to store valuables in his safe. An unpleasant episode with a drunken miner, who accused Hellman of stealing his gold dust while he was out prospecting, led him to decide to open a small bank within the store.

It was the first such institution in Los Angeles, and it was successful enough that within two years he had sold the store. A year after that, he hooked up with Francisco Temple to open the bank that bore their two names.

USC is on land he gave

In 1871, Hellman bought out Temple and joined up with former California governor John G. Downey and another 21 investors to establish Farmers and Merchants. The bank funded the land boom that allowed for the expansion of Los Angeles. Since Hellman had already bought up much of the land in question, he benefited in two ways – and also was savvy enough to cut back on real-estate lending before the bubble burst in 1888.

Hellman also built several local railroads, and also brought the all-important Southern Pacific Railroad to Los Angeles in 1876. He invested in gas, water and electricity infrastructure, and formed partnerships with all of the biggest tycoons of the time, in an era when Gentiles and Jews still did business and broke bread together in the West. (That would soon change.)

He was also sufficiently astute to have much of his significant philanthropic giving be to general causes. It was Hellman, for example, who donated the land for the establishment of the University of Southern California, and he served on the board of regents of the University of California as well.

In 1890, when San Francisco’s powerful Nevada Bank, until recently the state’s biggest bank, faced collapse, Hellman agreed to take it over, and moved north for the purpose. So trusted was his name that suddenly the bank was oversubscribed with new would-be investors. In 1905, he merged another of his holdings, the Union Bank, with Wells Fargo. At his peak, Hellman had $100 million under his management in some 17 banks.

In Los Angeles, he was a founding member of the Bnai Brith Synagogue, later called the Wilshire Boulevard Synagogue, and after his move to San Francisco, Hellman was a lay leader of that city’s leading Reform synagogue, Temple Emanu-El. And after the devastating earthquake and fire in the city in 1906, he and Wells Fargo led the San Francisco business community in investing in reconstruction.  

Isaias Hellman died on April 9, 1920, after suffering briefly from pneumonia.