When Carl Bass started Ithaca Software, Gary Wayne was our marketing VP. Gary's wife is Frances Dinkelspiel whom I had always known as a friend and an award-winning newspaper reporter. At a party recently I bumped into Frances after many years and learned she had written a book: Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California. So I read it.
Fun Facts About the Book Itself:
Isaias Hellman was Frances' great-great-grandfather.
Frances spent 8 years researching and writing the book. She sifted through business ledgers, letter books, telegrams, grocery bills, newspaper clippings, and personal letters. All told she pored over 50,000 pieces of paper. [page 2]
The book is the Northern California Independent Bookseller Association's 2009 Best Book Award Winner.
This is the first book that I have ever read that was written by someone I know. Though the details were so vivid that I kept asking myself "How did she write this?" as I went along, the life of Isaias Hellman in and of itself was captivating.
A Few Fun Facts From the Story:
When Isaias was only 14, he and his father went to court to apply for permission for Isaias to emigrate to America. In 1857, times were tough in America. He and brother made the 6 week trip over a year later, but think of it: Isaias and Herman Hellman traveled to America alone when they were in their early teens. Today we worry that our 16-year-olds are allowed to drive.
Isaias Hellman made his fortune as a banker, president of many banks along the way, including what is known today as the Wells Fargo Bank. The book shows the logical progression of banking:
- Isaias and Herman run a dry goods store.
- When they receive payments in gold, at night, they hide it in buckskin bags pushed deep in the folds of their merchandise.
- Worried about losing their gold, they buy a big safe.
- Since they have a big safe, the brothers offer to store customers' gold free of charge.
- After their safe contains lots of gold that is just sitting there, they ask their customers if they can loan it out.
Eventually, the dry goods store business was replaced by the banking business.
When Herman was running the Farmers and Merchants bank during Isaias' absence to run an empire of larger banks, Herman wrote to Isaias complaining of the problems he had to face. Isaias' response pulled no punches. This is my favorite quotation from the book:
- "Don't you think I have ten times more annoyances in these times than you have?... Your position and responsibility is play work in comparison to what I have. If business would always run smooth [sic], anybody could succeed, just now it means ultimate success for the fittest and failure for the weak ones." [pages 166-167]
I wonder if they ever had this conversation: "Mom liked you best." "Did not." "Did too."
In his final days in office, while the Legislature was in recess, California Governor Perkins appointed Isaias to a full 16-year term as a regent for the University of California in Berkeley. He had already served 2 years without incident. In the same proclamation, he also appointed former California Governor, Leland Stanford, to the board because he hoped Stanford would leave his fortune to the University. The University of California was then known as the poor man's school since students had to perform manual labor to afford their tuition. These lame duck appointments angered Congress, so they would not bring them up for a vote, and the men were forced to withdraw their names. Stanford was so insulted by this that he went on to form his own university named after his son, Leland Stanford Jr., who had died of typhoid at the age of 15. [page 108] It's no wonder Cal-Stanford games are so spirited.
After the 1906 California earthquake and resulting fire, bank vaults could not be opened right away. Though there was apprehension regarding if the valuables inside survived, the vaults needed to cool off first. In 1904, some Baltimore banks made the mistake of opening their vaults after a fire, and the resulting rush of oxygen ignited their records and large amounts of cash. [page 252]
Herman and Isaias came to America from Reckendorf, a small town in Bavaria. Levi Strauss, maker of world famous jeans, also came to America from this same town. [page 5]
Knowing Frances I can only imagine the internal struggle to please her relatives by making sure great-great grandpa came out looking good versus her inherent reporter instincts to tell it like it is. I think she did a great-great job. // more
Learning about history in a personal way is alive in the lab.