FEATUREJune/July 2017

Merchants of San Diego History


By Donald H. Harrison

Not all Jews were merchants in early California, nor were all merchants Jews. But some of the successful merchants who were Jewish helped to shape San Diego County and environs.



Louis Rose was San Diego’s first Jewish settler and entrepreneur. He arrived in San Diego in 1850, just prior to California becoming the 31st state of the Union. Having some capital when he arrived, he rented a building for a hotel and saloon, and later opened a general store. He was elected to the city’s three-member Board of Trustees, and as a city trustee automatically served on the county Board of Supervisors. When governments publicly auctioned land, he concentrated his purchases in two places: La Canada de las Lleguas (Canyon of the Mares), which would come to be known as Rose’s Canyon, and later simply as Rose Canyon; and along the bayfront between Old Town San Diego and Point Loma. There he built a residential community that was named Roseville.

In Rose Canyon, Rose opened the area’s first tannery — using the water of Rose Creek — thereby saving San Diegans many dollars because they used to have to buy tanned goods, whether saddles, belts or shoes — from East Coast tanneries. Besides the cost of the goods, San Diegans also had to pay shipping charges. Rose correctly figured he could sell leather goods at far cheaper prices, with much quicker deliveries. And being a thrifty man, he also opened a butcher shop in Old Town San Diego — why waste the meat of the cattle whose leather he tanned?



There were other merchants in Old Town who left their mark on San Diego County. Partners Joseph S. Mannasse and Marcus Schiller operated a general store that particularly catered to ranchers. There was a time when cow hides were a principal product of San Diego County. In fact in his famous travelog, Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana — for whom Dana Point is named — reported that sailing ships used to stop at Ballast Point in San Diego Bay, where they obtained the hides from hide houses built there just for that purpose. Hides were also used to pay for goods carried by the ships. So ubiquitous were they that the hides were known as California dollars.

Sometimes Mannasse and Schiller would be paid for the goods they had initially sold on credit with live cattle. At first, they kept the cattle in a pen along what today is Juan Street in Old Town. But before long, they had far too many cattle to keep penned, and so they purchased two ranchos up north — Rancho Encinitas and Rancho San Dieguito. If their families had held onto that property until the present day, they would have been the proud owners of most of Rancho Santa Fe, Solana Beach, Encinitas, and Carlsbad.

A stagecoach line ran from San Diego up to Los Angeles, with one of the stops on land in southern Carlsbad that Mannasse and Schiller owned. The ruins of that old stagecoach depot can still be seen today at a place known as Stagecoach Park.

In addition to being landowners and merchants, Mannasse and Schiller — like Rose before them — served as a San Diego City Trustee. Mannasse was one of the trustees who voted to sell land along the San Diego Bay to businessman Alonzo Horton, who soon established a “New Town” that rivalled Old Town.

Schiller, who succeeded Mannasse on the Board of Trustees, voted to set aside a large tract of city land for a park. Later that land would become known as Balboa Park. A plaque on the Laurel Street bridge salutes Schiller and his fellow trustees for making such a wise decision. Schiller also was the leader of San Diego’s tiny Jewish community. He served as president of Adath Yeshurun-which was the name of the first congregation which met for High Holidays in homes and hotels—and later as president of Congregation Beth Israel, which was how Adath Yeshurun renamed itself once it had a temple building, located at 2nd and Beech Streets.



San Diego County once was much bigger than it is today. It included present day Imperial, Riverside and a portion San Bernardino Counties. In the town of Temecula, Louis Wolf had a general store whose customers by and large were Native Americans. Wolf’s wife, Ramona, was half Chumash Indian herself. Wolf had a very good relationship with the Temecula Indians, and when Helen Hunt Jackson was researching her novel, “Ramona,” in 1882 she stayed with the Wolfs and interviewed them extensively. While the heroine “Ramona” was not patterned on Ramona Wolf, there was a general store in the story, with kindly owners. For those of you who may be new to California, the book Ramona, became a best seller and later was made into a movie. The San Diego County town of Ramona was named after the book. In Hemet, where much of the story occurred, there is a “Ramona Festival” every year. The sugar heir John Spreckels built a trolley line between New Town and Old Town, where he promoted the refurbished Casa de Estudillo as Ramona’s Wedding Place. It was a popular tourist spot.

Wolf plowed much of his profits into land, and the eastern portion of Temecula today is known as Wolf Valley, named for him. A large obelisk memorializing Wolf and his family today stands in the middle of a residential cul de sac in Temecula. The neighbors on either side of the gravesite can brag that the Wolfs near their door are the quietest of neighbors.



A young relative of Louis Wolf — Simon Levi — apprenticed with him in Temecula and later moved to San Diego, where he became associated with the wholesale firm of Steiner and Klauber. That firm delivered groceries and other necessities to small general stores throughout Southern California. After Steiner retired, the firm became known as Klauber and Levi. Subsequently, Julius Wangenheim joined the company as a partner, prompting Levi in 1896 to go out on his own as a wholesale grocer. Levi’s building still can be seen today in the Gaslamp Quarter.

Among the customers of Klauber and Levi was Levi’s younger brother Adolph Levi, who in 1886 operated the first brick store built in Julian along with his partner Joseph Marks You can find his name on a plaque at the historic drugstore at one of Julian’s main intersections. Adolph Levi was the great grandfather of Steve Cushman, who has served recently as a San Diego Unified Port District Commissionerand as a convention center commissioner. The Cushman family owns and plans to residentially and commercially develop the golf course in Mission Valley, as well as Grossmont Center.

Simon Levi succeeded Marcus Schiller as a president of Beth Israel and Adolph Levi subsequently succeeded his brother.



A member of the Steiner family who operated a general store in Escondido was Sig Steiner. He built over his general store, a second floor where civic organizations and clubs — and even the City Council — would hold their meetings. On the way down to the street, people would often share their news with Sig Steiner, who became exceptionally well informed about civic affairs.

Eventually he became a city trustee, also serving as mayor of Escondido. At the time, Escondido’s best known product were muscat grapes, which were transported by train to Oceanside, where they could be transferred to the spur line running between San Diego and Oceanside.

This was a time when California cities competed with each other for recognition in the hope of attracting settlers. The City of Pasadena decided to promote itself by holding an annual Rose Parade on New Year’s Day.

Envying the attention Pasadena was getting, Steiner came up with the idea in 1909 of renaming the city’s annual “Freedom Festival” as the Grape Day Festival, which became an tradition in Escondido. Today, one can see the fruit of Steiner’s imagination at Grape Day Park, where a children’s slide, runs through a giant bunch of playground grapes.



Such are the stories of six Jewish merchants who served San Diego County and gained a measure of local fame — and riches — in the process. In cities near mines, general store owners were often asked to keep the miners’ gold in their safes — and this process in turn led to the establishment of various banks in California.


*Preceding adapted from a Shavuot evening talk that author Harrison delivered at Tifereth Israel Synagogue.


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