Text and photos submitted by Terry L. Ommen

 

T

his is a story of two giants. One is a business called Wells, Fargo & Co., an enterprise that would go on to become one of the biggest, richest and most versatile corporate entities in the West, and the other is a family named Steuben, whose name would be associated with the Visalia Wells, Fargo office for most of six decades. Both are important in Visalia history, and it’s time to take a closer look at these two legends.

It’s not clear why the Steuben family settled in Visalia, but a descendent who had access to family stories and papers is convinced that it wasn’t by accident. Referring to William, patriarch of the Steuben household, the relative wrote, “Some fact must have guided him there [to Visalia] for … he was not a man to be influenced by impulse.”

Regardless of their motivation, William Steuben, his wife Catherine and their children left New York and arrived in Visalia in about 1857. At the time, little did this small frontier settlement of about 500 people realize how important this family would be in development of the town.

William North Steuben was born in Steuben, N.Y., in 1808 and was related to Baron von Steuben, the well-known general who served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. When William arrived in Visalia, not only did he come with an impressive pedigree, he came with an extensive business background and had even served as mayor for a number of years … all experiences that would come in handy for a town just five years old trying to get off to a good start.

During the 1850s, Visalia was working hard to live up to its status as the county seat of Tulare County. It was hungry to attract new businesses that would provide goods and services needed for a town so far from any major business center.

The Wells, Fargo express company was also working hard. It started in 1852, the same year that Visalia began, and was the brainchild of two East Coast businessmen, Henry Wells and William Fargo. They wanted to make a profit, of course, but they also wanted to do their part in settling the West.

When the company arrived in Visalia in 1858, it was already a well-known name in the freighting business, using stagecoaches, ships and mule trains for delivery of cargo. Later, it would add railroad cars. Coincidentally, when the company arrived, Butterfield’s Overland Mail Co. made it to Visalia the same year.

Left to right, top to bottom (Click images for larger view).

Photograph showing a Wells, Fargo stage, location unknown. Photo appeared in Pacific Coast Souvenir book published in 1888.

This letter was delivered to Visalia via Wells, Fargo in what appears to be 1869.

The Wells, Fargo Express office built in 1889 on the southeast corner of Main and Locust streets in Visalia. Shown are Zane Steuben and Mary A. E. Blake.

William North Steuben (1808-1890) was the first agent at Visalia’s Well, Fargo office. Circa 1885

Wells, Fargo & Co.’s first office in Visalia was in the Exchange Hotel at Main and Court streets. Because the founders of Wells, Fargo had a connection to the Overland mail company, William Steuben was selected to be the agent for both companies.

Wells, Fargo and Steuben seemed to be a good fit in town, but it was clear that the Visalia Weekly Delta was Steuben’s biggest supporter. The newspaper relied on news from other communities to fill space and provide important newsworthy stories, and Steuben was happy to provide it with distant newspapers that came with the deliveries. The Delta was grateful and thanked the thoughtful and accommodating man frequently in the paper. On one occasion, in August 1859, the Delta printed, “To Mr. Steuben, agent of Wells, Fargo & Co. Express and agent of the Overland Mail Line, are we indebted for abundant supply of papers, both Atlantic and California.”

This Wells, Fargo office in Visalia was on the south side of Main Street just west of Garden Street. Circa 1864

But life wasn’t all rosy for William Steuben and his family. In 1860, tragedy struck when Catherine, his wife, died of typhoid fever at age 49. She had been a devout member of the Methodist Episcopal Church and she had made many friends. Her obituary was lavished with admiration, “Mrs. Steuben was one of those women who lived to adorn her sex,” and added that her passing was a “loss to society and friends….”

However, life went on for her husband. In addition to serving as express agent, he was active in Visalia civic life, and dabbled in politics, chairing the Tulare County Union Central Committee, the political party of Abraham Lincoln. He served as president of the Visalia Cemetery Association and managed the Sanitary Commission (forerunner of the Red Cross).

He clearly was a leader in the community. In 1864, while he was on a short trip back east, the Delta printed a heart-felt endorsement of the community leader. It wrote, “No man in this community has done more to advance every good project than he. Schools, churches and temperance associations have ever found in him a warm friend who spared neither pains nor purse to assist them. Full of wise counsel, and always ready to impart the results of his experience, any project which meets with his approbation is sure to meet with success. May he journey happily and return speedily. The town cannot spare him long.”

The express company built up an enviable reputation for successful handling of packages and cargo, even though the Wells, Fargo strongbox was a tempting target for road bandits. Despite stringent security, money and gold occasionally were stolen; however, the presence of shotgun-carrying armed guards sitting next to the treasure box was an effective deterrent.

During Steuben’s time as Visalia agent, his son Zane served as his clerk and, by 1867, he was assistant express agent. William was obviously grooming his son to take over. In about 1870, Zane became the express agent, and William left Visalia for Gilroy, where he also became a community leader. Zane was agent for the next 37 years or so, then William E. Steuben, Zane’s son, took over and served for a number of years.

Wells, Fargo as an express company disbanded in about 1920 when the Interstate Commerce Commission moved to consolidate the many express businesses, and the American Railway Express Co. was the result.

For nearly 60 years, the name Steuben was synonymous with Wells, Fargo in Visalia, and the two names will be forever linked.

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