Gerstle and Sloss: A Deeper Look
1000 Years of History
The history of the Gerstle family has been traced back almost one thousand years, to a mass migration of Jews from Italy to Southern Germany by way of the ancient Roman military highway. The Gerstles lived in Ichenhausen, a small Bavarian town, from at least 1538. The earliest identifiable ancestor of Lewis Gerstle was his grandfather, Abraham Gerstle who was born at Ichenhausen in 1740 and died in 1796. Lewis Gerstle’s father Isak Michael was born in 1787 and died in 1848. Isak Michael’s second son and fifth child, Lob (or Lewis as he called himself after his arrival in America) was born in 1824. He had two brothers and four sisters. The Gerstle family observed the Orthodox rituals throughout their lives in Germany though almost all of those who emigrated to America or England either joined Reform congregations or chose not to maintain any formal religious affiliations.
Lob, or Lewis, the founder of the San Francisco branch of the family, is said to have supported himself in his early youth by traveling through the Bavarian Alps, carrying on his back a knapsack containing the wares he peddled from village to village. He emigrated to the United States around 1842 just after his seventeenth birthday. He was not the first member of the Gerstles to emigrate to America.
Arrival In America
The first was Abraham, Isak Michael’s eldest son who settled in Louisville, Kentucky. Abraham became partners with Moses Schwabaker in the Louisville firm of Gerstle and Schwabaker, Tobacconists. Sometime before 1866, he abandoned the tobacco trade for the wholesale drygoods business and acquired a new partner, his son-in-law Sigmund Sternau. Abraham Gerstle was a scholar, a contributor to many charities, deeply respected, and greatly loved in his community.
Hannah Gerstle was the youngest child of Jacob and Karoline Greenebaum of Munchweiler, and then Kaiserslautern, Germany. She came to America, specifically Philadelphia, with her father and three of her siblings in 1847, after the previous emigration of three of the older Greenebaum brothers. Her mother Karoline had died in 1841. The brothers went to Mississippi, Philadelphia and then to Chicago where they were involved in the dry goods and clothing business, as well as shoemaking. After a brief period in the rough frontier outpost of Chicago at that time, it was decided that the two youngest girls, Hannah, and Sarah, should be raised in Philadelphia by Marcus and Bella Cauffman, friends of the family. They lived with the Cauffmans until they married and moved to California.
The frenzy initiated by the discovery of gold out west inspired the Greenebaum brothers to join the thousands of others in search of fabulous wealth, but they prudently decided to carry on with their mercantile careers: Leon in San Francisco with Taafe & McCahill, and Herman in San Jose. Taafe & McCahill was destroyed by the fire of 1851; Leon was killed as well as three associates in the company. Herman left San Jose and went to Sacramento. He and his brothers Moses, Jacob and Abraham Greenebaum were successful entrepreneurs there, listed in the Sacramento directory as “importers and dealers in domestic clothing” and, in the case of Abraham, as a tobacconist.
For a few years, all the Greenebaum brothers and sisters were united in Sacramento. Sarah arrived in 1855 as the bride of Louis Sloss, and Hannah followed in 1858 after her marriage to Lewis Gerstle. Eventually the Greenebaum brothers Herman, Jacob and Moses relocated to San Francisco and New York with a business emphasis on dry goods, clothing, men’s furnishings and later, blankets and towels.
From the time that Lewis Gerstle arrived in Louisville in 1842, until the time he set out for California in 1850, he worked at a variety of jobs. Some sources allege he started his business career as a peddler; others say he worked in his brother Abraham’s tobacco shop. He may have moved in 1849 to New Orleans, and it was probably from there that he sailed to San Francisco in the spring of 1850, by way of the Isthmus of Panama. It was from Panama that an assortment of steamers supplemented by a few sailing vessels conveyed goldseekers to San Francisco. Gerstle was delayed in Panama by what was probably malaria, referred to then as “Chagres fever.” After reaching his destination, he led a rough existence selling apples and working for a short time as a prospector before drifting down to Sacramento where he became a member of the firm Louis Sloss & Company, dealing in groceries, hardware, clothing, and household wares. Sacramento was then the chief supply center for the mining districts. Sloss & Company was increasingly successful in volume and profits, eventually converting to a wholesale firm trading in groceries and provisions. (“Lewis and Hannah Gerstle.” Gerstle Mack, 1953.)
The Origins of a Great Partnership
Ebullient, gregarious, and imaginative, Louis Sloss was always quick to interest himself in a new business prospect. Fortunately, he was linked in close partnership with a man of similar background but different temperament - the quiet, reserved Lewis Gerstle. There were family ties, too, for the two men had married sisters. Sloss was more likely to appear as the traveler and negotiator, and Gerstle as the draftsman of carefully phrased letters; in either case, one was speaking for both.
Sloss was born in 1823 to a Jewish family in Untereisenheim, Bavaria, Germany. In 1845, he emigrated to Kentucky where his brother Abraham lived but soon set out for California with two friends, Dr. Richard McDonald, and C.H. Swift. They reached Sacramento in July 1849 during the California Gold Rush, where in a space seven feet wide, they set up shop under a canvas tarpaulin, bottling liquor, weighing gold dust, trading in livestock, and selling harness and mining supplies. Ninety percent of their capital was supplied by Swift with Sloss acting as auctioneer. During the first winter, their investment was destroyed by floodwaters and the partnership broke up. In 1850, Sloss met another immigrant, Simon Greenewald, and together they opened a small general store. Lewis Gerstle became associated with this enterprise in 1851.
The Intertwining of Two Families
It is likely that Sloss and Gerstle already knew each other in Louisville as their two older brothers, both named Abraham, two Bavarian Jews in a small American city, were engaged there in similar businesses only three blocks apart. Also, it wouldn’t be surprising that later in Sacramento, Lewis Gerstle and Louis Sloss would have known the Greenebaum brothers. It appears that when Sloss went to Philadelphia on a buying trip he was supplied with letters of introduction from the Greenebaum brothers to their younger sisters, Sarah and Hannah, and to the sisters’ foster parents, the Cauffmans. As it turned out Louis Sloss married Sarah in 1855, and Lewis Gerstle, who had boarded with the Sloss family in Sacramento, met, fell in love with, and married Hannah in Philadelphia. The two couples returned to Sacramento and lived near each other. Though business was good in the rich and rapidly growing community, the Gerstles, the Slosses, the Greenwalds, and the Greenebaums made their way to San Francisco following the disastrous floods of 1861-1862 in Sacramento. There, Sloss and Gerstle worked as stockbrokers.
In 1868, after the cession of Alaska from Russia, Sloss and Gerstle and others, formed the Alaska Commercial Company and in 1870, won a 20-year lease to harvest seals in the Pribylov Islands. They expanded their retail activities to village stores in Alaska where natives could trade gold, fish, and furs for dry goods. The company eventually paid more in fees to the United States' Treasury than the United States paid to purchase Alaska.
Sloss served on the Board of Regents of the University of California and was a trustee of the San Francisco Public Library. He served as president of Congregation B'nai Israel in Sacramento. When the Society of California Pioneers was organized, Sloss was a founding member and served a term as its president. When he passed away in 1902, a local newspaper referred to him as California’s “best citizen. His reputation for business ethics, personal morality and philanthropy was without equal.”