In 1863, California's Rabbit Creek was gold country. The Auerbach brothers, German Jewish immigrants from Prussia, ran a mercantile shop there for gold miners. They set their sights on Utah. But first, Frederick, Theodore and 16-year-old Samuel had to face the vicissitudes unique to Western lore.
Rabbit Creek was the trading headquarters for thousands of gold-struck miners within a 20-mile radius from Marysville and Poker Flat to Brandy City and American House. Gold yields escalated into the millions, and robberies along the major stagecoach route were common.
The Auerbach main store in Rabbit Creek was also the gathering place for many prominent miners, businessmen and freighters. Frederick often helped the men with business dealings and trade. His acumen earned their trust. Many left their gold dust, nuggets and bullion with him for safekeeping.
Strong and adventurous, Theodore rode a large mule with a Mexican-style saddle to transport gold dust from Port Wine to Rabbit Creek. He secured a safe box in front of him with pistols strapped on each side. On some occasions he was accompanied by guards rough men armed with sawed-off rifles.
"Paper money was frequently used but was not worth face value," Samuel recorded in unpublished memoirs. "Gold dust was current. Every merchant had a pair of scales sitting on the counter. A pinch of gold dust as much as could be held between the thumb and index finger was worth two bits, or 25 cents."
Auerbach's carried a general line of dry goods from clothing and mining supplies to blankets, drugs, and snowshoes. Come winter in Rabbit Creek, miners from miles around would compete in snowshoe speed racing. They packed hotels, gambling halls and saloons. Excitement ran high, liquor flowed, bets were made, and merchants prospered.
"But storing large amounts of treasure in our safe always gave me apprehension," Samuel wrote.
One night after minding the store his brothers were away on business Samuel fell asleep in the back of the shop. Awakened by noises, he saw two intruders and the barrel of a pistol pointed at him.
"The size of a cannon," he wrote, "blacker and deeper than I had ever imagined a pistol could be. The men appeared to be 8 feet tall."
Ordered to open the safe, Samuel pleaded ignorance. "I told them I didn't know the combination. That my brother would never trust anyone with it," he wrote. "They threatened to shoot me. They cursed profusely. Tied my feet and hands. Fastened a bandana handkerchief across my mouth. And started drilling the safe door for what seemed like hours."
It was actually mere minutes.
"A group of late home-goers stopped to talk near the store entrance where we kept a lantern burning all night," Samuel explained. Fearful of detection, the safecrackers dropped what they were doing and fled.
Samuel wriggled free and found the sheriff. An investigation ensued. The men were never found. It was days before Samuel could get a good night's sleep.
Almost simultaneously, the Auerbachs opened a series of stores. They sold merchandise on commission throughout the Western states, including Virginia City and Helena, Mont., and Fort Bridger in Utah. They grubstaked miners, held mining interests, purchased a sawmill and a 30-pack mule train.
"Some investments were disastrous from a financial standpoint," Samuel wrote. "But they carried with them a heap of education and valuable experience, which in later life was of great benefit to us."
In 1864, the Auerbachs left the California gold fields for Utah.
"We accounted for our losses, paid our bills and established our credit and reputation," Samuel wrote. "Fred drove a mountain schooner to Great Salt Lake City in March and upon arriving was favorably impressed."
Self-taught and articulate in English, the pioneer merchant brothers, who developed one of the first department stores in the West, were not only primed for Utah but also prepared to take on the myriad challenges ahead.
Eileen Hallet Stone, history columnist, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her book, "Hidden History of Utah," a compilation of Salt Lake Tribune columns, is now available at your local bookstore, online, or at the library. Â
Second in a series
This is the second in a three-part series by historian Eileen Hallet Stone on the Auerbach brothers, who started one of America's first department stores in downtown Salt Lake City. Read the first story at http://www.sltrib.com.