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Living History: Auerbach brothers were outsiders who became a Salt Lake institution

Published November 25, 2013 9:34 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Following in the footsteps of his brothers Frederick and Theodore, Samuel Auerbach left California's gold fields in 1865 for Salt Lake City where he was greeted by a mud wall fringing the city, another family store, and a view that profoundly stirred him.

Designed in 1853 with auxiliary gates and bastions, the city's bulky fortification was meant to surround 16 miles of territory — but stopped short at six miles — to protect folks from potential marauders.

"The wall was broken in many places," Samuel wrote in unpublished memoirs. "But when we passed beyond it into the sacred city, never did I behold a more beautiful or welcome sight."

Samuel recalled "streams of crystal clear mountain water rippling down ditches alongside the sidewalks," planks that bridged ditches and "stoops that assisted ladies alighting from carriages, buggies, or wagons." The 132-feet-wide dirt-packed streets raised dust in dry seasons, bogged down when wet and accommodated oxen teams and covered wagons turning around without causing mayhem.

"It left a vivid impression upon my mind," Samuel wrote.

Traveling by mule train and a mountain schooner filled with merchandise, Frederick arrived earlier in 1864 looking for shop space. He became acquainted with Brigham Young, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and with his help leased a small adobe cabin on the west side of Main Street. Frederick repaid the Mormon leader's generosity by contributing an entire stock of much-needed medicine to an ailing congregation.

The brothers reinvested in their store, moved to larger accommodations and built the formidable retail establishment, F. Auerbach & Bro. They worked predawn hours to midnight and carried a mixed stock of goods from hardware, fare and furnishings to hoop skirts. They traded in furs and hides, sold gourmet salt in signature bags, and cornered a market by marking down calico yardage from 80 cents to 50 cents. Outside the store, they displayed modern tin bathtubs long before there was plumbing, and hung "produce" signs for teamsters seeking consignments for westward destinations.

"When out-of-town customers came in, it was customary to permit them to sleep in the store aisles or on the counters," Samuel wrote. "Wearing boots and clothing, they'd sleep in blankets taken out of the stock for the night and returned after they had risen."

Business was rarely accomplished with cash. "It was mostly charge, due-bill, or barter," Samuel explained. "I remember Fred impressing upon a clerk to 'make out a charge, even if the store is burning!' "

From the start, Frederick and Brigham Young formed a lasting friendship that endured the bitter struggle between Mormons and Gentiles and the dreadful 1866-1869 boycott sanctioned by LDS Church officials that threatened the future of Gentile-owned businesses.

Some LDS leaders perceived increasing numbers of non-Mormons in the Utah Territory as a threat to Mormon autonomy. They adopted a resolution pledging its members be self-sustaining and shop only at LDS-sanctioned stores.

After the murder of two non-Mormons — an ex-Army chaplain married to an apostate's daughter and a doctor who managed a non-LDS Sunday school — Gentile merchants were overwhelmed with concerns about business and personal safety. Some felt forced to carry guns; backed to the wall, some fled the territory; most moved to the booming Gentile city of Corinne in northern Utah.

The brothers operated branch stores throughout the state including Corinne and Promontory. They purchased real estate and invested in other holdings. They also eliminated their logo from boxes and bags so no one could trace orders back to their store.

"Loyal Mormon customers, threatened with excommunication, shopped secretly at night by way of the back entrance because they dared not be seen," Samuel wrote.

Challenging the prevailing adversity, F. Auerbach & Bro. became one of the oldest department stores in the West. Only after 120 years did the doors finally shut, leaving fond memories for those fortunate to have shopped at Auerbach's on the corner of State Street and 300 South.

Eileen Hallet Stone, history columnist, may be reached at ehswriter@aol.com and would appreciate hearing personal "Auerbach" stories. Her book "Hidden History of Utah," a collection of her Tribune columns, is now at local bookstores and libraries. —

Last of a three-part series

This is the finale 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 earlier installments at http://www.sltrib.com.