Street Peddler to Tycoon,
The Story of Leon Blum
By Jerry Adams
Copyright ã 2001
LEON & H. BLUM / GALVESTON / TEXAS
Vulcanite (black) - round - 31 mm diameter (circa: 1870-1882) estimated value in XF: $450, possibly used as a drayage token. (H. Blum was Hyman Blum, Leon’s cousin) (listed in the Second Supplement to the Trade Tokens of Texas by William Fowler and John Ribbe, TAMS journal,1984)
When researching the history of early American business tokens I am always amazed at how many of these tokens were issued by men who came to this land in poverty, worked hard and ended up as a man of property and wealth. In the process, many of these pioneer immigrants left their names on buildings and towns across the American frontier. This is the story of one such man, and his success in the land of liberty and free enterprise.
The firm of Leon & H. Blum was a large wholesaler of merchandise in Galveston, Texas in the 1870’s. Leon Blum as born in France, and died in Galveston, Texas.
In the town of Gundescholffer, province of Alsace, France a successful businessman named Isaac Blum and his wife Julie became the parents of Leon Blum in 1836. Leon had an older brother named Alexander, and another brother named Sylvain. Leon attended the Ecole de Travail at Strasburg for several years, where he studied and apprenticed as a tin-smith. Leon’s older brother Alexander immigrated to America and settled in St. Landry’s Parish, Louisiana. Alexander worked as a peddler selling staples to the people of the area, and became quite successful. He wrote glowing letters back home to his family. Young Leon was impressed with the success of his older brother and decided to join him in America when he was old enough. That time came when Leon was 15 years old; he sailed across the Atlantic and arrived in the port of New Orleans in February 1852.
Alexander met Leon and took him home in St. Landry’s Parish. Alexander set up young Leon with a stock of merchandise and Leon became a walking peddler. He sold his items from a push cart. Many of the locals were of French ancestry so the language was not a problem. Leon was a friendly lad and he learned the local customs, and the names of people, which made him a quick hit as a peddler. Soon he owned his own horse, which made his work easier. The horse also allowed him to expand the area he covered. After only 18 months, Leon had been so successful that he formed a partnership with Felix Halff, whom he had known from childhood in France. Halff and Blum began general merchandising in Grand Coteau, St. Landry’s Parish, and had a profitable business. Leon lasted 18 months in he partnership with Halff and then parted ways with him, not because of any personal disagreement, but in order to join is older brother.
Meanwhile Alexander Blum had moved to Texas where he set up a merchandising business in the town of Richmond. Through Alexander’s enterprise and experience, he became the leading merchant at that time in the thriving town of Richmond. When Leo Blum parted company with Mr. Halff, he did so to move to Richmond, Texas and join the company his older brother had founded there. Leon worked in his brother’s merchandise store as a clerk, where he excelled. After a few years in that position, his brother brought him in as a partner. The firm then took the name of A. Blum & Bro.
THE CIVIL WAR:
By 1858 the firm of A. Blum & Brother opened a retail merchandise store in Galveston, Texas which was then a booming port city. Their store was in a frame building at the southeast corner of Avenue D and Tremont Streets. Alexander took charge of the Galveston store, leaving Leon in charge of he Richmond store. About 1860, the brothers decided to close the Richmond store and consolidate their efforts in the profitable Galveston store. Their business there was booming, with expanding markets when the Civil War broke out. The economic downturn that accompanied the Civil War forced the brothers to sell out their stock, and remove their business and selves to the south Texas town of Brownsville, just across the river from Mexico. In Brownsville the two brothers opened a business buying cotton (the cash crop in Texas at the time) and selling the cotton for export through the Mexican town of Matamoras, to merchants in Britain and Europe. They also sold staple goods as regular merchants and blended the two businesses. When Yankee troops landed at Bagdad, Texas and started to move on the town of Brownsville, the Blum brothers heard of this and moved their business across the river to Matamoras. About this time, two cousins, Hyman and Joseph Blum and Leon’s brother Sylvain Blum joined the business. About 1863 the business name was changed to H. Blum and Co. Leon Blum married a Miss Henrietta Levy of CorpusChristi, Texas in 1862. The couple had two children.
By the fall of 1865, with the closing of hostilities of the Civil War, brothers Leon and Sylvain returned their business to the port of Galveston. The times where changing and the way business was conducted had changed. This time the brothers saw the future as wholesalers, rather than retailers; also including the lessons they had learned selling cotton for export to Europe, they formed a large wholesale grocer and cotton business. The economy of the South was in full recession following the civil war, and federal troops and carpet baggers where everywhere in the port city. The Blum brothers survived the economic downturn, even making money, due to their business savy. By 1865 the business was called L. & H. Blum and did $150,000 worth of business. This increased to over one million dollars of business by 1870. The brothers motto was: “quick sales and small profits” and it seemed to work.
In 1869 Alexander Blum moved to New York and opened a wholesale business there. Eventually they had offices in New York City, Boston and Paris, France as well as the headquarters in Galveston. The Paris, France office was on the Boulevard Haussman. By 1887 the company of Leon & H. Blum employed 125 clerks and 30 traveling salesmen.
Three family members who were buyers for the company died in 1870 on the steamship “Varuna”, they were Leon’s cousins Hyman Blum, Joseph Blum and C. Blum (possibly another cousin). They were returning from a buying trip to New York when the ship was lost. Despite this tragic loss, the business continued to flourish and in 1870, Alexander and Leon built a new warehouse in Galveston at the northeast corner of Strand and Twenty-second streets.
This building lasted only 7 years before it was burnt to the ground in 1877. When he learned of the burning, Leon set about to acquire new warehouse space and buy up the merchandise he would need to serve his customers; leaving the burnt building and contents in the hands of insurance adjusters. He was evidently unflappable. A new fireproof brick Blum Building was built in 1879 which occupied 90,000 square feet in what is not the Strand Historic District of Galveston. The architect for this massive block long building was Eugene T. Heiner, who also designed the Houston Cotton Exchange and Galveston’s Stewart Title Buildings. Famed Galveston architect Nicholas J. Clayton also had a hand in the design. The new Blum Building featured two hydraulic elevators, offices finished in cypress, and light entering the building on three sides. Some of the Blum brothers competitors in the wholesale business in Galveston at the time were Kauffman and Runge, both German immigrants. Wholesale dry goods merchants dealt mainly in staple and fancy dry goods, liquors, woodenware, hats, boots, shoes, and notions.
ALEXANDER RETURNS TO EUROPE:
The eldest brother Alexander returned to Europe in retirement, sometime prior to 1878, leaving Leon as the managing partner of the business. Leon was also involved in many civic activities and other business pursuits. In 1874 he had a role in the organization of the (Galveston) Peoples’ Street Railway and was president of that company until it merged with the City Street Railway. Leo was instrumental in the construction of the famed Tremont Hotel of Galveston, which in it’s heyday hosted six presidents, Sam Houston and Buffalo Bill Cody. The Galveston Cotton Exchange Building (1877-78) also was a result of his backing.
Galveston, Texas Blum Building
Mr. & Mrs. Leon Blum lived on Broadway Street in Galveston in a large elegant mansion. Mrs. Blum died in 1876. Leon Blum’s business “Leon & H. Blum” was a stockholder in the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway, and the Texas town of Blum (in Hill County and on the railway) is name for him. The firm of Leo and H. Blum finally failed in the financial panics of the 1890s, and subsequent efforts to revive the firm failed. The company stock and assets were sold to the Mistrot brothers in 1896 and the enterprise closed in 1908.
The 1879 Blum Building in the Strand district of Galveston was used for over 40 years as the home of the Galveston Tribune newspaper. In 1984 the Renaissance style structure with a block long arcade and stately masonry piers was restored by Houston’s Mitchell Energy and Development Company as the (New) Tremont Hotel, named after Galveston’s original Tremont Hotel. The new hotel is carved from the old dry goods warehouse and contains 120 rooms, a four story skylight capped atrium, guest rooms with French doors opening onto ornate cast iron balconies, and an antique bar! The architect for the 1984 restoration was Ford, Powell & Carson of San Antonio.
Leon Blum was also the president of Blum Land Company and he contributed to the Bayland Orphans’ Home for Boys and to various other schools. Leon Blum died at Galveston, Texas on April 28, 1906 and is buried there in the Hebrew Cemetery.
The 1870 Texas Bradstreet lists L. & H. Blum as wholesale dry goods in Galveston. The 1876 Texas Bradstreet lists Leon & H. Blum as wholesale dry goods in Galveston; and the 1886 Dunn lists Leon & H. Blum, Imps. Wholesale dry goods.
“History of the Island and the City of Galveston” by Charles W. Hayes; “The Handbook of Texas” by the Texas State Historical Society”; various newspaper articles.
This is a photo of my Leon & H. Blum vulcanite token obverse, as you can see it is worn and very low relief, therefore hard to photograph. The color appears to be brown, rather than black due to exposure to fire.
update: 22 july 2002