Truckees business women: Strong enough to match the mountains
October 9, 2007
Think of Truckee history and its women and you automatically think of dance hall girls and prostitutes, of fighting and of death. Theres more to the story than that. There were a few outstanding women who ran businesses on a scale that awed the towns businessmen.Sure, there were successful women working in the dark on Jibboom or Back Street, as it was often referred to, serving the human desires of the multitude of working men, but there were far more successful women doing business on the sunny Front Street, and holding their heads high and proud.In the 1870s, the stores that women owned were mostly womens clothing stores, such as Mrs. Heymanns Millinery, that featured the latest fashions straight from New York or Paris. More importantly, the intimate and private apparel and beauty items could be examined out of sight of prying male eyes. Other women ran boarding houses, did laundry, or cooked meals for hungry workingmen. Those women not in business kept a busy life at home doing chores, raising children and trying to keep the morals of the barely tamed town in line.
Until 1880, there werent any women running any of the major stores or businesses in Truckee, but that was about to change. In a pattern that would repeat itself many times in Truckee, a woman took over her husbands business after his untimely death, and made a great success of it, of course.Fred Burckhalter was one of Truckees founders, building a banking and general store business upon the arrival of the Central Pacific Railroad in 1869. He soon added a 32-room boarding house, housed in a fine fire resistant stone building. After three fires leveled Burckhalters buildings and Truckee in 1871, he added a fire insurance agency to his business portfolio.Burckhalter added investments and partnerships in staging, freighting and warehousing, real estate sales, and of course the primary Truckee industry lumber production. By 1877 Fred Burckhalter was on top of the world. But on May 30, he was thrown from a carriage, dislocated his shoulder, and suffered untold internal injuries. After three years of deteriorating health, Fred Burckhalter died in April of 1880.During those three years, Freds wife Mary began to take over the daily operation of the varied businesses, and in the process, building the finest house in Truckee. This house, fondly called Sunnyside, on Keiser Street in the Burckhalter addition, had three stories and overlooked busy Truckee. The lumber for this spacious house came from the Burckhalters own lumber company, the Pacific Wood & Lumber Company, located on the Truckee River east of Boca, across the river from present day Hirschdale. Freds contribution to the operation was the construction of a logging railroad, possibly the first rail logging in the Sierra.By 1878 the Burckhalters had become the majority owners, and after 1880, Mary continued to operate the sawmill operation just as Fred had done. The sawmill was one of the larger ones on the Truckee River, selling about 7 million board feet a year. Even when fire destroyed the mill buildings in 1879, Mary Burckhalter readily agreed to rebuild the mill and continue on with the business.After Fred Burckhalter died, Mary hired experienced managers to run the lumber company, including the narrow gauge logging railroad that was extended yearly up Juniper Creek. When the timber ran out in the early 1890s, Mary Burckhalter worked out a deal with the Truckee Lumber company, where the railroad was taken up and relaid in a new location. The new railroad ran from the east branch of Martis Creek into Truckee, where the locomotives dumped off logs at the Truckee Lumber Company log ponds. While the lumber company continued its extensive operations, Mary Burckhalter ran her empire from her Front Street general store. Despite being burned out in 1881 and 1882, when fires again leveled most of Truckee, she rebuilt her store and other buildings, and continued on with her life.
Even while keeping up with the fast-paced business world Mary still managed to finish raising her five children. She was greatly helped by her son Walter, who grew to be the man of the house and family at a young age, but always under Marys firm control.Mary wasnt your average Truckee housewife of the era. She was born Mary Hasty in Portland, Maine, and had an advantage by attending old Boston Academy, the highest education available to women. On the social side, she was founding member of a variety of Truckee womens clubs, including Naomi Rebekah Lodge, Order of Eastern Star, and Womens Relief Corps.Her life philosophy do unto others as you would have them do to you had even the toughest businessman leaving smiling at Marys affectionate and kind ways, even after she had gotten the better end of a business deal.Mary continued to run the general store, insurance business and a private merchants bank through the 1880s and 90s, and in early 1901 added the post office contract to her store. By then her son Walter had taken over daily management of the various businesses, and was Truckee postmaster for two years.Mary Burckhalter died on Dec. 14, 1901 during one of Truckees epidemics of severe colds and pneumonia, and within two years, Walter sold the store, the remaining timberland and wrapped up the familys business in Truckee.
Joe Lee Lewis moved his family to Truckee in about 1891, following his promotion and transfer by the Southern Pacific Railroad. His wife, Mary, was no stranger to Truckee, as her father, George Geisendorfer, had operated a sawmill near Truckee in the boom period during and after the Central Pacific Railroad in 1868. She was born and grew up down the tracks near Colfax, but didnt have the advantage of a high level education.Joe Lewis Sr. died in 1903, leaving Mary Lewis a widow with one son, Joe Lewis, Jr., and two daughters, all in their teens, to raise. Mary could have moved back home near Colfax and her family, as she was urged to do, but she chose to stay and make a place for herself in Truckee. Mary Lewis bought a failing candy store within a few months of becoming a widow, and set to work to improve it. She added more candy, an up-to-date soda fountain, tobacco for her male customers, and ice cream in the summer. She held herself, her employees and her customers to an exacting high standard, and in time she became known as Mom Lewis.By 1907 she had taken over a new expanded store location, in Mary Burckhalters old store, taking advantage of others hard times, added the post office contract, and started selling new items. She sold post cards and the brand new Kodak photographic cameras. She had solar fans and lights, and was always looking for modern improvements. Mary was helped along by her son, Joe Lewis, Jr., who when not pursuing his hobbies of fishing, hunting, raising dogs, fishing some more, and photography, assisted his mother in the store. By 1910, Mrs. M.D. Lewiss Post Office Store, which was now a true general store, was one of the most successful stores in Truckee. In 1913 she sold it to her son, Joe, who continued the stores success, but still didnt retire. She opened a new small candy store down the street, but failing health forced her to close it up after a few seasons.Ironically, when Joe Lewis died in 1928, his widow, Hazel Lewis, ran the store herself for decade before retiring.There were more strong businesswoman as time passed, led by the examples of Mary Burckhalter and Mary Lewis. As today, Truckee was never really just a mans town.Gordon Richards is the historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society Web site at http://truckeehistory.tripod.com. Past articles by Gordon Richards are available at sierrasun.com in the archives. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.