Eugene Germain: Los Angeles Capitalist, 1847-1909

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The Boom of the 1880s, which burst forth after the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad’s transcontinental line reached Los Angeles mid-decade and which ended about ten years of economic stagnation in the city, included many figures who were key in the growth of the city.  None was more important as Eugene Germain, who, however, is all but forgotten in the annals of greater Los Angeles history.

Germain was born in 1847 in Avenches, Switzerland, near Bern, to a Jewish family and migrated to the United States at age 19 and was in New York for a couple of years until he headed west, arriving in Los Angeles in 1870.  He first operated supply stores along the route of the Southern Pacific railroad, which was becoming dominant in California.

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By the mid-1870s, he worked for the Los Angeles Poultry Market as manager and then started his own grocery business, first with a partner as E. Germain and Co. and then on his own.  Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is an invoice, dated 6 January 1879, from Germain’s groceries and provisions house to the Pico House, the hotel built by the last governor of Mexican California, Pío Pico, in 1869.  The document is for eggs, mackerel and crackers, undoubtedly for the hotel restaurant.  Notably, the vignette includes a sailing ship, perhaps a nod to Germain’s emigration to America.

This invoice from the Homestead’s collection, dated 6 January 1879, is from Germain’s grocery business.  He went into involuntary bankruptcy later that year, but rebounded with the Germain Fruit Company and other businesses and became one of Los Angeles’ wealthiest individuals.

Later in 1879, however, Germain suffered a serious financial reversal and was forced into bankruptcy due to debts he’d incurred.  Since the collapse of California’s economy and that of Los Angeles in the panic of 1875-76, which included the failure of the Temple and Workman bank, times had been tough and Germain was one of many who experienced economic pain.

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An early reference to Germain in business in Los Angeles from the Los Angeles Herald, 30 November 1873.

Yet, he managed to bounce back.  In 1882, he formed the Germain Fruit Company and quickly built the business, which was reorganized early in 1884 into a regional powerhouse, buying fruit from growers in the area and then selling the product in ever-expanding markets over the next fifteen years or so, including national ones.

In fact, in 1884 he and colleagues were criticized for corralling most of the region’s sub-par orange crop that year, which dearth of fruit brought higher prices.  He had packing houses throughout greater Los Angeles, including in Pico Rivera, Santa Ana and Riverside, as well as in Sonoma in Northern California.  He became president of the Los Angeles Fruit Exchange and was a dominant figure in that industry.

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Germain faced bankruptcy during dire economic times, Los Angeles Herald, 15 July 1879.

Germain, however, had many other interests.  He bought large segments of downtown Los Angeles and erected five business buildings throughout the sector, as well as owned much other residential property, including the Hotel Germain which he built on the site of his long-time home and in which he lived until his death.  He was president of the Los Angeles Board of Trade and a vice-president of the powerful Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.

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Herald, 4 January 1884.

In politics, he was a staunch and active Democrat, heading the county committee for the party, serving as a presidential elector, and was a major supporter of Mayor Arthur C. Harper, whose father was an old-time tinware manufacturer when Germain came to Los Angeles.   Harper’s administration turned out to be a disaster and he became the first in city history to be recalled, though Germain remained a supporter to the bitter end.

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Los Angeles Times, 2 November 1893.

Germain also was very busy in a variety of business enterprises including banking, insurance, oil, gold mining and others. He was quite active as a Mason, a member of the International Order of Odd Fellows, the Shriners and in other community organizations.  In 1889, he was appointed by Governor Robert Waterman to be a representative of California to an international exhibition in Paris.

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Times, 23 January 1896.

Four years later, as a loyal Democrat, he was appointed by President Grover Cleveland to be United States Consul in Zurich, Switzerland and served in that capacity for six years, from 1893 to 1899.  During his term there, he scaled back his fruit business enterprise in Los Angeles, though he retained ownership of a fruit and seed company that bore his name.

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A cartoon in a “Representative Men” of Los Angeles series, Herald, 18 May 1908.

After returning to Los Angeles, he put more effort into his political work, including being president of the Los Angeles Democratic Club; his involvement with various businesses; and his expanding real estate portfolio.  Though the Los Angeles Times opposed him politically, it admired his business savvy and success.

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Herald, 8 September 1888.

Other than his bankruptcy, one other notable item in Germain’s portfolio came in 1889 when he was chairman of the Los Angeles Democratic Party committee and a large ad came out under his name for an anti-Chinese rally.  There were many people who held strong feelings against Chinese residents and workers in Los Angeles and the West and Germain’s powerful position as head of the local Democratic Party definitely stands out.

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Times, 21 February 1889.

Germain married Caroline Sievers, whose aunt was married to prominent Los Angeles merchant Harris Newmark, in 1872 and the couple had two sons and two daughters.  His brother, Edward, was the proprietor of the Germain Wine Company, of which the Homestead has in its collection a pint-sized bottle.

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Germain, as president of the Los Angeles Democratic Club, signed a resolution in support of selling bonds for the Los Angeles Aqueduct, completed in 1913, Herald, 24 May 1907.

He was only 60 and still very active when, while his wife was in Switzerland and his sons were in the East Coast, he suddenly fell ill and died of heart failure early in 1909.  Germain’s success was such that it was estimated his estate was worth some $2 million.  Because of claims against the estate and mortgages, his widow and heirs wound up without about half that amount, still a princely sum.

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Times, 19 February 1909.

When it comes to major figures in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Los Angeles, names like Isaias W. Hellman, Harrison Gray Otis, Henry E. Huntington, and others are usually cited.  Yet, Eugene Germain was a key player in the development of the city from the Boom of the Eighties until his death about a quarter century later and has all but been forgotten.

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