For over 50 years the wealthy Gerstle and Schloss families spent summer retreats at their neighboring San Rafael estates.
Gerstle Memorial Park, a popular recreation area near downtown San Rafael, is named for Lewis and Hannah Gerstle. Lewis Gerstle, born in 1824 in Bavaria, began his life’s adventure in 1845 working as a deckhand on a ship sailing to the United States. Nearly penniless, he scratched out a living as a peddler in Kentucky and Louisiana, before heading to California in 1850, lured by the discovery of gold. He first sold fruit from a stand in San Francisco, and later worked as a day laborer in the mines.
Gerstle’s entrepreneurial spirit led him to operate the first Pony Express in Sacramento, then to open a wholesale grocery business with Louis Schloss, another Bavarian immigrant. The business did well, despite weathering two floods that caused enormous damage. In 1862 the partners moved to San Francisco and opened a brokerage house dealing in mining stocks.
Partners Marry Sisters
Business and friendship led to family ties when the pair married the Greenebaum sisters, who had come as young girls to the United States from Bavaria with their parents. Schloss first married Sarah Greenebaum, and on that positive recommendation, Gerstle married Sarah’s sister Hannah. The Schlosses eventually had six children and the Gerstles seven, forming a huge extended family.
In 1867, the United States bought Alaska from the Russians for $7.2 million, a purchase orchestrated by Secretary of State William H. Seward. The purchase was termed “Seward’s Folly,” but a group of farsighted investors, including Gerstle and Schloss, bought the Russian American Company and renamed it the Alaska Commercial Company. The company opened general stores throughout Alaska that also served as courthouses, post offices and trading posts where gold, fish and furs were exchanged for goods.
In 1870, the company paid the United States nearly $9 million for an exclusive contract to harvest sealskins from the Pribilof and Aleutian islands. Through this contract, which exceeded the United State's purchase of Alaska, Schloss and Gerstle made a vast fortune by supplying dyed sealskins to a worldwide market.
With the 1895 discovery of gold on the Klondike River, the company’s profits increased as it operated stores, steamships, sawmills and other necessary facilities to accommodate the mining boomtowns.
The family’s wealth grew enormously, but money could not buy everything. When Gerstle wished to rent a holiday retreat for his family in Santa Cruz, he was turned away because he was a Jew. Such discrimination was unusual for that time in California, but the incident motivated Gerstle to purchase a spot where he and his family could relax in peace.
In 1881 Gerstle rented a San Rafael property called Violet Terrace for the summer to see if it might fit the family’s needs. The property was located in “Short’s Addition,” named for John and Jacob Short, real estate developers who first surveyed that part of San Rafael.