Friday, January 25, 2019

Millionaire Banker, Business Leader, and Developer John Vollmer [otd 01/25]

John P. Vollmer, ca. 1875.
Vollmer Family Archives.
Wealthy developer John P. Vollmer was born on January 25, 1847, in Wurtemburg, Germany. The family emigrated to the U.S. when John was about four years old, settling in Louisville, Kentucky. From there, in 1855, they moved to Indianapolis, Indiana.

After some years in a German-speaking private school, Vollmer attended the Indianapolis college that is now Butler University.

During the Civil War, he saw action as an under-age soldier serving a brief stint in an Indiana Volunteer regiment.  After a short span as an apprentice clerk in a small retail business, he went to work for a large book company in Indianapolis. He spent several years there, advancing to a Chief Clerk's position.

Looking for greater opportunities, Vollmer relocated to Walla Walla, Washington in 1868. There, he managed a distillery producing “high wine” – a clear 100-120 proof alcoholic beverage, suitable for aging or infusing with other flavor elements.

John P. moved to Lewiston in 1870 and opened a grocery and wholesale liquor business. Three years later his growing temperance convictions led him to quit selling liquor, but he soon greatly expanded the mercantile side. He operated a wide range of enterprises that eventually owned over a score of outlets in various Idaho towns as well as in Washington state.

Vollmer initiated or backed many progressive improvements in the region, including: the first north Idaho telegraph line, telephone service four years later, and the Lewiston Water and Light Company. Other developments included several major irrigation systems, and construction of a “conservatively estimated” mile’s worth of Lewiston buildings. He was also a Trustee of the Lewiston State Normal School.

He had affiliations with steamboat and railway companies, and led the organization of substantial banks in Lewiston, Grangeville, and Genesee. Through the banks, and by direct investment, he owned many thousands of acres of prime farm land, said to require “two hundred and forty-eight miles of fencing.”

Since Vollmer acquired much of his acreage via foreclosures, he was not universally admired. The Illustrated History of North Idaho stated that Vollmer had “as few enemies probably, as any man living, of his active, agressive [sic] temperament and extensive business interests.”

That statement is a considerable departure from what subscription histories of that period normally said in their biographies. Almost invariably they praised a pioneer’s “excellent qualities” and noted that the person was “highly esteemed by all.” (The exact words varied, but not the fulsome sentiment.) Whatever the balance of friends and enemies, it is a fact that his name appeared frequently in news reports about ongoing litigation.
Vollmer Mansion, Lewiston. Vollmer Family archives.
Still, while he was clearly seen as a hard-headed man of business, Vollmer seems to have had a more enlightened side – absent from many of the “robber barons” of his day. Thus, he and his wife were known for their literary interests, and their home was considered a center of Lewiston refinement and gentility. His various biographers always saw fit to mention “his fine private library.” Also, John’s wife, and then daughter, acted as hostesses in the Idaho Building at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.

In 1914, people around the state, and beyond, urged him to run for Idaho Governor on the Progressive Party ticket. Although tempted, Vollmer, who was then 67 years old, withdrew from consideration because, he said (Idaho Statesman, April 14, 1914), “My physician advises me that a campaign might endanger my health.”

He passed away in 1917.
References: [French], [Illust-North], [Illust-State]
“[World's Fair, Idaho Building],” Idaho Statesman, Boise (May 12, July 29, 1904).


  1. Vollmer is also noted as being the namesake for two Idaho towns - both now under different names: Troy (after 1893) and Craigmont (after 1920).

  2. As a land agent for the railroad, Vollmer had many opportunities to name towns for himself ... and did so. The blog text perhaps overly downplays just how much just Vollmer was despised in some quarters.