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Biographies
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Sacramento County

 

HON. JOSEPH STEFFENS

To some extent a review of the life of Mr. Steffens presents a commercial history of Sacramento during the past forty or more years. In that long era of steadfast development no movement of civic importance lacked the appreciative support of his keen mind. No progressive project, trembling in the balance of civic doubt and indecision, failed to secure the co-operation of his resolute and dauntless spirit. Even his own weighty business enterprises with their long train of attendant responsibilities were not allowed to narrow his influence with their cumulative cares or to lessen the loyalty of his citizenship. Even when he withdrew from commercial enterprises, he did not relinquish his participation in local progress. Always in an unostentatious and unobtrusive but positive manner he was a contributor to the advancement of city, county and commonwealth. Native sons of Sacramento who have reached middle age as citizens of this community cannot recall a time when his name was not familiar to them or when it did not stand for uprightness of character and sincerity of citizenship.

Although a resident of the United States from the period of his earliest recollections, Mr. Steffens was of Canadian birth and parentage and was born in York, province of Ontario, January 15, 1837, being a son of Joseph and Mary A. (Graham) Steffens. As early as 1840 the family removed from Canada to Illinois and settled among the frontier farmers in Carroll county, where they labored diligently to transform a tract of government land into a productive and profitable farm. Into this difficult task every member of the family was called, hence the young lad became familiar with hard work in early life. However, not being naturally robust in health or rugged in constitution, it became evident that he would not be able to engage actively in agriculture. This seemed a misfortune, for in that period of our country's history farming was the principal occupation and was also considered the most profitable. As in many careers what seems a handicap proves a blessing in disguise, so it was with him; the inability to stand the physical strain incident to farming caused him to turn his attention to business and thus his life work allied him with enterprises suited to his tastes, talent and temperament.

After having completed the regular course of study in the Rock River Seminary and the business course of Bell's Commercial College in Chicago, for several terms Mr. Steffens taught school. From 1859 until 1862 he clerked with G. M. Clayton & Brother, of Freeport, Ill., and in that position he gained a thorough knowledge of paints and oils. Meanwhile having heard much concerning the climate and opportunities of California, he resigned his position and during the spring of 1862 started across the plains with Levi Carter, of Stockton. On the 9th of September he arrived in San Francisco. There he became bookkeeper with Fuller & Heather, dealers in paints and oils. Soon demonstrating the value of his services, his original salary of $50 per month was increased from time to time. Upon the consolidation of the firm with Cameron, Whittier & Co., under the title of Whittier, Fuller & Co., he remained with the new concern, which eventually became the leading firm in its line in the west. The stores owned by Fuller & Heather in San Francisco and Sacramento were acquired by their successors and the headquarters of the new firm were established at the corner of Fourth and Pine streets, San Francisco, where the young clerk remained for one year.

Recognition of his remarkable business ability and thorough knowledge of paints and oils caused the officials of the company to appoint Mr. Steffens manager of the Sacramento house in 1869 and to admit him in 1874 as a member of the firm, after which he was placed in control of the financial affairs of the concern in this part of the state. It was largely through his intelligent and intense devotion to the business that the house gained a position second to none in its specialty, and he continued his intimate identification with the developing enterprises until long after the necessity for strenuous labor had ceased. Meantime he had attained prominence in the citizenship of Sacramento. In December of 1882, he was elected president of the Sacramento Board of Trade and in that office he had charge of the publication of the annual reviews. These he com- piled and edited, thus giving permanent form to statistics of great value. When the board was merged into the Chamber of Commerce he continued to serve as president and his resignation in 1904 ended a long and honorable service as the head of a most important organization. As a member of the Sacramento Improvement Association and as a director of the California Museum Association he was closely connected with two important enterprises of great value to the community. For a number of years he acted as a member of the board of directors of the state hospital at Stockton and his resignation deprived the directorate of one of its most helpful members. After he had resigned all other positions, he still consented, however, to serve as a director of the California State Bank of Sacramento and made that institution his business headquarters.

With the exception of casting a Republican ballot at all elections Mr. Steffens was strenuously opposed to any participation in politics. The uncertainties and vexations of partisan affairs repelled him, presenting as they did an unattractive contrast to commercial enterprises. Although he kept posted concerning national problems, he declined any offers of nominations for himself with steadfast persistence and the only time when his fellow-citizens prevailed upon him to become a candidate was in 1884, when he permitted the party leaders to nominate him for mayor on the Republican ticket. Although not a politician he possessed gifts as a public speaker and writer, but preferred to devote these addresses and writings to other matters than politics. When the last spike was driven at Ashland, Ore., he delivered the address of the occasion, as he did also at Placerville on the completion of the Southern Pacific Railway. At the Margaret E. Crocker flower festival he was also the principal orator. His series of letters to the Record-Union during his journey of twelve thousand miles through the United States attracted wide attention and many of the predictions as to the future of the country which he then made have become a reality, indicating the accuracy of his forecasts.

The marriage of Mr. Steffens and Miss E. Louisa Symes, of Hobo ken, N. J., was solemnized in San Francisco January 15, 1865. Their only son, Lincoln Steffens, is one of the most prominent writers in the entire country and through his articles on municipal corruption and state governments, his name has become a household word. The three daughters are : Louise, the wife of A. H. Suggett, of San Francisco ; Lottie, the wife of J. J. Hollister, of Santa Barbara county; and Laura, who is an assistant in the State Library. Mr. Steffens' demise occurred January 31, 1912, his wife having passed away August 15, 1910. Thus Sacramento was bereft of another of her useful citizens and upbuilders. 


Source:
History of Sacramento County, California
Biographical Sketches of The Leading Men and Women of the County Who Have Been Identified With Its Growth and Development from the Early Days to the Present
History By: William L. Willis
Historic Record Company, Los Angeles, California (1913)

Transcribed by Peggy Hooper 2011