Pioneer Profile – August 2015

Cornelius C. Beekman was arguably the wealthiest and most prominent of the pioneers who settled Jacksonville. Although most closely associated today with banking and the bank that bears his name, banking was only one of his many enterprises.

Early in his career, after saving $3,000, Beekman looked for other investment opportunities. On one of his trips to San Francisco he sought advice from the officers at Wells Fargo. When asked if he had tried to buy Jackson County warrants, Beekman responded, “Oh, yes. I can buy any quantity of them, but they are no good and are selling as low as sixty-five or seventy-five cents on the dollar.” When asked what interest they paid, Beekman replied, “Eight percent.”

The Wells Fargo officer reportedly replied, “Man, go back to Jacksonville with your $3,000 and buy all the Jackson County warrants you can get, and what you can’t handle, buy for us. Don’t you know that the whole of Jackson County is security for those warrants?”

In issuing warrants, Jackson County committed itself to redeeming the warrants with land if tax monies were not available. In this way, by loaning cash secured by land, Beekman acquired a large amount of real estate, including farm land, orchards, and many properties in downtown Jacksonville. Beekman later called his investment in Jackson County warrants the best “Gold Mine in Southern Oregon.” Even better, “the other fellows do the digging”!

Although the warrants may have proved to be Beekman’s most lucrative gold mine and he never returned to his earlier mining “career” (see “Pioneer Profiles” in the July 2015 issue of Jacksonville Review), he did invest in many mining properties including what later became the fabled Opp Mine.

Beekman also took advantage of small scale business opportunities. He sold textbooks and stationery out of the bank. He also sold fire insurance, possibly prompted by the numerous fires that destroyed parts of downtown Jacksonville. In fact, Beekman’s Bank is the only original wooden building on California Street to survive the fires.

However, banking appears to have been the enterprise closest to his heart. Although in many ways Beekman’s Bank did not advance beyond the somewhat primitive banking arrangements he instituted in the 1850s, he did eventually permit the use of checks and offer such services as foreign drafts and letters of credit. The bank weathered every national financial crisis, and Beekman even lent money to other banks to help them survive the panics of 1873, 1893, and 1907. Beekman’s financial skills were such that in the 1890s he was offered the presidency of the Commercial National Bank of Portland. He declined.

While Beekman was noted for his business acumen, he also became widely recognized for his public service and community involvement.

Up until 1860 Beekman seems to have focused most of his time and attention on growing his business enterprises, but in that year, with the approach of Civil War, he changed his political affiliation from Democrat to Republican, reflecting his opposition to slavery. He also became the first Street Commissioner of Jacksonville, no doubt playing a role in setting the legal standards for city streets and sidewalks included in the first ordinance passed by the Board of Trustees. He later played a prominent role in a campaign which resulted in Jackson County voting $500,000 in bonds to extend the Pacific Highway across the county.

In 1861, Beekman married Julia Hoffman. The couple had three children, two of whom survived. They may have led to Beekman’s interest in the local schools. In 1869 he was elected to the school board and held the office of school director for nine years. According to the Jacksonville Post, “It was mainly through his business tact that the commodious school building was erected, and, withal, his love for educational advancement has placed the standard of education for the young on a plane that would do credit to a larger town.”

Julia herself was a devoted and long-time member of the Jacksonville Presbyterian Church, a cause in which she enlisted Beekman. He became chairman of the building committee that oversaw the erection of the historic church building at the corner of 6th and California streets; he donated the lot on which the building stands, contributed about half the construction costs, and personally traveled to San Francisco to purchase the bell. He paid the fire insurance premiums and at various times the minister’s salary. At other times he donated two lots to the fledgling Medford Presbyterian Church, property to the Medford Episcopal Church, and a sizable sum towards the construction of a new Presbyterian church building in his home town of Dundee, New York.

A 32nd degree Mason, Beekman was a member of Jacksonville’s Warren Lodge No. 10 and served as its Worshipful Master for 11 years. He was repeatedly elected one of the trustees of Jacksonville, and for several terms served as mayor, or president of the board.

Although Beekman’s milieu was small town politics, in 1878 the Republican Party drafted him as its candidate for Governor of Oregon on the eighth ballot. Beekman did not engage in any serious campaigning apart from a two minute speech he made while on a business trip to Portland. The Portland Oregonian reported the speech as follows:

“Mr. Beekman…stated that he was no public speaker; that he had never addressed so large a crowd before in his life. His life had been devoted to business and not words. He had been nominated by the Republican convention as one of the standard-bearers of that party. The nomination had not been sought for by him; he had never solicited it at the hands of the party. But as it had been tendered him, he accepted it and proposed to go in to win. He had made no pledges to any party or clique, and he owed no allegiance to anyone. The only pledge he had made was that of retrenchment and economy in the administration of state affairs, and if elected he proposed to carry out that pledge to the letter.”

Beekman lost the election to W.W. Thayer by less than 70 votes. The exact number is unknown, being variously reported as 41, 49, 61, and 69. Beekman may have been relieved at the outcome. When the party tried to draft him again as its nominee in 1894, he declined. Although his wife and daughter had been planning their wardrobes for life in Salem. Beekman was content to remain a big fish in the Jacksonville pond.

Next month: From Pariah to Patriarch

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