by Derryl Dumermuth
Last month we told the saga of the Turner Nelson family, and promised that this month you would read the story of another Tulare pioneer, Alexander Wheeler, whose family was closely allied with the Nelsons. These two early Tulareans could not have known at that time that their families would eventually be bound together when Turner Nelsom's son, Joe, married Alexander Wheeler's daughter, Claire.
Brothers Alexander and Fred Wheeler, sons of an English shipbuilder, came to Tulare from Ottawa, Illinois in 1882. Together they founded a carriage and blacksmith business on East Tulare Avenue. After 18 months in that enterprise Alexander (always known to Tulareans as Alec) left the partnership to homestead 160 acres near Tipton. Fred took a new partner, a Mr. Zartman, moved the shop to the 400 block of East Tulare Avenue, and continued a thriving business.
Seven years later, Alec sold the farm and with his wife Mattie (nee Holcomb), was back in Tulare working for Southern Pacific. In 1891 his job with the railroad disappeared when SP moved their shops to Bakersfield and their division headquarters to Fresno.
With a partner named Johnson, Alec opened a furniture store in a rented building at the southeast corner of Tulare Avenue and K Street, next door to the Thomas Curruthers funeral home. Seven years later Wheeler bought his partners interest in the store for $365. This first Wheeler Furniture store eventually became the site of the Woolworth (five and dime) variety store.
But Wheeler's dream was to own his own store, the building as well as inventory. Over the next several years, with Mattie's cooperation, he saved every possible penny. Not trusting banks during the financial panic of the 1890's, he hid his savings in a tin can secreted in the basement of the family home at the southwest corner of Inyo Avenue and G Street. By 1912 the nest egg had grown to $1200, enough to purchase two lots on the west side of the 100 block of North K Street, and build his own furniture store. The business remained at that location until his death, and then his son-in-law, Joe Nelson (son of pioneer businessman Turner Nelson), assumed ownership of the store and changed the name to Nelson Furniture. The 63-year-old building was razed in 1975 when an urban renewal project developed Tower Square in downtown Tulare.
Alexander Wheeler was very active in Tulare's business, social and political life. He was a die-hard Republican, member of several lodges, and president of both the Tulare Building and Loan Association and Petrolia Oil Company. In 1918 he was elected as the tenth mayor of the city.
A final note: One incident in Alec's life made a lasting impression and he often spoke of it to his friends and family. In 1891 he had served on the jury that convicted the infamous Dalton Brothers.
Derryl Dumermuth is a retired TUHS mathematics teacher, author of "A Town Called Tulare" and co-author with his wife, Wanda, of "Tulare Legends and Trivia from A to Z". Both books were written as fund-raisers for the Tulare Historical Museum and can be purchased in the museum's gift shop.
1. Alexander Wheeler, pioneer businessman and tenth Tulare mayor.
2. Wheeler Brothers blacksmith shop on the north side of the 100 block of East Tulare Avenue. D. W. Madden's Palace Hotel water tower on the left.