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  • Writer's pictureDerryl Dumermuth

Wheeler Family

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 partner's interest in the store for $365. This first Wheeler Furniture store eventually became the Woolworth (five and dime) variety store site.

But Wheeler's dream was to own his store, the building as well as inventory. Over the next several years, with Mattie's cooperation, he saved every possible penny. He hid his savings in a tin can in the basement of his family home at the southwest corner of Inyo Avenue and G Street. Bypassing the financial panic of the 1890s, his savings grew to $1200 by 1912. That money was enough to purchase two lots on the west side of the 100 block of North K Street and build his furniture store. The business remained at that location until his death. 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 the city elected him as the tenth mayor of Tulare.

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.

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