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Charles Ilfeld Biography

By Richard and Shirley Flint

Sponsored by the Paul C. S. Carpenter History Project and funded by the King/Carpenter Charitable Trust

Lester [or Leser] Ilfeld, a butcher, and his wife Bettie [Selma] lived in Homburg von der Hohe (now Bad Hamburg), near Frankfurt, Germany, with their family of seven children. During the 1850s and 1860s many young Germans, especially young German Jews like the Ilfeld boys, pulled up roots and moved across the Atlantic to the still young United States.

Herman Ilfeld, second oldest of Lester and Bettie’s sons, was the first of his immediate family to make the trip, in 1864. But he had been preceded by his cousins Jacob Amberg and Gustave Elsberg, who had established a merchant partnership in 1855. When Herman got off the boat from Germany, he lost no time in heading west to join his cousins as an employee in their store in Santa Fe. Things apparently went so well for Herman in New Mexico that he encouraged his next younger brother, Charles, to follow him, when Charles turned 18, in 1865.

The American Civil War had just concluded, and a massive movement to the West, of veterans and others, was getting underway. Charles Ilfeld became part of that westward flow, covering the last 750 miles or so from Independence, Missouri, to Santa Fe by ox wagon. No sooner had he reached New Mexico’s territorial capital in August than he was assigned as an apprentice to Adolph Letcher, who was to open a branch store in Taos for Amberg and Elsberg. Amberg and Elsberg were eager to take advantage of wheat and corn production in the Taos Valley and the possibilities of the fur trade there.1

However, Letcher and Ilfeld found the Taos fur market in decline and much overland trade from the eastern United States diverted to Las Vegas and Santa Fe because of the relative ease of travel on the Santa Fe trail in New Mexico when compared to the tortuous haul over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to Taos. So, after just two years, they packed their stock on nearly a hundred burros and transported it over the mountains to Las Vegas. There they opened for business in a one-story adobe general merchandise store on the Plaza, formerly managed by Frank Kihlberg. Before the year 1867 was out, Ilfeld had become Letcher’s partner at age 20.2

A. Letcher and Company soon became a fixture of the Las Vegas retail trade, selling clothing, furnishings, groceries, hardware, and much else to the citizens of the 30-year-old town, as well as to ranchers and farmers for miles around. In addition, Letcher and Ilfeld had supply contracts with a number of the U.S. Army posts in the territory. Ilfeld continued to sell occasionally to Fort Union into the 1870s.3 As historian Lynn Perrigo put it, “with large markups, the partners each made $18,000 in profit the first year.”4 For six years they worked at cultivating a loyal clientele and building an advantage over other stores in the area. Earning and holding customers proved to be a particular skill of Ilfeld. He was frequently visiting customers around town and in the countryside, developing rapport and friendship. He became part of the community, learning Spanish and using it easily. In later years, he came to be known as Tío Carlos or Tío Charles [Uncle Charles] to many of his customers.5 In general, customer’s felt free to contact Ilfeld directly to place orders, settle accounts, or lodge complaints. (See, for example, Figure 1, a December 1894 letter from Mrs. Dionisio Gallegos of Raton asking about an order of patterns, moldes, which had not arrived.)

To replenish their stock Letcher and Ilfeld ordered goods from St. Louis, Philadelphia, and New York. At the time there were no commercial banks in New Mexico, so that paying for orders was a much more cumbersome process than we are used to today. The process involved obtaining drafts on Eastern banks or suppliers. During the late 1860s Letcher and Ilfeld worked through the assistant quartermaster at Fort Union, and W.H. Moore, the post sutler (provider of supplies), to acquire such drafts. They would deliver cash to Moore in amounts of $1,000 or more, in exchange for which the quartermaster would return a signed draft in that amount, redeemable at some eastern location.6 For the first 12 years of the store’s existence, merchandise purchased in the East, was shipped to Las Vegas using ox trains via the Santa Fe Trail.

By 1873, life for Charles Ilfeld, a partner in a flourishing business, had settled into a predictable and comfortable routine. That year he returned to his native Germany in search of a bride of his faith. When he returned to the U.S. he had arranged to marry Adele Nordhaus, whom he had known as a young girl in Homburg von der Hohe. That same year, another Ilfeld brother, Louis, arrived from Germany and took a position with Letcher and Ilfeld.7 Less than a year later, when Adele arrived in New York by boat, Charles was there to meet her. Their wedding followed shortly, and they left for Las Vegas, New Mexico.8 Also in 1874, Ilfeld bought out his partner Letcher, and the business took on the name it would have for nearly a hundred years: Charles Ilfeld Company.

Eventually, five Ilfeld brothers and a cousin made their way to New Mexico, all working in the mercantile trade and all except Herman employed by Charles for at least the early part of their residence in the territory. Brothers Herman, Louis, and Noa partnered in a general merchandise store in Albuquerque (Old Town) called Ilfeld Brothers.9 Bernard worked for Charles for many years. Cousin Ludwig, after a falling out with Charles, opened a rival establishment in Las Vegas, Ilfeld Hardware and Furniture (now Price’s Ilfeld).10

The family member who played the greatest role in Charles’ personal and business life was Max Nordhaus, his wife Adele’s younger brother. Max arrived in Las Vegas from Germany in 1883. He was to live in the same house with Charles and Adele on the Plaza in Old Town Las Vegas for nearly 30 years and quickly moved into a position of responsibility in Charles Ilfeld Company. He became its general agent at age 21 in 1886 and a one-fourth owner in 1911.11

Before Nordhaus arrived in New Mexico and became a fixture at Charles Ilfeld Company, a momentous paradigm shift occurred in the merchandise trade in the territory. The Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe (ATSF) railroad reached Las Vegas, New Mexico on July 4, 1879. The arrival of the railroad meant much faster and lower cost transportation of goods from the East. In the short term faster and lower cost transportation resulted in an increased competitive advantage for Ilfeld. Reduced transportation costs coupled with Ilfeld’s policies of paying low wages to employees and deferring payment to creditors as long as feasible, translated into substantial profits for the business. By the early 1880s Charles Ilfeld Company had a net worth of something on the order of $100,000, a considerable fortune in those days.12 In 1882, Ilfeld replaced his old adobe store in Las Vegas with a three-story stone building.  His new “department store” had “enormous show windows of French plate glass.” The full basement housed “groceries, liquors, hardware and saddlery.” The ground floor was for retail dry goods and furnishings, the second floor for millinery and dressmaking and wholesale dry goods, the third floor for carpets and heavy yard goods. The Las Vegas Gazette boasted that the new store was “the best business house in the Territory of New Mexico.”13 (See, the left-hand lithograph in Figure 2.)

As the ATSF line extended westward to Lamy, Albuquerque, and Gallup and other railroads began crisscrossing the territory, competing merchants opened outlets along those routes. It was not long before Ilfeld’s business empire began to shrink. He had once supplied small stores and ranchers as far away as Puerto de Luna and Roswell but now, other firms could offer quicker delivery with lower freight charges. Ilfeld developed two strategies to deal with this heightened competition: One was to move into the wholesale business, selling to smaller merchants and the other was to dramatically increase his involvement in the sheep and wool trade in New Mexico.

Since Ilfeld’s early days in Las Vegas, his customers, like others throughout the territory, had often made payments in kind, with lumber, cattle, sheep, wool, and other agricultural products.14 Beginning about 1884 Ilfeld and his young agent Max Nordhaus began aggressively seeking sheep as payment on credit accounts and then renting those sheep out to local herders on shares. This was an arrangement known as the partido system, and the herders were known as partidarios. By 1890, the Charles Ilfeld Company was heavily engaged in the wool and mutton business. During the following 20 years, the company maintained an average annual cadre of between 30 and 40 partidarios, each with about a thousand sheep on shares.15

Throughout the 1880s, both Ilfeld and the partidarios he contracted, suffered through a long period of declining wool prices caused in part by a national and global deflation. In an attempt to secure higher prices in eastern markets, the Charles Ilfeld Company underwrote 2 massive sheep drives to Kansas, one in 1893 and another in 1895. Both lost money. But the ten years from 1894 to 1905 saw dramatic inflation, as the price of wool rose from about 8 cents a pound to over 19 cents. As a result, Ilfeld was able to make substantial profits with judicious storage of wool in the great warehouse he had built behind the store in Las Vegas. The stored wool could then be released for sale as the price continued to rise, giving the company a wider profit margin.16

By the 1890s, Ilfeld’s three sons, Louis, Herman, and Arthur, were all employed in the business. They would all hold influential positions as the years passed: Louis as director of the legal department and treasurer of the board, Herman as sales manager, and Arthur as vice president of the board.17 In 1905, Ilfeld’s in Las Vegas dropped its retail sales business and became strictly a wholesaler. Over the years the company had acquired retail outlets in Watrous, Tecolote, Santa Rosa, Pastura, and Corona. By 1906, the latter two had grown into very large establishments. In that year, a new branch was opened in Albuquerque, which moved to a new large building in 1911. In 1907, Charles Ilfeld Company became a corporation. And in 1911, Nordhaus relocated to Albuquerque, which became the company’s new headquarters, though, Charles and Adele continued to live in Las Vegas.18

Over the next two decades, the Charles Ilfeld Company expanded to Santa Fe—buying out Cartwright Bothers in 1919.  The company also moved into Gallup, Raton, Magdalena, Mountainair, Farmington, and Durango, Colorado.19 By 1929, when Charles Ilfeld died, the company he had founded on the Las Vegas Plaza in 1867 with Adolph Letcher had become the major distributor of a long list of products.  They sold to general merchandise stores all over northern and central New Mexico and southern Colorado, routinely on credit. As the company’s letterhead proclaimed as early as 1896, it sold “everything, wholesale, retail: fine and staple dry goods, fashionable millinery, gentlemen’s furnishings, agency Butterick patterns, the Foster kid gloves, Jaeger underwear, furniture and carpets, crockery, hardware, groceries, ranch supplies, cattle, sheep, wool, [and] country produce.”20

By selling “everything,” Ilfeld became wealthy. He, Adele, and their sons, were major sponsors of and contributors to social and cultural events in Las Vegas. Charles was among the founders of the first Jewish synagogue (Reform) in New Mexico, Congregation Montefiore.21 His family and religious faith provided strong linkages with other German Jews throughout Ilfeld’s life, both personally and professionally. He returned periodically to Germany to visit friends and family. In addition to members of his immediate family in New Mexico, he had business relations with, for instance, a cousin named Emil Wolff, an international merchant with Einstein, Wolff and Company in New York.22 Furthermore; he developed and fostered connections with other German Jewish families within New Mexico, including the Spiegelbergs, Staabs, Floersheims, and Liebstadters.

After Ilfeld’s death, nationwide distributors of groceries, furniture, hardware, and other goods emerged to fill the void. With their massive buying power and more efficient transportation networks, they put increasing pressure even on the larger regional distributors such as Ilfeld’s. In January of 1959, with profits dwindling, Ilfeld’s lost its distribution contract for Piggly-Wiggly grocery stores. This setback precipitated a move by family members, who owned the bulk of the corporation, to seek a buyer. The lone bidder was the Kimball Products Corporation of Fort Worth, Texas. With the purchase by Kimball’s, Charles Ilfeld Company ceased to be.23

 Notes

 1. Henry Tobias and Sarah R. Payne, The Jewish Pioneers of New Mexico: The Ilfeld and Nordhaus Families (Albuquerque: The New Mexico Jewish Historical Society, 2005), 2-3.

2. Ibid., 3.

3. Abstract A, Abstract of Purchases paid for at Fort Union, New Mexico, A.S. Kimball, AAQ, July 1875, September 1875, April 1876, and June 1876, National Archives, Record Group 217, Entry 730B, Quartermasters Abstracts, Box 96.

 4. Lynn Perrigo, Gateway to Glorieta: A History of Las Vegas, New Mexico (Boulder, Colorado: Pruett Publishing Company, 1982), 8.

 5. Tobias and Payne, Ilfeld and Nordhaus, 11.

 6. William J. Parish, The Charles Ilfeld Company: A Study of the Rise and Decline of Mercantile Capitalism in New Mexico (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961), 38.

 7. Beatrice Ilfeld Meyer, Don Luis Ilfeld (Albuquerque: The Albuquerque Historical Society, 1973), 1.

 8. E[arl] L. Moulton, Seventy Years of Progress: Founding and Development of Charles Ilfeld Company, 1865-1935, speech before the Albuquerque Rotary Club, July 25, 1935 (privately published, no date), 9. Tobias and Payne, Ilfeld and Nordhaus, 4.

 9. Meyer, Don Luis Ilfeld, 1.

 10. Tobias and Payne, Ilfeld and Nordhaus, 19.

 11. Parish, The Charles Ilfeld Company, 101-04.

 12. Ibid., 100. Moulton, Seventy Years of Progress, 14.

 13. Perrigo, Gateway to Glorieta, 10. “The Great Emporium, Charles Ilfeld’s New Business House on the Plaza, an Ornament to the Town and a Credit to the Territory,” Las Vegas Gazette, January 24, 1883, reprinted in Parish, The Charles Ilfeld Company, 318-19.

 14. Parish, The Charles Ilfeld Company, 59. Meyer, Don Luis Ilfeld, 2.

 15. Parish, The Charles Ilfeld Company, 115-18.

 16. Ibid., 115 and 127-34.

 17. Moulton, Seventy Years of Progress, 11.

 18. Ibid., 14.

 19. Ibid., 16.

 20. Charles Ilfeld Letterhead, 1896, Folder II, Spiegelberg-Ilfeld Family Papers, MSS 523 BC, Center for Southwest Research, Zimmerman Library, University of New Mexico.

 21. Perrigo, Gateway to Glorieta, 11. Tobias and Payne, Ilfeld and Nordhaus, 11.

 22. Parish, The Charles Ilfeld Company, 131

 23. Ibid., 274-75.