Then and Now: Grain King made state farming golden

Grain loomed large in the Jewish imagination this past week, as we considered novel ways of baking and preparing it to comport with Passover’s ancient laws.

Isaac Friedlander photo/courtesy of california historical society

In the 1850s, one man cast the largest shadow over the region’s wheat fields — Isaac Friedlander, California’s “Grain King,” who in the 1850s helped     transform the state from a center of mining to a center of agriculture.

A Hanover, Germany–born merchant who stood almost 7 feet tall, Friedlander gobbled up huge swaths of land in the San Joaquin and Livermore valleys and controlled wheat distribution to markets as far away as Europe and Australia.

Friedlander was part of a group of 19th-century Bay Area Jewish businessmen — including Abraham Haas, who created California’s first supermarket chain, and Isaias Hellman, who took over distribution of Napa Valley wine — who turbo-charged California agriculture, ensuring that farming became the state’s permanent gold rush.

This column is provided to j. by Daniel Schifrin, writer-in-residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, where stories of local Jewish life are explored in “California Dreaming: Jewish Life in the Bay Area from the Gold Rush to the Present.”

Dan Schifrin

Dan Schifrin is a teacher, writer and creativity consultant in Berkeley.