Find a need, fill it, and you will flourish. This appears to be the business model that has helped Wells Fargo thrive for more than a century and a half.
In 1852 Henry Wells and William Fargo created a company that required a “pioneer transcontinental stage line”. Fargo, North Dakota, was named for William. I was not surprised to learn this in the Wells Fargo History Museum at 333 South Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles.
This is one of 11 free museums, 5 of them in California, maintained by this banking and financial services company that do an excellent job of telling both the Wells Fargo story and the saga of westward expansion.
Gold Rush miners trusted Wells Fargo to send money home in an era when “seeing the elephant” became a common phrase for hardship and failure to strike it rich in places with names like Hardscrabble Gulch and Camp Stick-in-the-Wind.
By 1866 the telegraph had made the Pony Express obsolete and Wells Fargo was running 2,500 stagecoaches across The West. Driving them was a much sought after job. To sit next to the man with the reins was by invitation only and an honor. As I was reading vivid passenger diary entries and stories about these drivers called Jehus, Ruth came over to lead me to a fascinating interactive map describing what happened to both on each of the 24 days between St. Louis and San Francisco, 2800 miles of hard-bouncing misery. By the time they reached their destination, travelers had consumed 109 cups of beans and 72 cups of coffee. Imagine the results.
By 1905, Wells Fargo’s express and banking operations were split and the company moved to New York City but the bank stayed in California. Wells Fargo was completely out of the express business by 1918 because the federal government used its war-time powers to consolidate such companies. By then Wells Fargo had already made the transition to rail, and it Fargo Fast train chugged from New York to San Francisco in 4 days. It was already creating the California of today by shipping its produce all over the U.S.
Through mergers, acquisitions, sales, 2 wars, a deep Depression, etc. Wells Fargo endured to become, according to President-CEO John Stumpf, one of only a dozen or so U.S. pioneer companies still in its founding business under its founding name.
I’ve now been to 3 Wells Fargo museums and have benefited from each. They all seem to have restored or recreated Concord coaches like the one pictured above and lots of pioneer artifacts but enough about a particular region to address local color. For example, I spent a lot of time studying a detailed 1889 map of Orange County that showed both rapid growth and a large number of ranches.
All in all, I applaud Wells Fargo, whose fortunes have been woven into the very history of our nation, for continuing to tell its story in these excellent, 4 Compass museums.