Elmira's First Merchant
by Diane Janowski
Copyright © 2001-2013. All rights reserved.
When Matthias Hollenback was eighteen years old he moved from Lancaster County to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Already in his teen years he was an enterprising merchant and trader.
In 1776, Hollenback was an ensign in the Continental Army (SIxth Company, 24th Regiment Connecticut Militia). He became a lieutenant colonel in the Revolutionary War (1776-1777), and served in battles including the Battle of Wyoming also known as the Wyoming Massacre.
A rich hunting and fishing ground, the Chemung River basin was occupied successively by Algonquins, Andastes, Delawares and Senecas. Colonial settlement, precluded for decades by Iroquois loyalty to the British, began after the Revolutionary War when settlers began moving up the river from Pennsylvania.
After the War, "Matt" Hollenback began operating a chain of trading posts along the Chemung and Susquehanna Rivers, from Wilkes-Barre to the Genesee region. He established his principal store at Wilkes-Barre, and branch stores at Tioga Point (now Athens, Pennsylvania) and also at Newtown (now Elmira, New York) in 1783 [some sources erroneously cite the year 1790]. It was a favorable location near the confluence of Newtown Creek and the Chemung River. As a merchant, he sold or traded goods to both Indians and settlers. Because his trading posts were very popular with the Indians, he was invited to the signings of many important treaties. He was well-acquainted with Col. John Butler, Queen Esther, Joseph Brant, and Red Jacket. Red Jacket called him "Great Father."
Popular items in the posts included guns, gunpowder, blankets, cloth, liquor, and flour. For most of the year, a Durham boat on the Susquehanna and Chemung Rivers provided the transportation for goods from his large warehouse in Wilkes-Barre. When the weather was bad, he resorted to using packhorses. As his business grew, so did his need for a larger store. He built his second Elmira store also along the river near High Street.
Hollenback involved partners in each of his ventures. Each partner was incharge of a particular post. The posts received consigned goods invoiced to the partner in charge. Although he did not live in Elmira, Hollenback made frequent visits to audit the post. Enterprising young men such as Daniel McDowll, Stephen Tuttle, John Morris, Jacob Weiss, Thomas Perry, and John Arnot took turns as collaborates or store clerks in the Elmira store.
A true entrepreneur, Hollenback was the largest landholder in northeastern Pennsylvania in the early 1800s. He owned stores, gristmills, sawmills, coal mines, distilleries, and paper mills. In his later years, he was an Associate Judge in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. He died in 1829.
Hollenback was Elmira's earliest merchant and helped start the development of the region. His establishment here was the foundation of the business structure of Elmira, and his presence encouraged other merchants to settle here.
Matthias Hollenback is buried in the Hollenback Cemetery in Wilkes-Barre, PA.
The Elmira Telegram, June 24, 1923