William Seymour Phelan, of the firm of Phelan & Fish, wholesale and retail importing grocers of Oakland, was born in New York city, February 19, 1838, a son of John and Prudence L.(Husted) Phelan, both of whom died at the age of about forty years. The maternal grandfather, Thomas Seymour Husted, was a farmer of Fairfield county, Connecticut, and lived to the age of seventy years; and his wife, by birth a Miss Crissey, lived to about the same age. Both were of New England ancestry for several generations. John Phelan, the father of W. B., was by birth an American of Irish descent, and a carpenter by trade, in New York city, and at his death left four children, George E., John R., William S., and Charles T., of whom the two eldest came to California about 1850 and engaged in mining. George E. was occupied near Jacksonville, Oregon, when last heard from in 1853, and John R. died near San Andreas, in Calaveras county. William S. and Charles T. were placed under the guardianship of W. K. Tattersall, an official member of the Sixth Street Baptist Church, of New York, of which their parents had been members. They were sent to board at a farm house in central New York at the expense of the estate left by their father, and attended a country school. By mismanagement of the estate or the self-seeking of their guardian they were at the age of fourteen years thrown on their resources, and were obliged to take legal steps to obtain their inheritance.
Mr. W. S. Phelan, our present subject, is a good type of the self-made man, owing but little to fortune except what he has wrung from her by hard work from his youth up, by persistent industry and frugal living, and to birth the common inheritance of a good name, good sense, good health and the indomitable energy that have made him literally the "architect of his own fortune.." After a brief experience of farm work, he learned telegraphy at the age of eighteen at Fonda, New York, and was for many years operator and station agent on railroads in Canada and the Western States, when he emigrated to California, by way of New York and Panama, arriving in San Francisco in June, 1864. Soon after his arrival he was employed as telegraph operator at Virginia City, Nevada, and afterward entered into partnership at Gold Hill, Nevada, with S. W. Chubbuck, who had the postoffice, telegraph office and stationery store at that point. He was admitted into partnership in the banking business of H. H. Flagg & Co., Gold Hill, in1870, withdrawing a year and a half later, and after a few months in San Jose came to Oakland, in 1872. After a year or two more in the service of the Western Union Telegraph Company as operator, he engaged in sheep-raising in Fresno county for four or five years; after that he was a money broker in San Francisco; and in 1880 he formed a partnership with George L. Fish, a retail grocer in East Oakland, and from this has grown in ten years the prosperous wholesale and importing grocery business of Phelan & Fish, of Oakland, who are now universally regarded as among the largest houses in their line on this coast. Their main store, No. 466 to 472 Eleventh street, is eighty feet wide by ninety to 100 feet in depth. They do a large jobbing trade throughout the coast, purchasing their goods in carload lots in the East, for cash, thus securing the double advantage of low freights and cash discounts. Their enterprise has been of the wide awake and unremitting order, and their business has accordingly grown with phenomenal rapidity, until their large central store and outside warehouses are really insufficient to accommodate the demands of their trade. In their retail department their success has been equally great, and to meet its requirements they established a branch at 1308 San Pablo avenue, in March, 1890, and one at the corner of Seventh and Henry streets in June following. They employ six delivery wagons and eighteen men in their city trade, besides the labor and service required for shipping goods to outside points. They have made but few mistakes, and have forced success by unremitting industry, straightforward business methods, close attention to the wants of their patrons and a consistent uniformity in the fair treatment of their customers. The least expert buyer is always sure of full measure, correct weight and good quality at the lowest rates when dealing with Phelan & Fish. The firm are among the leading stockholders of the First National Bank of Oakland, in which Mr. Phelan is a director.
Mr. Phelan was married in San Francisco, January 19, 1871, to Louise M. Putnam, who was born in New Hampshire, a daughter of Hervey and Lovina (Hall) Putnam, both of New England descent for several generations, and still living. Mr. and Mrs. Phelan have two children: Amy Louise, born June 12, 1873, and now attending the Oakland High School; and Seymour Husted, born in Fruitvale, May 21, 1880, and attending the public school. The beautiful home of the family is surrounded by thirty-five acres of fruit land in the pleasant suburb of Fruitvale.
Transcribed 2-17-05 Marilyn R. Pankey.
© 2005 Marilyn R. Pankey.