The Journal of San Diego History
SAN DIEGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY QUARTERLY
Fall 1986, Volume 32, Number 4
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor
Mat Heller fed San Diego for forty years. It began in 1889 when he went to work for his father-in-law, Dr. John G. Beck, at Beck’s grocery store located at Tenth and F streets.
He was born in Fulton, Missouri, on September 16, 1859, one of ten children, four boys and six girls, brought to the world by Mathias and Anna Heller; the father, a brewer from Bavaria, the mother, an immigrant from Switzerland. After the first five arrived, Mathias and Anna moved the family to Sedalia, Missouri, some hundred miles west where the other five were born. And Sedalia was the place where young Mat Heller would meet his future wife, the beautiful Leonora Beck.
Leonora, or “Lulu” as she was called, was a native of St. Louis as of April 11, 1863, her birth date. Her mother was Henriette and her father, Lucas Von Soboleski, but when Lucas died just a few years later, her mother married Dr. John G. Beck, a practicing Missouri physician, an change the children’s surname to Beck.
Mat had always worked hard; at age thirteen, when his father’s business began to sag, Mat found a job driving a grocery delivery wagon for $15 a month, hours: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day except Sunday. Of course there were no personal income taxes in those days so the young man was able to contribute the entire fifteen dollars each month to help with the big family’s expenses.
Tiring of driving that one-horse (literally) wagon, Mat made his entry to the retail business; he became a salesman in a Sedalia dry goods store and soon became its manager. The hours were considerably better, which gave him time to court the popular Lulu from St. Lou.
With the blessings of parents on both sides, the twenty-five-year old Mat and the twenty-one-year old Lulu were married in the pastoral surroundings of nearby Pleasant Green. It was November 18, 1884. And that might have been that: “They lived happily ever after in Sedalia” – except – Mat’s health was failing.
Ironically, Mat’s father-in-law, Dr. Beck, had been in poor health for some years so, after the wedding, he gave up his Missouri medical practice and moved to San Diego with his wife, Henriette, Lulu’s sister Hattie, her half sisters, Ida and Flora, and her half brother, John G. Beck, Jr. It is apparent that the good doctor’s condition was not bad enough to prevent him from siring the three children by Henriette.
Now . . . once subjected to the salubrious climate of San Diego, Dr. Beck’s health made a stirring comeback; he opened a grocery store, urged his ailing son-in-law, Mat, to bring Lulu and their 20-month old daughter, Lenore (the future Mrs. James D. Forward), to San Diego.
By this time, twenty-nine-year old Mat Heller was ready for anything; he had been given just a few more years to live. “Honey,” he must have said, “What have we got to lose. It helped your father, maybe it’ll help me. So, pack the diapers, Lulu. We’re going to San Diego.”
The Heller family arrived there in January of 1889 with their few belongings and their savings: $64 in cash. As you might guess, Mat went to work the next day in Dr. Beck’s grocery store as a solicitor and deliveryman and the three of them, Mat, Lulu and baby Lenore, lived upstairs over the store. Most importantly, the magical climate worked for Mat and he lived in good health for fifty-three more years – until 1942.
Meanwhile, back at the store, we’ll let M.F. Heller himself pick up the story:
“In January, 1892, 1 purchased a small grocery for $931 on credit, as I had overdrawn my salary account with my employer (my father-in-law). The San Diego jobbers refused to credit me which forced me to go to my friendly patrons and ask them to pay cash for goods ordered before delivery, so that I could use their money to purchase such goods needed to complete their orders. I did my own soliciting and delivering. The few patrons we had were very kind to me. I told them that I could not succeed unless they would assist me. They came to my assistance and much credit is due them in helping us to get a footing.
“Our first store was located on 11th and F, a board and batting (sic) building 18 x 25 feet. First year’s rent free, second year 15.00 per month. We then moved to 8th and F, then to [the] Leland [building] on 6th and E, and in 1905 we moved to Fox-Heller Block. This building was erected by [Samuel 1.1 Fox and [Mat) Heller on ]eased ground for a 20 year term. At that time we did a credit and delivery business and continued on this basis in our main store until 1912.
“[However] We [had] opened a cash and carry store on Broadway, [between Second and Third] in 1911 to try out the new plan and found that this money saving plan was a sound one.”
Or, as Mat Heller wrote many years later, “The success of the cash-and-carry store demonstrated to us that this was a plan which appealed to all thrifty people.”
As the word got around about the low prices at Heller’s – and the word didn’t take long to circulate in this town of some 17,000 – other areas of the city asked for similar stores in their communities. Mat Heller obliged.
He also created a trademark, a “brand,” if you will, the “Diamond H” in the shape of a rhombus on its side with a capital “H” in the middle so, as he said, “When you see the ‘Diamond H’ on food products, you know they are pure and the best.”
He also created a slogan, “Heller’s Money Saving Stores,” and it really caught on. Mick Heller (Milton Jr.) recalled, in the 1984 monograph he wrote for his progeny and titled, “My Grandparents,” that “One of the favorite ‘naughty’ sayings among my contemporaries as a child was, ‘Go to Hell-er’s Money Saving Stores.’What a priceless commercial!”
There was another advertising slogan that created a little stir amongst the early San Diegans, Seems Mat’s sister-in-law, Hattie Beck, was working in the Main Office at 5th and E as the bookkeeper, dabbling occasionally in advertising. This particular day, Hattie was fiddling with the copy for a newspaper ad and had an inspiration which led her to near-immortality in the local grocery business, Friends, neighbors, relatives and just plain strangers were startled when they picked up the morning paper, read the Heller’s ad: “Heinz Beans – They speak for themselves!”
Hattie Beck went back to bookkeeping.
Meanwhile, Mat and Lulu’s family had been growing. They had long ago moved from the ]oft in the top of Dr. Beck’s store and had lived in several other places before they finally built a large home on the northeast corner of Twenty-Fourth and B, near the crest of Golden Hill. The house had a big attic and basement, a cistern to collect rain water and a lovely garden and lawns. The children, Lenore, Milton, Walter and tiny Hattie Marie, were thrilled. Then, tragedy.
Walter Heller, eight years old, died of whooping cough just one year after the family moved into their beautiful new home. It was 1899,
A few years later, Elwyn M. (Bud) Heller was born into this pioneer grocery family and, in 1910, Lenore was married to James D. Forward in one of the major social events of that season. They moved into$ a small bungalow next door to the Hellers.
Golden Hill continued to attract more prominent San Diegans including, at one time or another, the Louis Wildes, Ed Fletchers, Leroy Wrights, Grant Conards, Judge Haines, the Sam Foxes (founder of the Lion Clothing Company), Gordon Grays, Charles Smiths, the Frosts, Wadhams, Heilbrons and Giddings, among others. The street car was only a couple of blocks away on Broadway and soon the streets would be paved, they hoped.
In 1916, the company became “Heller’s incorporated,” with offices at 855 Eighteenth Street in San Diego. The Articles of Incorporation were drawn up by attorney Gordon Gray and Mat Heller was, of course, President; his eldest son, Milton F. Heller, was Vice-President, General Manager, Treasurer and Secretary; and his son-in-law, James D. Forward, was Director. [Note: Forward was a member of another pioneer family which had founded Union Title Insurance & Trust Company. Mat Heller sat on the Union Title board for many years. I
Heller’s Incorporated had a bakery and warehouse and opened new stores as quickly as they could train managers to run them, according to Mat Heller. Eventually, there were forty-two stores in San Diego County, the first major grocery chain operation in the area.
Successful? Indeed. Here, in Heller’s own words, may be part of the reason:
“It is the policy of the Heller stores to please our customers. Our instructions to our sales people are never to argue with a customer. We take for granted that the customer is always right. We may be imposed upon at times, but we think that the good will of the consuming public is valuable.”
But Mat Heller was not one to take the money and run. He truly believed that you must “put something back.” As a result, he became deeply involved in the San Diego community from the very beginning: Chamber of Commerce, Merchants Association, Red Cross, Rotary, and Elks, among many others. One of his most favorite interests was the Boy Scouts. As a matter of fact, Troop 24 used to meet in the billiard room of the Heller home on Point Loma in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
But long before that, around the turn of the century, when the Hellers were still living at Twenty-Fourth and B, Mat, Leroy Wright and other concerned neighbors decided to do something about a wasteland just a block and a half away that was called “City Park.” Park??!! Scrub brush, punctuated with mounds of dirt from thousands of gopher holes, and rabbits frolicking in the warm San Diego sun. Oh, the wild flowers were beautiful in the Spring – but it was a long time between Springs.
So Mat Heller and the rest of the neighbors raised some money, from each other, built some tennis courts, planted trees and grass, built roadways and paths, put out benches, even ran a stairway down a steep incline so people could step down to enjoy the view of the city and the Bay. They then sparked a move to put in a children’s playground and a nine-hole golf course. Remember, this was several years before San Diego changed the name of City Park to Balboa Park [in 1910] and began preparations for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. Even so, the southeast corner, near Twenty-Fourth and A, is still known, today, as Golden Hill Park.
Mat Heller loved his family and he loved golf. When this writer was barely ten years old, “Grandad,” as we called him, had a set of his hickoryshafted golf clubs shortened so as to be manageable by this youngster. He then took me out to the old Municipal Golf Course in Balboa Park, known affectionately to the townies as “The Rock Pile.” And it was.
The course had not one single blade of grass on it and made Death Valley look like the Hawaiian Islands. It had been carved out of the typical rocky aggregate indigenous to that area and would have been much more suitable as a gravel pit.
The “greens” weren’t; instead, they were flat, round patches of dark, oiled sand, with the hole located dead center. And, to ensure an unsullied putting path, there was this rod stuck in the cup with a small piece of carpet affixed to it so all the player had to do was pull out the rod, place the carpet in front of the ball, drag a smooth path in the oiled sand and putt. Easy, right? Wrong. If it was hot day, you’d be better off putting on flypaper; if it was cold, you could putt more accurately on a paved street.
Then there were the “tees.” A more or less flat piece of ground denoted the teeing area, which could also be identified by the box full of sand and the bucket of water alongside it. You just took a handful of sand, moistened it with the water, placed the wet sand on the ground in the form of an inverted cone, stuck the ball on top, then tried to hit it before the sand dried out and collapsed.
The real trick, though, was to keep track of the ball after the drive. As it landed on the rocky “fairways,” the little pellet was likely to take off in any direction, then ricochet from rock to rock until it finally stopped.
But it was golf, sort of, and Mat Heller loved it.
And he had still another love: Wildwood Ranch.
In 1921, Mat Heller bought a half interest in Wildwood, some 720 acres of beautiful rolling, boulder-studded terrain, seven miles by road from San Diego via Lakeside and the Mussey Grade. Heller’s partner, with the other half interest, was his son-in-law, Jim Forward, Mat having bought out Jim’s father and brother Charles.
By this time, the pattern was quite clear: Mat Heller was “builder” in the true sense of the word. He was never content with the status quo, never satisfied to just sit and enjoy the scenery. If he had one good store, he wanted two; with two he wanted three and so on. Likewise, he was never one to just sit around and supervise; he was a participant, not a spectator.
So what did he build at Wildwood Ranch? Let’s start with the dam. That’s right, a dam. Putting together the native rocks and concrete, Mat Heller did most of the work himself, assisted, when available, by Jim Forward and the ranch caretaker, Johnny Schmucker.
The occasional heavy rains at Wildwood had caused some erosion and flooding by the main creek which is why Mat handpicked the location. The dam was probably three feet wide at the top, had a spillway at the side, was about ten feet high from the bottom of the stream bed and spanned about fifteen feet from bank to bank. So here was this man, wealthy, in his sixties, sweating over the hot boulders, mixing and pouring concrete with his own hands – and reveling in it!
Besides golf, another game Mat Heller enjoyed was croquet but, there was no croquet court at Wildwood. Right! He built one. Laid out the forms for the concrete rails, or cushions, mixed the bags of cement with the right amount of sand and water and poured the resulting concrete to outline the playing arena. Then, after the forms were removed, he levelled the court with just a certain amount of loose sand, stuck the wickets in their proper positions, passed around the handmade mallets and the game was on.
Now you purists will declare that we were really playing “roque” not croquet, because croquet is played on a lawn and roque is played on an enclosed court such as we had. Well, never mind what you call it, Pilgrim, Mat Heller called it “croquet,” so croquet it was. And here again he demonstrated his affection for children as he spent hours teaching the smaller people how to play the game.
“Grandad,” wailed his grandchildren, “Can we have a tree house?”
Next thing we knew, there he was, up in one of the largest of the big oak trees in the grove behind the main house. He had a big stack of lumber, saw, hammer and nails and put together one of the most comfortable tree houses ever built for little kids. Mat Heller even put sides on it so we couldn’t fall out of it on our little heads.
There were two annual picnics at Wildwood Ranch involving several hundred people each; one was for the employees and families of Heller’s Stores and the other, for those employees and families of Jim Forward’s family firm, Union Title ‘ . As you might imagine, Mat Heller helped out with both, setting up the sack races, pie-eating contests (Mick Heller won one when he was seven or eight years old, he recalls), watermelon-eating, soft ball and so on. He even assisted in flushing the lovelorn out of the nearby chaparral which grew so well on the hills surrounding the ranch house. The great American artist, Norman Rockwell, would have had a field day with these picnics …
Mat Heller was, above all, devoted to his family. By 1926, it had become apparent to him that our homes on Golden Hill were beginning to shrink as our families grew larger – so he bought an entire city block on Point Loma, just south of Loma Portal, below the junior-senior high school and a couple of blocks from the elementary school. Hardly a coincidence.
The property was just raw, vacant land with but a few houses within sight of it. So, always with an eye to the future, Heller persuaded the City fathers to “vacate and abandon” the projected streets on three sides of the block, leaving Zola Street as the only access.
He then divided the block into four parcels: one for himself, Lulu, and asyet unmarried Elwyn (Bud) and Hattie Marie; the second was for his older son and wife, Milton and Edith, and their three boys, Milton Jr. (“Mick”), Gordon (“Bo”) and Donald (“Skee”); the third quarter of the block was for Mat’s son-in-law and wife, Jim and Lenore Forward, and their children, Jim Jr., Bob and Marge; the fourth piece of the block, would be, as Heller put it, “saved for the first grandchild to be married. I will build it to their specifications and rent it to them until they can afford to buy it.” It became Polly and Jimmie’s (James Forward, Jr.) house.
“Extraordinary” seems somehow inadequate to describe Mat Heller, even though he was that, to be sure. Maybe “one-of-a-kind” would be more accurate or maybe both. Whatever. He was simply a superb human being with a great feeling for life, friends and family, yet, a tough disciplinarian with his own children, I’m told. Certainly he had unsurpassed business acumen, an ability to spot opportunity and grab it.
In June of 1929, Mat Heller sold Heller’s Stores to the MacMarr chain, which subsequently [19311 was absorbed by Safeway. This was just four months before the Great Crash of the stock market in October, 1929. But when he sold to MacMarr, Mat opted for cash while his sons, Milton and Elwyn (Bud) took stock, stock which dropped to a fraction of its June price during the crash.
Was it prescience, an ability to somehow see the future, that always seemed to find him in the right place at the right time? Or did Mat Heller just have the gut feeling in June of 1929 that it was time to cash in the chips and get out of the game? We’ll never know the answer to that one but we do know what he wrote on June 21, 1929, the day Heller’s Stores became MacMarr, under the heading “OPPORTUNITY.” After a brief recitation of the Heller personal and business background, Mat Heller concluded with this:
“Milton and Elwyn have, of late, relieved me of practically all business cares, and much of the credit for the progress made by this firm is due to their untiring efforts.
“Today, our stores are to become a part of a much larger chain store company. In retrospect, as I look back to the series of events leading to this culminating opportunity, I am wondering if I have found from what subtle substance this thing which we call Opportunity is made.
“For, in the last analysis, it is the patrons of our stores who have builded (sic) them and these patrons in turn, are patrons because their good will has been retained through individual contact with my fellow workers and associates.
“Can then, Opportunity be that condition which has been achieved through the fact that you who are my associates have also been my friends?
“I believe it is; and I am,
Sincerely yours,Mat F. Heller
The late Elizabeth MacPhail was researching material on German-born San Diegans in preparation for a book on that subject to be published by the San Diego Historical Society this year. She contacted my uncle, Elwyn M. (Bud) Heller, and discovered that his father was not German-born, but was so fascinated with Mat Heller’s history that she wanted to do a piece on him anyway. She held extensive interviews with Elwyn, researched many sources, including the files of the Historical Society and made copious notes.
After Betty MacPhail died, Elwyn gave her notes to Marjorie Forward Lutes, the only granddaughter of M.F. Heller, who put the notes into a narrative and gave it to Elwyn. He, in turn, asked me if I would try to put something together, along with some other ideas which I had, for possible publication.
The rest of the material is from papers and records of M.F. Heller as well as the personal recollections of Elwyn M. Heller, Milton F. Heller, Jr. and this writer, unless otherwise noted.
Robert H. Forward is a professional writer living in Los Angeles and grandson of M.F. Heller. He is a member of the Writers Guild of America, west, and the Producers Guild of America.