This story first was first published in August 2012
I imagine that sometime during the life of Nehemiah Hulett, somebody must have called him Old Moneybags. Perhaps even after he was dead, since his money and death precipitated one of the more interesting scandals of 1890s Duluth.
Nehemiah Hulett was one of our earliest fortune-seeking pioneers, arriving here in 1857, when he was 34 years old and a bachelor. Originally a New Yorker, he spent a brief time in other up-and-coming Minnesota towns and ended up taking a claim near Spirit Lake where a stub of a street bearing his name still exists. Though it was originally intended to be the southern boundary of Ironton, extending all the way from Grand Avenue to the lakefront, it now essentially serves as the driveway to a single household in the wooded area between Smithville and Morgan Park.)
For a few years he divided his time between his homestead in New York and his properties at the Head of the Lakes until returning for good in the mid-1860s, when he boarded at the Merritt household in Oneota, with whom he also had business dealings. In 1867 he was elected treasurer of St. Louis County, holding the position for eight years. He also worked in banking and investing, eventually operating the Duluth Real Estate and Loan Company out of an office in the Hayes building. In his later years, he owned a farm at Stony Point.
Old Nehemiah Hulett dropped dead at age 70 on a hot July day in 1892, while he was running to catch a train. Still supposedly a bachelor, his fortune at the time consisted mostly of property in and around Duluth amounting to $530,000 in wealth.
And this is when one Lucy Pomeroy Hulett makes her appearance. Lucy was Old Hulett’s housekeeper up at the farm at Stony Point. She had originally worked for him with her husband, who subsequently went mad and died in the insane asylum at St. Peter. After her husband’s death, she and Nehemiah apparently lived as husband and wife, though no marriage ceremony was ever performed.
She showed up at the bank one day after his death and attempted to cash a check made out to “Lucy Hulett,” which caused some eyebrows to be raised. Soon enough, further indignation amongst well-heeled Duluthians arose when she made a bid for a portion of the old man’s estate, claiming a common law marriage was as good as any other, and deserved a third of the inheritance. (The rest of which was to be divided amongst his sisters and their offspring.) The courts mostly agreed with her, leading Duluth pioneer Jerome Cooley to remark, “Until this case was tried, most people believed that a woman could not be a man’s widow without first having been his wife.”
It is apparent that Nehemiah Hulett’s impact on the Merritt household was more significant than merely financial: Lewis J. and Eunice Merritt named their son, born in 1872, Hulett Clinton Merritt. And thus we can turn our attention to the other Moneybags Hulett.
Hulett C. took after his namesake in some significant ways. His father brought him into the family real estate and investing business (LJ Merritt and Son) by the time he was sixteen. It is said that soon after he earned his first million by developing Texas City, Texas, in partnership with other investors from Duluth. And near the turn of the century, when the “Seven Iron Men” were fighting to save their mining interests from the hated John D. Rockefeller and subsequent fallout, Lewis and Son alone among the Merritt clan sold out and Hulett became one of the ten principal members of the U.S. Steel Corporation.
The two black sheep of the family took off for California, the only ones to escape with fortunes intact. Lewis J. bought a mansion on what came to be called Millionaire’s Row in Pasadena, and bought the Tagus Ranch in Fresno, which was known then as the world’s largest peach, apricot and nectarine orchard.
Hulett refused John D. Rockefeller’s offers of a peachy $100,000 per annum job, and instead began to invest heavily in electricity and gas between Santa Barbara and San Diego, selling the companies after only three years.
By 1900, Hulett had established himself as a rich, young daredevil by building a speedway at Santa Monica, and reportedly was the only man to beat the famous early racecar driver Barney Oldfield in a race. Considering that there used to be a well-used American expression, “Who do you think you are? Barney Oldfield?”—that’s something!
In 1912, Hulett built his own mansion on Millionaire’s Row, calling it Villa Merritt-Ollivier, and filled it with priceless antiques and art, with a garden that was featured on picture postcards. He later created something called the Merritt System, which was supposed to give year-round work and model homes to 700 migrant families at the family orchard. He also liked to go to garage sales and buy up the whole lot to redistribute to those Merritt System families. He was often referred to as “The Richest Man in California.”
He didn’t lead an entirely blissful life, however. His son, Hulett C. Merritt Jr., died before him in 1945, and one can find hints of scandal involving divorce and alimony payments. When he died in 1956, he famously left a will that enforced a few rules on those heirs who wanted a piece of his rather large pie: they had to abstain from liquor and cigarettes for the quarter before receipt, along with changing their names to Merritt before age 22. After his death, his mansion was used in the opening sequence of a late-1950s television show called “The Millionaire” and was eventually bought by the Worldwide Church of God to serve as the centerpiece of Ambassador College.
Thus, Duluth’s Old Moneybags Hulett left a few impacts on history, including another Moneybags namesake, and a tiny little street in western Duluth.