Hulett C. Merritt

Hulett C. Merritt, year unknown. (Image: Find-a-Grave)

Hulett C. Merritt, the son of Lewis J. and Eunice Merritt (and grandson of Lewis and Hepzibah Merritt), entered the family real estate and investing business (L. J. 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 a 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.

Story by Heidi Bakk-Hansen. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Heidi Bakk-Hansen.