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A 'kindly gentleman': Herbert S. Auerbach was a Utah pioneer of business, arts, history

By Susan McCloud

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, March 21 2011 4:59 p.m. MDT

F. Auerbach and Bros. entered Utah's economic scene in 1859.

Deseret News Archives

From the annals of early Salt Lake City history emerges a remarkable man.

Herbert S. Auerbach was like his father, Samuel.

Samuel had a business head and a mind that could innovate and look to the future. He was loyal, hard-working and generous. Samuel, Frederick and Theodore had come to Salt Lake in 1864 to open “The People’s” department store, following successful ventures in California and Nevada. The Jewish brothers started the right way, going directly to Brigham Young in his private office.

Frederick, the first to arrive, was impressed with the Mormon prophet who listened to what he had to say, then walked with him into the city, helped him select a site for a store, invited him to breakfast at the Beehive House and supported his enterprise. The climate Brigham thus encouraged contributed greatly to the growth, diversity and strength of Salt Lake City and other early LDS communities.

The range of merchandise offered in the Auerbach brothers’ store was impressive. For many years they accepted tithing scrip as payment, along with furs from trappers, gold dust from miners and trade from the women who fashioned gloves and slippers from fur pelts and buckskins, or knitted sturdy socks which Auerbach’s sold to prospectors.

Herbert was like his mother, Eveline Brooks.

Eveline’s parents had crossed the Plains from Nebraska to Salt Lake. Though Jewish, not Mormon, they were legitimately Utah pioneers, which fact enabled Herbert to hold the position of president of the Sons of Utah Pioneers later in his life.

Eveline spoke several languages fluently and was gifted in music. Gracious and womanly, she created a home pervaded by a sense of culture and warmth. She also taught her children hard work and service. Anthony C. Lund, a close family friend, said of her: “No one ever left her door in want ... the well being of others was her chief concern ... she was a beautiful woman, whose superior culture and noble ideals became an inspiration to all who knew her.”

In 1897, at the age of 14, Herbert left home to study music in Germany and Switzerland, after which he toured the concert stages of Europe as a violinist. Returning home, he entered Columbia University in New York, emerging with a master’s degree in electrometallurgy in 1906 at the still-young age of 24. He managed mining properties in Idaho and Colorado for several years before taking up the reins of the family business in 1911, and now devoting to it his best energies and gifts.

He expanded the store, moved its location and eventually opened branch stores throughout the state. Then he built — and designed — the lovely Centre Theatre, the largest, best-equipped in the city at that time.

He began to sit on boards and enlist in service organizations until World War I intervened. He promptly enlisted in 1917 and served as major in the Ordnance Department until 1919.

Auerbach was proud of being a Westerner and developed an ardent passion for pioneer history and lore. He gathered books, manuscripts, documents and photos of the Old West into one of the most outstanding collections of its kind. His interest was extended to Mormon history. Throughout his life, he searched the states where the events of the LDS Church had taken place, from New York to Nauvoo, uncovering treasured relics associated with the Prophet Joseph and his family, and several pieces actually made by the youthful carpenter Brigham Young.

This priceless collection was for years exhibited in the Auerbach store, then presented wholeheartedly to the LDS Church.

Herbert Auerbach loved languages. He spoke French and German and knew Spanish well enough that he set himself the task of translation of early Spanish documents, including the 1776-77 journal of Father Escalante.

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