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For many years the subject of this sketch has occupied a commanding position in the commercial and financial history of Portland. His career and achievements forcibly illustrate what may be accomplished by one who pursues earnest purposes and makes right use of his opportunities. Coming to Portland before it had outgrown the limits of an insignificant hamlet, he has grown with its growth until to-day he is one of the leading men of finance in the metropolis of Oregon.
He was born in Bavaria, Germany, November 5, 1829. At the age of eight years he accompanied his parents to America, the family consisting of seven children. They settled on a farm in St. Clair county, Illinois. Here the boyhood of young Dekum was passed, and during this period, owing to the humble circumstances of his parents, he can hardly be said to have received any educational advantages, as but one winter in a log school house completed his opportunities in this direction. What he has since acquired in the way of an education has been gained by self application and in the great school of experience. He remained with his father assisting him in the management of the farm until he reached the age of sixteen, when desiring to engage in some work which offered greater opportunities for advancement, he left home and went to St. Louis. Here he secured a position in a confectionery store as an apprentice to learn the trade of a confectioner. Having acquired a trade he determined to seek his fortune in the West. He had at this time read of the far away Territory of Oregon and was so much impressed by the story that he determined to visit the region. With only enough money to pay his passage by water, he left St. Louis on February 2, 1852, on a steamer via New Orleans, bound for the Isthmus of Panama. After a voyage of some four months he arrived in San Francisco, and being without funds he immediately went to work in the California mines where he continued until the spring of 1853 when he came to Portland. For a short time after his arrival he worked in a bakery, but in July, 1853, with Frederick Bickel, established the first fruit and confectionery store in Portland, under the well remembered firm of Dekum & Bickel. They had limited means at the start but both had practical experience in the business, and their trade soon grew to large proportions. Money gained in this enterprise the partners judiciously invested in real estate, and from this small beginning has grown the large fortune each possesses to-day. The firm was dissolved in 1878 after a continuance of a quarter of a century.
In 1880 Mr. Dekum became one of the incorporators of the Portland Savings Bank, an institution which has had a most successful career. He also took a leading part in securing the establishment of the Commercial National Bank of Portland, which was incorporated January 4, 1886. He was elected president of the Portland Savings Bank in 1886, and at the same time vice-president , of the Commercial National Bank, both of which positions he still holds. Though his connections with these two financial establishments consume the greater portion of his time, he is also interested in several other enterprises of important character.
In all of his business enterprises, Mr. Dekum has exhibited rare judgment, and has accumulated a large fortune. Progressive and public spirited he has borne a leading part in nearly every enterprise which has aided the upbuilding of Portland. In business and financial management, he has proved himself to be a force in this community, while the integrity of his course both public and private, command respect and esteem. He is charitable, and generously contributes to aid worthy objects. He is a charter member of the German Aid Society, which was established twenty years ago to render financial assistance to all of German birth who might be in need. He has always taken a warm interest in the establishment and maintenance of educational institutions, and was especially active in securing the organization of the present free school system.
Among the first of the citizens of Portland to foresee the destiny of the city, Mr. Dekum, at an early day, began the erection of large and solid buildings, putting in money in advance of the general growth of the city and leading the way to the development that has since followed.
Mr. Dekum bore a leading part in carrying out the novel idea of introducing into Oregon the song birds of Germany. In fact the idea originated with him, and in June, 1888, he secured the organization of a society for the introduction of these birds into Oregon. Mainly through his efforts a fund of $1,700 was raised by contribution of German, American and English citizens, and a contract was made with a resident of the famous Herz Mountains to capture and deliver to the society all of the song birds specified that were natives of that district.
He was also the prime mover in the organization of the old Portland Mechanic’s Fair Association, and the magnificent buildings and grounds of the North Pacific Industrial Association are entirely due to his public spirit and untiring energy. Both of these industrial expositions have been of incalculable benefit to the city and State, and important factors in promoting the mechanical arts, mining and other great industries of the Pacific Northwest.
Mr. Dekum was married in 1859 to Miss Fanny Reinig, of St. Louis, who died in 1877. They had eight children, five sons and three daughters, all of whom are living in Portland.
Physically Mr. Dekum is of a fine type. He is large of frame and has a well formed head, set off with snow white hair and beard. His ruddy face indicates sound health, while his keen, sparkling eyes display the cheerful and social nature of one determined to extract all the good things front life consistent with right living. All his life he has been temperate in habits, and to-day he has the elasticity of step and rapidity of movement associated with men many years his junior. His honesty and integrity are of the highest, and no man in Portland possesses more firmly the confidence of its business community. His success in life has been gained by his own exertions in legitimate business channels, and through the attainment of his present position of power and influence, the city and State of his adoption have been enriched in many ways.