Biography of Henry J. Helmers, Sr.
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Henry J. Helmers, Sr. The high rewards attainable through a life of industry, guided by a strong sense of integrity, are strikingly exemplified in the career of Henry J. Helmers, Sr., president of the Helmers Manufacturing Company of Leavenworth, and one of that city’s leading business citizens. Starting life handicapped by a lack of education, without financial assistance or influential friends, he had made his own way, fought his own battles and established for himself a place of honor and eminence in a community in which the mere occupancy of position is an indication of the possession of more than ordinary ability.
Henry J. Helmers, Sr., is a native of Germany, and was born March 11, 1842. When an infant in arms he was brought to America by his parents, John H. and Sophia (Meyer) Helmers, the family crossing the ocean on one of the old slow-going vessels which made port at New Orleans. From that city the little party made its way by steamboat up the Mississippi to St. Louis, and then to Hermann, Missouri, in the vicinity of which place Mr. Helmers’ father engaged in farming. About the year 1870 the parents removed to Leavenworth, Kansas, and here both passed away.
Henry J. Helmers was one of a large family of children, as well as one of twin brothers. He was reared near Hermann, Gasconade County, Missouri, and when old enough was put to work on the home farm, thus having no opportunities to secure much of an education. He worked hard and early in life had impressed upon him the three cardinal virtues of German training: industry, frugality and self-denial. At the age of sixteen years he left the parental roof, coming to Leavenworth by steamboat from Jefferson City. He arrived here in 1858 and was hard pressed. For a time he was compelled to work at whatever employment presented itself in order to gain the means of subsistence. In April, 1859, he became a cabin boy on the old steamboat Media, plying between St. Joseph and St. Louis, and at high stage of water going as far as Omaha. At the close of that season he found himself in St. Louis and was again forced to work at tasks that were neither pleasant nor congenial. After several weeks of this rough life he began to think. He realized that he was not getting ahead or accomplishing anything, and it was at this period that it occurred to him that if he ever amounted to anything he would have to change his tactics radically. He was handicapped by his lack of an education, and after considering the matter decided to became a barber. After visiting several shops in an endeavor to get work as an apprentice, he finally made a contract to serve two years, the first year receiving only his board and washing for his tutelage, and the second year to receive, in addition, a salary of $5 per month, the proprietor to retain half of this sum until the close of the year. This contract, Mr. Helmers states, is the only one he ever broke in his life. His employer’s manner was so unbearable and the business was so disagreeable, that within three months he decided to throw up his job. He was $5 in debt and the man who had lent him the money was pressing him for payment. To reimburse this party he borrowed $5 from a friend, this being just a short time before he left the shop. In sweeping out one evening, he found $7 and as no one claimed to have lost any money he kept this amount and repaid his friend the $5 loan. In a short time thereafter, in the same shop and in the same way, he again found a $5 and a $2 bill. This may have been Providence; it may have been luck; it could be called anything; it is one of the things in life that leads some of us to believe that a man’s destiny is in a measure foreordained. Since that time Mr. Helmers had missed many sums from his pocket; probably lost; but on the occasions when it had happened he had never allowed it to give him one thought of regret. His prayer had always been that the money thus lost might help some struggling youth who was in as dire need as he had been.
Mr. Helmers finally mustered the trade and became a journeyman barber, working as such at St. Louis until October, 1860. At that time he went to Independence, Missouri, and worked again as a journeyman until October, 1861, and, after a short visit to his parents, opened a shop of his own at Herman. He remained there until June, 1863, when he found himself possessed of $300, and at that time enlisted in the Missouri State Militia and served for about ninety days. Mr. Helmers next went to Raleigh, Phelps County, Missouri, where he opened a shop and remained for two years and eighteen days, and the great number of army men there who patronized his place of business enabled him to clear $5,000 and a good suit of clothes. The war was now closed and his shop, and, in fact, the entire town was burned, so he returned to Herman, on another visit to his people. At this time he renewed the acquaintance of a friend of his youth, Miss Paulina Christel, who became his wife, August 27, 1865.
Prior to his marriage, Mr. Helmers had decided to locate permanently in some locality, and had visited Kansas City, Nebraska City and Leavenworth. He finally decided upon the latter city, located here in August, 1865, and had continued to reside in this place to the present time. He opened a barber shop and conducted it successfully until 1879, but, in the meanwhile, in 1874, had added a modest barber supply business to his regular establishment. In 1879 he disposed of his barber business and thereafter gave his entire attention to the supply line, which he followed until 1881, in which year he added the manufacture of furniture. This was conducted as Helmers & Parmelee until June, 1887, when the entire business was destroyed by fire, with about $87,000 insurance, which still left, however, a loss of $12,000. The partnership at this time was dissolved and in 1888 Mr. Helmers organized the Helmers Manufacturing Company, for the manufacture of furniture and barber chairs. This business had been continued ever since, but for the past twenty years the barber fixtures department had not been in existence, the company manufacturing only a general line of furniture and doing jobbing. The plant at Leavenworth now covers some fifteen acres of ground and furnishes employment for from 175 to 200 employes. In 1901 Mr. Helmers established a branch business at Kansas City, and in 1905 built a jobbing house there, a seven-story brick structure, 122 by 250 feet, which is devoted entirely to jobbing.
In addition, Mr. Helmers is a director in the Leavenworth Savings & Trust Company, a stockholder in the Manufacturers National Bank of Leavenworth, a stockholder in the Wulfekuhler State Bank of Leavenworth and a director in the Midwest National Bank of Kansas City. In 1868 he had impressed upon him the fact that he was handicapped in business because of a lack of education and at this period he bought a life membership in a local business college. An opportunity offered he studied and in the course of time remedied in a large degree the deficiency. He had also been a great reader, and today is considered unusually well informed. Mr. Helmers is a Lutheran in religion. He is a republican in politics, but had never aspired to public office.
Mr. and Mrs. Helmers have been the parents of eleven children, as follows: Pauline, who is deceased; Henry J., Jr.; Laura, who is deceased; Caroline; George J.; Oscar; Lucy, who is deceased; William; August, who is deceased; Edward and Minnie.