Nuestra Historia - Charles Ilfeld built business empire

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The most well known of the early Jewish settlers of Las Vegas was Charles Ilfeld, who came here in 1867, when he was only 20. He had arrived in Santa Fe two years earlier, emigrating from Homburg vor der Hohe, a town in Germany near Frankfurt, then part of the Prussian Empire. According to Ilfeld family history, Charles arrived in Santa Fe with only $5 in his pocket.      

He made his way to Taos, where he and Adolf Letcher operated a general merchandise store, Ilfeld starting first as an apprentice store clerk. Sensing greater opportunity along the main route of the Santa Fe Trail, Letcher and Ilfeld moved to Las Vegas in 1867. They hauled their merchandise over the mountains, through Mora, and into Las Vegas on a pack train of burros. (Accounts differ as to the size of the caravan, anywhere from 70 to 100 burros, one writer commenting that Letcher and Ilfeld hired the pack animals from Don Miguel Romero).

In 1874, Ilfeld bought out Letcher and established his own business in Las Vegas, occupying one or more buildings on the Plaza, and initially dealing in wool, piñon nuts, hardware, clothing and groceries. At about the same time he traveled back to Germany and brought back his bride, Adele Nordhaus, and his younger brother Louis Ilfeld. His brother-in-law, Max Nordhaus, joined the family a few years later and became Ilfeld’s lifelong business partner.    

Nephew Ludwig Ilfeld, longtime chief of the E. Romero Hose and Fire Co.,  arrived  in Las Vegas in 1892.

Charles Ilfeld purchased from Trinidad Romero the one-story house which Trinidad had built on South Gonzales Street, and there Ilfeld and his wife Adele made their home, in Old Town, with the Hispanic people. It has always been said that Ilfeld quickly learned to speak Spanish, and spoke it fluently, and that he was a genuine friend to the local Hispanic population, many of whom referred to him as Tío Carlos.

By 1882, Ilfeld had sufficient capital to construct the first phase of his three-story mercantile building next to the Plaza Hotel. Around 1890 he erected an identical addition, enlarging the building by almost two-thirds. The mercantile house was dubbed by locals as The Great Emporium, and was the beginning of the vast business empire known as the Charles Ilfeld Company, which would become the largest mercantile business in the entire Southwest.

In his new, grand building next to the Plaza Hotel, Ilfeld stocked the full basement floor with groceries, liquors, hardware and saddlery, while offering dry goods and furnishings on the ground floor. The second floor was for millinery, dressmaking and wholesale dry goods, and on the third floor, the Charles Ilfeld Company sold carpets and yard goods.

Within a few years the Ilfeld building was bursting at the seams, and  Ilfeld soon acquired the entire block behind the store, where he built an expansive compound of warehouses. The warehouses ran the entire block from  Hot Springs Boulevard to North Gonzales Street, and eventually included the area and buildings which had served as our first courthouse and jail, erected behind Miguel Romero’s home. (The entire Ilfeld warehouse compound was destroyed by fire in the mid-1950s, in a great conflagration which came close to engulfing both the Plaza Hotel and the Ilfeld building, as well as homes across the street on Hot Springs).   

Within a short time Ilfeld opened retail outlets in Watrous, Tecolote, Santa Rosa, Pastura and Corona, and around the turn of the century, Ilfeld stores opened in Gallup, Raton, Magdalena, Mountainair, Farmington, and Durango, Colo. By 1911, Albuquerque became the company’s new headquarters, under brother-in-law Max Nordhaus.

For another half century the Charles Ilfeld Company thrived as a major mercantile operation throughout New Mexico. In 1959 the company was purchased by Kimball Products Corporation of Fort Worth Texas, and after close to a century, ceased to exist as the Charles Ilfeld Company.   

Like many good men of great fortune, Ilfeld was philanthropic. Most noteworthy of his many projects was Ilfeld Auditorium, which was erected at his direction and with his capital, and remains the centerpiece of the Highlands University campus. Charles and his sons dedicated the beautiful Romanesque-style auditorium to Adele, who died in 1919, and had come to Las Vegas from Germany in 1873 to become Charles Ilfeld’s young bride. (Both Adele and Charles, who died in 1929, served on the Highlands University Board of Regents).

Much earlier, Ilfeld was instrumental in building the first Jewish synagogue in New Mexico, Temple Montefiore, which stands to this day.

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Next: Congregation and Temple Montefiore and the Taichert family.

Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian.  He may be reached at 425-3730.