In New York harbor on a mid-September day in 1844, a long voyage to America came to an end for a 21-year-old Bavarian man named Hajum Lehmann. He adopted the Americanized name Henry Lehman and set out to find his way in the New World. The business he launched a few years later with two of his younger brothers grew from small Alabama beginnings into one of the largest companies in American history.
Lehman arrived in Mobile a few months after getting to New York. There, he obtained an important education in the cotton-based economy of Antebellum America. Along Mobile’s crowded docks, Lehman could observe cotton from the hinterland departing on ships bound for textile factories in New England and Europe. At the same time, goods, supplies and home furnishings — most of them paid for with cotton profits — arrived in Mobile and were loaded onto smaller vessels headed upriver. Sensing opportunity to occupy that necessary middle ground between producer and consumer, young Lehman followed the waters northward.
The place Henry Lehman chose to hang his shingle was Montgomery. His arrival came shortly after the riverside town was selected as the site of the new state capital. Lehman rented a small wooden structure on Commerce Street, which would serve as business and residence in the lean, early years. He styled himself as a grocer, a procurer of a great miscellany of general merchandise, including dry goods, seeds, glassware and crockery.
Soon, his younger brother Mendel arrived, taking the name Emanuel Lehman. After another year, they moved to larger quarters at No. 17 Court Square and soon earned enough money to buy the building. In 1850 a third brother, Maier, entered the business. He adopted the Americanized spelling Mayer upon his arrival.
The size and scope of Lehman Bros. grew in tandem with Montgomery’s fortunes during the 1850s. Both were inextricably linked with cotton and, by extension, the institution of slavery. Farmers purchased clothing, seed, fertilizer and the finer trappings of life from Lehman Bros., often on credit paid for in cotton at the end of the year. The Lehmans also kept up an informal system of loans to cash-strapped farmers in the form of crop liens paid with a percentage of their harvest. The company, in turn, held the cotton until the price was right to maximize profits so they could purchase more merchandise to begin the cycle anew. Situated near the center of the slave trade in the capital city, it is likely the Lehman Bros. warehouse utilized enslaved labor. In 1860, Mayer Lehman was listed as the owner of seven enslaved persons.
The brothers Lehman settled into their respective roles in the business. While his elder brothers traveled, Mayer Lehman remained in Montgomery and minded the store. Emanual made yearly trips to New York to replenish their merchandise. After the crop-lien portion of the business grew sufficiently to justify a satellite office in the nation’s financial capital, Emanual Lehman divided his time between Montgomery and Manhattan. Henry traveled frequently to the important port city of New Orleans, where the company would later open an office. During a trip to the Crescent City in the fall of 1855, Henry Lehman died of yellow fever.
Emanuel and Mayer Lehman carried on without their oldest brother, building upon the business he started. The outbreak of the Civil War posed a grave threat to their interests, particularly after the imposition of a blockade of Southern ports. In the fall of 1861, the company announced that it had acquired, at great expense, a number of items that would have been in high demand in Montgomery, including salt, sugar, coffee and shoes. The cost of the items was exorbitantly high, one newspaper editor noted, “owing to the hardness of the times.” Lehman Bros. was among the financiers of a small but effective fleet of blockade runners, fast ships laden with cotton that slipped from Southern ports and evaded the Union Navy. In his 1864 message to the legislature, Alabama Gov. Thomas Hill Watts praised the Lehmans as “having furnished, during the entire war, valuable material for the army.” Mayer Lehman later raised money to aid Alabamians held in Union POW camps.
In 1862, Lehman Bros. took on a new business partner, a 28-year-old Georgian named John Wesley Durr. They purchased their former competitor’s cotton warehouse for $100,000, which today would be a multi-million-dollar acquisition. In April 1865, retreating Confederates set ablaze most of the cotton in Montgomery, an estimated 80,000 bales, to keep it out of the hands of advancing Union troops. The warehouse and entire inventory of Lehman, Durr & Co. was lost. Six months later, an advertisement touted the quick completion of the company’s new cotton warehouse, noting with perhaps a hint of irony that the facility was “as nearly FIRE-PROOF as a building can well be made.” By the end of the year, the company shed its remaining general merchandise concern and devoted itself exclusively to the business of storing and selling cotton. During the 1866 harvest season, the company handled 22,055 bales.
Lehman Bros. navigated the postwar economy through a series of direct investments in textile mills, railroads and other industries. At the same time, the company contributed in ways great and small to the financial health of a war-torn Alabama. In 1867, the business acted as a fiscal agent of the state, selling bonds and servicing its debts. The company engaged in humanitarian endeavors to provide corn and other foodstuffs to the destitute. “There is no firm that possesses in a greater degree the entire confidence of the public,” wrote the editor of a Wetumpka newspaper.
Mayer Lehman departed Alabama for New York in 1868, where the company was headquartered until its 2008 bankruptcy. The office in Alabama’s capital city continued operations for another four decades until 1913. By that time, a new generation of American-born Lehmans had ascended to lead the family business, more than six decades after Henry Lehman set up shop in Montgomery.
Historian Scotty E. Kirkland is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Wetumpka.
This story originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of Business Alabama magazine.