By Sue Blesi
Franklin County Historian
Elmer Ray Jones, born Feb. 26, 1874, in Granby, Mo., had deep roots in Franklin County. This amazing man became a Wells Fargo-Adams Express agent in Webb City at age 19. By age 49, he was president of Wells Fargo, a position he held until age 82. He died on Aug. 17, 1961, at age 87.
Wells Fargo began operations during the 1849 California Gold Rush, when it operated its own mail service, pioneering stagecoach lines. The company took on the challenge of dealing with the spectacular growth of California, when the West was truly wild.
Carrying millions of dollars worth of gold bullion, it was the target for many a robbery heist, but its customers never lost money. It built a stagecoach empire, an empire that couldn’t hold its own when transcontinental railroads traversed the nation. Or could it?
Elmer was the son of Thomas Levi Glanville Jones and his wife, the former Sarah J. Bailey, both Franklin County natives. His paternal grandparents were John and Mary (Thornhill) Jones, and his maternal grandparents were William C. and Elizabeth (Pepper) Bailey.
Throughout his life, Elmer credited his Missouri roots for providing him with the tools for success: decency, honesty, cleanliness, neatness, promptness, hard work and belief in the Golden Rule and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
Elmer Ray Jones was a self-made man. Jones told a Saturday Evening Post reporter that his father went broke prospecting and died when Elmer was only 12, after which Elmer was thrown into the role of family breadwinner.
He delivered the St. Louis Chronicle and Kansas City Star in Carterville and Webb City, building the circulation for those newspapers from nothing to 400 copies a day in four years. By the age of 14, he was earning $12.50 a month as a flunky hauling express from the railroad depot to various locations around town for a joint Wells Fargo-Adams Express agency.
According to an obituary printed in the New York Times, Jones attended the University of Missouri on a two-year military scholarship and graduated from Carthage (Mo.) Business College in 1892. Years later, in 1914, he earned a law degree from the University of Southern California.
He maintained membership in both the California and American Bar associations, but Wells Fargo was the only client he ever represented. He won an important case before the California Railroad Commission.
Jones once said he believed if a person had a profession, he could go out and make a living on his own if he happened to lose out in business. He covered that backup plan thoroughly.
When Elmer returned to Webb City at age 19, he was given the post of Wells Fargo route agent and, not being a job-hopper, he stayed with the company for 63 years. It was an action-packed career.
Assigned to find new business for his employer, Elmer organized some of the early fruit grower associations among farmers between Kansas City and Shreveport. In Gentry, Ark., the farmers refused to pick fruit on the Sabbath, no matter how bad it needed to be done. He convinced the Baptists and Methodists to pick their fruit and that of the Seventh Day Adventists on Saturdays, while the Seventh Day Adventists were worshipping. Then, on Sundays, the Seventh Day Adventists would pick their fruit and that of the Baptists and Methodists.
With Wells Fargo interests in Mexico, Jones, who had learned to speak Spanish, maintained a penthouse apartment in Mexico City and spent much of his time there. In fact, he knew every president of Mexico over a 40-year period.
Wells Fargo had a monopoly on the express business in Mexico, and Jones was made president of Wells Fargo of Mexico. Jones had tripled Wells Fargo’s income in that country, at least until the Mexican Revolution of 1910 interfered with the express business. When Mexican bandits robbed the express cars of about $340,000, Jones negotiated and within six months, the money had been returned.
In 1914, after Pancho Villa captured Mexico City, Villa sent for Jones, who expected Villa to ask him to get express shipments back on schedule, and was totally caught off guard when he learned that Pancho Villa was going to have him shot. Jones and an assistant were held prisoner for two nights and a day, hearing other prisoners being marched out and shot.
Some behind-the-scenes work resulted in the two men being given safe-conduct passes out of Mexico.
After World War I, express companies in the United States had consolidated as American Express Agency, then as Railway Express. Wells Fargo practically had ceased to exist.
Jones and his associates bought the business. After acquiring it, Jones found a way to put the company back on its feet.
During the revolution, goods bound for Mexico City had been piling up at Veracruz because there was no rail transportation available. He got the government to give him permission to operate the line between Veracruz and Mexico City.
At his own expense, he had 100 freight cars built in the United States and sent to Veracruz by ship. Every night for the next 11 months, 22 railroad cars filled with merchandise made the trip from Veracruz to Mexico City. Wells Fargo made more than $1 million on this venture.
Jones even can be credited with the resumption of tourist travel from the United States into Mexico after the revolution. He bought a coconut grove and built a pavilion at Acapulco. He built a hotel, the Rancho Telva (named for his wife), which was surrounded by adobe-style bungalows.
In 1949, the year Wells Fargo celebrated its 100th birthday, the company transported $1,328,490,000 worth of gold for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York alone. That was more gold than was mined in California during the first 20 years after gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill.
Wells Fargo exists today because of Elmer Ray Jones. No longer involved in transportation, it is a leader in banking and finance.
Elmer Ray Jones married Marion Telva of Metropolitan Opera fame. She was a contralto from St. Louis who once sang with the St. Louis Symphony. They met in the 1920s and married in 1930. Her parents were Herman and Elsa Taucke of St. Louis. Telva was a stage name. Elmer and Marion had no children.
In addition to Elmer’s father, Thomas Levi Glanville Jones, the 12 children of Franklin County pioneers John and Mary (Thornhill) Jones were Louizanna (1815-1861), who married Benjamin Horine; Dr. Benjamin B. Jones, who married Mary Jane McKinney; William J., who married Fannie Haynes; Jonathan W., who married Marietta Musick; William Morgan; Sarah Ann, who married William Thornhill; Leonard Talbot, who married Martha Pepper; John Martin; George James; Louise; and David Jones.