Mendocino County produced many memorable women but one from the Mendocino Coast proudly declared her occupation as a “Capitalist.” This was Elise Drexler, daughter of Mendocino coast pioneers William and Eliza Kelly.
Born in 1866 on the coast she was educated at a girls private school and went to Mills College in Oakland, at a time when only 2% of American women were getting a college education. She traveled extensively in Europe as a teenager with her sister Daisy and family members.
Determined not to marry young, or to a local man, she made the rounds of the high society in San Francisco on the debutant circle. She worked hard on what would become her main claim to fame, her business acumen, which she inherited from her father. She loved buying and selling commercial properties, took pleasure in wheeling and dealing business opportunities, championed women’s rights and supported prohibition.
At age 27 she married a man twice her age and a millionaire, Louis Drexler. In seven years he was dead and left Elise one of the richest women on the west coast. By 2006 accounting standards Drexler’s estate was worth $58 million.
There was only one problem. Her husband’s will said she could only manage his property holdings. Her inserted a clause that said she could not sell certain valuable properties. Mrs. Drexler came to public notice when she instituted a court case challenging her dead husband’s right to impose limits on what she could do. She won that court case and proceeded to make more millions.
Buying, selling and developing properties kept her busy. Drexler lost her home on Nob Hill in the 1906 Quake and lived in expensive hotels instead. She kept architects employed, including the now famous Julia Morgan, who designed Drexler’s retirement estate on 21 acres in Woodside.
Drexler was busy for years rebuilding her holdings in San Francisco after the quake. She liked swapping properties and traded a building she owned, seven stories high with stores, offices, electricity, steam heat, plumbing and elevators built after the quake at New Montgomery and Minna for 3,200 acre Roberts Island in the San Joaquin Delta where asparagus grew. It was a $250,000 trade. In 1904 her building on Market between Sixth and Seventh was earning $18,000 a year in rent.
A loyal member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union she would not allow wine or intoxicating beverages to be sold in buildings she owned. She encouraged A.P. Giannini to open the Bank of Italy in one of her building and it went on to become Bank of America.
With more than a dozen properties around San Francisco she stretched her land holdings beyond the city to Roberts Island in the Delta, to ranches near Placerville and Stockton and prune orchards in Anderson.
It’s easy to be beneficent when wealthy. She financially helped out family members and in 1903 donated a bell for the Baptist Church in Mendocino City, which her father had built, in honor of her mother Eliza. Society columnists in newspapers noted her visiting Geyser Hot Springs east of Cloverdale in 1910 and she wintered in Palm Springs and Riverside with her sister Daisy in 1942.
Elise Drexler moved permanently to Woodside in 1913 and began the biggest philanthropic effort of her life. She founded a convalescent hospital and school for crippled children in Palo Alto. It started with a $16,000 grant for nurses quarters and a girls housekeeping unit. Crippled children were taught tailoring, stenography and cabinetmaking, though kids with tuberculosis were not accepted. In 1916 she provided a million dollar bequest for the institutions future. At her death in 1957 she left her sister Daisy’s daughter a $900,000 estate as Elise never had children of her own.