Born nearly 200 years ago on Oct. 11, 1820 and living into his 90s, Elias Bender lived a life full of variety and changes. Although not to be defined as a Napa County pioneer settler or mover-and-shaker, Bender lived far more than an ordinary life as he was a productive and influential man of his day.
Elias, Margaret Sharrar Bender — his wife of three years and possibly one if not both of their two daughters — Annie and Mary, arrived in California in 1853. They endured the perils and miseries common to those who dared to make the westward trek across the American plains and deserts via mule-teams and/or wagon trains. The Benders stayed briefly in Marysville, California before relocating and permanently settling in Napa.
Once in Napa, Elias found employment at a local shoe manufacturer, possibly Evans Shoe Factory. He continued in this line of work while he established a second career that eventually proved to be quite lucrative. At first, Elias started in real estate to augment his income to provide a more comfortable life for his family.
In the late to mid-1850s, Elias purchased Block 2 of Napa’s Brown and Walker addition—part of today’s “Old Town” neighborhood. Elias then subdivided that block into a number of lots. Upon each parcel he and his construction crew built cottages. With the exception of the larger and very well appointed house reserved for the Benders, those cottages were constructed to serve as rental properties. He eventually sold those cottages.
Although the sale of those properties created a comfortable life for the Benders, Elias started two new and different lines of work concurrently. One was a draying and teaming business. While it generated a good living, Elias found his second new business to be very satisfying and fruitful.
Apparently, Elias was drawn to designing, creating, cultivating and maintaining what was called “market gardens.” In the late 1800s and early 1900s, these market gardens were large plots of land devoted to growing primarily vegetables destined for local and regional grocery stores, hotels, restaurants and such. Elias was extremely successful in this profession.
Regarding his professional qualities, Tom Gregory, author of the 1912 book “History of Solano and Napa counties, California,” added, “Industrious and painstaking in his work, upright in all business transactions and loyal to local projects, he was a man of considerable influence in his prime.”
Gregory continued with a review of Elias’s personal traits. “Personally he possesses admirable qualities. A firm believer in temperance, he carries his theories into actual practice and is proud of the fact that in all his life he has never chewed or smoked tobacco nor has he tasted of intoxicating liquor.” Gregory added, “Politically he is a Republican.”
At the time of his 1912 biography, Elias was approximately 92 years old and a widower. He lived in Napa at 213 North Randolph Street with his surviving and widowed daughter, Mary Bender Higgins.
His biography also detailed his life prior to his trek to California. In 1843, the 23 year old Elias left his parents’ Lancaster, Pennsylvania farm for Illinois. While there, in 1846, Elias enlisted in the First Illinois Infantry, Company F, to fight in the Mexican War. Stationed in the southwest for two years, Elias “participated in various engagements, notably the battle of Buena Vista,” wrote Gregory.
Following his honorable discharge, Elias returned to Illinois where he met and married Margaret in 1850. As previously mentioned, they trekked westward three years later. In conclusion, Gregory added, “Both in war and in peace he proved a loyal citizen, true to every trust and equal to every emergency.”