At an inch below five feet, “Little Jake” Seligman really earned his nickname. But when it came to business, his innovative merchandising and advertising practices earned him a big reputation throughout the state of Michigan and beyond.
Born in Germany in 1838, Little Jake came to America in 1859. He was twenty-one but his small size made him look younger. After a year’s apprenticeship in a New York City tailor shop, he came to Pontiac, Michigan, with another tailor who was going into business for himself. Although his wages were pitifully small, he managed to save a few dollars every week and finally had enough to start a store of his own in Pontiac. He soon demonstrated that he had advertising and promotional skills which far exceeded anything the community of Pontiac had ever seen.
He came to Saginaw in 1872 as the lumber boom was in full swing and opened and stocked a store with credit from the Heavenrich Brothers.
Little Jake’s extensive and aggressive advertising in newspapers was something to behold. His ads were flamboyant, provocative, stimulating and very personal. He made sure that his name was emphatically put before the public: “Little Jake, the One-Price Clothier!”; “Little Jake, the Great Competitor!” He constantly announced that he had been on a buying trip and had returned with great values, buying in volume and with cash.
His advertising could be seen all over town—on streetcars, on fences, posts and buildings. He hired a tall Indian, dressed him in a scarlet British officer’s uniform and had him parade through the streets with a Little Jake sign. Knowing that the lumberjacks came into Saginaw with their pockets full of money, he would hire a band to meet their trains coming into the Potter Street Station and lead them to his store. He even hired an elephant to parade with the band. It was a grand spectacle and crowds came to see—and buy. He had auctions of liquidated stock and would attract a crowd by throwing free items from an upstairs window. He carried a full line of clothes in various departments, the forerunner of the modern department store.
Jake branched out into other businesses. In 1880, he bought the East Saginaw Street Railroad—a trolley company—from Jesse Hoyt and even had his own private streetcar. He started a bank, Little Jake’s Bank of Commerce. He expanded his banking business to Owosso and became president of the National Bank of Owosso. He owned a hotel, a bowling alley and a horse-trading stable, shipped hay to Eastern markets, ran a steamboat line and sold wholesale groceries.
As his businesses expanded, he sold half-interest in his store to Max and Carl Heavenrich and began dealing heavily in real estate. At one time he owned the Tower Block on Saginaw’s most prominent corner and presented the city with a clock for its tower (known, of course, as Little Jake’s clock) and an imposing statue of himself. When the statue blew down in a heavy storm during World War II, it was discovered that the statue wasn’t of Jake at all. Some guessed that it was actually an obscure Civil War general that Jake had picked up as a bargain. The statue went to a World War II scrap drive.
He became a popular figure and was widely recognized for his charitable gifts to the needy. He was an early member of Elks Lodge No. 47. His reputation spread well beyond the Saginaw Valley. In 1877, the Republican Party nominated him as its candidate for mayor of Saginaw. Although he was not elected, he made a very good showing.
Little Jake’s married life wasn’t successful. His first wife died in Pontiac. He married again when he was living in Saginaw. Their first and only baby—a little boy—died at six months and the resulting depression led to a divorce. In 1882, he sold the remaining interest in his store to Sam Heavenrich of Detroit; it continued for many years as Heavenrich Brothers and Company.
Little Jake’s health declined and in the 1890s, he moved to Salida, Colorado. He immediately made many friends there and had a number of successful business deals. He even received a franchise to build an electric power plant in 1902, and the editor of a Denver newspaper called him “the most popular man in the state of Colorado.”
Unfortunately, his health—and his luck—declined further, leading to his death by suicide in 1911. He left instructions to be buried with his son at Forest Lawn Cemetery. He also left a legacy of personal integrity and lavish generosity.
Even today, Little Jake is the stuff of legend. He was so well-known that a trotting horse, a cigar, an Arizona mine, a yacht and a baseball team were named after him. In 1978, historian John Cumming published a biography, Little Jake of Saginaw. In 2006, Jake’s Old City Grill opened at the corner of Court and Hamilton.
Copyright © 2018 Saginaw County Hall of Fame - All Rights Reserved.