Elise Kelley Drexler

Mendocino County produced many memorable women, but one proudly declared her occupation as “Capitalist.” This was Elise Drexler, daughter of Mendocino coast pioneers William and Eliza Kelley.

A side portrait of the Kelley’s second daughter, Elise, in her twenties.

Born in 1866, she was educated at the public schools here, and then at a girls’ private school, and later went to Mills College in Oakland, at a time when only 2% of American women were getting a college education. She went to Europe as a teenager with her Aunt Abigail Blair and cousins, Jennie and Will, studying art and rounding out her education with travel. Throughout her life she was always on the go, repeatedly visiting Europe, as well as the Middle East, and Japan.

She didn’t want to follow tradition and was determined not to marry young, or to a local man, so she made the rounds as a debutante of high society in San Francisco. She worked hard on what would become her main claim to fame, her business acumen, which she inherited from her father. 

When she was twenty-seven, Elise married Louis Drexler, a widower almost twice her age and a millionaire. The intimate ceremony took place at the Kelley residence. Six years later, he was dead, leaving 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 contained a clause that said she could not sell certain valuable properties, only manage them and collect the rents. 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.

Elise loved buying and selling commercial properties, and championed women’s rights. She supported prohibition to such an extent that tenants could not sell wine or intoxicating beverages on her properties.

She liked swapping properties, one time trading a seven-story building with stores, offices, electricity, steam heat, plumbing and elevators for a 3,200-acre property 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.

She encouraged A. P. Giannini to open the Bank of Italy in one of her buildings 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 ranches near Placerville and Stockton and prune orchards in Anderson.

Financially, she helped out family members, purchasing the large house on Sixth Avenue near the Presidio in San Francisco for Otis, her younger brother, and his eight children. Four of them lived there until the last died in the 1980s. 

While Elise lived almost all of her life in San Francisco, she did not neglect Mendocino and came here often to visit with her mother and with older sister, Daisy MacCallum. Here she donated in 1903 the bell for the Kelley Baptist Church, which her father had built for her mother. She donated books to the public libraries that came and went in those early days. The beach at Agate Cove received her attention in 1913 with better access paths and stairways, and she cleaned up Hillcrest Cemetery where her family had its burial plot. 

Elise’s visits here often coincided with a stop at nearby inland resorts. Society columnists in newspapers noted her visiting Geyser Hot Springs east of Cloverdale in 1910. All the Kelleys loved to go to the hot springs for their curative powers and social life.

Moving to Woodside in 1913, Elise built a home designed by California’s first licensed architect, Julia Morgan. Then she began the biggest philanthropic effort of her life. She founded in Palo Alto The Convalescent Hospital and School for Crippled Children, known as Drexler Hall. It started with a $16,000 grant for nurses’ quarters and a girl’s housekeeping unit. Crippled children were taught tailoring, stenography, and cabinetmaking. In 1916 she provided a million-dollar bequest for the institution’s future. At her death in 1951, she left Jean, her niece and long-time companion and assistant, a $900,000 estate.

Elise had a life so full of accomplishments, that a short column like this cannot do it justice. Do come into the Kelley House to learn more about her and the rest of the family at our new Kelley Family exhibit. Museum hours: Thursday through Sunday, 11am to 3pm. www.kelleyhousemuseum.org