Born on December 20, 1897, in a tiny Polish village named Cheremonshno, Morris Wolf came west when he was just 17. He heard America was plush with money and it was easy to be had. When he arrived at Ellis Island in New York and realized this was not the case, the savvy teenager with an incredible work ethic, motivation, and drive to succeed proceeded to walk a path of inspiration that resulted in Clark County businesses worth over $1 million.
“He heard that if you came to America the streets were paved with gold, and the Americans were too lazy to pick it up,” says Morris Wolf’s son, Les Wolf, managing partner of Wolf Commercial Properties. “I think he really believed that.”
Wolf learned that plenty of opportunity exists in America, but you must work hard to reap the fruit. With little money, Wolf wasted no time looking for work. Speaking Polish, German, and some Hebrew, Wolf scanned the New York want ads and spent mornings searching for employment. He finally found work at a box factory for $6 a week.
Wolf had two uncles in Portland, Oregon. They had come west several years earlier. Wolf saved his money and headed by train to Portland. But his uncles were junk dealers and did not want to support Wolf. “In those days,” shares Les spiritedly, “if you were a junk dealer, it meant you had a wheelbarrow with stuff in it.”
Determined, Wolf enrolled himself into first grade at Shattuck in Portland to learn how to read and speak English. The pace was slow for him, so he also entered night school. Then to help pay his way, he started selling newspapers. The principal of one of his schools was impressed with Wolf and invited him to speak in front of local business owners. This led to a job delivering groceries.
“He also was working in the back of a shoe store,” recalls Les. “One day, a shoe salesman did not show for work, and he became a shoe salesman.”
At 18, Wolf decided to join the United States Army during World War I because he could get early citizenship. “While he was in the Army, they taught him how to play poker,” says Les. “He won $600 playing poker, and with that, he came over to purchase the gas station in Vancouver on the corner of Eighth and Main Street.”
The little run-down one-pump gasoline station had a small store. This would be Wolf’s founding 1919 business. “He was in his early 20s,” remembers Les. “He pumped gas and ran the store.”
Wolf carried automobile accessories of the period in his small store. Eventually, the store became an automotive parts wholesaler.
Wolf started selling radios in the early 1920s. “He took on a line of RCA Radios going door-to-door to sell them,” says Les. “He was a great salesman – he really was – and this is what started him in the appliance business.”
Wolf was prospering. And by 1932, his business interests and inventory had grown so he moved to a larger business location at 901 Main Street (recently nominated for Clark County Heritage Register). “He got out of gas,” explains Les, “but he still sold auto parts and started adding appliances.”
Soon after setting up shop in the new location, a large portion of the city block burned down in 1933. Wolf’s business went up in flames. He was forced to rebuild in the middle of the Great Depression. According to the Clark County Historical Museum, Wolf rebuilt quickly and expanded his company. By 1934, he owned and operated Wolf’s Auto Supply Company, Wolf’s Department Store, and Wolf’s Radio and Electric, the latter being housed at 901 Main Street.
“He was very focused and organized,” shares Les. “He had a lot of employees for 20 or 30 years, and they loved him – they just loved him.”
Wolf’s success would lead to a furniture and appliance store on Broadway Street and Fourth Plain Boulevard in 1946. He also established Wolf’s Investment Company. In 1951, Wolf Supply Company was relocated to West Eleventh and Columbia Streets and is still in operation today.
“He taught me about responsibility,” says Les. “He was my idol and still is – when I was a teenager, he probably wasn’t my idol,” Les adds chuckling, “but now I’m older and wiser.”
When Wolf died in 1981, he was still active in his businesses even though he had handed the primary operations to his sons, Les and Martin Wolf.
The Wolf family still has a presence in Vancouver today, continuing to own and manage property in the city.