Failed Lehman Brothers Co. started in Montgomery

By Eileen Jones - bio | email

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - The stock market recovered a bit Tuesday after an awful day of trading on Monday. Part of the problem was the stunning announcement that the 158-year old Lehman Brothers had filed for bankruptcy.

Lehman is one of the top five investment banks in the world but it had humble beginnings right here in Montgomery.

The Lehman brother's multi-billion dollar business got started with a small general store. It all began when Henry Lehman emigrated here from Germany in the early 1840's. Even then, he showed an aptitude for high finance.

Historian Mary Ann Neeley explains. "He bought some goods in Mobile and then became a peddler and sold those goods on the way up to Montgomery."

He opened his small grocery store in downtown Montgomery in 1844 and called it H. Lehman. When his two brothers emigrated here they discovered their wealth from customers who couldn't pay.

According to Neeley, "Instead of being able to buy the groceries, they paid for it with cotton and pretty soon they realized the grocery business was not nearly as important as the cotton business."

Cotton was king then and the Lehman brothers were on the road to riches when they became commodities brokers. What is now Regions Bank on a downtown side street, was in the 1850's, on the second floor, the Lehman and Durr and Company commodities business and it grew and became very successful.

"The business really covered the eastern part of the United States - south to north at the time of the Civil War" says Neeley.

Their business survived the Civil War, World War I and World War II as well as the depression, but met its fate with sub-prime mortgages.

Neeley was surprised when she heard the news. "I was sorry. I was very sorry for the family - for the name Lehman Brothers which has such a sound, historic meaning here in Montgomery."

The Lehman brothers spearheaded the formation of the New York Cotton Exchange and also helped establish the Coffee and Petroleum Exchanges. The Lehman Brothers Company was also the financial agent for the state of Alabama in the late 1860's.

You can read more about the Lehman brothers in Bob Howell's blog.