Cleveland, William Davis (1839–1912)


By: Ron Bass

Type: Biography

Published: August 26, 2020

Updated: August 26, 2020


William Davis Cleveland, Houston merchant, cotton broker, and civic leader, was born in Dallas County, Alabama, on September 1, 1839, to Ezra Cleveland and Sarah Sheppard (Davis) Cleveland. While still a child, Cleveland moved to Austin County, Texas, with his parents. In 1858 he set out on his own and moved to Houston. Soon after he arrived in Houston he met businessman Alexander Sessums, who hired Cleveland as a clerk to help with his growing dry goods business. Sessums and Cleveland developed a strong personal friendship; both named children for each other.

During the Civil War Cleveland enlisted on October 23, 1861, and joined Company B, Tenth Texas Infantry. He served until he was captured in Franklin, Tennessee, on November 30, 1864. After the war, Cleveland returned to Houston and rejoined Sessums’s business. Sessums expanded to Galveston where his work grew as a commission merchant and by 1870 had moved to Galveston and left Houston operations to Cleveland. In 1869 William D. Cleveland married Justina Latham; they had seven children.

In 1872 Cleveland took over the interests of Sessums’s Houston business in Sessums’s former building at 37 Main Street at Franklin Avenue and renamed it “Wm. D. Cleveland, Wholesale Grocer and Commission Merchant.” Sessums died in 1873. In the aftermath of the Civil War and during Reconstruction, Houston’s economy suffered. The recession of the 1870s left the city with a huge debt, and business leaders pulled together to address these problems. Cleveland took a leadership role, served without pay on the city council, and often paid for city improvements out of his own pocket. A founding member of the Houston Board of Trade and Cotton Exchange, organized in 1874, he served as president three times.

During the 1870s Cleveland expanded both his mercantile trade and cotton factor business and emerged as the lead entrepreneur in the Houston market which, by 1877, was lauded as the best grocery and produce market in Texas. His growing business expanded into offices on the southeast corner of Travis Street and Franklin Avenue. Cleveland was also elected vice president of the Buffalo Warehouse and Cotton Compress Company, on the north side of Buffalo Bayou, and within two years became president. In 1880 he built a new mercantile on the northeast corner of Main and Commerce. His commission business, in particular, was thriving; in 1880 the company conducted what the local newspaper described as “the largest single cotton transaction ever made in Texas,” with the sale of 3,071 cotton bales for $150,000.

By 1885 his enterprise leased additional warehouse space for grocery operations in the former Sam Allen warehouse at 2nd Street and Railroad Street. That same year, with the expansion of his business, Cleveland brought in longtime employee Caesar M. Lombardi, who had joined the company in 1871 and knew all aspects of the business, as a partner. The business was renamed W. D. Cleveland and Company. In 1888 Cleveland was elected a director of the Union Compress and Warehouse Company. In 1889 he also invested in the growing cottonseed oil business with other local businessmen.

On April 7, 1893, the wholesale house of W. D. Cleveland and Company on the corner of Main Street and Commerce Avenue caught fire; the building and all its stock burned to the ground. To continue operations, Cleveland leased the nearby old electric light plant while he rebuilt at the northwest corner of Commerce and Fannin within a year. In 1894 his company began to manufacture baking powder and roasted coffee under the Apex Brand.

In 1898 partner Caesar Lombardi left the company to pursue other business and family interests. Cleveland brought his two sons (William Davis Cleveland, Jr., and Alexander Sessums Cleveland) and renamed the company W. D. Cleveland and Sons, then the largest wholesale grocery company in Texas. The company’s holdings included the Cleveland Compress and Warehouse Company on the east side of Hill Street (present-day Jensen Drive) at Buffalo Bayou. Nevertheless, Cleveland’s company was deeply in debt and in 1899 filed for bankruptcy. On the strength of Cleveland’s reputation, creditors agreed to allow the company to resume business operations, and he revitalized his wholesale grocery enterprise around its facilities at the foot of Main Street (Allen's Landing)

In 1907 Cleveland purchased the International Coffee Company of Galveston. He then constructed a building at Allen’s Landing (which was still standing in the 2020s) for his coffee roasting and distribution business, replacing an older two-story structure. The International Coffee Company roasted coffee from Central America under the Sunset Coffee label and distributed it throughout the southwest. On February 21, 1912, an enormous fire swept through the Fifth Ward and destroyed all facilities and stock of the Cleveland Compress Company.

Cleveland was an active city leader who served as a director for several local banks. Throughout his life he was a devoted member of Christ Episcopal Church and was superintendent of its Sunday School.

On December 22, 1912, at age seventy-three, William Davis Cleveland died of heart trouble at his home at 806 San Jacinto. He was buried at Glenwood Cemetery. His wife predeceased him. His sons continued to run the business until the Great Depression set in and the firm closed for good in March 1930. In 1927 William D. Cleveland Elementary School was constructed in Houston; the school closed in 1977. The W. D. Cleveland Warehouse on Commerce Avenue was demolished in 1973. As of the 2020s Cleveland was commemorated in Houston through Cleveland Park, Cleveland Street, and the International Coffee Company building, renovated in 2017, which briefly housed the psychedelic nightclub Love Street Light Circus and Feel Good Machine in the late 1960s.

Louis F. Aulbach, Buffalo Bayou: An Echo of Houston's Wilderness Beginnings (Houston: CreateSpace, 2011). Houston Post, December 24, 1912.

Categories:
  • Agriculture
  • Merchants
  • Business
  • Food Related
  • Founders and Pioneers
  • Company Founders
Time Periods:
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
  • Progressive Era
  • Reconstruction
Places:
  • Houston
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • East Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Ron Bass, “Cleveland, William Davis,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 26, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/cleveland-william-davis.

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August 26, 2020
August 26, 2020

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