Merrill learned finance on the streets of Green Cove Springs

By Mary Jo McTammany
Posted 8/8/18

Finance guru, Charlie Merrill was born in bustling Green Cove Springs in 1885. He grew up nurtured by the talented, hard-working and adventurous families who were focused on creating a thriving …

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Merrill learned finance on the streets of Green Cove Springs

Posted

Finance guru, Charlie Merrill was born in bustling Green Cove Springs in 1885. He grew up nurtured by the talented, hard-working and adventurous families who were focused on creating a thriving community in a place which only a few years before could have easily been labeled primitive frontier.

Added to that mix from roughly November to early spring came the powerful industry giants, wealthy tourists and invalids fleeing bitter, killing cold of Northern cities.

Both locals and winter visitors knew Charlie and reveled in recounting the exploits of “Doc” Merrill’s boy, Charlie.

His father, Charles Morton Merrill, graduated from the University of New York’s prestigious medical school and soon after graduation was inspired to follow the siren’s song lure of opportunities in Florida.

He settled in the thriving tourist town of Green Cove Springs on the St. Johns River, purchased an orange grove and opened a drugstore and soda fountain adjacent to his medical offices.

Merrill met and married Olivia Wilson of the large and influential Clay County family. Of the local belles, she was considered a prime catch. As a charming, industrious professional, so was he. Neither one was hard to look at. Nor did they have any inkling of the challenges raising their first born would bring.

When young Charles’ sister, Edith, arrived seven years later, he was allowed to spend more time on his own. The charismatic and observant child soon knew everyone in town from all stations and every walk of life. And they knew him.

His antics were endless, but always had an underlying hint of the entrepreneur. He demonstrated early an uncanny and precocious awareness of human nature and a boundless curiosity.

Like his 10-year-old peers, Charlie spent every daylight hour in the area around the White Sulfur Spring and pool. He conjured up a scheme to feed the male desire to bet on anything. He soon had takers wagering against his claim that he could swim the length of the huge pool with only one breath. Young Charlie took naturally to numbers and knew all about odds, but he saw no need to cover the bets because he knew the outcome.

He would dive in and swim deeply to catch the powerful 3,000 gallons per minute stream coming into the pool and simply ride it to the end. Everyday there were new tourists and takers but when his face and skill became too familiar, he farmed out the scheme to a small group of friends and took a commission.

Charlie’s next enterprise on record came about when his father put him to work behind the soda fountain. He noticed that when fathers brought the kiddies in for a treat, the stay was brief and the proceeds lean. Charlie worked a deal with a local moonshiner and invented a carbonated drink with a punch. Profits went up, but the local saloon owner ratted to his dad and Charlie was out of a job.

In 1898, the family moved to Jacksonville and Charlie always, much to his parents’ chagrin, had side jobs. His mom, Octavia Wilson, finally became so annoyed at never knowing exactly what he was up to that she enrolled him in Stetson University’s college preparatory school to focus on his academics. After graduation from Amherst College, he was off to where he had really been heading all his life – New York City, the financial capital of the world.

He worked as an investment banker and was the first to see that chain stores would dominate the retail market. In 1914, he began his own investment banking firm, Merrill Lynch and Co., controlling securities of S.S. Kresge, J.C. Penney and Safeway Stores. He was a millionaire, but just starting.

Merrill saw the weakness and corruption of the pre-depression stock market and publicly predicted the crash. He closed the brokerage part of his firm, Merrill Lynch and Company, and pulled all his clients out of the market a full 8 months before the crash of October ’29.

In 1940, Merrill reopened his brokerage and launched a campaign to offer the benefits of stock investment to the average family “bringing Wall Street to Main Street.” Turning stock investing on its head, the brokerage advertised its services, sought small accounts, offered client education, and paid brokers a salary to discourage frequent buying and selling of equities to produce commissions.

Charles Merrill died in 1956 having amassed a fortune in investments and opening the doors for just regular people, to do the same.

In Clay County, there are still people telling stories about young Charlie Merrill.

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