Lumber was one of the first things that put Muscatine on the map, and one of its first sources of wealth. Benjamin Hershey, one of the original lumber barons, built his wealth by acquiring a sawmill and bank. One of his four daughters, Almira (often called Mira), inherited both his money and his business acumen.
Mira was incredibly generous with that money. To honor her father, she built Hershey Hospital, dedicated to caring for all the sick without regard to race, status, or income. She later added a home for the nurses who worked there. She bankrolled the funds to build and maintain the Lutheran Homes, a sanctuary for the elderly and orphans. She built the Hershey Building in downtown Muscatine. She helped finance the construction of the YWCA's original building.
Then, she went to California in 1894, fell in love with it, and moved there, continuing her philanthropy while acquiring lots of real estate and also having a really good time dancing with movie stars at her latest acquisition, the Hollywood Hotel. It was said that Rudolph Valentino was discovered there. A niece of novelist Anita Loos recalled that Mira, “had a habit of stepping out on the veranda edging the curved palm-lined driveway to oversee the leisurely flow of traffic. Her bifocals must have interfered with her perspective for she was known to trip and fall down the steps. So, their edges were painted white, and the bellhops stood by to catch her if she fell. Once a month she drove her electric automobile down to Spring Street to see her lawyers. She usually forgot where she parked it, and the police department was called to help her find it.”
Mira was born in 1843. She had three sisters, two of whom died young. After studying in Berlin for several years, she returned to Muscatine where she was secretary for her father at the mill which eventually became the Mira Hershey Lumber Company; she later was on the board of his bank. The Biographical Dictionary and Portrait Gallery of Muscatine, published in 1893, describes her as ranking high as an artist and musician with a, “mind stored with the best thoughts of the best authors.” She had, “a genial, sunny disposition, and dispensed gladness and sunshine,” wherever she went.
After moving to California, she continued her generosity: she presented UCLA with its first on-campus dormitory and, because the California types were jealous of the hospital she gave Muscatine, she established the Good Hope Hospital (later the Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center), where persons of moderate means were treated and paid whatever charges they could afford to pay; she made up the difference between their payments and the normal hospital charges. She also left $100,000 as a loan fund for UCLA students.
She died in her suite in her hotel in 1930. Mira was a pioneer in real estate and a philanthropist of the first order. Muscatine was lucky to have her as a benefactor.
This article was written by Kristine Conlon. A group of local women came together in 2020, as part of the Iowa League of Women Voters' "Hard Won. Not Done.” commemoration, to celebrate the centennial of the 19th Amendment. This amendment gave women the right to vote. The project was entitled Muscatine Women of Influence and Inspiration. The committee selected women from the past century to research; they then wrote short biographies on the work of these women and their lives in our community. Although we don’t know if they were suffragists, their actions helped advance women’s rights. The women featured chose independent paths and made a difference in times when society did not encourage or expect it of them.