Michael “Big Mike” Goldwater: Founder of Arizona Retailing & Political Dynasties

Michael “Big Mike” Goldwater (Goldvasser) 

Michael "Big Mike" Goldwater,#WS1228

Michael “Big Mike” Goldwater,#WS1228

Values Codes I – E – L – P


Michael Goldvasser was born in 1821 — one of 22 children — in Konin, Poland.

He left Poland in 1837 to avoid army service.

After spending 11 years in Paris, he moved to London in 1848.

In London, Michel Goldvasser anglicized his name to Michael Goldwater.

While in London, he married Sarah Nathan in 1850.

Together they had 8 children.

Both Michael and Sarah Goldwater were trained tailors.

“Big Mike” was so nicknamed because he was 6’3”.

Joined by his shorter brother Joseph (“Little Joe”) Goldwater, Michael Goldwater left for the United States, in 1852.

Sarah Goldwater and her two children, Caroline and Morris followed a little later.

Arriving in New York, they immediately booked passage on a steamer to the Isthmus, made their way across it, and picked up another steamer heading north to Yerba Buena (San Francisco).

After two years of working in San Francisco (1852-54), they arrived in Sonora in the California Gold Country.


Business of the “Goldwater Clan”

In Sonora, the Goldwaters supported themselves running a saloon under a bordello.

When the business failed, Sarah Goldwater opened a tailor ship.

In 1857, the Goldwaters moved to Los Angeles operating a billiard parlor and a dry goods store near the Bella Union Hotel.

Due to debts incurred in Sonora, the Goldwaters were forced to file for bankruptcy.

Sarah Goldwater did not appreciate the rough life she and Michael led in Sonora.

After a decade in Los Angeles with her husband she moved back to San Francisco and this became the Goldwater family’s permanent home base.

Sarah never lived in Arizona.

Michael made frequent trips to the Bay Area to restock, but the couple was often separated for months at a time.

In 1860, “Big Mike” Goldwater took a wagon load of goods to Gila City, a mining town in Arizona.

He sold everything for a good profit.

Goldwater & Bros Store, Prescott, AZ, 1880's. #WS1227

Goldwater & Bros Store, Prescott, AZ, 1880’s.

In 1862, the Goldwaters opened a store in La Paz, Arizona, underwritten by Los Angeles capitalist, Bernard Cohn.

Extending credit to the Vulture Mine paid off for the Goldwater Brothers.

They opened a second store in Ehrenberg when the Gila River changed its course.

By 1867, the Goldwater Brothers were able to buy out Mr. Cohn.

Moving to Prescott, their company, J. Goldwater & Brother, began hauling freight as a sideline.

In 1872, the first Phoenix Goldwater Store opened with Michael Goldwater’s son Morris managing.

Morris Goldwater had trained in San Francisco as a hatter and was also the official telegrapher for the Federal Government in the Phoenix store.

However, due to low profit, the Phoenix store was closed, in 1875.

In 1879, Goldwaters of Prescott opened.

“The Best Always” was its advertised motto.

Morris Goldwater, Prescott, AZ, 1880s, #WS1230

Morris Goldwater, Prescott, AZ, 1880s,

Morris Goldwater managed it with great success.

On the top floor was a Masonic meeting place.

In 1880,  Joseph Goldwater sold his share of the business.

A new store and larger store was built at corner of Cortez and Union Streets with a Masons’ Meeting Hall on the second floor.

In 1882, younger brother Baron Goldwater arrived from Philadelphia where he had been trained in department store merchandising in the famous Wannamaker’s Department Store.


“Michael Goldwater had one of the best teams of horses in Arizona.  He was on his way to Prescott when he was warned by a soldier that the Apaches were a few miles ahead and it would be dangerous for him to go down the road.  He replied that the roads were built for the citizens of Arizona and that no damn Apache could stop him.  When he came to the Apaches he whipped up his horses and drove through them, but then found he had acquired an arrow in his leg.”

— Charles M. Wollenberg, Recollections of Arizona, 1876-1891


In 1883, the Bisbee branch store was robbed, resulting in 3 murders and 5 hangings.

Michael Goldwater then retired to San Francisco.

Michael Goldwater’s sons Morris, Henry, and Baron continued on with the Prescott store until 1890’s when Baron convinced his brothers that Phoenix, now the state capital and growing rapidly, was the prime location for the next phase of Goldwater’s.

The famous Goldwater’s Department Store of Phoenix opened, in 1896.Goldwater Logo

Baron Goldwater eventually became the lead manager, followed, after his death by his sons, Barry and Robert Goldwater.

Goldwater’s Department Stores were eventually sold to Associated Dry Goods, and under went various name changes.

The remaining stores today are Macy’s.


Michael “Big Mike” Goldwater



Michael Goldwater became Mayor of Prescottt, Arizona, in 1885.



Michael Goldwater was a member of several Mason’s lodges: Tuolumne Lodge #8; Los Angeles Lodge #42 F&M; San Francisco Fidelity Lodge #120 F&M.



Michael Goldwater served as: Vice President of the Hebrew Benevolent Society of Sonoma, California; Vice President of the Congregation B’nai B’rith (Whilsire Boulevard Temple) in Los Angeles; and Vice President of Congregation Sherith Israel of San Francisco. He established the custom of the Vice President administering Hills of Eternity, the congregation’s cemetery in Colma, California, established in 1889.

He was later President of the first Hebrew Benevolent Society, San Francisco (1897).

Also in San Francisco, Goldwater was a member of the Eureka Benevolent Society and Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum.

Hebrew Benevolent Society, San Francisco, Dues Book, Signed, M. Goldwater, President, 1849, #WS2236

Hebrew Benevolent Society, San Francisco, Dues Book, Signed, M. Goldwater, President, 1849, #WS2236


Michael Goldwater married Sarah Nathan in the Great Synagogue of London, in 1850.

Their children were Caroline (Mrs. P.N. Aronson), Morris, Baron, Manny (aka Henry), Sam, Ben, Lizzy, Leonora (aka Annie — Mrs. Ralph Prager).

Morris Goldwater served as: Mayor of Prescott from 1879-1927 (on and off for a total of 20 years), President of the Twentieth Territorial Council, councilman of Prescott, member of the 12th Territorial Council of Yavapai County, Chairman of the Territorial Democratic Central Committee, Supervisor of Yavapai County, President of the 20th Territorial Legislature, and Vice President of the Arizona Constitutional Convention.

Baron Goldwater was the father of Senator Barry Goldwater.


Michael “Big Mike” Goldwater passed away in 1903, in San Francisco.

Sarah Nathan Goldwater passed away in 1905, in San Francisco.

They are buried in the Hills of Eternity Cemetery in Colma, California, next to brother, “Little Joe” Goldwater.


“In spite of things you may hear and read, I would contend that the thing the Goldwaters have done best for the past hundred years in Arizona is sell pants.  At different times there have been Goldwater stores at La Paz, Ehrenberg, Prescott, Parker, Seymour, Lynx Creek, Phoenix, Bisbee, Fairbank, Contention, Tombstone, Benson and Critenden (not only are all the Goldwater stores gone now, but so are many of those towns).  In the early days our family tried to meet every need of their communities…at first our store took pride in supplying most of the clothing, household, food, farm and industrial needs of pioneer towns.  A customer could be completely outfitted at Goldwater’s-from cradle to grave.  There are pages in old company ledgers that actually relate the sale of baby wear and hardware for coffins on the same day.  We sold everything the prospector needed from drill bits and black powder to demijohns of whiskey. We stocked groceries and stock feed; shoes and hats; furniture from Austria and herrings from Holland; horseshoes and horse collars; we had lamps and rugs for the front parlor, spices and soap for the kitchen, and anything needed for the outhouse.  Goldwater’s was a complete store.” 

– Senator Barry Goldwater

Michael & Sarah Goldwater, Hills of Eternity, Colma, CA, #WS1229

Michael & Sarah Goldwater, Hills of Eternity, Colma, CA, #WS1229


  • William M. Kramer and Norton B. Stern, “Early California Associations of Michael Goldwater and His Family,” Western States Jewish Historical Quarterly 4/4.

Regina Merwin is curator of this Goldwater Family exhibit.


Multi-Generational Jewish Department Stores of the West

Neiman-Marcus of Dallas, Texas

Hamburger’s Department Store of Los Angeles, California

Gump’s of San Francisco, California

Meier & Frank of Portland, Oregon

Auerbach’s of Salt Lake City, Utah

Goldwater’s of Phoenix, Arizona

May Co. of St. Louis, Missouri