Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Abraham Bomberger, shown here, and his two sons were Pennsylvania distillers who were part of a long liquor-making tradition while at the same time recognized as pioneers in the American whiskey industry. They also could boast that they ran the longest continuously operating distillery in America.
The Bombergers were Mennonites, a Christian sect that, escaping sectarian prejudice in Europe, were some of the earliest settlers in Pennsylvania, a state known for its religious tolerance. Mennonites in Europe for years had been engaged in distilling, the liquor trade and barkeeping. In northeastern Germany the terms “Mennonite” and “tavern” became almost synonymous, according to historians. Adherents literally had been forced into the trade after being barred from most other occupations by vocational guild restrictions.
Thus was natural that when Mennonite John Shenk and his brother Michael settled on Snitzel Creek near present day Schaefferstown, Lebanon County, he built a distillery in 1753, more than two decades before the Revolutionary War. Handed down within the Shenk family for more than a century, it was sold to Abraham Bomberger in 1860. He was a Shenk descendant through his mother, Elizabeth Shenk Bomberger.
Abraham also was a Mennonite, steeped in the tradition of that religious belief. Six years after after purchasing the distillery in 1866 he married Catherine Horst, shown here. She was the daughter of Samuel Horst and Catherine Schaeffer of Schaefferstown. Abe and Catherine would have two sons, Horst, born 1867, and Samuel, born 1879.
The Shenks had been farmer-distillers, turning home grown rye and corn into whiskey for local consumption. Abe Bomberger had bigger ideas. He rebuilt and expanded the still house, shown here, as well as the warehouse and the jug house. With these facilities he was able to increase production substantially. As a National Historical Landmark designation states: His complex “represents the transformation of whiskey distilling from an agricultural enterprise into a large scale industry.” An ad in an 1875 directory, shown here, emphasizes the primacy of distilling in Abraham’s endeavors.
Under his leadership Bomberger whiskey began to attract a wider region audience, requiring the hiring of non-family workers. Several are shown here, outside the distillery. As his sons reached maturity, he changed the name of his operation to Abraham Bomberger and Sons. With Abe’s death in 1904, Horst, in partnership with Samuel, took over the operation of the distillery and changed its name once again to “H.H. Bomberger,” as shown on a circa 1910 label.
Horst, shown here with his son Paul, appears to have been a demanding individual. About 1915, age 48, he suffered a stroke, was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, and was confined to a wheelchair. His pressures on Paul apparently were so onerous that the young man ran way, changed his name to Frank Smith and joined a circus.
Horst and Samuel kept the distillery going until the advent of Prohibition. What happened then was subsequently reported: “On the last day before the distillery closed down in 1919, customers came on that cold day to fill casks, bottles and tin cups and to drink their last rations of legal whiskey until Prohibition was repealed in 1933.” With the advent of Prohibition 167 years of Mennonite distilling tradition came to an end. Beset by illness Horst died in 1920.
After Repeal, the family sold the distillery to Pennco Distillers, who made whiskey in the facilities the Bombergers built until 1978 when the distillery was sold to the Michter Company who celebrated the Shenk-Bomberger Mennonite tradition in numerous ways, including a postal cover. For a decade Michter successfully promoted the site as a Pennsylvania tourist attraction. The company also issued a whiskey jug and candle holder in the Mennonite tradition, showing a dove of peace and citing the 1753 date of the oldest distillery in America. Michter's went bankrupt in 1989, however, and Abe Bomberger’s distillery, while still standing, since has been unoccupied and has suffered severe deterioration from lack of maintenance.
Saturday, December 10, 2011
Simon Hirsch, shown here in caricature sporting a large handlebar mustache, got his start in a rowdy Colorado town called Leadville that had boomed with the greatest silver strike in U.S. history. He left town as the bubble burst and found riches and prominence in Kansas City, Missouri, working at the whiskey trade.
Hirsch was born in Germany in 1858, the son of Alexander Hirsch. As a young man he joined his brother, Adolph, ten years his elder, in Leadville, Colorado, where Adolph about 1873 had established a saloon and a wholesale liquor business. For a number of years the Hirsch brothers flourished as thirsty miners pushed their silver over the bar.
Leadville, shown here in an early illustration, was a classic boom and bust mining town. Gold was discovered nearby during the Pikes Peak gold rush of 1859, followed by discovery of rich silver ore in the early 1870s. In July 1893 the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was repealed. The price of silver crashed from $1.60 per troy ounce to less than sixty cents. Mines went bankrupt and Leadville fell into an economic depression. Its 1893 population of over 40,000 dwindled to less than 15,000 by 1895. The Hirsch brothers’ liquor trade virtually disappeared.
Simon was the first brother to decamp from Leadville, arriving in Kansas City about 1885. Apparently with profits from Leadville, he bought into a whiskey dealership that had been established in 1879 by the firm of Stiefel & Determan, reportedly purchasing Determan’s share. For the next two years he partnered with Stiefel, finally buying him out in 1887 and establishing the S. Hirsch & Co., located at 602-604 Delaware Street. The premises embraced the main floor of the building and two cellars. According to contemporary accounts, Hirsch & Co. were “wholesale dealers in every description of imported domestic liquors, wines and cigars.”
Under Simon’s leadership the company flourished. By 1888 he was employing four clerks and four traveling salesmen. The company’s trade reached outside Kansas City to other parts of Missouri and nearby Kansas and Colorado. Hirsch used many brand names, including "Beech Tree,” "Clover Nook,” "Kendall Club,” "William Patterson Jr.,” and “Old Brunswick 1789.”
"Crystal Brook,” and "Quaker Maid" were the firm’s pair of flagship brands. The residual raciness of Simon’s Leadville background appears to have affected his merchandising for Quaker Maid Rye. To sell the brand, he issued ads and trade cards showing semi- and completely nude women, both being ogled by passing males. By contrast, the label showed a very modest maiden, chastely dressed.
Hirsch’s advertising for Crystal Brook Sour Mash Whiskey was more restrained, featuring giveaways such as shot glasses and a large two and one-half pound “frit” paperweight. His gifts to saloonkeepers and other favored customers abounded, including a fancy label-under-glass back of the bar bottle for “Old Brunswick 1789” and a fancy pocket knife, shown here. At the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904, Quaker Maid whiskey won a gold medal, that Simon also put to good use in his advertising. His whiskey also won medals at expositions in Paris, France, and Portland, Oregon, both in 1905.
Simon’s brother Adolph apparently had deeper roots in Colorado. He had married a woman named Rachel and began a family in Leadville. Two sons were born there. It is unclear when Adolph followed Simon to Kansas City and joined the firm, but his name appears on a 1907 billhead. Meanwhile Simon had married and in 1892 fathered a boy he named Clarence.
Hirsch’s status in the business world of Kansas City was steadily rising. In an 1888 book of the city’s enterprises, S. Hirsch & Co. was lauded “for the careful selection of its stock, its promptness and accuracy in filling orders, and the uniform fairness by which its business methods are characterized.”
Through the early 1900s and up to World War One, the Hirsch firm continued to thrive. Hirsch’s son, Clarence, was brought into the business as a salesman. At the same time Simon appears to have been worried that the growing national fervor for Prohibition might spell an end to the whiskey trade. When Clarence left to become a military officer in World War One and after Adolph died in 1918, Hirsch began to plan other enterprises. He established both an auto dealership and an ice and storage company in Kansas City and in 1919 shut down his liquor business.
More important, he also created a patent medicine firm whose principal product was a nostrum he called “Lyko.” This company originally was incorporated under Missouri laws with a capitalization of $10,000. Hirsch advertised Lyko widely, even using full page ads to tout it as “The Great General Tonic” and offering a free bottle upon request. Newspapers from the Pacific Coast to the South and Midwest carried these ads; the tonic was an immediate success. By December 1919, Simon was reincorporating the company as the Lyko Medicine Company under Delaware laws, capitalized at a cool $1 million.
Simon installed son Clarence as president of the Lyko Medicine while he himself was listed as vice president. Their ads claimed that Lyko “relieves brain fag and physical exhaustion; builds up the nerves; strengthens the muscles; corrects digestive disorders and rehabilitates generally the weak, irritable and worn out.” Because of the 1906 Food and Drug Act, the ingredients were required to be listed. The principal one was something Simon knew a lot about: Lyko was 23% alcohol.
At 46 proof, this so-called medicine was stronger than beer, wine or even some liquor -- all now prohibited. A member of the medical staff at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, wrote the American Medical Association (AMA), worried that some soldiers were drinking copious amounts of Lyko. He inquired: “Can it be used in larger quantities than the dose shown on the bottle, and thus become a beverage?” After an investigation the AMA responded by dismissing the medicinal effects of Lyko and referring the matter to the IRS, which was policing Prohibition.
Despite this attack, Lyko was marketed through the 1920s. Simon Hirsch died in 1929, even richer than he had been before Prohibition. At his request he was cremated and his ashes spread over an area of Kansas City’s Elmwood Cemetery. That ended the saga of a German immigrant who failed to strike silver in Colorado but went on to discover gold selling alcohol in Missouri.
Wednesday, December 7, 2011
|William H. H. Miller|
|John W. Foster|
Andrew Pfirrmann came to America as a youth, had a successful career as the liquor trade, was mourned by colleagues upon his death, but apparently could not help getting into “hot water” with his whiskey business, in one instance becoming the center of an international incident involving top officials of the U.S. Government.
Pfirrmann was born in Rhenish Bavaria in 1926 of parents who reputedly saw that he was given a good primary and secondary education. At age 17 he emigrated to came to the U.S., landing in New York City and working there a clerk and salesman, possibly in the liquor trade. Pfirrmann arrived in Cincinnati in December 1847 during the Ohio River flood of that month, shown here in a contemporary drawing. It would not be the last time Andrew would land in deep water.
In Cincinnati Pfirrmann found a place he would call home for the rest of his life. He married an Ohio-born woman whose name was Bertha. The 1880 U.S. Census found them living together in Cincinnati with a very young son named Irwin. By this time Pfirrmann was well established in the liquor business. A company bearing his name first appears in Cincinnati directories in 1866, located at 359 Walnut St. In 1870 he joined with a fellow German immigrant named Jacob Pfau Jr. to create the firm of Pfirrmann & Pfau, located on Vine St. The whiskey traders flourished, according to contemporary accounts, often logging sales of $50,000 a month, the equivalent of hundreds of thousands today.
When Pfau became ill during the early 1880s and ultimately died in 1883, Pfirrmann purchased his share of the business and ran it virtually by himself. At the same time he was serving as president (1876-1883) of the German National Bank of Cincinnati and looking after extensive real estate interests. Those demands on his time were accounted the reasons for his subsequent business reversals. His liquor business experienced a cash shortage that led to bankruptcy. The event rocked the local business community and made national news. A New York Times headline of March 15, 1883, read: “Failure of Whiskey Dealers; Suspension of Pfirrmann & Pfau, of Cincinnati.”
The company had debts of $425,000 and no ready money to pay its creditors, but did count $960,000 in assets, the value of 30,000 barrels of whiskey, most of it held in bond in warehouses. The Times opined: “It is not thought that anybody will be much hurt.” Pfirrmann weathered that setback, came through bankruptcy and took a new partner, a Cincinnati local named George Herzog.
During ensuing years, the business, reorganized as A. Pfirrmann & Co., was accorded by contemporaries as “one of the leading wholesale liquor firms of this city.” The German immigrant was also becoming a well-known Cincinnati community leader. He was a charter member of the Hanselman Lodge of Masons and an active participant in the Chamber of Commerce.
About 1885 together Pfirrmann and Herzog started a second wholesale liquor firm with business offices in the Pike Building in downtown Cincinnati. They called it the American Export and Warehouse Company. Their flagship brand was Export Whiskey, as advertised on the plate shown here. A popular idea at the time was that whiskey sloshing around in barrels on the high seas was mellowed and aged in beneficial ways that sedentary storing in warehouses failed to do. A number of American distillers regularly sent their whiskey to Jamaica and other islands of the Caribbean or even further abroad.
In 1883 Pfirrmann and his partner reputedly launched 313 barrels of whiskey on the high seas. The liquor shipped aboard the American schooner Warren B. Potter, the U.S. brigantine Payson Tucker, and the Norwegian bark Frej -- all bound for Bermuda. The barrels were offloaded there and stored in warehouses owned by a British citizen.
About 1890 American Export sold its Bermuda-based liquor to Nathan Hofheimer, a nationally known speculator in whiskey. When Hofheimer returned the whiskey to the U.S. and sampled it, he concluded it had been watered and he had been defrauded of a substantial amount of money. A barrel of whiskey holds 40 gallons. American Export’s 313 barrels equaled 12,520 gallons, more than 50,000 quarts of liquor. At an average sale price of $1.25 per quart for aged whiskey, the shipment was worth about $1.25 million in today’s dollar.
While the barrels had been stored in Bermuda, Hofheimer alleged in a lawsuit against American Export, the whiskey had been doctored and manipulated. His case rested on obtaining copies of correspondence sent from Cincinnati by Pfirrmann and others to the warehouse owner. Hofheimer believed the letters contained proof that the Bermuda resident had been directed to adulterate the liquor while in his possession.
The problem was that the letters resided in a British colony. The attempt to obtain them had to come from the top of the U.S. Government. The Attorney General at the time, William H. H. Miller, shown here, took up the case for Hofheimer. The then Secretary of State, John W. Foster, the following photo, personally attested to Miller’s signature on diplomatic documents addressed to the British Governor General of Bermuda, requesting the letters that potentially could incriminate Pfirrmann and others.
Details of the case are recorded in the 1894 edition of American Admiralty and Its Jurisprudence. Nowhere, however, does the journal describe the outcome of Hofheimer’s case. There is no evidence that the letters were ever turned over. The lawsuit went nowhere without them. As indicated in a later photograph, Bermuda continued for years to be a favorite offloading spot for illicit whiskey.
The American Export and Warehouse Co. disappeared from Cincinnati directories in 1888. In the early 1890s other liquor firms with which Pfirrmann had been associated vanished from view. That may have been the result of the his death on April 12, 1892, at his residence. Pfirrmann was 66. No cause of death was given.
Was Andrew Pfirrmann a scoundrel who cheated creditors and customers? A Chamber of Commerce obituary seems to paint a different picture. Signed by colleagues, including others in the liquor business, the memorial states in part: “He loved his adopted country and by word and deed always strove for good government.” Perhaps meaningfully, however, the obituary makes no mention at all of Pfirrmann’s business practices.
Friday, December 2, 2011
Two Angelos, father and son, made the name Myers famous for four decades selling whiskey in Philadelphia and throughout the U.S. Initially rectifiers and later true distillers, the Myers popularized a wide series of liquor brands through their vigorous merchandising.
The Myers saga began in Germany when the first Angelo was born in 1844. Subsequently, exact date unknown, he came to the United States, settling in Philadelphia with his brother, Henry. Around 1874, the pair founded A & H Myers, as a whiskey distributing company located at 405 N. Third St.. Their flagship brand was Schuykill Whiskey, named after the river that flows through the city.
For the next 18 years the brothers prospered, as evidenced by an elegant back of the bar decanter etched with their logo. About 1881 the company moved to 311-313 N. Third, the five-story building shown here. During this period Angelo married a Philadelphia woman named Julia Bissinger. They had one son whom they named after his father.
The success of the Myers brothers was recognized by an 1886 publication entitled “Philadelphia List of Leading Merchants and Manufacturers.” It recorded that A & H Myers claimed “branch houses” in New York, Boston, Washington, Hartford, Savannah, New Orleans, Memphis, St. Paul Minn., and Cincinnati. A reasonable assumption is that saloons in these cities carried Myers whiskey.
The Leading Merchants publication said of the brothers: “It should be remarked that Messrs. A and H. Myers are upright, honorable, liberal, public-spirited merchants and citizens and are always to be found among the enterprising spirits of the city, who aid every measure introduced for the benefit of the community.”
In 1892, however, something occurred to sever the partnership between Angelo and his brother. Henry started his own, short-lived firm and advertised himself as “successor to A & H Myers." Angelo nevertheless stayed in the Third Street building and put his name on the front. It remained the Myers central facility until closed by Prohibition.
Angelo’s company blossomed with a myriad brand names: "Ardmore", "Beaumont Gin", "Independence Hall", "Myers Pure Malt", "Neshaminy Rye", "Oglethorpe Club", "Old Barrel", "Old Schuylkill Choice Rye", "Penngleann", "Schuylkill", and "W. W. W. Rye." Some brands like Penngleann and W.W.W.. Myers registered with the federal government. Most he did not. Shown here are bottles and a shot glass from several brands.
During the late 1890s, Myers associated with a distillery located on the Schuykill River in nearby Linfield, Pennsylvania. It had been founded on his farm by Jacob G. Kinsey, a lifelong dairyman, possibly with help from his friend, Angelo. As a former Kinsey employee later related, Kinsey had absolutely no experience with distilling so he had to rely on Myers to guide him as a whiskey specialist and merchandiser. The liquor produced was named Kinsey Whiskey and became Myers’ new flagship label. In his advertising Angelo claimed actual ownership of the distillery.
More than that, Angelo dispatched to Linfield his son, Angelo J., who by now had learned the liquor business from his father. Angelo J. apparently ran the operation day-to-day for Kinsey. In 1905, the Philadelphia company incorporated with assets of $50,000 as Angelo Myers Distillery, Inc. The officers listed were Angelo Myers as president and Henry J. Bissinger, likely his wife’s brother, as vice president.
Under the young Angelo’s management, the Kinsey distillery grew rapidly. A 1904 publication reported that it was operating eight months a year and employing six to ten men. The warehouse capacity gradually grew from 2,000 barrels capacity to 20,000. The expanded distillery is shown here in a postcard. Moreover, Kinsey whiskey was winning the company gold medals at expositions in New Orleans and San Antonio, Texas. Myers trumpeted those wins on a reverse glass mirror given to favored saloons.
As Angelo J. was being groomed to replace his father at an appropriate time, he married a local woman named Corrine Glaser, the daughter of Adolf Glaser, a Philadelphia merchant specializing in lace, embroideries and handkerchiefs. In 1907 the elder Angelo died, much mourned as a philanthropist who contributed generously to local and national charities. Angelo J. became the president of the company.
Under his leadership, the Myers company continued to be successful. Angelo J. was able to arrange for Kinsey Whiskey to be distributed widely across America and provided customers with an attractive sign that showed a hunter appeasing a farmer with a swig of Kinsey. Even more unusual, in 1910 the company letterhead listing the officers included two women, Florence M. Bamberger and Miriam M. Moos. This was at a time when women were almost entirely absent from the whiskey trade.
Within five years Angelo J.’s interests had expanded to other interests, specifically to the infant automobile industry. He now was a vice president of the Rose Manufacturing Company of Philadelpha, an outfit that specialized in making an early form of brake lights. He also had stepped down to being vice president of the liquor firm. The new president was Henry Bissinger, presumably his uncle. Once again the business name was changed, this time to Angelo Myers Distilling Co.,Inc.
With Prohibition, all activity ceased at Angelo Myers and the Kinsey facility. In 1923, at the very young age of 38, Angelo J. died. After Prohibition, Jacob Kinsey revived the Linfield distillery briefly until selling out to Continental Distilling Corporation of Philadelphia. Continental continued to produce and market the Kinsey brand until it went out of business in the mid-1980’s. The abandoned buildings of the distillery remain, moldering along the Schuylkill River.
Thus ends the story of the two Angelo Myers. They provided Philadelphia and the rest of the country with good whiskey for four decades and in the process left behind a legacy of attractive labels, bottles and giveaway items. Although their history is not unique, their survival in the liquor trade for four decades sets the two Angelos apart from the ordinary.
Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Descended from a Dutch ancestor, many of the large DeHart family, were settlers in Patrick County, Virginia, a region just east of the Blue Ridge Mountains not far from the North Carolina line. There they engaged in a wide range of businesses, the most lucrative of them making whiskey.
The DeHarts differed little from many of their neighbors. Although some residents avoided taxes by running illegal stills producing “moonshine,” by the 1880s dozens of Blue Ridge stills were operating under state license. A business census of that time listed 54 distillers in Patrick County, but strangely enough, only two saloons. With improved roads and railroads, liquor could be shipped from the region to coal camps, factory towns and larger cities.
Most of these operations were small. They largely produced limited amounts of brandy from apples or peaches after the fruit harvest. An exception was Fleming DeHart. Born in Patrick County in 1838, Fleming was the son of Thomas DeHart and Martha “Patsy” Via. He apparently had little education and signed legal documents with “x.” A early sign for his distillery, shown here, indicates some problems with spelling.
Despite limited book learning Fleming had a wealth of business “horse sense.” He amassed a substantial amount of rich valley farmland and as an adjunct to agriculture started making whiskey from rye and corn. In 1865 he had married Millie Jane DeHart, a distant cousin. The couple produced four children of whom the first, Isaac (Ike), born 1966, and Joseph, born 1870, would walk in their father’s footsteps.
Around 1879 Fleming built large home, shown here in a later newspaper photo. He called his farmstead “Hartville, Virginia.” The location was just his estate and did not appear on Virginia maps. Hartville eventually covered 620 acres and more than 100 people are said to have lived there. In a later newspaper account Fleming was described as a very generous man who welcomed people to his “town.” In time Hartville would even have its own U.S. Post Office, probably to facilitate the shipment of DeHart whiskey.
With prosperity and the coming of age of the two sons the distillery expanded even further and in 1889 was incorporated as the Fleming DeHart Distilling Company. By 1900 Millie Jane DeHart had died and Fleming was sharing his house with Ike and his wife, Mollie. Because Ike was the elder son, he eventually inherited both the farm and the house as his father aged.
The son proved to be every bit the businessman his father had been in managing and expanding the DeHart enterprises. A contemporary article described Ike as farming some of the best land in Virginia, growing fruit and field crops, raising cattle, harvesting lumber, running a grist mill and operating a country store. It added: “DeHart operates a legal still in the area, shipping his products to many parts of the country.” Mollie DeHart was the postmistress of Hartville.
Ike brought more formal education and advertising savvy to the whiskey business. He began to bottle his whiskey, the better ship it to distant locations. He also hired excellent artists to provide the labels for his liquor. The “Old Ike” brand clearly was a spin-off from his nickname. He also featured well-designed labels for his corn liquor.
A clear indication of marketing talent was the emphasis on DeHart labels touting the “purity” of the whiskey. What today is called the Pure Food and Drug Act had passed in 1906 and canny distillers picked up the word for merchandising purposes. The purity of DeHart’s Mountain Dew Corn Whiskey was emphasized with a waterfall image. As the market for the products of the Fleming DeHart Distillery expanded, the family became increasingly wealthy.
Their liquor business stayed strictly legal, annually obtaining Virginia Commonwealth licenses. Later they kept their whiskey in U.S. Government bonded warehouses. Federal records show taxpaying transactions for the distillery almost from the time the “bottled in bond” legislation was passed until Prohibition. Although some of their whiskey was raw enough to be akin to “moonshine,” the DeHarts opted to make it in the sunshine.
The casualty in this success story appears to be Joseph DeHart, the younger brother. Brought up in the distilling business, Joseph found himself as the second son and out of the grand inheritance enjoyed by Ike. In 1889, age 26, he married Daisy Via, apparently a cousin. Joseph determined an independent course, not only starting his own distillery but changing the spelling of his name to "de-Hart."
Joseph’s operation was near Woolwine, Virginia, also in Patrick County. He is seen here in an early 1900s ad extolling his liquor, which he called Mountain Rose Corn Whiskey. His ad may be a slap at his brother, announcing that “I have not made up a dozen or more names for my whiskey and as many prices, which is now so common with the clever whiskey advertising of today....” Joseph’s plain and simple “new” corn whiskey was $2 a gallon and “old,” $2.50.
Despite boasting only two products, Joseph also prospered during the early 1900s. He built a large home near Woolwine. Joseph was keenly aware of the Prohibition pressures in Virginia and when the Commonwealth voted to go dry in 1916, he wrote an ad advising Virginians to lay in a 10 year stock of his corn liquor and “Make Hay While the Sun Shines.”
How Brother Ike dealt with the last days of alcohol in Virginia has not been recorded, but his national market base apparently kept the distillery going a year or more beyond 1916. In time the heirs of Ike DeHart, showing the same generous spirit as Fleming, donated family land to Patrick County for a park. A monument stone, shown here, marks the location. Note that it cites the “government distillery” -- a reference to the DeHarts’ strictly legal operation.
The county park on the site has a range of recreational options but also contains the DeHart family cemetery. Fleming, who died in 1923 shortly after his 85th birthday, has a large grave marker that identifies him as “Father.” Ike with his second wife are buried nearby. Joseph de-Hart, perhaps symbolic of estrangement from the family, is buried elsewhere.
Saturday, November 26, 2011
In 1859, an immigrant Italian boy of 16 stepped off the steam boat John Simon onto the dock at Memphis, Tennessee. It would be his home town for the rest of his life and upon his death he had created a liquor and mercantile family dynasty that survived until 2010. His name was Domenico Canale, shown here.
Canale, also known as Dominic, Dominick or D., was born in San Pietro de Rovereto, a community in the city of Zoagi, near Genoa, on the Italian Riviera. He was the son of Giovanni Canale and Antoinette Vaccaro Canale. A year after Domenico’s birth, three of his mother’s brothers, led by A. Vaccaro, migrated to Memphis, establishing a liquor and wine distributorship and import business that initially was very successful.
When Canale left the river boat he walked into the welcoming arms of his uncles who gave him a home and employment in their enterprises. After working for the Vacarros for several years and saving his money, he struck out for himself. He began selling fruits and vegetables from his own push cart while continuing an interest in the liquor trade. The Canale company claims its origin in 1866.
During this same period Domenico married Catherine Solari, a woman seven years his junior who had been born in the same district in Italy as he had. She was the sister of a noted Italian-American painter, Mary Solari. They would have eight children, five sons and three daughters.
Within seven years Canale had graduated from his produce wagon to selling from a warehouse at Eight Madison St., near Front Street. Called D. Canale & Co., his company sold wholesale vegetables and fruit and also a quality bourbon whiskey that he named “Old Dominick.” Canale also distributed a number of beers including Pabst Blue Ribbon and Champagne Velvet. At the time it was a natural extension for a produce house to distribute beer since beer at that time was not pasteurized and produce houses could provide refrigeration.
The D. Canale organization first shows up in Memphis business directories as a liquor house in 1885. The Old Dominick brand of whiskey rapidly gained a local and regional customer base, advertised lavishly by Canale in large signs in downtown Memphis, as shown here, and, remembering his own roots, in a modest line over Joe Spinoza’s produce wagon. Canale sold his whiskey in stoneware jugs, with his name prominently displayed, as well as in glass bottles. He also became known for his giveaways to saloons and other favored customers, including paperweights and shot glasses. Eventually he opened a branch office down the Mississippi at Helena, Arkansas.
As Canale prospered the Vaccaros were on a different trajectory. A. Vaccaro had grown in influence in Memphis serving it as Police and Fire Commissioner. In 1869 he had helped found the Union and Planters Bank in Memphis. In 1883 the company was reported flush with revenues of $300,000 annually. By the late 1890s, however, the liquor organization was foundering and with A. Vaccaro’s death in 1899, reported to be $124,000 in debt. Forced into bankruptcy, the surviving brothers let the firm go out of business.
Meanwhile, Canale’s continued success was drawing attention in Memphis business circles. In 1905 a book entitled “Notable Men of Tennessee” featured him with the photo shown here. His brief biography stated that “today [he] stands at the head of the fruit business of Memphis and, perhaps, of the South. It added that: “Mr. Canale is what is rightly termed a self-made man, and has won his position in the social and commercial life of Memphis by his industry, his native ability, and the exercise of correct business principles.”
The same biography reported that Domenico belonged to the Memphis Business Men’s Club, the Merchant Exchange, the Industrial League and was a member of the Catholic Church. It noted the pride that the Canale’s took in their children and the “high respect and parental love constantly manifested by them.” Those sentiments presumably led Domenico as they matured to take four of his sons -- John, James, Anthony and Andrew -- into the business, which he incorporated in 1910.
Increasingly through the early 1900s, counties in Tennessee were going “dry” under local option and having negative effects on D. Canale & Co. Domenico, however, died in 1919 before the advent of National Prohibition. He is interred in Calvary Cemetery, a Catholic burying ground in Memphis.
Because whiskey and beer were only part of D. Canale’s business, the firm weathered the Temperance “storm” by concentrating on fruit and vegetable sales. With Repeal the Canale family continued “Old Dominick” for a time, updating the label as shown here, but eventually dropped their liquor business to concentrate on beer and produce. Over time D. Canale & Co., led by a 90-year dynasty of family members, branched into food services. The Canales sold their beverage business in 2010 but continue to own other enterprises in Memphis.
The family still honors the founder’s legacy by overseeing the Canale Charitable Foundation, the largest privately funded foundation in Memphis. Fittingly, the foundation dedicates its funding to preserving and improving the home town a 16-year-old immigrant Italian boy named Domenico adopted in 1859.
Note: Recently a descendant put material about D. Canale on Wikipedia and included some images I sent to him. The item contains details on the Canale firm after Domenico’s death that are not found here. It can be accessed at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domenico_Canale.