Saturday, December 10, 2011

Simon Hirsch Swapped Colorado Silver for Missouri Gold

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 In July 1893 the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was repealed.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.

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