Sunday, January 1, 2012
Persons of Interest: Buffalo's Liquor Quartet
Charles Person seems to have been born to the whiskey trade. According to a contemporary history, this German-speaking immigrant was familiar with distilling in his native Alsace-Lorraine even before he arrived in America at the age of 14. He spent the rest of his life in Buffalo, New York, and with three of his sons built a liquor business that survived 70 years.
Charles, shown here with a no-nonsense expression, was born in 1826 and emigrated about 1840. For the first decade of his life in the U.S. he was employed by a large Buffalo liquor firm. In 1850, at age 23, he established his own liquor business renting a store space twenty by thirty feet. The same year he married a woman named Sophia and started a family that eventually would number 10 children, six boys and four girls. All were educated in Buffalo public schools.
With hard work and a knack for the liquor trade, Charles sometime in the 1860s moved his growing operation to historic Elm Street in Buffalo, locating at Nos. 386-392. There he occupied an impressive four-story building, shown here. It had been built expressly for his company and would remain Person’s headquarters until Prohibition. A contemporary account said the premises contained the finest facilities “for handling the firm’s immense trade which extends beyond Western New York into Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio.” The sign on the store identified the business as “rectifiers,” as well as dealers.
Charles rapidly rose in business circles. A contemporary Buffalo business history cited him for growing in skill and taste. It cited his firm as recognized as “the leading whiskey rectifier in Western New York.” According to a local account, his success was due to the his firm’s “integrity, the excellence of its wares, and the courteous handling of its customers.” Charles also was a force in Buffalo politics and was elected to several terms as a Buffalo alderman.
As his sons matured, one by one he brought them into the business. The first was Daniel Person, his firstborn in 1851. In 1975, recognizing Daniel’s aptitude for the business, Charles changed the name of the firm to Charles Person & Son. During the next decade as sons William and Frank came of age, their father once again changed the name of his company to Charles Person & Sons. At the early age of 49 Charles died in 1885.
After his death Daniel, Frank and William took charge of the firm and changed its name once again, this time to C. Person’s Sons, the one most commonly found on company artifacts. With William listed as president and chief operating officer, business continued to increase. As shown here, the Person boys used both glass containers and particularly use of ceramic jugs for their products, three of which are shown here.
C. Person’s Sons featured several brands, including their flagship label, “Buffalo Club Whiskey,” and “Riverside Whiskey,” “Person’s Pennsylvania Pure Rye,” and “Person’s Kraut Bitters.” They issued a number of giveaways such as tip trays and signs to saloon customers. They also were distributors for a wide range of liquors, beer, mineral waters and domestic and imported wines.
In 1908 importing landed the Person brothers in trouble as Federal agents inspected 93 cases of Canadian whiskey in their possession and found it to be adulterated. The liquor was shown to be nothing but alcohol, coloring, and a dose of fusel oil. Haul into court the Persons apparently saved the product from destruction by agreeing to re-label and pay a fine of $2,000.
Who the culpable parties were in this attempted fraud is not clear. All three Person brothers would distinguish themselves as Buffalo businessmen, with good reputations. After his father’s death, William Person was the president and chief operating officer of C. Person’s Sons for the next 21 years. Married to Louisa Boeckel of Buffalo in 1876, he was the father of three children, two boys and a girl. William was avid about firefighting and a member of the Buffalo Volunteer Fire Department, serving as foreman of Hook and Ladder Co. No. 1, for eight years. He also was a trustee of the Firemen's Benevolent Association.
Daniel Person was married to Caroline Jack of Buffalo, with three children, two boys and a girl. He was a director of the Meadville Distilling Company of Pennsylvania and of the Union Bank of Buffalo, and a member of several German oriented organizations. Frank Person was married to Amelia Walter of nearby Lancaster, New York, and like his brothers had three children, two girls and a boy. Frank was a director of the Buffalo Automatic Smoke Consuming Company and a director of the Freehold Savings and Loan Association. He also was a thirty-second degree Mason and a member of the Elks and the Red Men.
Under William’s leadership the company continued to thrive into the 20th Century. Symbolic of its success was the building of a 49 ton steamboat in Buffalo in 1899 christened “C. Person’s Sons.” Registered as owned by Daniel Person the ship plied the Great Lakes apparently to bring the firm’s whiskey and other products to adjoining communities. It is possible the steamboat was the one depicted on the Riverside Rye sign shown here. The ship was sold in 1911 and its name changed. That same year William, possibly as a result of death or disability, gave up the leadership of C. Person’s So. Frank and Daniel became co-managers.
They continued to operate the firm until Prohibition was enacted. In 1919 C. Person's Sons was forced to terminate. The Buffalo press reported that two weeks before the official closing, people from all over Western New York began lining up outside the company’s Elm Street facility to stock up on whiskey and other alcoholic beverages that soon would become illegal. The line formed each day, all day, and when the business finally closed its doors, there were still 2,000 cases of whiskey remaining, giving testament to the size and volume of C. Person's Sons business.
Thus ended forever a 70 year business history for this Buffalo family. An immigrant boy and his three sons had set an enviable record in the whiskey trade and in the process provided collectors with an array of ceramic and glass containers as well as attractive giveaway items. As a result there is considerable justification for finding these four New York whiskey men “Persons of Interest.”