Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Jack Danciger: Mixing Whiskey, Oil and Politics

Jack Danciger’s long life reads like a novel and indeed it was the subject of a 488-page biography by an ardent admirer.   That book, however, says little about the flourishing liquor business he and his brothers established in Kansas City on their way to becoming multimillionaires.  This vignette attempts to shed more light on Danciger, shown here in his mid-30s, in his role as a whiskey man.

Jack was born in 1877 in Taos, New Mexico, one of five sons of Simon and Annie Danciger.  They were only one of two non-Spanish, non-Indian families in the small town.  Simon ran a general store in Taos and owned a ranch outside town where he raised cattle.  One story told about Jack is that at six years old he was kidnapped by a nearby Indian chief who was childless and wanted the boy as a son.   When Jack’s whereabouts were discovered,  his parents through careful negotiation were able to retrieve him.

At about 16 years,  Jack was put to work by his father in the family enterprises.  He learned how to carry the account books,  deal with customers,  take care of the merchandise and manage the cattle.  Within a year or so,  the family moved to Kansas City where both educational and business opportunities were deemed more desirable.  With his profits from selling his store and cattle,  Simon Danciger purchased a shoe store in nearby Osage City and sent Jack, over his mother’s objections,  to run it while the father tried cattle ranching again.  Although the store was profitable,  Danciger soon became restless and took a job  in Chicago with Swift & Company, the meat packers.

There he got active in Democratic politics, was fired from Swift for his activities, and found another Chicago employer who made use of his fluency in Spanish to send him on missions to Latin America.  There he developed a lifelong interest in Hemisphere affairs, especially Mexican politics.  With the death of his father in the early 1900s,  everything changed.   Jack quit his job, left Chicago and rejoined his family in Kansas City.

Brothers Dan, Abe,  Joe and Mo joined Jack in agreeing that although Simon’s will would allow them to divide his bequest,  they should continue as a united group using their father’s capital jointly.   For reason not fully explained they determined to start a wholesale whiskey business and also bought a brewery.  Thus was created Danciger Bros., Inc., located at 308 West Sixth Street in Kansas City.

The Dancigers appear to have been “rectifiers,” that is blenders of whiskey bought elsewhere,  bottled and label by them, and then sold to dealers and the public.  The trade card shown here does not claim operation of a distillery, only a “Western warehouse.” The Danciger’s brewery was the Weston Brewing Company which had been plagued for years by economic problems. In 1907, Jack and his brothers purchased it, incorporating with capital stock listed at $200,000 and moved its offices to their West Sixth Street location.

Although Mother Annie presided over the corporation, Jack Danciger was the principal director and its sales manager.   With characteristic energy,  he set out to advance the family venture, traveling to Kansas, Texas, New Mexico, Virginia and Ohio to merchandise Danciger Bros. whiskey and beer.  An early marketing ploy was to create a separate “distilling company” around a flagship brand called “Harvest King Baltimore Rye”  It was sold in quarts and  flasks, sent throughout the U.S., and the company paid express charges.  As an ad here shows, they disguised their whiskey by packaging it in coffee drums that could not be pilfered nor the contents detected.

Harvest King ads emphasized a quality product with a cowboy character swatting out individuals labeled, among others, “bum dealer,” “grafter,” and “poison.”  The Dancigers also were free with giveaways to prime customers, including celluloid backed pocket mirrors and shot glasses.  A second major brand, also with its own purported distilling company was “Red Chief.”  Both Harvest King and Red Chief were trademarked by the Dancigers in 1905. Other brand names used by the company were “Dan’s Golden Age,” “Chesterbrook," “Danciger’s Maryland Rye,” “Golden Age,” “Melrun,”  “Pearl Springs,” and “Tiffany Club.” The company also issued shot glasses and mini-bottles for these brands.

While Jack and his brothers were striving hard to build a national customer base for their Kansas City liquor, aided by the railroad center the city had become,  they struggled with local option laws that forbid alcohol.  The Danciger hauled American Express into Federal court for being unwilling to deliver their whiskey into Mississippi which had local option laws with heavy penalties.  The judge denied the brothers saying that if he were to grant their injunction “it would result in 250 express agents being thrown into jail.”  In 1907 they lost another Federal case in which they sued Wells Fargo.   In 1910, however, they won a decision against a railroad which had refused to take their liquor into Oklahoma and Kansas, both “dry” states.

Perhaps concerned about the future of the whiskey trade,  in 1909 Jack and his brothers expanded their interests.  They bought a run-down multistory building on Sixth and Wyandotte and remodeled it into a hotel. Called The Jefferson, it was a luxury establishment.  The Dancigers later sold it to Tom Pendergast,  the political boss of Kansas City.   More important to the family was a trip Jack took to Oklahoma.  He bought a piece of property there that turned out to hold oil.  As his biographer put it, “The black gold gushed out in torrents.” The Dancigers joined the super rich.

Meanwhile Jack was becoming entangled in Mexican politics.  Supporting the successful rise to power of a Mexican politician named Carranza, he was rewarded with being named the Mexican Consul in Kansas City.  That city had become a magnet for Mexican immigrant workers and their families and the duties could be burdensome.  Jack saw a business advantage.  In 1915 he bought a Spanish-language newspaper called “El Cosmpolita”  He used the paper to support his political friends across the border and to sell Danciger whiskey and beer in Mexico.

Through the newspaper,  love came into Jack’s heretofore bachelor life.  One of his assistants was a woman named Queenie Bailey, shown here.  She was a writer, a cartoonist, and a song writer.  One account called her “Kansas City’s perfect girl.”  She and Jack were married in a ceremony in the home of Rabbi Mayer of the B’nai Jehudah Temple of Kansas City in February, 1918.  Jack was 39.

Within months Prohibition closed in tightly. The Webb-Kenyon Act passed in 1916 made it a federal offense to send liquor into dry areas.  The Danciger Bros. business was struck a fatal blow and circa 1918 ceased operations.   Brands like Harvest King and Red Chief disappeared forever.  The brothers sold their brewery but for a time continued to market non-alcoholic cordials and other beverages.

By now firmly in the oil business, Jack Danciger and his brothers closed the door on the past and gave their major attention to Danciger Oil and Refining Company and their large oil land holdings.  Although he had built a mansion in the center of Kansas City for himself and Queenie,  Danciger moved to Forth Worth, Texas, and opened his office there.  That city would be his home for the rest of his life.

Danciger continued to promote his Latin American ties and was named an Honorary Consul in Fort Worth by the government of the Dominican Republic.   He received multiple citations and honors from several Latin countries and from U.S. states and localities in the American Southwest.  Most cited his work on behalf of better Inter-American relations. In his later years Jack Danciger became known as a philanthropist,  founding a number of libraries and schools in Mexico, Chile and Uruguay.  His extensive collection of Peruvian pottery was gifted to the University of Texas. He also was a generous contributor to Jewish charities.  When Jack Danciger died in 1966 at the age of 89, his whiskey days were almost a half century behind him.

Note:  Much of the information in this article is from a biography by General Ignacio Richkarday published in 1963.  Richkarday, a colleague of Danciger from his newspaper days, wrote a book-length tribute to his former boss that emphasizes Danciger’s Latin American activities and mentions only in passing the two decades he was with his brothers  in Kansas City in the liquor business.












2 comments:

  1. I met Mr. Jack Danciger in Argentina, my country, in around 1945-1946. He was already retired and dedicated his like to phylantropy . At that time he used to chose poor, decent, enterprising young peruvians, bolivians, chileans and invited them to the USA to be trained in raising cattle and farming. After they approved these courses they returned to their countries and Jack would give them some farm land , cattle and a small capital to start as independent farming persons. Mr. Danciger introduced me to Mr. James F. Lincoln who backed me to apply to Case School of Applied Science, Cleveland, Ohio, where I graduated as an electrical engineer. Mr. Danciger and Mr. James F. Lincoln were my godafathers in a professional career that made me a successful engineering professional. God bless them. Oscar Schwartz, Buenos Aires, Argentina. I am 88 years old and I will never forget these two fantastic men.

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  2. Dear Sir: I thank you so much for sharing your story. I have met at least one other person who knew him and had the same high impression of his generosity.

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