Saturday, January 12, 2013

McCart Met Christy and the Rest Was History

In 1899 two Cleveland entrepreneurs combined forces to form the largest wholesale grocery company in Northern Ohio,  a business that specialized particularly in whiskey sales.  The two were Edward E. McCart  and Henry C. Christy, both shown here.

Edward McCart was born in Cleveland in 1863, the son of Patrick and Mary McCoy McCart, Irish immigrants who had settled in the city by Lake Erie during the 1840s.   He was sent to the Cathedral School for his elementary education and Spencerian College, a business school where he was said to “study the commercial  branches.”

 Henry Christy was older than his partner by 17 years.  He was born in 1846 in Trumbull County, Ohio, and educated in local public schools.

At age 16 McCart went to work for the William Edwards & Co., a leading Cleveland wholesale grocery,  one with a thriving business selling whiskey along with other products.
He remained with that house for twenty years steadily advancing up the corporate ladder as he matured.  A biographer said of him:  “His long years of service there mean two things chiefly : first, he must have proved his worth and ability; secondly, his employers must have appreciated his faithfulness, honesty, and capacity. That their relations were always pleasant attested the qualities of both.”

In the meantime,  McCart was having a personal life.  During the early 1880s he married Genevieve O’Brien, the daughter of Margaret and Patrick O’Brien, Irish immigrants to Cleveland.  The couple would be childless. The 1990 census found them living on East Prospect Avenue with a servant girl.

Christy took a much different path.  At age 21 in 1865 he began a career in the hardware business and with a partner established the firm of Kirk & Christy in Warren, Ohio.  The company flourished and became a major regional provider of lumber.  In 1893 he created a branch of the business in Cleveland,  incorporating the firm there in 1895.  By this time Christy had become very wealthy.  He organized the Empire Lumber Company in Buffalo and the Standard Brick Company of Cleveland, with the capacity to produce 100,000 bricks per day.  He also was vice president of the National Union Bank in Cleveland.

By 1899 and the age of 36 McCart had accumulated sufficient experience to strike out on his own in the grocery business.   He had met Christy along the way and the older man recognized an opportunity so he provided the bankroll and McCart the know-how.  The McCart-Christy Company was born, first located at 48-54 Huron Street.  As their company grew, it moved to 186-194 Huron.   By 1903 the company had eclipsed the Edwards Co. and other competitors and was accounted the largest wholesale grocery firm in Cleveland and, indeed, all of Northeast Ohio.   McCart’s prominence was highlighted by his being chosen in 1905 for a caricature as a local business leader.  It shows him firmly astride his company headquarters.

Liquor was a mainstay of the McCart-Christy firm, sold under the name “Lakewood Beverages.”  The flagship brand was Star Medal Rye shown here on an unusual painted label back of the bar bottle.  Other house brands, all of them likely blended on the premises,  included:  "Fencing Club Rye,” "Our Special,” and "Shakespeare.”  Like many of their Cleveland competitors  McCart-Christy Co. issued shots glasses to saloons carrying their liquor.  The glasses advertised several of these brands.  The firm also handed out advertising corkscrews to favored customers.  

McCart-Christy also featured several lines of proprietary grocery products.  In 1900 the firm trademarked “Colonial”  for its brands of coffee. A principal label was “Macrisco,”  an anagram of the partner’s names.  Included in this line were fruit preserves,  salad dressings, olive oil and olives. These and other products proved to be highly successful. By 1906 the firm was grossing $3 million annually, a huge sum for the times.

In 1907, however,  the partnership was ruptured.  McCart left the business which subsequently became the H.C. Christy Co., still at the Huron St. address.  What caused the split at the height of the firm’s fame and fortune is something of a mystery.  It may have been a strong disagreement over the management with the money man winning out.  Alternatively,  McCart might have decided to seek other business opportunities. 

The automobile was just coming into vogue and many businessmen left off what they were doing to get some of the action.  In 1912 McCart and a partner set up an auto dealership for the Imperial Motor Car. This vehicle was the product of brothers T.A. and George Campbell of Jackson, Michigan, who begin in 1908 to produce mid-sized cars with four-cylinder engines.  One of the losers in the early “car wars,”  Imperial went out of production in 1916,  likely leaving McCart’s dealership high and dry.  In the 1920 census, the former whiskey “baron”  gave his occupation as “grocery salesman,”  an employee not the owner.

Meanwhile Christy was to continue with his many enterprises, including the wholesale grocery.  In 1910  Ohio agricultural authorities seized a shipment of adulterated mince meat from his store.  The company pleaded guilty and by 1911 had disappeared from Cleveland business directories.   In 1936 Christy died, age 92.  He is buried in a cemetery in Warren, Ohio  He was followed in death in 1942 by Edward McCart.  After a funeral mass at St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Cleveland, he was interred in St. John’s Cemetery, Cleveland.

The rise of McCart-Christy Co. was meteoric in Cleveland business history and its eventual dissolution and final disappearance seemingly just as swift.  Today it is remember through just a few artifacts,  all of them now over 100 years old.

Notes:  Much of the information on McCart and Christy comes from short biographies written during their lifetimes.  The caricature of McCart is from the 1904 book, “Clevelanders as We See ‘Em”  by a trio of local cartoonists.  The headstones are from the “Find-a-Grave” site on the Internet.


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