Friday, June 14, 2013

Isaac Miller Turned a “Cash Cow” into Chicken Feed

When Isaac Miller, a man of  Russian Jewish heritage, emigrated to the United States in 1891, his last name almost certainly was not “Miller” but a difficult name that either he, or perhaps a guard at Ellis Island, New York, changed.  With his new all-American name,  Miller moved into the heartland at Sioux City, Iowa, where he found that the whiskey trade was a lucrative but ultimately risky business and settled on selling, among other things, chicken feed.

Miller’s early years in America apparently went very well.  Early on in Sioux City, he found a mentor and companion in Herman Galinsky who had emigrated from Russia to America with other family members seven years earlier.  Galinsky appears to have established himself rapidly as an enterprising businessman and my surmise is that the older man provided a major part of the funding for Isaac to allow him to establish I. Miller & Company Wholesale Liquors in 1899.  Galinsky was listed as a partner.  The address was on Fourth Street,  shown here, a major commercial avenue in Sioux City.

The close relationship between Miller and Galinsky is reinforced by the revelation in the 1900 census that Isaac had married Herman’s younger sister, Anna, who had emigrated with the Galinsky family.  At that point the couple had a one-year-old son, Herman,  obviously named for the uncle.  In addition, another Galinsky named Etta,  51, was living with the Millers, possibly Anna’s mother.  The 1900 census listed Miller’s occupation as “Merchant, liquor, owner.”

In short order, Miller and Galinsky  expanded their operation.  According to Barbara Edmonson in her book “Spirits Glasses,”  in 1901 they added a saloon five blocks down Fourth Street.   Three years later the partners became Iowa agents for Wisconsin-made Gettleman Beer.  In 1910 they added a second saloon at 1109 Fourth Street.

Meanwhile I. Miller & Co. was merchandising its “California wines and brandies” and “fine Kentucky whiskies” very vigorously.  It sold them in both large ceramic jugs and in glass containers with bail tops.   Despite the fact that only token competition existed in Sioux City for Miller’s lucrative liquor business,  he also issued shot glasses to favored customers.  The one shown here is a heavy bar glass with 12 molded flutes that rise halfway up the glass from the base and bears a white-etched label.

But even in the midst of prosperity, Miller must have worried.  For a long time the idea of Prohibition was supported in Iowa by thousands of people who believed passionately in the cause.  In many respects Iowa was considered in the forefront of the “dry movement.”  Initially Prohibition manifested itself in “local option” laws that allowed individual counties and towns to declare bans on alcohol.  Jurisdiction after jurisdiction in Iowa adopted them.

Miller apparently was able through mail order and railroad express sales to benefit initially from local option, supplying “wet” goods to “dry” towns,  but that loophole was closed by the U.S. Congress in 1913 by passage of the Webb-Kenyon Act.  Subsequently, four years before National Prohibition, Iowa in 1916 enacted a statewide ban on sales of alcohol.  Miller and Galinsky were forced to shut the swinging doors of their saloons and I. Miller & Co. Wholesale Liquors was out of business. 

Unlike other whiskey men, however, Miller was able to make a quick shift into new lines of merchandise.  In 1917 the firm reorganized to sell nonalcoholic beverages,  groceries, notions, paint, oils, fruits and syrups,  stoneware, wooden ware, paper, and school supplies.  The major commercial offerings were Miller Brand Feeds, prominently including chicken feed.  Shown here is an I. Miller ceramic chicken waterer, reputedly the product of the famous Red Wing, Minnesota, potteries.

The “cash cow” that selling liquor had provided allowed the brothers-in-law to branch out into other enterprises.  Galinsky became a director of the American Savings Bank in Sioux City.  Probably with participation from Miller, he also bought and refurbished what came to be known as the New Grand Theater, shown here in a circa 1910 post card. The brothers-in-law also were part of a group of local businessmen who organized the Pioneer Iron Works, shown here on a photo .
A 1923 publication on Sioux City, entitled “Three Quarters of a Century of Progress, said of this plant:  “The Pioneer Iron Works business has now grown to a manufacturing and jobbing business for all iron products used in building as well as heavy machine work. Iron ladders and stairway fire escapes, iron and ornamental fences, all kinds of wire work, steel doors, stairs, smoke stacks and all kinds of mill supplies of iron are made and distributed here. The machine shop includes service such as heavy blacksmithing, machine work of all kinds, auto repairing on such things as springs, axles, crankshaft grinding and oxyacetylene welding. This is one of the best equipped welding plants in the city and work comes in from all over the surrounding territory.”  Galinsky was president and Miller the treasurer of this enterprise.

Isaac Miller continued to reside in Sioux City the remainder of his life. The 1940 census found him, apparently retired at the age of 69, living with wife Anna;  an unmarried son, Joe, age 36; and a female servant.  Although I do not have the date of Miller’s death, he and other family members are buried in Mount Sinai Cemetery in Sioux City.  Interred nearby are Herman and others of the Galinsky family.

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