Friday, August 23, 2013

Michael Bosak Claimed He Was “The Richest Slovak in America”

The function of a “breaker boy” in mining was to break coal into pieces and sort those pieces into categories of nearly uniform size, a process known as “breaking."  He also chipped away any impurities that might be clinging to the coal.  It was hard, low-paying labor.  How Michael Bosak went from breaker boy in a Pennsylvania mine to proclaiming himself “The Richest Slovak in America”  is a whiskey man’s tale.

Bosak was born in 1870 in Saris, a town then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but now part of the Slovak Republic.   He emigrated to the United States about 1887.  As many Eastern European immigrants did, he settled in the anthracite-rich region of Northeastern Pennsylvania and went to work in a mine at Hazelton as a breaker boy to make a living.  Finding the work unrewarding on many counts, he eventually shifted employment and worked for several Slovak liquor merchants in the area, taking orders and delivering merchandise.  Frugal in his habits, Bosak saved sufficient money to open his own liquor store in Hazelton in the 1890s.  When it prospered he opened a saloon called Glinsky’s Tavern in nearby Olyphant and subsequently a branch in Scranton, Pennsylvania on Lackawanna Avenue.
The Scranton branch was so successful that it outpaced the Slovak’s other outlets and became his headquarters for his operation, as shown here in an illustration.  He termed his business “importers
Bosak's Scranton Headquarters
and wholesale liquor dealers.”  That designated omitted that he was also a “rectifier,”  that is, compounding whiskeys or adding neutral spirits to them, putting his own label on them and merchandising them.   Unlike other rectifiers who issued a blizzard of brands, Bosak stuck to two:  “Old Dole Spring Rye,” and “Old Cold Spring Rye.”  He merchandised both vigorously to good effect,  selling them in quart and flask-sized bottles with attractive labels.   He issued shot glasses for each.

In the meantime Bosak was having a personal life.   He married when he was in his early twenties to another Slovak immigrant named Susanna, still in her teens.  The 1910 census found him, age 40, living in Scranton with his wife and four children, two boys and two girls ranging in age from 19 to a baby under a year.  Although listed in the census as “proprietor-wholesale liquor,” Bosak already was branching out in his business interests.

As an outgrowth of his liquor business,  he founded the Bosak Manufacturing Co. about 1894. It turned out bottles of Bosak’s Horke Vino,  a wine-based nostrum that was alleged to be a remedy for a variety of ailments, including constipation and loss of appetite.  Presumably the potion was taken from an old Slovak recipe in Bosak’s possession.  During a period when other liquor was subject to a special tax, he was able to claim its medicinal value and thus avoid the levy, a fact that he displayed prominently in his advertising and on his labels.  He issued a fancy etched dose glass for Horke Vino, a product that also proved to be a potent money maker.

Bosak’s wealth allowed him to pursue other business interests.  Early on he moved into banking.  The force of his personality led other Slovak immigrants to trust him and seek his help in purchasing steamship tickets, exchanging foreign currency, and making small loans.   Bosak established a private bank in 1897 which grew into Bosak State Bank by 1915.  He organized numerous financial institutions in Northeastern Pennsylvania and was president of the Miners Savings Bank of Olyphant and the Pennsylvania Bank and Trust Company of Wilkes-Barre.   in 1915 he established the Bosak State Bank in Scranton. His operations reaped such a financial bonanza, that about 1920 Bosak proclaimed he was the  "richest Slovak in America.”  His signature could be found on U.S. backed bank notes. His mansion was featured on a Scranton post card.

Despite his business success, Bosak never forgot the place of his birth.  During World War One he organized collections to help the Slovak residents who were suffering from wartime conditions.   The government was exhausted by the war and could not take care of its people,  many of whom were refugees and prisoners of war.  From all over America concerned citizens sent new and used clothing, as well as money through Bosak who made the necessary arrangements for their transfer to Eastern Europe.  A Slovak newspaper hailed his efforts, saying “Oh, how they rejoice that their brothers in distant America remember them.

At the conclusion of the war and the final break-up of the Austro-Hungarian state,  strong efforts were made to create a new country called Czechoslovakia.  Czech and Slovak leaders,  including Bosak, met in Pittsburgh in May of 1818 and agreed to cooperate in setting up a new nation for their peoples in the northern provinces of Austria.  The agreement they formulated after a two day meeting in the Moose Temple became known as the “Pittsburgh Pact.”  As a moving force and early signatory behind the agreement,  Bosak became a celebrity among the Slovaks.  He also is credited with building schools and churches in both the U.S. and Slovakia.

At home, however, Bosak was facing problems with U.S. officialdom.  In 1913, he was hauled into court by the State of Pennsylvania who accused him of  misbranding vodka.  He was found guilty by a District Court and fined.  About the same time the Internal Revenue Service began taking a hard look at Horke Vino.  Its officials decided that the amount of alcohol it contained and its dubious medicinal value required it be consider liquor and subject to the tax.  The American Medical Association’s publication “Nostrums and Quackery” attacked Horke Vino as “booze medicine.”

A few years later the imposition of National Prohibition shut down Bosak’s liquor business entirely.   Shown here is the Bosak State Bank. Comparing it with the illustration of the building housing his liquor empire you find they were one and the same.  From “booze to banking” apparently was an easy transition.  Bosak also took the step of claiming a trademark for Horke Vino, under the category of “chemical, medicines and pharmaceutical preparations.” Despite the trademark, as Prohibition progressed, the IRS began to take increasing interest in Horke Vino as liquor in another guise.  Whatever the reason, Michael found it expedient to sell the Bosak Manufacturing Co.  The name was changed by the new ownership to the Gold Seal Manufacturing Co.

The ultimate blow to Bosak’s business empire came in 1929 and the dawn of the Great Depression.  His banks faltered and finally in 1931, failed and closed.   His earning of a lifetime were virtually wiped out.   Bosak was 61 years old.  He would live another six years, dying on February 18, 1937.   Although gone, he has been far from forgotten.  Two of his descendants memorialized him in a book called “Michael Bosak: An American Banker from Saris.” In 1999 on the 130th Anniversary of his birth, the Michael Bosak Society came into existence.   The main aim of the Society, in addition to keeping alive Bosak’s contributions and legacy, is organizing a yearly competition for business and economics students in Slovakian secondary schools. They vie to win a monetary prize in Bosak’s name.

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