Saturday, February 15, 2014

Moses Weinberger Parlayed Bananas into Saloon Fame

In 1889 a Kansas grocer headed for the newly opened Oklahoma Territory to seek his fortune.   It came to him initially through the sale of bananas to homesteaders and later when he started the first legal saloon in the Territory. His name was Moses (Mose) Weinberger and today he is counted by some among “Oklahoma State Greats.”

We know a great deal about Weinberger, the central figure in the photo above, because of an interview he gave in August 1937 as part of a program by the Works Progress Administration (WPA).   He told his interviewer of his birth in 1859 into a poor Orthodox Jewish farm family in Hungary.  In search of a better life he left his little village when he was 18 and took the steamship “Fresia,” to New York City.  He settled there for several years, working as a butcher.  Then he made the mistake of returning to Hungary, at the time under Austrian rule, to visit his parents.  Over his protest about now being an American, he promptly was conscripted into the Austrian Army.   Biding his time for six months until eligible for a furlough, Weinberger did not stop until he was back in New York City.  He immediately applied for U.S. citizenship.

In 1885, still looking for better opportunities, Weinberger headed to Kansas, farming at first and then moving to Wichita where he began merchandising fruit and later meat.  He also married a woman named Rose and started a family that eventually would include three sons.  When Moses heard that the Oklahoma Territory was to be opened for homesteading, he saw further opportunity by heading farther west.  On the morning of April 22, 1889, as the Oklahoma Land Rush was off in a cloud of dust,  Moses took a train from Wichita to Guthrie station, about a three hour trip. Between noon and 6 p.m. on that date about 10,000 people descended on a once dusty railroad stop and by day’s end Guthrie was the largest town in the Oklahoma Territory.

Upon arrival Moses staked a claim to two lots in town, close to Cottonwood Creek on West Harrison Street, and pitched an improvised tent on them using a canvas wagon cover.  A provident man, he had bought two large sticks of bologna with him for his meals.  As shown here, hundreds of people stood in long lines in front of the Guthrie land office to stake their claims.  They had little or no food and dared not to leave the line to eat.  Many had virtually no money to spend for meals. Harpers Weekly had sent Correspondent William Willard Howard to Guthrie.  On May 18, 1889, he reported:  “During the first three days food was nearly as hard to get as water. Dusty ham sandwiches sold on the streets as high as twenty-five cents each, while in the restaurants a plate of pork and beans was valued at seventy-five cents. Few men were well enough provided with funds to buy themselves a hearty meal.”  Weinberger sized up the situation and immediately wired the Bryan Brothers Fruit Company of Wichita for boxes of bananas.  They came the next day by train and Moses went up and down the lines selling bananas at two for five cents.

With the proceeds he hired a team of mules and a wagon and during the following months peddled fruit all over town. In time he built a two room house on his lots and moved his family down from Wichita.  As time elapsed Weinberger abandoned the banana trade and went into the booming real estate business in Guthrie which had become the provisional capitol of Oklahoma. The short-story writer O. Henry characterized the region’s bursting energy,  writing that “when the Oklahoma country was in the middle of its first bloom, Guthrie was rising in the middle of it like a lump of self-rising dough.”  As shown here, it was still a Wild West town, but with a catch:  Because of its close proximity to Indian territory,  liquor sales were illegal although bootleg whiskey was common.

In June, 1871, Moses heard a rumor that it might be possible to obtain a license from the Federal Government to sell liquor in Oklahoma.  Although he never before had run a saloon he made application  and got it from Leavenworth, Kansas.  He quickly opened the first legal drinking establishment in the Oklahoma Territory.  As related by his 1937 interviewer, the following ensued: He fixed it up just like an ordinary saloon and began selling liquor openly.  He had put his license up on the wall with a piece of newspaper on it.  After a few days the officers came to raid him .  They said, “You can’t do this , Mose.”  “Why not?” he asked,. “Uncle Sam says I can,” and reached up and pulled off the newspaper so they could see his license.

The word soon got out that selling liquor could be legal.  Within two months there were 44 licensed saloons in Guthrie.  In time Weinberger would own an interest in seven of them,  the principal one known as “The Same Old Moses.”  It is the drinking establishment shown at the opening of this article.  Moses is standing between two of his bartenders, Mack O’Brien (left) and Ike Reed at the 211 West Harrison Avenue address.

The name of the saloon merits another story, as Weinberger recounted it to his interviewer:
On day he was on the street and met a fellow whom he had known in Wichita.  “Well if it ain’t the same old Moses,” was his greeting.  Mr. Weinberger took the man from Wichita  into the saloon and treated him.  Later Mr. Weinberger got to thinking about this expression and next day had a sign painter letter it on the window. “The Same Old Moses.”

Weinberger showed a sense of humor by inviting the saloon-buster Carry (Carrie) A. Nation into his place to give a temperance speech. The hatchet-swinging, whiskey-hating matron had settled in Guthrie after being run out of Kansas and was publishing her newsletter there.   Her likely motivation was to impact the Oklahoma state constitution to outlaw alcohol.   Weinberger made one stipulation, no ax swinging in his establishment.  Carry kept her promise until the end of her speech then did a “hachetation” on Moses’ mahogany bar, removing a chunk of it.  She was promptly removed from the premises and Weinberger hung a sign over the saloon that read:  “All Nations welcomed except Carry.”  The damaged spot reputedly became the place his patrons banged their empty beer mugs when they wanted another round.

Weinberger proved to be a genial barkeeper, providing regular customers with bar tokens good for five cents in trade, similar to the one shown here.  He also advertised in the local newspapers.  In addition to selling liquor over the bar he was retailing a number of nationally known brand whiskeys like McBrayer, Old Oscar Pepper and Guckenheimer Rye.  He also was featuring major beer lines such as Budweiser, Blue Ribbon and Bohemian.  “The success of my business,”  Moses asserted in a 1901 ad, “is due to honorable methods and quality of goods.”

But no amount of honorable methods or quality goods could stem the “Dry” tide in Oklahoma.   Carry Nation would have the last laugh as Prohibition forces focused their efforts there. The State’s Constitution upon adoption in 1907 banned all sales of alcohol within its borders.   Overnight Weinberger and his fellow publicans were forced out of business.  Moses sold his saloon equipment and shipped it out of state but later said the sale hardly brought enough to pay the freight.

Before Oklahoma’s prohibition, Weinberger had tried other occupations, none of which seem to pan out.  When some Indian lands were opened for homesteading, he had staked a claim near the town of Chandler and settled his family on it.  He rode out from Guthrie weekly to see how they were doing.  Dogged by floods, rattlesnakes, sickness among the children, and a distraught wife, Moses eventually gave up the claim and moved his family back to town.   His attempts to find oil ended first with a dry hole and then a drilling effort that he said:  “Instead of oil we got salt water.

With the demise of his liquor trade,  Weinberger went into the transfer business, loading materiel and supplies on carts from railroad cars and hauling them to construction and other sites in Guthrie.  Although the transfer business proved considerably less lucrative than alcohol, the company gave employment to family members.  A Guthrie business directory for 1907-1908 shows several of his sons and their spouses working for the Weinberger Transfer Company, located at 501-509 Oklahoma Avenue.

Always sensitive to the needs of the Jewish community in Guthrie,  Moses permitted its members to hold religious services in one of his buildings free of charge and for several years  a congregation did observe the high holy days there.   But the dream of a permanent place of Jewish worship in Guthrie was dashed when in 1910 a statewide referendum moved the capital to Oklahoma City.  Not only was Guthrie’s economy devastated but the blame fell on Jewish businessmen.   Seen here is an inflammatory headline in the Guthrie Daily Leader of November 1, 1912.  As a result of local enmity,  most Jews moved out.

Moses stayed.  His last business venture was a ladies’ ready-to-wear and men’s apparel store.  Business proved to be slack and he lost a considerable amount of money.   Regardless of that business setback and racial slurs, Moses was proud to have been an original settler of Guthrie and adamantly refused to leave.  The 1940 U.S. census found him living on West Oklahoma Avenue with several of his children.   He was eighty years old and died later that year.   He was buried in Guthrie’s Summit View Cemetery, Section 1, Block 4, Lot 12.   Interred near him are his wife Rose and several of their children.   Theirs are the only Jewish graves in the cemetery.

Although Weinberger is gone, his memory is enshrined in a marker on the spot of the “Same Old Moses Saloon,”  It reproduces the picture of the proprietor and his bartenders and tells the story in brief of Weinberger’s bananas, his saloons, his bout with Carry Nation, and the coming of prohibition.   His fame also is acknowledged in a history book used in Oklahoma  schools.  On a list of  “State Greats,” the name of Moses Weinberger can be found in the company of Humorist Will Rogers and Athlete Jim Thorpe.  His claim to fame:  “Opened first legal saloon in Oklahoma.”  Yes, Moses did -- and he started with bananas.

Note:  Much of this vignette was derived from a 1937 interview of Moses Weinberger by Ruth W. Moon for the Indian-Pioneer History Project, a WPA-sponsored effort to capture the stories of people about living in pre-statehood Oklahoma.  The full text is available on the Internet though the auspices of the University of Oklahoma Library.

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