Lawrence G. McGreal, the son of poor immigrants, as a young man gravitated to the thriving nursery business in Rochester to make his living and then found that not trees and flowers but selling whiskey was the key to financial and social success. Joined by his brothers, the young man never looked back.
McGreal was born in Upper New York State, in 1856. His father James had emigrated from Ireland about 1850 with other family members and settled in the town of Macedon in Wayne County. There James married Anna Gannon, also an Irish immigrant, and raised a family. Although his parents were not rich, Lawrence was able to achieve some education before going to work in the nursery business in Macedon. It was an industry in which he seemed to be well fitted. Before long he was able to gain employment in the nearby big city of Rochester., going to work for the Lakeview Nursery run by partners Tones and Palmer. He stayed there ten years, learning the nursery trade and being educated in commerce.
At the time Rochester was accounted the leading city on the globe, not just the United States, for the production of nursery stock. A contemporary account said: “The nursery industry of Rochester has done more for bringing our city into honorable and favorable repute throughout the world than can be easily estimated, and every firm and individual engaged in it have reason to be proud of their past achievements, and may look forward with confidence to a future of continued prosperity and more extended opportunities.”
Perhaps embolden by the promise of a bright future, McGreal, after a decade of working for Tones and Palmer, opened his own nursery business. According to a 1907 history of Rochester and Monroe County, he made a success of that enterprise. In the spring of 1883, however, seeking more lucrative pursuits, he sold the nursery and opened a grocery store at the corner of St. Paul and Gordon Street in Rochester with his brother John J. McGreal. Later he and his brother would be hailed in a the publication, “A History of the Brewery and Liquor Industries of Rochester, N.Y. “(1907): “Without resources, other than their own manly pluck and courage, they started out to make themselves felt in the community as representatives citizens.”
In those days grocers usually carried a line of liquor and the McGreals soon found that alcoholic spirits were the most profitable item in their store. After several years, they sold off the groceries and from the same store front they began to sell cigars, tobacco, and -- most important of all -- whiskey. This time the McGreals hit the jackpot. Lawrence’s biographer asserted: “Their patronage increased until their trade became very extensive.” Sales extended throughout Western New York. About 1887 Lawrence and his brother began to see the advantages of having a business near Main Street, a major commercial avenue in Rochester, shown here, and opened a wholesale and retail liquor store on East Avenue . As indicated by an 1888 city directory they were hiring relatives, James E. and Paul McGreal, to work in their store as clerks.
Lawrence also was having a personal life. In 1887 he had married Alice Fitzgerald, a native of Rochester whose parents, William J. and Mary Anne Fitzgerald, like those of her husband, were immigrants from Ireland. They were recorded in the 1900 U.S. Census as living at 21 Vick Park Avenue with four children, William, born 1888; Helen, 1890; Florence, 1895; and Raymond, 1897. That same year a fifth child would join the family, named Katherine. Lawrence’s occupation was given as “liquor merchant” by the census taker.
The McGreal’s North Street store proved highly popular, reputedly attracting a “large and high class patronage from every part of the city.” In 1905 Lawrence and his brothers incorporated the firm under the name McGreal Bros. Company, capitalized and fully paid in at $50,000, $1.25 million in today’s dollar. Lawrence was named president; John, vice president; and A. T. (Anthony) McGreal, secretary. With incorporation the McGreals bought a second building, a four story structure, shown here, directly on Main Street East. They renamed it The McGreal Building. “One may gain some idea of the magnitude of the business done by this corporation upon a visit to this building. Here will be found in reserve a mammoth stock of wines, liquors and cordials of every good quality known to the trade. They have every reason to feel proud of this new acquisition.” Thus opined the 1907 liquor history book.
These larger quarters not only gave the McGreals additional sales and warehouse space, it also allowed them more room for their “rectifying” operations. In addition to acting as agents for national brands like Gibson’s Rye, like many other wholesale liquor dealers they were blending and compounding raw whiskeys on their premises. They had a single flagship brand that they called “Major Burke.” It was widely advertised as “Your Friend.”
As was the custom for such wholesale liquor houses, Lawrence and his tribe issued a variety of shot glasses advertising themselves and their products. These would be given to saloons and other establishments doing business with them. A more unusual gift, perhaps intended for both retail and wholesale customers was a bottle opener in the shape of a truck, perhaps indicating the delivery capacities of McGreal Bros. Note that it also included a bicycle wrench and a screw driver, rendering it unique among liquor company giveaways.
Lawrence McGreal was also active in a number of community organizations. He was a member of the Rochester Chamber of Commerce and of the Credit Men’s Association. He served as treasurer of the Ancient Order of the Hibernians and was a member of the Knights of Columbus. He held the offices of president and grand deputy of the Catholic Mutual Benefit Association of the Diocese of New York, as well as the finance committee of the Association’s New York Grand Council. With his help, the Association developed a reserve of over one million dollars in his time and was known for its many beneficial works.
Lawrence McGreal died in 1916 at the age of 60 and is buried in the family plot, near the McGreal plinth, in the Holy Sepulchre Cemetery of Rochester. His wife, Alice, would join him in 1934. The liquor business that he had founded with family members kept on until shut by Prohibition. The final word on this landscaper and nurseryman turned whiskey wholesaler, might be a tribute was written about him while he was living. It seems to have caught the essence of his character: "Mr. McGreal is a man of ready sympathy and broad charity, responding quickly to any tale of distress and giving ready aid wherever substantial assistance is needed. In business life he has displayed careful management and keen discernment and his watchfulness and diligence have constituted the elements in the success which he is now enjoying."
Note: Two short biographies of Lawrence McGreal and his business provided the bulk of the information for this vignette. They were the History of the Brewery and Liquor Industries of Rochester, cited above, and William F. Peck’s History of Rochester and Monroe County, from the Earliest Historic Times to the Beginning of 1907 (Volume 2).