Friday, April 4, 2014

Jacob Barzen: “Small Undertakings” Led to “Business of Magnitude”

Born in Riel on the River Moselle, Germany, in 1854,  into a family of wine growers,  Jacob Barzen spent his early years in what a biographer termed, “small undertakings,” before locating in Kansas City, Missouri.  There he made liquor his trade and “business interests of importance and magnitude” resulted.

In a 1908 history of Kansas City the biographer dwelled extensively on Jacob’s German ancestry.   The Barzen family for at least five generations back had grown grapes and made wine in the famous Moselle Valley.  The Barzen men were notoriously long-lived.  Jacob’s grandfather died at 97.  His father lived to 92 and was said to be a man “who never ate a meal without his wine on the family board.”  Born in a house that dated back to the 1500s,  Jacob was the seventh in a family of ten children.  He was educated in the public schools of Riel but left home at the age of 14, possibly recognizing that by birth order he never would inherit the family wine lands.

The first of Barzen’s “small undertakings” was to go to work in a wholesale grocery in Coblenz, Germany, where he was employed in the office and warehouse.  He spent three years there, learning the trade and working his way up in the firm.  He next went to Nuenkirchen, again working in a wholesale grocery but also employed on the road as a salesman. At the age of 18 in 1872,  Barzen emigrated to the United States, the only one of his siblings to come to the New World.  He settled first in Chicago, working as a bookkeeper in a series of mercantile firms that dealt principally in wines, liquors and cigars.

In Chicago Jacob met his wife, Martina Heiderich.  Born in Louisiana, she was the daughter of Martin Heiderich, a German immigrant and tobacco manufacturer in Quincy, Illinois.  The young couple married in May 1875.  Jacob was 21; Martina was 18.  The 1880 census found the Barzens living in Chicago, already with three children.  It may have been Jacob’s recognition of his growing financial responsibilities that caused him to forego “small undertakings” working for other people.  He went to Kansas City in 1882 looking for a favorable location to open a store.  Along the way he had met Isaac Glasner who had established a grocery in KC almost a decade earlier.  When Glasner offered him a partnership Barzen agreed.

Almost from the beginning Jacob appears to have acted as the lead partner.  Two years after arriving he sold off the grocery business and engaged exclusively in liquor sales. The Glasner and Barzen firm that emerged was both a retailer and wholesaler.  Like many wholesalers, it also was a “rectifier,” blending and compounding raw whiskeys to create and market proprietary brands.  Needing a steady supply of “raw” product, Barzen eventually determined buy a distillery.

In 1903 he found one not far from Kansas City.  It was the Blue Springs Distillery in Leeds, Jackson County, Missouri, in IRS terms, “District 3, No. 6.”  Shown here, the facility had been owned by the B.B. Joffee distilling interests and already was part of the Federal bonded warehouse system.  The company incorporated that same year with a name change to “Glasner & Barzen Distilling & Importing Company.”  Sales offices also moved to new and much larger quarters, shown here.  Located at 519-521 Delaware, the building was five stories with large storage space and ample room for rectifying the production from the Blue Valley Distillery.

Subsequently Glasner and Barzen sold a veritable blizzard of brands, some their own proprietary whiskeys, others nationally known and advertised labels.  Their own names graced many of their containers, including gallon and larger jugs that were used in their wholesale trade.  For retail customers they featured fancier stoneware containers with gilded gothic lettering.

The firm advertised several of their proprietary brands widely, including Diplomat Sour Mash Whiskey.  Promoted as “Just Right,” and featuring a Colonial gentleman on the label,  the name “Diplomat” was trademarked in 1905 and sold at retail in bottles in a range of sizes from miniatures to quarts.  Whatever the brand the names Glasner and Barzen usually were embossed in the glass, as shown below.

Like other Kansas City whiskey men, Barzen was lavish in furnishing his favored customers with giveaway items.  They issued a number of different shot glasses with their name and the name of their products etched on the glass. Among them was a fancy a three-inch high shot glass advertising Diplomat Whiskey.  My personal favorite among their gifts is an attractive knife with a brass finish in the “art nouveau” style.  It was given to bartenders, reminding them about G&B products as they worked opening bottles and cutting fruit.

Glasner & Barzen’s business grew steadily from year to year.  At the outset sales were in the “small undertaking” range at $35,000 annually but by 1908, reputedly as a result of Barzen’s “enterprise and energy,” the company had grown to a “business of magnitude” with annual revenues approaching  $1 million annually (over $25 million in today’s dollar.)  Barzen, however, had not limited himself to the liquor trade.   He was prominent in financial circles as a director of the Pioneer Trust Company.  He also made significant investments in Kansas City real estate.  His own home at 2823 Forest Avenue was accounted a mansion.

As Jacob’s business and his wealth was growing, so was his family.  Eventually the Barzens would have eight children, two of whom, boys, died before reaching maturity.  Surviving to adulthood were four daughters and two sons.  One of the sons, Carl Barzen, upon reaching maturity was brought into the business.  According to his biographer,  Jacob was “devoted to the welfare of his wife and family and finds his greatest happiness in contributing to their pleasure.”

Barzen also was conducting an active life in Kansas City business and social circles.  He was a member of the Commercial Club, the Rich Hill Hunting Club, the Pioneer Bowling Club, the Elm Ridge Club, the Kansas City Club, the Kansas City Athletic Club, and the Elks Lodge.  He also was a member of the board of directors of the German Hospital and several times served as its president.  Moreover, a Roman Catholic, he actively participated in church activities and was known as a generous contributor to charitable causes. Unlike other Kansas City liquor dealers, however, Barzen deliberately kept out of politics.

Much of Glasner & Barzen’s business was via sales throughout the Midwest and West.  The company claimed representatives in Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Nebraska, New Mexico, Texas and Wyoming.  Although Missouri was a “wet” state,  Prohibition forces eventually cut off most of that out-of-state business, either the result of state bans on alcohol or local option laws.  With the coming of National Prohibition,  Barzen was forced to shut the doors on his business by 1919.

The 1920 Census found him living in his Beacon Hill neighborhood mansion with Martina, his wife of 45 years, and several servants.  Clearly his real estate and other financial interests had helped shield him from the shock of his “business of magnitude,” being summarily terminated.  Barzen gave his occupation to the census taker as “retired.”  For the 1930 census he was still living at 76 years old, as was his wife, Martina.  Despite the tragedy of losing two sons,  the couple could take comfort in their remaining children, some married with their own children, most living near the aging couple in Kansas City.

My research has not disclosed the time and place of Barzen’s death and burial.  A tribute by his biographer earlier may serve as a fitting final tribute:  “...All who know him respect him for his loyal citizenship, his benevolent spirit and the kindly purpose which he displays in his relations with his fellow men.”  On his journey from small undertakings to a business of importance and magnitude,  Jacob Barzen quite evidently had not lost his humanity.

Note:  Much of the information contained here is taken from "Kansas City, Missouri. Its History and Its People, 1800-1908. Vol. III". by Carrie Westlake Whitney (1908), S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., Chicago.  The image of the Diplomat Whiskey bottles is adapted from the online collection of Paul Gronquist.


  1. Have you run into the name Phil Barzen or PJ Barzen in your research?
    Would like to determine if he had ties to Glasner & Barzen. He was a tavern owner and socialite in Albany NY circa 1895-1921.

  2. Dear 303y03: Thanks for being in touch. I have checked my notes but have not found any references to Phil Barzen or PJ Barzen. As noted in my post above, Jacob Barzen was one of 10 children. It is possible that one or more of his siblings may have emigrated to the U.S. Phil may have been one of them or a descendent. It was a period of considerable German migration. Sorry not to be of more help. Jack

  3. Jack - fascinating story. Jacob was my great-great grandfather and this story helped fill in some blank spaces in our family history. Thanks again!

  4. Jack, I also enjoyed your write-up! Scott Murrow is my nephew and I am a great grandson of Jacob and Martina Barzen.

    Their daughter Tillie Barzen married my grandfather William Rollins Murrow, called "Rol," and they settled in Independence, Kansas, where my grandfather built his businesses. I am named William Rollins Murrow II after him, and also nicknamed Rol. There is a partial biography of him at
    . There are so many wonderful stories of these ancestors and I appreciate your capturing and writing about some of them. - Rol Murrow

  5. Dear Mr. Murrow: I think your great grandfather, Jacob Barzen, was an extraordinary man. The ability of such immigrants, most of whom spoke no English when they arrived, to achieve outstanding business success and win the recognition of their peers is a constant wonder to me. All the best to you -- as well as to Scott. Jack