Look closely at the quaint 1860s scene above. It is an etching of a view of Chicago’s La Salle Street from its Court House Square. Now look again at the close-up left of one of the buildings. A caption that accompanied the picture advised: “Before leaving the Court House, take a few minutes to stroll through its lovely grounds for a soothing respite from the busy city. Across LaSalle Street stand two well-known Chicago enterprises: the State Savings Institution and Grommes & Ullrich.”
That attention must have been gratifying to the Grommes Brothers, Hubert and John Baptiste, immigrants from Germany, who had begun their liquor, wines and specialty grocer business only six years earlier. Hubert was the elder, born in 1831, and John Baptiste, circa 1845 (dates differ). They were the sons of Pierre and Catherine (Klein) Grommes of Malmody, Bavaria, They had emigrated to the U.S., settling in Chicago, when Hubert was 19 and John Baptiste was a youngster.
The first 10 years of the brothers' lives in this country have gone undocumented. My surmise is that Hubert went to work for one of the many grocers in the Windy City, accumulating both the experience and the financial resources necessary to strike out on his own. With a partner named Michael Ullrich, in 1860 Hubert established a liquor, wine and specialty grocery at 76 LaSalle Street under a company name that would prevail for almost a half century, “Grommes & Ullrich.” The partners issued a cheese crock that carried a cobalt reproduction of the LaSalle St. site — the low building was theirs — and the words, “Fine Foods.”
By 1870 the firm was using the LaSalle St. building principally for warehouse purposes, moving it sales operations to several locations on Randolph and subsequently Madison Street. An 1887 letterhead, shown here, cites the latter address and identifies the firm with “cigars, wines, and liquors.” Grommes & Ullrich featured a number of proprietary whiskey brands, indicating that they were also rectifiers, that is, blending and compounding whiskeys to achieve smoothness and flavor. Among their brands were “Marquette Pure Rye,” “Great Union Pure Rye,” “National Club,” Pullman Palace Car Rye,” “Westmoreland,” and later for the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition a “World’s Fair Rye.” For wholesale purposes the company packaged these whiskeys in ceramic jugs, of several sizes and shapes, some as large as five gallons. Its retail sales were in glass, from quart size to flasks, often in amber with the firm name embossed.
As he was growing his business, Hubert Grommes had married a woman named Louisa and begun a family. They would have five children, four girls and a boy. The only son, born in 1876, was named John Baptiste Grommes. This identical naming with his uncle, who had been taken by Hubert into Grommes & Ullrich at an early age, seemingly caused considerable confusion in Grommes biographies of the time.
Meanwhile the company was gaining in reputation both for its fine groceries, wines, and superior brands of liquors. The Filson Library has letters from the famous Kentucky distiller, Col. E. H. Taylor, written during the 1870s urging the Grommes to feature his OFC Bourbon, claiming that it was at least the equal of other brands they were carrying. The company also was making a reputation for the number and quality of its “giveaway” items. Competition among liquor dealers in Chicago for the business of its many saloons was fierce. Grommes & Ullrich understood that and were noted for their gifts. Among them were glass etched, clear “back of the bar” bottles that advertised their several brands. Shown here is one for Marquette Rye. Another was for National Club. For their World’s Fair brand, the company would issue both an attractively etched shot glass with a globe showing North America and marking Chicago. An even more expensive item was a silver plated World’s Fair teakettle. Placed on a bar it might hold tea or hot water to be mixed with the firm’s whiskey.
Meanwhile a management change had taken place at Grommes & Ullrich. Hubert Grommes, widely viewed as the founder of the firm, was no longer involved, according to city business directories. In a1876 directory only John Baptiste Grommes was listed, along with Ullrich. Hubert Grommes was recorded as an insurance agent. By this time John B. also had married. In 1873 he took to wife Bertha Lehrkind. They had three daughters, born in 1877, 1881, and 1885. The family lived down Dearborn Street, several blocks from the company address at 194 Dearborn. John Baptiste also was branching out in business as a member of a Chicago cigar firm called Grommes & Elson.
By the early 1900s, other management changes had taken place at Grommes & Ullrich. John B. was still the president but Ullrich, while listed as a director, was no longer in direct management. Frank A. Rehm was listed as vice president and director; F. Diehl was Secretary and director. The 1900 U.S. Census found Hubert, now apparently retired, living with his daughter and son-in-law. His occupation was given as “capitalist,” a term used for person no longer in the workplace but investing. With the family was his son, the younger John B., who was working in the cigar trade. Five years later, at age 86, Hubert Grommes died in Chicago.
As he aged, John Baptiste Grommes turned over the day to day operation of the firm to younger associates. Likely under his watchful eye, the company continued to be a major Midwest liquor house until 1918, as National Prohibition closed in. His wife, Bertha, died in 1919. The following year the census found John B. living alone in a boarding house in Chicago. He also maintained a summer home in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and was residing there in August 1922 when he died. He was buried in the Grommes family crypt at Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago. His name appears over the doors.
The immigrant Grommes brothers had proved themselves to be outstanding businessmen, intent on quality. Their first retail establishment had been pointed out as a landmark to visitors as early as 1866. Their real Chicago landmark, however, was the liquor dealership they headed, one that began before the Civil War in 1860 and endured until after World War One, a period of 48 years. Another tribute to their quality products was the resurrection of their whiskey as a brand name after Repeal in 1934 when Schenley bottled whiskey for a time under the Grommes & Ullrich label.