Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Rugers of Houston and Their Bar of Seashells

An 1894 directory of Houston, Texas, businesses, advised visitors to the city to pay a call at  Charles C. “Charlie” Rugers' establishment at 1105 Congress Avenue in order to view the bar at the rear, calling it “particularly striking and remarkable” for its decoration of  “sea shells and marine curiosities.”  Tourists were further advised that as they view the wonders of this maritime tableau: “…They will be able to refresh the inner man with good stuff, which cheers but need not inebriate.”
This saloon and liquor dealership had been established in 1872 or 1873 by Charlie’s father, C. W. Rugers.  Shown right, the elder Rugers had been born in 1840 in Schiedam, Netherlands, of Dutch parentage.  As a youth he emigrated to the United States, settling in Louisiana.  By 1865, he was married to Catherine Oswald, who herself had come as a young girl from Germany.  Their three children were all born in Louisiana, Charles C. about 1866; Julia, 1868; and Cornelius, 1869.

C. W. Rugers, who likely had been in the grocery liquor trade in Louisiana, had made a calculated  decision to relocate to Houston. The city was on the rise. In 1869 the Ship Channel Company had been formed to improve Houston as a port, destined eventually to be the busiest in the U.S. in foreign tonnage. Local businessmen had invested heavily to expand the railroad network joining Houston to other large regional cities.  Despite Civil War social unrest in Texas, people were flocking to town looking for new opportunities. The map below shows Houston as it looked when the Rugers arrived.  
C. W.’s first stop was working for the grocery house of Henning & Co., but he eventually set up a grocery of his own next door in the Gray Building.  The local press enthused:  “The sample of choice celery he sent us would tempt an invalid to eat.  He intends to keeping on hand, all winter, stocks of celery just as large and white, and we know he will sell them quickly.”   Within a few years, the elder Rugers decided that hawking celery was not the best path to riches and converted his establishment entirely to selling alcoholic beverages.  In 1880 he told the census taker that his occupation was “liquor merchant.”

Not content with operating a successful saloon and whiskey dealership,  C. W. Rugers became active and well-known in the Houston community.  He was one of the city’s first volunteer firefighters, attached to Liberty Department No. 2.  He rose to be foreman of the company and later its representative to the central fireman’s body.   Associating himself with his wife’s nationality he also was a leader in German social activities and was a director of the Volksfest Association that annually sponsored Houston’s German Day celebration.  
When Charlie, shown left, grew to maturity, his father took him into the business.  A contemporary biography signaled that the son had not had an easy transition from a boy to a businessman:  “At a tender age he had duties thrust upon him that gave him experience that few young men encounter.  He has has had a ‘rough road’ to travel on the highway of life, but out of it he stands today strong and robust, ready to meet any future adversities that may be lying in wait for him.

When this commentary was published, Charlie was in his twenty-second year of running the liquor business.  At the age of 27 in 1893, he had been handed sole proprietorship by his father, who seemingly was pursuing other business interests.  For example, In 1905 C. W. Rugers was among a group of Houston area businessmen who incorporated the Seabrook Oil Company to pump and refine Texas oil.  The 1910 census found all the Rugers living together in Houston’s Second Ward, including C.W., age 73; Catherine, 67;  and Charlie, still a bachelor at 44.

That same year C.W. died.  Shortly after, Charlie changed the name of the firm to “Chas. C. Rugers, Importer and Dealer in Wines, Liquors and Cordials,” with an address at 1105 Congress Street.  His store was 22 by 70 feet and rose two stories, a building that gave him ample space to stock large quantities of spirits.  He apparently also was mixing up his own brand of whiskey and selling it in bottles bearing his embossing, several of which are shown here.  A puff piece on Rugers’ establishment asserted: “The house caters to a large family trade and to supplying wines and liquors for medicinal purposes.”  The Rugers also dabbled in patent medicine, advertising in a 1905 Galveston newspaper for a nostrum that claimed to be “…The only remedy for woman’s ills sold by druggists that is not full of ‘booze’ — poor whiskey or bad alcohol.”
As for the shell bar, it is not clear whose idea, father or son or other, it was.  From a recent Houston Chronicle newspaper article it would appear, however, that the town historically has been slightly batty over shells:   “You don’t have to go far to collect sea shells, which have washed up all over town.  And they aren’t just for nautical decor….They’re everywhere….Some people are so passionate about shells that they display them like works of art.”   The Rugers used theirs to decorate a bar, indicating that their liquor store also sheltered a saloon.   The bar can be seen in the somewhat fuzzy newspaper photo above.  A sharp eye can make out starfish, conchs, scallops and other seaside flotsam that faced the drinkers.   Shown here too is a bar token from the Owl Club at virtually the same address as the Rugers establishment.  Although I have not been able directly to connect the two, a relationship seems highly likely.
Although Charlie seems to have avoided marital ties throughout his life, he followed his father’s example and was an enthusiastic volunteer firefighter.  He was a member of the Siebert No. 19 Company, appropriately formed in 1894 by a man named Siebert.  It was the last volunteer group organized in the “Old Department,” before paid fire service in Houston.  The company featured a non-motorized hose wagon that had to be rolled by hand to the fires.  “Strong and robust” as Charlie was said to be, that activity still was a strain and he may not have been displeased when Siebert No. 19 was disbanded.  Apparently Charlie was not the civic leader his father was.  His 1915 biography cited him only as holding “fellowship in several benevolent orders.”
Although his biographer opined that Charlie was ready to meet any adversaries lying in wait for him,  prohibitionary forces would prove even stronger and more robust.  The “Drys” were a force in Texas politics beginning even before the Civil War.  By 1895, 53 of 239 counties were dry and another 79 were partly dry under local option.  The battle continued into the 20th Century and in 1919 Texas voters approved a statewide prohibition law.  He was forced to shut down the business his father had founded almost a half century earlier.  Charlie never saw Repeal, dying in May 1928.

Of that vaunted Houston tourist attraction, where a customer could be struck by its “shellacious” wonders at the same time that he had the “inner man” refreshed,  the fate of the Rugers bar remains unknown. 

Note: The information for this post came from a variety of sources. Principal among them were the 1894 “The Industrial Advantages of Houston, Texas, and Environs,” and “Fire Fighters of Houston, 1838 to 1915.”

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