After years of toiling in the hinterlands of the upper Midwest, saving his money and making a reputation in small towns like Rochester, Minnesota, and Aberdeen, North Dakota, Edmund Henry (E. H.) Roche at the age of 45 moved to Chicago, a city rapidly making a name on the world scene. Embracing the “Big Time,” Roche never looked back.
Edmund was, after all, a big city boy, born in New York City in 1854 to Irish immigrant parents, James and Susan Gould Roche. After being given an elementary education in local schools, at the age of 13 he left the Big Apple for Minnesota where he worked on a farm until he reached 21. Obviously a thrifty and enterprising youth, Roche moved to Rochester, Minnesota, in 1876 and opened a general store. This town had been founded as the seat of Olmstead County and with the arrival of railroads in the 1860s, some opportunities had opened. Today the third largest city in Minnesota and the site of the famed Mayo Clinic, in those days Rochester was still a village.
In Rochester he met his future wife, Anna Dwyer. Born in Ripon, Wisconsin, she was the daughter of Mary and William Dwyer, both Irish immigrants. Edmund and Anna married in 1878 and produced five children, four girls — Susanne, Mary, Clara Frances, Katherine — and the last one a boy, John Pierre. Roche’s store was selling whiskey, often the biggest money maker for such enterprises. He also opened a Rochester drinking establishment. The 1880 census gave his occupation as “saloon keeper.”
In 1883 after five years in Rochester, Roche, apparently seeking better prospects, uprooted his family and moved 360 miles overland west to Aberdeen, North Dakota, a town officially plotted only two years earlier when the Milwaukee Road railhead arrived. The new community was granted a charter by the state legislature the year Roche got to town. As a result of the railroad Aberdeen was attracting new residents and apparently seemed to Roche a more fruitful location for his kind of business. There he became known throughout the Upper Midwest as a spokesman for liquor interests and an ardent anti-Prohibition spokesman. In 1886 he became a founder/director of the National Protective Association, an organization fighting prohibition efforts at both state and national levels.
Roche’s was an embattled stance in North Dakota where so-called “temperance” forces had lobbied hard and effectively to declare the state “dry.” The legislature obliged them in 1889 after Roche had been in business for only five years. He then shut his doors in Aberdeen, uprooted his by now larger family, and moved 700 miles east from a Northern Tier backwater to America’s second largest city — Chicago. He clearly had been saving his money because on his arrival he announced that he was purchasing the established liquor business of Enright & Kelly, founded in 1877 and operated successfully for two decades at 226-28 Kinzie St.
In 1888, however, those Irish partners had been hauled into court for having “engaged in business within said city of Chicago, selling and offering for sale spirituous and vinous liquors in quantities of one gallon or more at a time without having or having had any license therefor from said city of Chicago.” Found guilty, Enright & Kelly had to fork over the equivalent today of $11,200 and soon after sold out to Roche. He renamed the business the “E.H. Roche Company.” and told industry publications that he also intended to start a brewery in the city on Lake Michigan.
Roche was made for Chicago — and Chicago for Roche. The era was one of exuberance in the “hog butcher for the world,” as Carl Sandburg termed the city. The 1891 pamphlet cover that opens this post captured the tenor of the self-proclaimed “Metropolis of the West” with its global aspirations in the arts, science and industry. That drive that would culminate in the Columbian Exposition of 1893, a World’s Fair of a proportion and impact seldom if ever ever to be equaled. Roche was quick to catch the flavor of Chicago, symbolically naming one of his flagship whiskeys “World’s Fair Rye” and issuing a colorful paperweight that advertised the liquor and the fair. Other brands were “Aberdeen Club Rye,” “W.W. Brownfield Sour Mash Whiskey,” and “Edro Rye.” Shown throughout this post are containers and giveaway items Roche provided to advertise those brands.
Moreover, like Chicago, Roche rapidly was expanding the scope of his business. Only two years after settling there, he opened an outlet in Des Moines, Iowa, at 213 Fourth St. He advertised “Roche’s Royal Rye” brand in his ads there. Two years after that he opened stores in Detroit, Michigan. They occupied several locations: 365 Grand River Avenue (1898), 47 Cadillac Sq. (1894-1898), and 119 Woodward Avenue (1896-1905). In 1901 he obtained an interest in the bankrupt Brewer & Hofmann Brewing Company of Chicago.
By the early 1900s Roche also had become the president of the Hendryx Distilling Co., shown below. Despite the name of the firm, he was not a distiller, but a rectifier, that is, blending and compounding whiskeys on one of the floors of his building at 170 East Ohio Street. In order to insure a steady flow of raw whiskeys for rectifying, he had investments in or contracts with outside distilleries. Among them was a stake in the Atherton Distillery (RD #87, 5th District) located in La Rue County, Kentucky. (See my post on Atherton, February 2015.)
In addition, Roche had made friends for himself in Illinois politics. He became a confidant of Judge Edmund F. Dunne who in 1904 was elected to a two-year term as mayor of Chicago. Upon assuming office, Dunne appointed Roche as purchasing agent for the city. The job paid $4,000 a year, a hefty pay check equivalent to $100,000 today. A newspaper rundown of the mayor’s “cabinet” had this to say: “This office requires a businessman who is thoroughly posted on business methods, as all purchases of the city, except those made by contract, are made through it, amounting to nearly $800,000 per year [$20 million today]. Mr. Roche conducts his office on strictest business principles and fills his position most credibly.”
Strong praise for a man who likely never finished high school and whose principal business experience was juggling a large liquor enterprise spread over three cities. Roche, however, did not hold the position long. The Republicans swept Illinois in the 1906 elections, beating Mayor Dunne by 13,000 votes. At least temporarily Roche was sidelined but was hired back later when Democrats controlled Chicago. In interim periods he worked as an insurance broker. By 1916, at age 62 he was being referred to as “Hon. Edmund H. Roche” and was serving as the State of Illinois’ Department and Institution Auditor.
With his emergence as a public servant, Roche shut down his liquor empire. His Detroit stores disappeared from local business directories in 1905 and his Chicago headquarters was delisted in 1906. He also terminated the Des Moines outlet. His career as a leading whiskey man came to an end. During subsequent years Roche’s wife, Anna, died in May 1916. Meanwhile his son, John Pierre, was making a name for himself in as a successful Chicago advertising executive. Roche himself died in Chicago in November 1929, age 75, and was buried in Calvary Cemetery in a plot beside his wife and and adjacent to two grandchildren who died young. A seven-foot monument, inscribed “E. H. Roche,” stands 40 yards from his grave near a plot where four of his children are buried.
Edmund H. Roche, the child of Irish immigrants who received only a limited education, had emerged by dint of his energy and intelligence from the hinterlands of America at a relatively advanced age to “make it” in the booming metropolis of Chicago, not only as the head of an expansive whiskey business and as a prominent national spokesman for the liquor industry, but also as a effective and respected public servant. Exchanging the “boonies” for Chicago’s “big time” had been productive.