Saturday, June 27, 2015

Milwaukee’s Henry Figge Was a “Travelin’ Man”

 When Henry Figge died at the age of eighty, his 1933 Milwaukee Journal obituary emphasized his career as a liquor dealer but also reflected aspects of his rambling nature.  Figge had been a “travelin’ man” throughout much of his working life.  Moreover, during his declining years, when most elders prefer to stay in place, he had abjured any real home and preferred constant travel.
Figge was born in Germany in 1853.  Of his early life, little is known, but he emigrated to the United States in 1871 at the age of 19, possibly one of the many youths seeking to avoid mandatory service in the Prussian army.  He early settled in Milwaukee, a city with a large German population where the German language was spoken in business, churches, and in every day society.  From early on Henry seems to have had a talent for the whiskey trade, going to work for the Wm. Bergenthal Co. as a traveling salesman. [See my post on Bergenthal, September 2014.]   Figge’s travels took him throughout Wisconsin and Upper Michigan, as well as neighboring Illinois and Minnesota.

So successful “on the road” was he that Bergenthal eventually made Figge a vice president of his firm, as evident here on an 1890 advertisement.  In the 1900 federal census Henry gave his occupation as a “traveler” selling liquor and wines.  He was living 470 South Eighth Street with his wife of some nine years, Ida J. Figge.  She had been born in Wisconsin of German parentage and was ten years his junior.  With them was their only child, son Alfred, born in 1884.

From his boss Figge learned the process of “rectifying” whiskey, that is, combining and blending raw whiskeys to achieved desired color, taste and alcohol content.  But Bergenthal was a difficult sort, famed for his violent temper.  By 1903 Figge clearly was fed up with his boss and struck out on his own.  With a partner, E.J. Doyle, he opened a wholesale liquor house at 353 East Water Street.  Even then Figge was not through with Bergenthal, suing him in 1906 for money he contended was illegally siphoned from the firm and of which Figge demanded a share.  He lost the suit.
The Figge-Doyle Company soon enough met with its own success. It featured a number of proprietary brands, including “Custom House,” “Foster,” “Gopher State,” “Home Aid,”  “Luster,” and “Turnpike.”   Unlike much of his competition,  Figge went to the considerable trouble and expense of registering each of these proprietary brands for federal trademarks:  Foster in 1905; Custom House in 1906; Gopher, Home Aid, and Luster in 1907, and Turnpike in 1908.

The firm issued its whiskeys in both amber and clear bottles, flasks and quarts, usually with the name “Figge-Doyle” and “Milwaukee” embossed on the front.  This embossing often would be hidden underneath one of the well-designed company paper labels.  Particularly notable was the label for Custom House Rye, below, that featured the very elegant building.  Dating from 1855, it had been constructed by the U.S Department of the Treasury after the design of the noted architect Ammi Burnham Young.  The building still stands. The use of the Milwaukee landmark may indicate that Figge saw his principal market as the city and its environs.
Figge seems to have had a constant yen for movement and change.  By 1912 he had broken with Taylor and had gone into to the liquor business with his brother, Gustave, under the firm name Figge Brothers.  The new firm was located at 97 Wisconsin Avenue, a few steps from Lake Michigan.  The company sales offices were on the first floor of the Railway Exchanged Building, shown here.  Built at the corner of Broadway and Wisconsin, this tall structure, shown below right, was the cornerstone of Milwaukee’s East Side commercial district and a prime location for a liquor distributorship. Henry’s old firm, now at 329-332 West Water Street, retained the name of Figge-Doyle even after he had departed.  My assumption is that Figge’s name commanded considerable respect in Milwaukee and the new management made a business decision not to change it.
Throughout this period Figge also was achieving a reputation as a dog fancier.  The 1905 Field Dog Stud Book lists him as owning a champion beagle named “Foster Rye,” likely named by him for rye whiskey.  The dog had been bred by F. J. Figge of Ossian, Iowa, likely a relative.  Registered as a “black, white and tan,” Foster Rye had a long pedigree.  Its sire was “Bellman”, out of “Florist” and “Bashful”;  its dam was “Staley’s Rubber” out of “Staley" and “Sailor’s Ranney.”

Seemingly ever restless, Figge, now with considerable wealth, retired from the liquor trade entirely in 1914 and bought a large farm on Cold Spring Road in Milwaukee County not far from the village of Hales Corners.  There he raised prize-winning Poland China hogs.  In 1926, perhaps tiring of farming, he sold his holdings and moved back to Milwaukee.  The cause given was his wife’s health but the move also may have reflected his restless nature. A few months later Ida Figge died and was buried in Milwaukee’s Catholic Calvary Cemetery.
His wife’s passing turned Figge into a perpetual vagabond.  According to his obituary, after her death he never maintained a permanent residence:  “He visited relatives and traveled,” according to the Milwaukee Journal.  In August 1933 while visiting relatives in Milwaukee, Henry was stricken and taken to St. Mary's Hospital by ambulance.  He died later that day.  With his son, Alfred, and grandson, Henry Jr., at the graveside, Figge, age 80, was laid to rest beside Ida.
While his newspaper obituary identified Henry Figge as a “retired wholesale liquor distributor,”  I think of him as a man who sailed from his German homeland to America, traveled Wisconsin and neighboring states as a salesman, ventured into and then out of three Milwaukee liquor firms, moved on to raise pigs — only to abandoned that occupation, and in his elder years kept no fixed address, roaming from place to place.  “I’m a Travelin’ Man” is the title of a vintage country tune.  It might have been Henry Figge’s theme song.