Friday, July 24, 2015

The Bernhardts Blossomed in Buffalo

How does a 20-year-old immigrant, likely speaking little English, within two years of his arrival in Buffalo, New York, establish his own wholesale liquor business and thereby establish a family dynasty?   The answer lies with the pleasant-looking gentleman shown right.  His name was Johann Heinrich Christian Bernhardt, known throughout his life as “Christ.”

According to census records, Christ Bernhardt was born in 1838 in Germany, the son of Christopher and Louisa Bernhardt.   He likely had a good education in his homeland but at the age of 18 in 1856 he headed to America, settling in Buffalo — a city with a substantial German-speaking population.   My surmise is that he spent the next two years clerking for a Buffalo liquor dealer and learning the whiskey trade.

Just two years later he founded his own liquor business at 297-301 Main Street, a location from which he would operate for the more than twenty years.  In 1863 Bernhardt was joined by other family members in Buffalo as his father, mother, and younger brothers, Adam and Herman, arrived in the United States.   By this time Christ had married.  About 1860 he wed Christina Geyer, who like himself, had been born in Germany.  Beginning about 1861 they would produce a family of at least ten children, seven sons and three daughters.
As he entered middle life, Bernhardt determined to expand his operation by taking a partner.  He was Charles Gillig, a Buffalo local and the son of Lorenz Gillig who had founded his own liquor business as early as 1848.   When L. Gillig and Sons ceased business in 1885, Charles joined Bernhardt in an enterprise located at 273 Washington Street, calling themselves as “successors” to the older company.   Gillig & Bernhardt advertised as “Importers and Dealers in Foreign and Native Wines, Brandies, Gins, Whiskies, Ales and Cigars.”
The merger with Gillig seems to have been ill-fated from the outset.  Within two years Gillig had departed and was in business with his brother.   Christ Bernhardt took the opportunity to form a new partnership, this time with his brother, Herman, who likely had been working for him earlier.  Because of the growth of their business, the brothers moved their operation down Washington Street, opposite Elllicott Square, a major Buffalo commercial area.  

As shown here, they occupied a four-story and basement brick building,  60 by 175 feet in dimension.  The upper floors were used for storage and their wholesale trade, with the ground floor reserved for retail sales and the basement for wine cellars and vaults.

A contemporary report on the firm offered a extravagant account:  “The stock, which is one of the finest in the State, includes all foreign and native wines, ports, sherries, clarets, Rhine wines, campaigns, the finest Hungarian wines for medical purposes, special brands of Pennsylvania and Kentucky whiskies (aged for family use), and all the leading brands of cordials, ales and mineral waters.”   

By this time the Bernhardt Bros. company not only was doing business in the Buffalo area, but according to accounts, throughout New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio.  For some of their whiskeys they were using stoneware ceramic jugs with script cobalt lettering as the label, as shown here. 
With the success of his liquor enterprises, Christ Bernhardt became an important part of Buffalo’s business community, active in the city’s Board of Trade and a member of leading social  clubs and fraternal organizations.  As befitting his stature in the community about 1872 he built for his family an imposing mansion in Second Empire style on Buffalo’s Main Street, shown above.  Located within Buffalo’s Allentown Local Historic District, the house still stands but has been converted to commercial uses.

Because of advancing age or perhaps ill health, Christ Bernhardt withdrew from partnership with his brother and in 1889 the Herman Bernhardt firm appeared in Buffalo directories, doing business at the same Washington Street address.   As shown here, by Herman’s day the earlier ovoid stoneware jugs had been superseded by shouldered jugs.  

This Bernhardt was also up to date on style and quality of the giveaway items he presented to saloonkeepers and bartenders using his whiskey.  Two tip trays bearing Herman’s name are shown here, one of a comely lass in a low bodice and the other of horse — both popular themes with the drinking public.

But Herman was not Christ’s only legacy to the Buffalo liquor trade.  The same year, at Bernhardt’s old address at 273 Washington Street, a firm called J.C. Bernhardt’s Sons, opened as a liquor wholesaler.  Of the father’s seven sons, the two following in his footsteps were Christian F. Bernhardt and his younger brother, Henry, both of whom likely had been working with their father for some years.  Whiskey jugs bearing their company name are shown here.  Still another son, Frank X. Bernhardt, opened a wholesale liquor firm in 1913, potentially completing with his brothers and uncle.  His establishment was located at 441 Ellicott for the first several years and later moved to 91 Gennessee.    

Bernhardt family liquor enterprises continued to prosper in Buffalo through the early 1900s.  As local option laws in nearby states increasingly meant many “dry” counties and towns, their business dwindled.  During this period, one of Herman’s children joined the firm and it became Herman Bernhardt & Son.  With the coming of National Prohibition, that firm was forced to shut down in 1919.  The same year also saw the demise of J. C. Bernhardt’s Sons at the Washington Street address and Frank Bernhardt on Gennessee.

Christ Bernhardt had died, at age 66 in 1904.  He was buried in Erie County’s Forest Lawn Cemetery, close to the spot where his immigrant parents lay.  His widow, Christina, followed him there in 1915.  An obelisk marked “C. Bernhardt,” marks the site of their graves.  Herman, likely the victim of a heart attack, died at Buffalo General Hospital in 1919 and is buried in a different section of Forest Lawn.  

For at least 62 years members of the Bernhardt family had been prominent figures in the whiskey trade of Buffalo and New York State — no small accomplishment in itself.  But even more impressive than the long finish was the amazing start:   A 20-year-old who had arrived in the U.S. only two years earlier from Germany venturing into business for himself and succeeding magnificently.   How did he do it?  One clue may be found in an 1898 book called “Our County and Its People:  A Descriptive Work on Erie County, New York,” edited by Truman C. White.  There Christ was described as “widely known in trade circles for sterling integrity.”  That attribute seemingly took him and the Bernhardt family a long way.


  1. This is a great article ...I have a picture of my Great Great Grandfather Christ Bernhardt at a bar in the late 1800's ...I always heard they owned the bar ...This Christian Bernhardt was not the same as the one mentioned in this article ..rather than distribute Wine and Liquors he served it either working at the bar or owning the bar ..Wish I had more info on him ...does the Author of this article have any info on him ? or such a bar?..he was Christian Bernhardt of William street in Tonawanda..and researching my family history has become my obsession ..any help would be appreciated. Based on what I've read here he is no relation to J Christian Bernhardt , however perhaps they were related distantly.

    1. I have full family trees so I would recognize most of his immediate family ...Christian Bernhardt, his wifes name was Rose Bernhardt, later remarried to Kohler ...his 2 sons both died young..Christ G. Bernhardt (died of influenza in 1918) and John Bernhardt who died in 1906 ..not sure from what.

    2. Dear John: Thank you for the two separate comments. Glad you enjoyed the article on Christ Bernhardt, even though he is not the relative you have been researching. I have checked my notes to see if I had run across someone of the same or similar name who was a saloonkeeper in Tonawanda -- but found nothing. Most of what my research turned up is in the post. Will keep on the alert, however, and if I get something that might be of interest to you will try to let you know.

    3. Thanks for getting back to me . Still enjoyed the article . If you ever come across anything on any Bernhardts from Tonawanda please email me at

    4. Even though he was from Tonawanda father thinks the Saloon was in Buffalo

  2. Dear John: Thanks for getting back to me. Will keep on the lookout for the other Christian Bernhardt and if I find anything will get back to you via email.
    Good to know the saloon might have been in Buffalo rather than Tonowanda. Much has been done to identify Buffalo whiskey men. Jack