Saturday, August 15, 2015

Jacksonville’s Charles Blum Was “Dialed in” for Success

Take a good look at the figure at right.  His name was Charles Blum, a German immigrant  whose career began as the manager of a run-down saloon in Jacksonville, Florida, and who graduated to being one of the city’s leading liquor dealers and later, cigar maker and bottler of soft drinks.  Note the instrument in his left hand.  Along the way Blum also founded a Jacksonville telephone company and earned this caricature in the book of prominent businessmen, “Floridians as the World Sees ‘Em.”
Blum was born in 1861 to German parents, immigrating to the United States in at the age of 17 in 1878, according to census data.  In the 1880 census, living in a Jacksonville boarding house, he gave his occupation as “baker.”   Local directories picked Blum up two years later working as a “clerk,” likely in the liquor business and learning the trade.  By 1887 he was listed as the manager of the Harry Mason Saloon and Restaurant on Bay Street. This must have been a real dive.  The following year a report to the chairman of the city’s Sanitary Commission examined the condition of the floors of every business on either side of Bay Street, show below, between Cedar and Washington Streets.   The report had this devastating comment:  “Mason’s saloon, in bad condition, with rotten floors and improper drainage.”
Whether this report was the reason for a change in employment or not, by 1891 Blum was working for the Henry Mason Company, a Jacksonville wholesale liquor, wine and cigar dealer first recorded in business in 1882 and located at 107-115 West Bay.  The relationship of this Mason to the saloon is unclear.  Blum was employed at the Mason firm for several years before striking out on his own.  A Jacksonville directory in 1895 first listed “Charles Blum & Company” as a wholesale/retail liquor dealer, located on Bay Street, shown above. 
The following year the company moved further down West Bay to larger quarters.  That location may also have contained a saloon.  Blum’s brother, Jacob, who was his partner in his enterprises was listed as a “bartender” in directories.  Those larger quarters would be home to Charles Blum & Co. for the next 24 years and provided sufficient space for “rectifying,” that is, mixing and blending whiskeys to achieve a particular color and taste.  Blum sold his products in ceramic jugs that requested that they be returned to his establishment.  His flagship brands were “Sylvan Glen” and “Blum’s Monogram.”  There is no evidence that he trademarked either.

Already with a reputation as a successful businessman, in 1892 Blum married.  His bride was Margaret E. Mahoney, known by her family as “Maggie.”  Shown here, she had been born in 1860 in Florida into a family of native Floridians.  Maggie appears to have had a prior marriage.  The 1900 census recorded that two Blum stepsons named Murray were living with the family.  Charles and Maggie would have four children of their own, Charles, born in 1883;  Jennie, 1885; Margaret, 1889, and Fred, 1902.   

About 1903, Blum built a mansion to house his growing brood.  It stood at the intersection of Main and Second Street in a neighborhood of large homes.  It was a large home featuring a hodgepodge of architectural styles, as was common then for such structures.  The Blum residence featured a series of doric columns, one set supporting a two story portico;  wrap-around porches on both the first and second stories; a “captain’s walk” on the top floor, and three large chimneys.  It was a house befitting an up-and-coming Jacksonville businessman.

Throughout this period, Blum was continuing to run a successful saloon and liquor dealership at  517 West Bay Street.  In 1900 directory listings indicate he additionally had opened a cigar manufacturing facility at 923 West Bay.   Throughout most of that decade Charles Blum & Co., with brother Jacob listed as co-owner, continued to be recorded as dealing in wholesale and retail liquors.  Like many whiskey men of his time, Blum was gifting giveaway items to favored saloons and restaurants carrying his liquors, in particular, shot glasses.  As shown below his offerings went from glasses etched with a simple recounting of the company name to more elaborate labels that cited the prices of Sylvan Glen and Blum’s Monogram.

Being a canny entrepreneur, Blum seems to have been increasingly aware that prohibitionary forces were gaining momentum in Florida as well as in the Nation.  In 1906 for the first time Blum advertised as a wholesale dealer for a non-alcoholic drink — Sheboygan (Wis.) Mineral Waters.  He also was moving into a completely new field — communications.  In 1913, Blum and other investors had organized the Jacksonville Home Telephone Company, “a corporation organized for the purpose of constructing and operating an automatic telephone system in Jacksonville.  Blum was elected president.

Despite competition from the Bell Company,  Blum in his first annual report to stockholders stated that the company had more than 3,000 telephones in use, 1,875 subscribers, and telephones being installed at the rate of 25 a day and facing a backlog of requests.  The payroll had been $100,000 the previous year.  In his statement Blum emphasized the home-grown nature of the company:   “There are over 400 local stockholders, and with the exception of only about 10 percent of the stock, all of the stock of your company is owned and held by Jacksonville people.”   As a result, he asserted, subscriber money would stay in Jacksonville, amounting to over $150,000 annually, to be reinvested in the city and paid to its people as dividends. 

Meanwhile changes were taking place in Blum’s liquor business.  About 1910 his brother Jacob died and a new group of executives assumed the positions of vice president and secretary/treasurer.  His son, Charles Junior, joined the firm as a clerk.  New outlets were opened.  A wholesale department was located first at 4 E. S.Viaduct and soon moved to 738-742 West Bay.  In addition to the original store, two new retail outlets were opened, one at 411-417 E. Bay and a second at 517-523 W. Bay.  

At the same time, however, it was becoming increasingly clear that Florida would be going dry.   With the same energies that had propelled him into the liquor and telephone businesses, Charles moved quickly into non-alcoholic beverages.  According to a notation attached to the caricature that opens this vignette, Blum was owner, president or founder of four soft drink companies:  Blum Beverage Co.; Charles Blum Beverage Co., Inc.;  Jacksonville Gay-Ola Bottling Co., and Tropical Manufacturing Co.

When Florida voted to ban completely sales of alcohol in 1918,  Blum closed up his liquor interests and moved entirely to making soft drinks.  In declining heath, he lived long enough to see the imposition of National Prohibition.  The  1920 census found him living at his mansion with Margaret and three of his now-grown children.   That same year in February at the age of 57,  Blum died and was buried in Jacksonville’s Evergreen Cemetery.   His widow would join him there twenty years later.  Their family monument and headstones are shown here.
From an unpromising start, arriving as a youthful German speaking little English and later managing a rundown Jacksonville saloon, Charles Blum had risen to the top echelons of Florida business circles, epitomized by the caricature in the volume, “Floridians as the World Sees ‘Em.”  Not only had he succeeded in establishing one of the city’s most successful liquor dealerships, he had founded a cigar manufacturer,  a telephone exchange, and as many as four soft drink companies.   This immigrant boy clearly had made his mark in his adopted city and state.  

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