Thursday, September 10, 2015

“The House of Fee on the Genessee Since 1863”

The Fee Company of Rochester produces more than 80 drink mix products and the fourth
generation Fee family uses the rhyme above to represent the company’s roots in a saloon
and liquor business that the Fee brothers and their mother began in 1863.  When I find a 
good piece on whiskey men, such as the one here, this one authored by the Fee Company 
itself, I use it for this blog, rather than reinventing the narrative.  In this case, however I 
have shorten the story to include only pre-Prohibition events:

The year was 1835. It was a cold March day when 31-year-old Owen Fee first set eyes on America. He had been born in Ireland's County Monaghan. By 1847, Owen had opened a butcher shop and was living in Rochester, New York with his wife, Margaret, and their three children, James, Mary Jane, and Owen Jr. Within the next three years, two younger brothers were added to the family. John Fee was born in 1848. (This was also the year that Owen Sr. became a US citizen.) Joseph arrived in 1850. Later, the records of St. Bridget's Church indicate that 6-year-old John and his 15-year-old brother James were the first altar boys there when it formed in 1854.

Owen Sr. died in 1855, and on that sad day, left Margaret to raise their five children alone. This was a daunting task as they ranged in age from five to mid-teens. Margaret was a strong woman though. She brought James through some stormy teen years and by 1863, the family had converted the butcher shop into a saloon and delicatessen. Together they made sandwiches and sold them at the depot to passengers waiting on trains. By the time James was 25, he had opened a grocery/liquor store. Margaret had mortgaged her house to enable her son to do this.

James Fee
The years passed by quickly and James grew to be a fine young man. In his mid-thirties he was elected Police Commissioner and also Collector of Canal Tolls in Rochester. James must have had unbounded energy for he ran these posts as well as managing his business. He did, however, invite his brothers to help him with the liquor store. 

They were now located on North Water Street near the Genesee River in downtown Rochester. Their company further developed into a winery and import business. The Fee brothers not only made many kinds of their own wine but also brought in wine from California and imported European wine.  Various brands of liquor were handled there as well. Much of this was stored in wooden barrels. The story has been told of a tenant in that same building who drilled a hole through the wall and into a barrel. Then, with a long tube inserted into the barrel, his liquor supply was endless.

Owen Fee
Brother Owen was a partner and bookkeeper until November 1881 when he died of heart failure at the age of 35. It was only four short months later that their mother, Margaret, died of cancer. In 1883, the three remaining brothers changed the company name from "James Fee and Brothers" to "Fee Brothers." James and John had formed a partnership and Joseph was their right-hand man. They worked together for twelve years building their business until Joseph died in 1895 at the age of 45.
Joseph Fee
James and John had been through some rough times but more hard times were yet to come. On February 5, 1908, one of the worst fires in Rochester history caused $400,000 destruction to their building on North Water Street. It must have been difficult for them to pick up the pieces of their shattered business and continue. However, by August of that same year, rebuilding was completed and they were back in business. By this time the next generation (John's son, 15-year-old John, Jr. and James' children, 29-year-old J. Leo and 21-year-old Marguerite) had begun to help at Fee Brothers.

John Fee
It is said that John Fee always had a sparkle in his eye, a good sense of humor and a ready laugh. He raised his son with those same attributes and also with good business sense. John died in 1912 at the age of 64, leaving John, Jr. to succeed him. One year later, at the age of 20, John, Jr. enlisted in the New York Cavalry. During his five-year service, John was assigned to the Mexican border. At that time the U.S. was engaged in the Mexican Border Incident with Pancho Villa. Upon returning to Rochester, John, Jr. continued working alongside his cousins, Marguerite and J. Leo and his Uncle James until April of 1920 when James died at the age of 79. Fee Brothers had been passed on to the next generation.

Addendum:  Shown here are examples of the shot glasses issued by the Fee Brothers during their rise to prominence as liquor merchants.  Below is a picture of Rochester’s Holy Sepulchre Cemetery where the four Fee brothers are buried.  With National Prohibition the company moved to making and selling altar wine and kits for home wine-making.  After Repeal the company over time moved away from liquor and wine to bitters and nonalcoholic drink mixes.  It continues in business today after 152 years of Fee family ownership.  

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