Friday, October 16, 2015

Jeremiah Rohrer: Lancaster Leader in War, Peace — and Liquor

The unsmiling, almost angry, visage shown right is that of Jeremiah “Jere” Rohrer, an officer of a regiment in the Civil War, a post-war civic leader, and the leading liquor dealer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  A wartime biography of Rohrer noted that:  “While he sometimes assumed a stern look, he had a big and kind heart, which was always throbbing in unison with his command.”  Whether in battle or in booze, Jeremiah clearly was a force to be reckoned with.
Rohrer was born in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, in 1827 into a family with a distinguished military history.  His grandfather,  John Rohrer had picked up a musket and joined in George Washington’s army as part of a Pennsylvania battalion.  After suffering the cruelties of the winter at Valley Forge, John Rohrer was advanced from sergeant to lieutenant and fought to the British surrender.  Jeremiah’s parents, David and Mary (Parthemore) Rohrer inculcated in their children an intense pride in their Revolutionary War grandfather.

The 1860 census found Jeremiah at age 31 in Middletown, Dauphin County, married to Mary Ann (Redsecker) Rohrer and the father of three children, ages six to six months, the first of eight the couple would have.  He gave his occupation as “farmer” although a 1903 biography indicates that he also was working as a carpenter and builder.  Regardless of his familial and occupational responsibilities, when the Civil War broke out, Rohrer was stirred to action. 

A local dentist in Middletown had been trying, with poor results, to recruit men to fight for the Union by organizing a unit called the Susquehanna Rangers.  Rohrer arrived on the scene and in short order enlisted enough men to qualify as Company H of the 127th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment, popularly known as the “Dauphin County Regiment.”  In turn Jere was named captain and Company H commander.  But Rohrer also had captured the attention of higher authorities who within days advanced him to the rank of major and assigned him to regimental headquarters.  In his diary Rohrer related how his leadership had inspired his recruits to enlist:  “They…expected that I would be their captain, and now I was going to leave them.  Had they known this they would not have joined the company.”  Rohrer reassured them:  “‘…I will act as a father should act for his children.’  This had a good effect and I never heard any complaint afterward..”

Major Rohrer and the 127th Pennsylvania would see plenty of hot action.  The regiment sustained multiple deaths and woundings.  Its first major battle was the December 1862 Fredericksburg campaign that proved disastrous for the men in blue.  In his diary,  Jeremiah spoke of “the tremendous and unavailing slaughter, with its frightful loss of brave Union solders….”  The next major conflict for the 127th was the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, once again a bloody Union defeat.  In this confrontation Rohrer was commended for rendering gallant service.  A month later, with his term of service ended, Rohrer was honorably discharged.  He did not re-enlist.
Rather than return to Middletown and his pursuits there, Rohrer almost immediately moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and in April 1864 opened a liquor dealership there.  Initially he located the business at 35 North Queen Street but soon found his volume of sales required larger quarters and about 1881 moved to Centre Square, later renamed Penn Square.  Shown here, the square would be the home of his liquor business for the next 38 years.  It was a entirely fitting location for Rohrer; the square was the site of Lancaster’s Soldiers and Sailors Monument, a memorial dedicated in 1874 to pay tribute to the city’s Union soldiers killed during the Civil War.

His building encompassed four stories and boasted a sign announcing “J.Rohrer’s Wines and Liquors.”  The upper stories not only allowed him to store a considerable supply of beverages but also room to decant from barrels into bottles to be sold at retail with his own proprietary labels.  His flagship brand was “Rohrer’s “A” Whiskey.”  He marketed it in ceramic jugs and glass quarts and flasks, both with distinctive labels. With the proliferation of Pennsylvania distilleries he likely had no problem locating and contracting for raw product.  Rohrer made no pretense that his “A” whiskey was not a straight Monongahela rye, but openly sold it as “blended.”  He also carried a line of reputed “straight” whiskeys, including labels such as “Straight Old Rye Whiskey” and “Pennsylvania Bradford Old Rye.”  Seen below are examples of items that Rohrer gifted to favored customers, including a back-of-the-bar bottle advertising “Rohrer Whiskey” and shot glasses.  With his strong merchandising talent, Rohrer soon was the leading wine and liquor dealer in the Lancaster metropolitan area.

Additionally, as did many liquor dealers of his time, Jere featured a highly alcoholic medicinal remedy.  He called his “Rohrer’s Expectoral Wild Cherry Tonic” and advertised it as: “…For Diseases of the Chest, Liver, Kidneys, Lungs, Stomach and Bowels, Dyspepsia, Diarrhoea, Dysentery, Cholera-morbus, General Debility, etc.  A sure Preventative and Cure of Fever an Ague [Malaria], Intermittent and Billious Fevers.”   
Shown here, its bottle has become a favorite of both cure and bitters collectors.  It has a tapered rectangular shape with ornate detail including two embossed rope-like ovals and two sets of triangular three-part “cathedral” windows.   A few examples with intact labels have been found that make similar medical claims as above. As shown above, the label also featured a cartoon depiction of a race that finds Rohrer’s Wild Cherry Tonic, aka Rohrer Bitters, in a race of bottles and “winning in a (De)Canter.”  I fancy that is Jere himself riding the lead bottle.

Rohrer also was gaining prominence for his leadership in Lancaster community life.  Seeking political office, he was elected several times from his ward to both the town’s select and common councils.  He served from 1868 to 1871 as Lancaster County prison inspector and from 1872 to 1876 as register of wills.  Rohrer also was a commissioner charged with supervising the erection of a new local waterworks in 1885-1886.  His social activities were centered on several local Masonic chapters.   

Family members were also distinguishing the Rohrer name, as Jere’s wealth was able to give them good educations.  George Rohrer, the eldest son, entered the Medical Department of the University of Pennsylvania, became a doctor, and held distinguished posts as resident surgeon at Philadelphia Hospital and house surgeon in the Wills Eye Hospital, Philadelphia.  Eventually George set up a general practice in Lancaster and, a bachelor, lived with his parents.  Jacob Rohrer became a civil engineer and moved to Hawaii.  Grant Rohrer studied law and engineering to become a manager on the construction of Western railroads.  The youngest son, Howard, attended a pharmacy school but about 1897 joined his father in the liquor business.  As the elder Rohrer aged, the son increasingly took the reins of management.

Jeremiah died on October 23, 1910, at the age of 83.  The coroner reported the cause of death as “prostate hypertrophy,” a swelling of the prostate, possibly cancer.  As his family grieved by his graveside, he was laid to rest in Greenwood Cemetery.  His widow, Mary Ann, died two years later and was buried beside him.  The family monument is shown below.  Under Howard Rohrer, the company his father had founded continued to be successful until 1919 when shut by National Prohibition.

Because of the propaganda of the so-called Temperance forces, those who sold liquor at wholesale or retail often were pilloried and made social pariahs.  Very often an association with alcohol deliberately was omitted from a biography or obituary as if it were a black mark.  Jeremiah Rohrer stands in direct contrast to such prudery.  Yes, he sold liquor, but his story is of a leader in war for his country and in peace an important force in his community — in short, an American to be proud of.   
Note:  Much of the biographical information for this post was derived from the volume, “Biographical Annals, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania,” J. H. Beers & Co., 1903.  Material on Maj. Rohrer’s Union Army service is from “History of the 127th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers,” 1893.

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