Monday, November 30, 2015

An Emanuel Strass “Cocktail” Mixed Liquor and Literature

In his day Emanuel H. Strass was well known in Northeast Ohio as a published poet and author of declamations, that is, set speeches meant to show off rhetorical and elocutionary abilities.   At the same time, he was advancing the fortunes of a leading Cleveland whiskey dealership called L. Kahn Company.  Strass’s life was an unusual mixture of liquor and literature.

A biographer said of Strass in 1910:  “He is much interested in literature, finding delight in the prose and poetic writings of all ages and has done not a little in this line himself.  His poetry is of real merit and has been published in various newspapers and magazines…His poem on Liberty [has] been widely quoted, while his addresses on Fashion, Odd Fellowship, Women’s Influence, False Education and his poem on Creation have been largely copied.”

How Strass arrived at his taste for the literary is not easily explained.  Born in Buffalo, New York in November, 1851, he was the son of Jewish Bavarian immigrants, Albert and Rebecca Strass.  His father was a local merchant and  Emanuel pursued a public school education, but quit at the age of thirteen and began supporting himself as a clerk in a country store.  Strass came to Cleveland in 1875 at the age of 24 and for a time worked selling ads for the Cleveland City Directory Company and later worked as a clothing salesman.

After a year in haberdashery Strass seems to have found his true calling in the whiskey trade.  In 1877 he went to work for the wholesale liquor business of Ullman, Einstein & Co. [See my post on this firm, February 2012.]   He remained there for 22 years, working his way up from intermediate positions to manager.  A biographer noted:  “His ability and trustworthiness is clearly evidenced in his long connection with that firm….” 

Meanwhile,  a competitor to Ullman, Einstein & Co. had been founded by L. Kahn in 1877.  Its first address was 157-159 Woodland Avenue, but, likely needing larger quarters, the liquor wholesaler moved to 154 Erie Street for three years and in 1886 to 263-267 Erie.   The firm featured two proprietary brands,  “Driving Club” and “Elk Speed Rye.”  Advertising items for those brands are displayed throughout this post, including a metal sign above, etched shot glasses, a corkscrew, and a tip tray.

As indicated by Cleveland city directories of the period,  the L. Kahn firm underwent several management changes over the years.  In 1877 Kahn was given as the sole proprietor of a company with an emphasis on imported wines.  By 1884 Kahn had been joined by a partner, Leon Grombach.  By 1886, it appears that a relative, perhaps a brother,  Dr. George L. Kahn, a physician, had an interest in the firm.  A year later L. Kahn was gone from the scene, retired or dead and Grombach and Dr. Kahn were running the liquor wholesale house.  Dr. Kahn died in 1891 and Grombach became sole proprietor.  

Enter Emanuel Strass.  Quitting Ullman, Einstein, he bought L. Kahn & Company in 1897 from Grombach with an agreement to be able use the name of that well-known Cleveland firm for 25 years.  He also got the rights to the Kahn brands.   After several years in the Erie Street quarters Strass moved to a final location at 1325 Euclid Avenue, the major commercial street, shown above circa 1909. Strass’ biographer commented:  “Here he has one of the most complete wholesale, importing, retail and bottling wine and liquor establishments in  the state, employing many men and making shipments throughout the entire country.”

During this period Emanuel found a wife.  In 1892 he was wed to Rose Redelsheimer, the daughter of David Redelsheimer, a prominent Ohio merchant and Civil War veteran.  The couple would have two children, Rena Claire, and Albert Edgar.   Strass also kept up an active social schedule including holding memberships and offices in a number of Cleveland fraternal organizations, including the Masons, Odd Fellows, Elks, Eagles, Knights of Honor, Knights of Pythias, and Commercial Travelers.  He also was a director of the National Wines & Spirits Association. 

Strass also was attentive to his Jewish Heritage.  A member of B’nai B’rith, he was associated with the Huron Street Synagogue at the Old Temple, shown here, where he frequently read his poetry or gave prose recitations.  He also was the second president of a literary society known as the Young Mens Jewish Association of Cleveland.  His many associations evidently gave Strass an outlet for his poetic and oratorical skills, as did local newspapers.  Unfortunately, I have been unable to find any examples of his verse to grace this vignette.

In the meantime Strass’ wholesale liquor house was said to have “reached extensive proportions and now returns to him a very substantial annual income.”  This wealth allowed him to enter other areas of business.  He became vice president of the Merchants Banking and Storage Company, vice president of the Euclid Building Company, and a stockholder in the Cleveland Trust Company.  Those ventures allowed him to survive the financial shock of being required to shut the doors of L. Kahn Company in 1916 when Ohio voted statewide prohibition.  That wholesale liquor business had survived 39 years, nineteen of them with Strass at the helm. 
Strass lived to see the arrival of National Prohibition in 1920 and its repeal in 1934, dying in 1939 at the advanced age of 88 in Cleveland.   Although he had finished his formal schooling at 13, he had made his reputation as much for his literary skills as for his whiskey business acumen.  A biographer’s final word on Strass gave some hint about from whence this whiskey man’s creative abilities had originated:  “His reading has covered a very wide range, and his mind, therefore, is enriched with the best writings of present-day authors and those of the past.”

Note:  The Strass biography from which I have quoted extensively in this post is from the book,  History of Cleveland, Biographical, Illustrated, Volume II, issued in 1910 by the S. J. Clark Publishing Co. of Chicago and Cleveland. 

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