Sunday, June 12, 2016

Andrew Urban’s Odyssey Ended in Quincy, Illinois

The man shown above standing on the back of a “photo montage” snapping turtle I assume is Andrew Urban, whose wanderlust took him from Germany to numerous occupations and locations in the American Midwest.  Urban was by turns a safe company employee in Cincinnati;  a brewery worker in Chillicothe, Ohio;  a farmer in Hancock County, Illinois;  a mill owner in Nauvoo, and a traveling salesman in Quincy.  Not until he was 56 years old did Andrew find his destiny in selling whiskey and thereby forging careers for four Urban sons.

Urban was born in Baden, Germany, in March 1830, the son of Andrew, a farmer, and Catherine Urban.  Educated in the schools of his homeland, he emigrated to the U.S. in 1855 at the age of 22 and went to work in Cincinnati for an uncle who owned a successful safe manufacturing company.  After being employed there for several years, Andrew exhibited the restless spirit that guided much of his life and moved to Chillicothe, located in south central Ohio along the Scioto River.

In Chillicothe, Urban worked in a brewery and met Katherine Baer, a native of the town, daughter of Mathew and Catherine Baer.  She was seven years younger and would bear him ten children, four of whom died in infancy.   Not long after their wedding Andrew pulled up stakes and with Katherine moved to Hancock County, located in far western Illinois. At that time he is said to have been virtually penniless.  A biographer observed:  “He borrowed money to make this trip, and this fact indicates somewhat his financial resources; but he possessed, instead of capital, a strong determination and resolute will.”  Beginning as an agricultural laborer, in time Urban acquired sufficient wealth to own three farms.  
Still looking for better opportunities for himself and his growing family, or perhaps obliging an enduring restlessness,  Urban left his farms in the hands of tenants and moved to nearby Nauvoo, Illinois, where he purchased the Ikerian Milling Company, operating it for eight years.  He was “swindled out of this property,” according to a biographer, who does not say how or why.  Dragging his family with him, that event propelled Urban 50 miles south to Quincy, shown above, where he went to work as a traveling salesman for a wholesale liquor establishment.  

By now well into his fifties, Urban saved sufficient funds to strike out on his own.  Taking his now-adult son, William, with him as a partner, about 1884 he created Andrew Urban & Son, a wholesale and retail enterprise selling whiskey, wine, and beer.   After an initial location at 239 North Third Street in Quincy, the Urbans moved their business to 639 Hampshire Street,   

Andrew had chosen a good place for his business.  Quincy boasted hundreds of saloons and, according to 1887 local directories, only three wholesale liquor houses, including the Urbans’.  Their retail business included a saloon, the interior shown on the comic postcard above.  The building also had room for the owners to blend and bottle their own brands, chief among them, “Urban Club Sour Mash Bourbon.”  They also featured “Lenox,” a blended whiskey from a Cincinnati distiller. 

Distinguishing the Urbans’ operation was their emphasis on “giveaway” advertising items, principally corkscrews and  shot glasses in several designs. Examples are shown throughout this post.  Most of these advertising items were aimed at the wholesale trade, including saloons, restaurants and hotels — wherever Urban liquor was being sold.  Retail customers were provided with heart-shaped trade tokens.  The tokens could be looped on a chain as good luck charms or exchanged for five cents worth of booze at Urbans’ bar.

Andrew Urban had only about 15 years to enjoy the success he had achieved following the many years of his odyssey.  In 1902, likely in declining health, he made his will, leaving everything to his wife, Katherine.  He died the following year at about 73 years old.  She sold his Hancock County farms but retained ownership of a large business block at the corner of Sixth and Hampshire Streets that included the Andrew Urban & Son store and saloon.  One of Andrew’s last requests, according to a biographer, was to implore his wife and sons to remain together associated in the liquor business, apparently hoping that after his wanderings he had prepared a secure future for them in Quincy.  
Nevertheless, the founding father’s death in 1903 caused an upheaval in the Urbans’ enterprise.   That same year son Gustav (Gus) Urban took over as the manager. His brother Theodore became the bookkeeper and another brother, Edward, was working as a traveling salesman for the firm.  Katherine moved into a flat above the store with Gus and his wife.  In subsequent years the three brothers were listed in directories as officers of the company.   By this time they all were married, Gus to Catherine, originally from Nauvoo;  Theodore, to Dora Taylor, and Edward to Minnie Sherman.

Meanwhile, possibly upset over the fact that his father bequest had ignored him, William had left Andrew Urban & Son to begin his own liquor store at 508 Hampshire, just a block from the family business.  His liquor house was first recorded in Quincy directories in 1906.  In the tradition of his father, William provided customers with giveaway shot glasses, shown here.  He was able to move his wife, the former Dorothea Bader, into a home at 1219 Hampshire, several blocks from his business address.

Prohibition came to Quincy in July, 1919, with local enforcement of a wartime emergency act on liquor sales.  “There will be no dram shops in Quincy because no saloon licenses be issued and all existing licenses will expire July 1.”  the Chief of Police declared, adding: “There will be no sale of intoxicants after midnight, Monday, June 30.”  At the time an estimated 50,000 gallons of whiskey were stored in the city’s three wholesale houses, including the Urbans'.  The local press said the stocks were “enough to float a battleship.”

Before the deadline a brisk business ensued.  The Urbans sold $5,500 worth of whiskey to one local and had an order for $2,500 from an out-of-town customer.  Another patron walked into Urbans asking: “Do you have any Hermitage whiskey on hand.”  “Yes,” replied Gus, thinking he wanted a bottle.  Instead, the man ordered 10 cases at $3.50 a quart.  Later a customer bought $5,000 worth of whiskey and another $3,000.  (To achieve equivalent outlays in today’s dollar multiply each number by 14.)
Despite such massive sales, the Urbans remained desperate to unload their flood of stored liquor.  During the two weeks preceding the deadline the steamship Keokuk, shown above, a stern-wheeler that hauled freight and passengers on the Mississippi, carried great quantities of whiskey and beer from the Urbans and other Quincy liquor dealers to towns upriver in Illinois and Missouri that were not yet “dry.”   As a last gasp, the family kept their store open until midnight of the final day. Then July 1, 1919, arrived and after 24 years Andrew Urban & Son shut its doors and permanently went out of business.

Thus ended the crowning success of Andrew Urban’s odyssey through life.  His biographer says of him:  “He was particularly a self-made man, for when he arrived in Hancock County, Illinois, he did not have five dollars.  He worked earnestly and persistently year after year until he had acquired a handsome competence.”   In the end, however, none of Urban’s exertions or those of his sons was sufficient to offset the prohibitionary “fever” gripping America.  

Note:  Much of the information contained herein, as well as most of the quoted material, is from the volume, “Past and Present of the City of Quincy and Adams County, Illinois,” by William H. Collins, Chicago, published in 1905.  

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