Van Vleet’s story was a true tale of “up from the bootstraps.” He was born in Galesburg, Michigan, in November 1849 of Dutch-English descent, the son of Ralph S. and Henrietta (Lockwood) Van Vleet. One of his ancestors was reputed to be among the earliest settlers of Manhattan Island. Peter was educated in local public schools and, although his parents were of modest means, afforded an opportunity to attend nearby Kalamazoo College, a highly regarded liberal arts school. During his college years he worked his way as a clerk in a Kalamazoo drug store, learning the trade.
According to one account, upon completing his courses, Van Vleet decided to seek his fortune outside of Michigan and in 1871 traveled South, possibly heading for New Orleans. Upon reaching Memphis, according to a biographer, “…He was quick to see and realize the possibilities of the place…” Shown above is the city’s Main Street in the late 1800s. Van Vleet found employment as a prescription drug clerk with G. W. Jones & Company, at that time the largest wholesale drug house in the city. He rapidly was advanced to management and in 1879 purchased a half interest in the business.
When Peter was 29 years old, he married Ramelle McKay in Memphis. a woman about ten years his junior who had been born in DeSoto County, Mississippi. Her father was a New Yorker and her mother an immigrant from England. Together the Van Vleets would sire three children, Elsie born in 1885; August, 1888, and Ramelle, 1893. Despite the difference in ages, they had an enduring marriage.
In 1884, Peter sold his shares in Jones & Company and striking out on his own established the wholesale pharmaceutical house of Van Vleet & Co., located at 320-324 Main Street, a major Memphis commercial avenue, shown above. He managed this business to such affluence that he was able to buy up several other Memphis drug firms. They included the Mansfield Drug Co., a well established company, whose purchase by Van Vleet was considered a coup in Memphis business circles. He called it the resulting enterprise Van Vleet-Mansfield Co., its building shown below.
The new corporation was instantly profitable, attributed by one author to Peter himself: “He created this colossal pattern of success through his guidance and by his service-driven attitude. The result was one of the largest and most progressive wholesale drug companies in the country.” Essential to this prosperity was the emphasis that Van Vleet put on making and selling whiskey.
In addition to mixing up drugs and proprietary medicines on his premises, Peter was blending, bottling and selling his own brands of booze. Among his labels were “Chickasaw,” “Clarendon,” “Gayoso Club,” “King’s Choice,” “Mossy Dell,” “Old Southern Home,” “Rosadora Rye,” “Silver Plume,” “Sweet Fern,” and “Wayside Inn.” Although he trademarked “Old Southern Home,” in 1900, Van Vleet waited until Congress strengthened trademark laws in 1904 and 1905 to protect his other brand names.
Alcohol also was a familiar ingredient in many of Van Vleet’s patent medicines. Shown above and below are colorful trade cards for four of his products. “Femenina,” advertised as “an infallible remedy for female disorders” contained such herbals as “unicorn root,” “cramp bark,” “squaw vine” and “black haw.” but most importantly to patient relief, a strong dose of alcoholic spirits. Van Vleet's “Plantation Sarsaparilla,” was an elixir said to purify the blood that “Cures by Eradication, Not by Suppression.” In an era when no one knew what caused malaria, Van Vleet also featured “Plantation Chill Cure,” guaranteed to cure chills, fevers and all other “malarial troubles.” It too was generously laced with alcohol.
Van Vleet-Mansfield boasted a team of twenty-five traveling salesmen fanned out across the South and Southwest — from Tennessee to Texas. “There is probably no other line of business in Memphis which has a more carefully organized and better trained force of drummers than are to be found in his wholesale drug house,” opined one writer. Among the products they were selling were the myriad Van Vleet whiskey brands. Even in “dry” states and localities, “medicinal” whisky could be sold in drug stores.
With continuing success, the Van Vleet-Mansfield Drug Co. eventually moved to a larger building, located at the corner of Second and Gayoso Streets. It was a handsome brick structure of seven stories, offering ample space for his employees to mix up Van Vleet’s proprietary whiskeys and patent medicines. Obviously proud of this “new home”, Peter issued a glass paperweight that showed the structure. The building still stands in Memphis, now converted into apartments and known as “Van Vleet Flats.”
Shown here on a paperweight, Van Vleet himself increasingly was being recognized as a Memphis business leader. In addition to his drug business, he was a founder and director of the Bank of Commerce & Trust Company, and active in the Merchant’s Exchange and Memphis Business Men’s Club. He was leading an social life as a member of The Tennessee Club, The Chickasaw Guard’s Club, and the Memphis County Club. Reflecting his interest in hunting were memberships in the Waponoca Club and the Mud Lake Ducking Club.
Accounted a multi-millionaire in his own time, Van Vleet bought an tract of land on Poplar Avenue at Bellevue Street and built a mansion for his family, shown here. The frame house was distinguished by a portico that featured four two-story Corinthian columns. Peter’s estate was so large that today the grounds hold two Memphis schools.
Described as “great globe trotters,” Peter and Ramelle visited the Philippines, newly acquired by the United States from Spain, and came to know William Howard Taft, who was the appointed civilian governor of the islands. According to the Washington Post, “a warm and enduring friendship was established.” When the Van Vleets visited Washington, D.C., in July 1905, they visited Taft who now was the Secretary of War in Teddy Roosevelt’s cabinet and expected to be the Republican candidate for President in 1908. Pressed about his views, Van Vleet told the Post reporter that although he was “an extreme Democrat,” he would feel a strain on his party loyalty if Taft were the nominee “as everyone must admit he is magnificently equipped for the highest office in the land.”
Van Vleet lived to see his friend, William Howard Taft, elected President only to lose his attempt at re-election in 1912. As he aged, Peter developed heart disease and died in April of 1915, 65 years old. He was buried in a large family mausoleum in Memphis’ Forest Hill Cemetery, shown here.
In both life and in death, Van Vleet was extolled for his personal care and concern for his employees, and their consequent loyalty to him: “It is human interest, his great sympathy, given in practical form, that makes his milestones of success,” said one article. To that opinion I would add that making and selling whiskey represented another often overlooked “milestone,” a prescription leading to Peter Van Vleet’s financial reward and recognition.