Born in Apalachicola, Florida, in 1855 of Irish parentage, Charles Feahney found success in New Orleans as a grocer purveying his own brands of whiskey and coffee with chicory, the roasted and ground root of the endive plant. As the 1903 ad left indicates, Feahney put a strong emphasis on his wine and liquor sales, but it may be for his chicory that folks in the “Big Easy” most remember him.
No trip to New Orleans is complete without a stop at the Cafe Du Monde, famous for its “beignet” donuts and coffee with chicory. Cafe management would have you believe that the brew was developed in France during its civil war and that the Acadians from Nova Scotia brought the taste for chicory to New Orleans.
Some food gurus are skeptical of this history. One has suggests that evidence is slim that there was any strong tradition for the combination until the Depression of the 1930s. Another has countered” “On the other hand, as early as 1906 companies like Charles Feahney Importers and Roasters were marking their Poydras Market brand of “Roast Coffee and Chicory.”
After years of working for other local grocers, Feahney first surfaced on his own in New Orleans business directories in the 1880s with a grocery at 501 South Rampart Street, corner of Poydras. An illustration of his store shows a wrought iron balcony at the second level, overhanging the sidewalk and supported by posts. The roofline features a large cornice and parapet. Two horse-drawn grocery wagons bearing Feahney’s name are visible as is a large sign advertising “Headquarters for California Wines and Liquors.” Among the latter were whiskeys being bottled on the premises, proprietary brands such as “Feahney’s AAAA Whiskey,” and “Feahney’s Chief Celebrated Old Whiskey,” the last brand trademarked by his widow in 1908.
Feahney had married in 1880 at the age of 23. His bride was Grace F. Bennett, 22, born in Louisiana; her mother was from the state, her father a Kentuckian. In rapid succession Charles and Grace would have a family of six children. Their first, a girl they named Florida, was born in 1881. Then came Charles Jr, 1882; Grace, 1883; Lelia, 1884; Edna, 1886, and Roy, 1890.
With the evident success of his Rampart Street store, Feahney was able to expand his operations to the Poydras Street Market, shown here at right. Founded in 1838 and highly successful, the market drew customers from all over New Orleans and became a gathering place for the rich and famous. The building’s interior scenes were favorites of local artists. According to one author, “Many of the market merchants were well known throughout the city. Charles Feahney roasted and sold his own Poydras Market brand coffee from the grocery he had operated in the market since the 1880s.” Coffee with chicory, that is.
With his growing wealth and growing family, Feahney purchased a home for them in the “Faubourg Livaudais” District of New Orleans at 1755 Jackson Avenue. Built before the Civil War the house, shown above, had 3,700 feet of space on a third of an acre. It boasted fifteen rooms and a two-story separate guest quarters. Italianate in styling, today the structure is eligible for the National Historical Register.
Feahney had only a few years to enjoy his success. In August, 1904, he died at the age of 44. His family still counted two minor children. As his relatives and friends mourned his passing, Charles was buried in Metairie Cemetery in one of the above-ground family mausoleums so common in New Orleans. The first name inscribed on the marble door is his, followed by other family members who subsequently were buried with him.
In the wake of his death the enterprise he had founded became known as “The Estate of Charles Feahney.” His widow, Grace, inheriting ownership of the grocery, hired a manager to handle day to day operations. Charles Jr.,who had been a clerk in his father’s store from the age of 18, also was working in the organization. Shown below are two whiskey jugs from that era, ceramics of one and a three gallons.
In the wake of the passage of the Food and Drug Act of 1906, the Feahney interests ran into trouble. In December 1908 the Davis & Atkins Co. of Richmond shipped eleven barrels of whiskey to Feahney Company; five barrels were marked “Feahney’s Chief,” two were “Feahney’s AAAA” and four were “Original O. J. Martin Whiskey.” Seized by U.S. authorities and tested they proved to be “rectified” products, compounded with “grain distillate” (pure alcohol) and thus, according to the Department of Agriculture, “misbranded.” The family’s manager showed up in a Louisiana federal court to claim the goods, pay a fine, and was allowed to take the barrels under the condition that the whiskey inside be sold with accurate branding.
It is unclear whether this event or other circumstances caused the Feahneys to shut down their liquor operations about 1916. Many of the Southern states outside Louisiana had gone “dry” in the early years of the 20th Century and mail order sales were curtailed by Congress in 1913. Even though his liquor brands have disappeared, Charles Feahney has continued to be remembered in “The Big Easy” for his pioneering with coffee containing chicory, a tradition that is carried on in New Orleans and the Cafe Du Monde to this very day. If you happen in there someday, be sure to hoist a cup his memory.