Sunday, October 16, 2016

Isaac Obey Sold Whiskey in Tall Timber Country

The pattern is a fairly familiar one.  An individual emigrates to the United States looking for a better life, finding initial employment laboring in mines or on the railroad or in the lumber industry.  Then, seeing his fellow workers spending heavily for whiskey, he decides that his true future lies with selling liquor.  That is the story of Isaac Obey of Bay City, Michigan.
Isaac was born in Montreal, Canada, about 1851 into a French-speaking family.  As soon as he reached sixteen, an age when many boys struck out to find their fortune, he headed for the United States, settling in Bay City, Michigan, about 1868.  Incorporated in 1865, Bay City had grown up adjacent to Lake Huron because of its strategic location on a deep water port adjacent to relatively untapped forest lands.  Rapid economic growth was taking place during this period, with lumbering, milling and shipbuilding thriving.  Arriving when he did, Obey found ready employment in a lumber mill.  A early map of the city above shows the many sawmills along the Saginaw River.

Obey labored in the timber trade four years, saving his money and biding his time.  Early on he recognized the buying power represented by his fellow workers.  A photograph from a single Bay City mill suggests the numbers involved.  Although the workers were not getting as rich as the Michigan lumber barons, a significant portion of their wages was going for strong drink.

In 1872, Obey made his move, opening a saloon and liquor store at the corner of Water and Twenty-third Street.  His enterprise appears quickly to have been a success and in 1878 he moved to larger quarters at the corner of Washington and Third Streets, dealing both in liquor and cigars.  He also was reported running a livery business.  About the same time he also had married Emma, a woman who had been born in Michigan of Canadian immigrant parents.   The 1880 census found them living in Bay City with three daughters, Adelia (aka “Delia”) age 3;  Blanch, 2; and Agnes, four months.  Later two sons would follow.
Obey’s liquor house continued to flourish at its Third Street address.  A photograph apparently taken in the 1890s, shows a display of barrels in front of the store.  According to a sign someone (Isaac himself?) is holding, the total amount of whiskey on display is a whopping 5,056 gallons.   Obey’s saloon and liquor store also appears to have held a bowling alley.  

The 1890s were a period of entrepreneurial expansion for Obey. The 1891 Bay City directory lists him as operating a second “wholesale and retail liquors” store at 408 Fifth Avenue with a partner named Almedee M. Shilaire (also given as Amedec M. Shillaire).  The partners also were engaged in a bottling facility at 1112 Washington Avenue.  By 1895, Obey had left his Third Street address for a new location on Saginaw Street, the avenue shown here. The 1897 Bay City directory recorded Isaac operating both the saloon at 408 Fifth Avenue and a second drinking establishment with Shilaire at 104 Third Street. 

In 1898, Isaac’s wife of 22 years, Emma, died.  With her husband and children gathered around her gravesite, she was interred in Bay City’s St. Patrick’s Cemetery.  The family seems to have been highly cohesive.  The 1910 census found the widower Obey living at  813 Saginaw Street with his daughters, Delia, now married to Napoleon Cassauer, and Blanch, and his 21-year-old son, Athanasius.  Both the young man and Cassauer were working for Obey in his liquor business.
In time Obey took his eldest boy into management and changed the company name to Obey & Son.  In addition to selling his whiskey by the barrel, Obey was retailing it in ceramic jugs.  As shown here, these were containers with Albany slip tops and Bristol glaze bodies with at least two varieties of underglaze labels.

Obey continued his ventures into the realm of spirits.  A 1904 directory listed him as the co-proprietor of the California Wine House, located at 406-408 Fifth Avenue in partnership with John B. Duchaine, a firm known as Obey & Duchaine.  Meanwhile he remained at 813 Saginaw as the principal of Obey & Sons.  The new name reflected that both of his boys, Athanasius and Victor, now were involved in the business. 

Isaac Obey died at the age of 61 in 1914 and was buried next to his wife at St. Patrick’s Cemetery.  Their gravestones are shown here.  Although his sons continued to guide the enterprises he had created, the forces of Prohibition, led by Detroit automaker Henry Ford, were pressing Michigan to become the first Northern industrial state to go “dry.”  In 1917 they succeeded and Obey family businesses associated with alcohol were shut down.

During Isaac’s lifetime a History of Bay County (1883) said of him:  “Mr. Obey does a good business and stands well as a citizen.”   It might have added that this French-Canadian immigrant with a strong entrepreneurial spirit had helped Bay City grow from a sawdust-blown village into a thriving city approaching 32,000 residents, albeit one with lots of whiskey flowing.


  1. Isaac was my great great grandfather. I would be VERY interested in purchasing any I. Obey and son wholesale liquor merchandise, if anyone knows of any in existence. I own a shot glass and two jugs with the smaller brown label. I have seen a rolling pin, calendar, and a barrel with the logo on it. I would really like at least one more piece so as to pass down one piece each to my children. (Isaac's great great great grandchildren!) If you, or anyone knows of any, PLEASE contact me at thank you.

  2. David: Unfortunately I do not have any Obey artifacts. Perhaps someone reading this post will respond to you. My other suggestion is that you put a request on eBay. That has worked for me in the past. I also will be emailing you shortly.

  3. I will certainly do that. Thank you for your response, I will share photos if I find anything.

  4. Hello, David, I am an eBay instructor. If you search eBay for "I. Obey & Son Wholesale and Retail Liquors" or any variation of the company name, you can save the search. eBay will then alert you anytime someone lists an item with that name. It is a perpetual search function that has served me well.