Monday, November 7, 2016

George Carragan, the Money Man of Cook & Bernheimer

The Cook & Bernheimer Company was a New York City liquor wholesaler that distributed its whiskey in the United States from 1863 until 1917 and the coming of National Prohibition.  The firm boasted branch offices from coast to coast.  It marketed dozens of national brands, controlled the production from several distilleries, and made the first American investments in Scotch whiskey.   Behind this liquor behemoth was George B. Carragan, a New Jersey grocer turned financier.

Carragan represented a major change that occurred in the liquor trade late in the 19th Century.  New York money men became increasingly aware of profits to be made selling whiskey and financial opportunities for themselves.  Paris, Allen, about whom I have written in several prior posts, was one such investor, targeting distilleries.  Carragan invested in a liquor distributor, a firm that traced its origins back to the Civil War and eventually boasted a nationwide customer base. While not owning distilleries outright, through contracts Cook & Bernheimer insured a steady supply of product by purchasing the total output of distilleries. 

The “money man,” George Carragan, was born in Saratoga Springs, New York, in March 1844, the son of James and Mary Vanderwerker Carragan, a surname of Welsh origin. He was their third child and second son.  His maternal great-great-grandfather was Rip Van Dam, one of the early members of the New York Colonial Council and subsequently Governor of New York.  His father was a farmer and George grew up on a farm.
 After being educated in the public schools of Saratoga Springs, Carragan moved to Bayonne, New Jersey, apparently more interested in city life than agriculture.  There he eventually opened a grocery store in a building owned by an uncle.  It was described as a "general dispensary of  groceries, clothes, tobacco, farm utensils, drugs, paints, wet goods [read liquor] and every conceivable kind of merchandise needed by the farmer or fisherman.”  

Calling his mercantile enterprise Geo. Carragan & Co (later, George Carragan & Bro.) within two years he had built his own store several blocks away on 31st Street. It was a frame structure with a mansard roof that the Bayonne Herald hailed as an “ornament to the city.”  The newspaper went on to call the store “the grand emporium of Bayonne.”   George made use of the floors above the grocery, renting out two floors to the fledgling municipal government of Bayonne.

During this period, Carragan married.  His wife was Margaret Vreeland, a member of an old and well known New Jersey family. They would have one daughter, Ella.  While making Bayonne his home for the rest of his life, Carragan was expanding his horizons to New York City, nine miles away.  He went to work as an sales manager for the Big Apple-based Shieffelin Drug Company, over time becoming a manager and major investor in the company.  

By 1900 Carragan had built a reputation as New York financier.  He was the “financial head” of August Kress & Co., importer of grocer specialties; headed the wholesale commission house of R. B. Poucher & Co; and co-owned Carragan & Tilson, a New York company that manufactured badges, rubber stamps, stencils, and seals.  Back in Bayonne he was a founder and director of the Mechanics Trust Company and later the First National Bank.  Said his biographer:  “These various business associations indicate in a small measure Mr. Carragan’s ability and success as a financier.”

When Carragan engaged with Cook & Bernheimer is not clear.  Founded in 1863, the company had been in business for a number of years before he became involved, investing in it and becoming president. I have been unable to find information about Cook but Meyer Bernheimer, perhaps a son of the founder, was listed as a officer in 1910.   Carragan apparently was on board by the late 1890s when the company had a burst of energy, operating from a large building at 144-150 Franklin St. in Manhattan, shown right, and opening offices around the country: In Chicago on Wabash Avenue in 1897, a year later in Cincinnati, San Francisco and Terre Haute, Indiana.  In 1900 Cook & Bernheimer took a gold medal for whiskey at the Paris Exposition.

By this time the liquor house was merchandising a blizzard of brands, including  “Diadem,” "Hoffman House,” “Gold Lion Old Whiskey,” “Joke,”, "Lenox", "Long & Short,” "M. V.,” “Manhattan,” "Mantoue's Upper Crust Rye,” “Monarch,” “Old Private Stock Rye,” ”Monongahela A,” “Navahoe,” "Old Berkshire,” "Old Woodburn,” ”Province,” and "St. Anthony” whiskeys as well as multiple gins.  Cook & Bernheimer’s flagship was “Old Valley Whiskey,” first registered with the government in 1872 and when trademark laws were strengthened again in 1905.  Liquor labels and other artifacts are shown throughout this post.
Cook & Bernheimer also had obtained an exclusive contract to bottle and distribute Mt. Vernon Whiskey distilled by the Hannis Company of Baltimore and Philadelphia, outbidding a Baltimore grocer and liquor dealer named George W. Torrey [See my post of October 2013].  This national brand was easily recognizable for its square bottle.  The company also commanded all or part of the output of other U.S. distillers in Pennsylvania, New York, and Maryland.  In 1905 Cook & Bernheimer took control of the Dalwhinnie Distillery in the Scottish Highlands, marking the very first U.S. investment in the Scotch whiskey industry.
The Scottish adventure ended in 1920 with the imposition of National Prohibition when all legal sales of alcoholic beverages in the U.S. were forced to cease.  After more than a half century of successful operation this juggernaut among liquor houses closed its doors for good.  George Carragan lived on another five years, dying at the age of 81 at his residence at 39 East 33rd Street in Bayonne.  The cause given was septic poisoning.  With Margaret grieving at his gravesite he was interred at the Bayview-New York Bay Cemetery in Jersey City.  His widow joined him there five years later.  Their monument is shown here.
The last word I will leave to Cornelius Burnham Harvey who in his 1900 tome, Genealogical History of Hudson and Bergen Counties, New Jersey, had this to say about George Carragan: “He has been eminently successful, and through his efforts has built up a reputation for integrity and uprightness of character which is recognized by all who know him.”
















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