Sunday, June 11, 2017

How Fortune Chevalier Found His in California

Looking out from Belle Isle, France, where he had been born in 1815, Fortune Chevalier dreamed of striking gold in California only to find out that a better path to the yellow stuff was in coins earned by selling spirits and wine to tens of thousands of thirsty miners and other West Coast denizens. In the process he became one of the wealthiest men in San Francisco.

Chevalier originated on a small island off the coast of Brittany where many residents were involved in growing grapes and making wine.  Lacking family connections to that trade, however, Fortune was apprenticed as stained glass craftsman.  His employment took him throughout France with teams that worked to restore the windows of churches, castles and mansion houses.  With the discovery of gold near Sutter’s Creek in California in 1849, the young man’s attention turned to the New World.

According to accounts, Chevalier hatched a plan to get to California on the pretext of providing window glass for buildings for the boomtowns springing up on the West Coast.  He recruited a team of fellow craftsmen, bought a large stock of window panes, and in 1852 took the long sea voyage across the Atlantic, through the wild seas off the southern tip of South America, and then north in the Pacific to San Francisco.  He apparently hoped that while his companions were occupied in hanging windows, he could sneak off and pan for gold in the Sierra Nevada mountains.  It didn’t work.  Upon arrival his men had the same idea, abandoned Chevalier and the glass, and headed for the gold fields themselves.

The next few months must have been lean ones for Chevalier.  If he tried panning or mining for gold, he apparently was soon discouraged.  In the mid-1850s, the Frenchman surfaced in Placerville, California.  The central hub of the Mother Lode region mining operations, that town had grown to the state’s third largest and boasted hotels, banks, and retail establishments.  A photo from that time shows buildings built right out to Placerville’s muddy street.  There in 1857 Fortune went into the liquor trade as the F. Cavalier Company.
After a short time in Placerville, Cavalier apparently recognized that this boom town, only tenuously connected to the outside world by a railroad spur line, was too small to contain his ambitions.  He moved his liquor house to Sacramento, a more likely market.  That town was a commercial and agricultural center, and a terminus for wagon trains, stagecoaches, riverboats, the Pony Express, and the first transcontinental railroad.  Chevalier carried on business there at 56-58 and 44 K Street for more than a decade. Among featured brands were “Chevalier Ginger Brandy", “Hebe,” "Old Emmet” and “Relief."

In the meantime Fortune was enjoying a family life.  About 1851 he married Adelia, an immigrant from France and a woman 14 years his junior.  Their first child, Albert, was born in 1852, followed by Morris in 1857 and George in 1863.
The 1870 federal census found the family living with Adelia’s mother and three servants, the latter including a Chinese cook named “Ah Fi.”

That same year apparently because of the expanding nature of his business over  much of the West Coast, Chevalier made a final move to San Francisco.  With his brother, Albert, he set up a wholesale liquor house at 614 Front Street.  After several years, needing more space, the business moved to 520 Washington St.  Fortune also bought an interest in the Castle Distillery in Kentucky and established the firm as the sole West Coast agents for “Old Castle” a brand name that Chevalier later bought outright.  He registered the name in 1872 and again in 1905 after Congress strengthened the trademark laws.

Shown above, Chevalier’s Old Castle Whiskey bore a paper label that depicted the image of a castle standing in defiant isolation on a rock.  Originally the label covered a clear glass bottle with little to recommend it.  Later his containers became some of the most interesting of all the West Coast “picture whiskeys.”  As shown here, they date from about 1890 to 1919, a span of almost 20 years and are eagerly sought by collectors.  The bottles replicate in their embossing the castle on the paper label and come in several shapes and varying shades of amber.  

Those bottles with the maker’s mark “PCGW” on the base, as shown here, were manufactured by the Pacific Coast Glass Works, that began production in 1902 and closed in 1910.  Similar to the embossing is the etching on an Old Castle Whiskey shot glass that   Chevalier issued.

As many in the liquor trade, F. Chevalier Co. also sold a line of highly alcoholic “medicinal” bitters, called “Crown Stomach Bitters,” as sole agents on the Pacific Coast of H. Delaney, the manufacturer in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Fortune packaged this product in a square amber bottle, above, that also is considered rare by West Coast collectors.

In 1875 for several years, Chevalier took on a partner who was experienced in the wine business and the company name became Chevalier and Compte.  By 1880 a scarcity of wines due to the phylloxera epidemic in France and other parts of Europe caused a boom in Napa Valley wine production. Chevalier bought a vineyard near St. Helens, California, in the foothills of Napa County.  There he built an imposing barn and a chateau, shown here, to rival those of his competitors in the neighborhood.  According to accounts Chevalier’s land was 40 acres of which about 25 were “under vine.”  His private roads were lined with olive trees and extensive gardens with winding paths along terraces, pools, and stone stairways.  There Fortune produced his Chateau Chevalier wines, according to one account “well known and appreciated locally as well as in the eastern states.”

As he aged, Chevalier continued to provide direction to his firm, bringing his youngest son, George, into the business and gradually entrusting him with management responsibilities.  Fortune died in 1899 at the age of 84.  At that point George Chevalier was fully capable of running the major enterprise his father had built.  In 1888 F. Chevalier & Co. opened an adjunct office at #209 of the Commercial Block in Portland, Oregon. The company also maintained traveling agents covering the entire Pacific Coast and a cadre of resident agents in the East. Once again needing more business space George made another move, this time to 9 - 15 Beale Street.  This allowed him to oversee the manufacture of a a line of cordials, liquors, cremes, syrups, and fruit juices.  Despite these product lines, F. Chevalier Co., remained first and foremost, according to a 1905 account, “primarily whiskey merchants.”

Although the F. Chevalier Co. continued to be listed in San Francisco directories until 1919 and the advent of National Prohibition, George appears to have sold at least part of the business, including the vineyards, as early as 1918.  Even so, the firm drew an accolade in a history of California:  “The F. Chevalier Company, of San Francisco, which is now one of the most complete wholesale liquor houses in the west, is likewise one of the oldest firms of the kind on the Pacific coast, and it has a history of as long-continued and successful existence as can be instanced by almost any commercial enterprise in California.”  

Fortune Chevalier went almost halfway around the earth seeking his fortune in the gold fields but instead found it — as noted on his letterhead above — in the “U.S. gold coins” he extracted from those who purchased his “fine wines, cognacs and liquors.”  In that gold Fortune found his fortune.

Note:  Much of the information for this post and photos of the labeled bottles came from an article by Ben Kutzkey of Bishop, California, that ran in Bottles and Extras, the magazine of the Federation of Historical Bottle Collectors (FOHBC) in March-April 2008.   Color photos of bottles and the sign are from the Peach Ridge website of Ferdinand Meyer V, president of the FOHBC.


  1. This sign looks like it need a stained glass restoration. The bottles though look really nice

  2. Dear Mr. Clike: The sign may need some work but I have only the image, not the original. Am not sure where that might be.