Monday, November 6, 2017

The Rosenfields Turned Whiskey into Peanut Butter

Skippy Peanut Butter is one of those iconic brands that can be found on grocers’ shelves from coast to coast.  Behind those colorful jars is the story of Manuel and Joseph Rosenfield, father and son Western pioneers, who parlayed their Colorado “Old Kentucky Liquor Company” into a blockbuster food industry and a spread that is as American as apple pie.

The elder Rosenfields originated in Wurtemburg, a southern province of Germany known for beer, wine and spirits, emigrated to the United States and settled in New York City.   Manuel was born there about 1842.  His early life has gone unrecorded but at the age of 28 in May 1870 he married Carrie Bakrow, a New Yorker whose parents likewise were immigrants from Germany.

By 1880 Manuel and Carrie had left New York to travel West.  The census that year found them living in Louisville, Kentucky with two small children, Sarah 3 and John, under one year.  Manuel’s occupation was given as running a men’s clothing and hat store.  It must have been successful since the family could afford two live-in servants in their home on Market Street. Two years later a third child — Joseph — would be born.

Manuel had a restless streak that eventually took him and his family even further West, this time to Cripple Creek, Colorado, shown above.  Located in the front range of the Rocky Mountains, the town sat just below the timberline at 9,500 feet.  The site of the last Colorado gold rush, Cripple Creek has been characterized as “a violent place, with a Wild West mentality.”  But it also was populated by a crowd of thirsty miners.  There Manuel opened the “Old Kentucky Liquor Company” that supplied local saloons with whiskey and also sold liquor at retail.

Manuel packaged his whiskey principally in ceramic jugs.  A variety of them are shown throughout this vignette.  They improved from relatively crude ceramics and labels to increasingly more sophisticated ones.  The progression probably indicates a growing capacity of Cripple Creek area potteries to provide more finished products.  Old Kentucky jugs have been eagerly sought by collectors.  The one at left below recently sold at auction for $2,425 and the one at right for $468.

The Rosenfields lives in Cripple Creek did not pass without incident.  John at the age of 19 had been sworn in as a deputy constable, charged with keeping order in a town where bloody battles were fought between mine owners and labor organizers.  At one period, a killing a day reputedly was the norm.  In November, 1898 John was viciously attacked by a drunken blacksmith. He shot and killed his assailant.  In the ensuring inquest, he was exonerated, the shooting determined to be justifiable homicide.   At the time Joseph was 16.

As they matured both sons were employed by Manuel at the Old Kentucky Liquor Company that by 1902 had moved from the initial address at 129 East Bennett Avenue to larger quarters at 320-322 East Bennett, Cripple Creek’s main commercial avenue.  Part of the Rosenfield’s success was providing giveaway items to saloons carrying their liquor.  The fanciest was a reverse glass sign advertising the company.   Favored customers also were given shot glasses for the bar, most bearing the image of a raccoon, the Rosenfield’s adopted symbol.

As the gold rush ebbed and the population of Cripple Creek began to fall, Manuel decided to move the family about 90 miles south to Pueblo, Colorado, on the state’s high plain.  Pueblo was being heralded as a “beacon of development,”
with agriculture and manufacturing, rather than mining and ranching, representing the modernizing West.   With a growing population Pueblo proved to be a good second home for the Old Kentucky Liquor Company.  

Now 22 years old, Joseph married, the wedding taking place in Boulder.  His bride was Mae Sutherland, 22, who had been born in New Jersey, her parents from Pennsylvania and New York.  The 1910 census indicated that Joseph and Mae had two sons, Jerome and Marvin, and a daughter, Virginia.   As his father aged, Joseph increasingly was running the family liquor house.  In 1910 the Rosenfields had moved again, this time to Denver where they established the Old Kentucky Liquor Company one last time.  Manuel was now a widower as Carrie had died earlier that year.. 

Three years later while on a trip to Los Angeles on business, Joseph visited friends in Alameda, California, an island community on the east side of San Francisco Bay near Oakland.  Not only did he fall in love with the place, it occasioned significant changes for the family.  For starters he changed his name to “Rosefield,”  perhaps wanting to sound less German — this was about the time of World War One — or less Jewish.  He also sold off his Denver liquor business and began working in Alameda as an salesman, initially of ice boxes and later of foodstuffs.

About 1915, Joseph founded the Rosefield Packing Company, working out of the garage of his bungalow home on San Francisco Bay.  Although dealing in a variety of edible products, he manufactured two himself, pickles and peanut butter.  Said a former employee:  “He built the machinery himself and made his first jar of peanut butter in his garage.”  (Shades of Bill Gates!)

Although the San Francisco area boasted a number of peanut butter manufacturers, the spread was tricky to produce and market, often turning rancid by the time it reached the consumer.  Over time Joseph was able to improve the process and grow sales. It allowed him to move his company from the garage to the plant shown here, one that made only pickles and peanut butter.  Manuel lived to see his son’s success, dying in 1928 and was buried next to Carrie at the Temple Cemetery in Louisville where he began his business career.

Joseph proved to be an exceptionally astute and hard driving businessman.  He began merchandising Skippy in 1933, during the depths of the Depression, and saw it grow to the Nation’s leading peanut butter by 1946, a position it held until about 1980.  Described as “confident and self-assured, with a strong character and convictions,”  Rosefield’s convictions included allowing only females to tour his factory because he feared male visitors might be copying his production techniques.  Thus, Girl Scouts were welcome, Boy Scouts were not.

A photograph exists of Joseph and Mae Rosefield, taken when he was in his mid-to-late seventies.  They are on a cruise ship about to dock in Hawaii and someone has bedecked both of them with leis.  Joseph does not look amused. I have been unable to find information on his passing or place of interment, hoping that some alert descendent will see this piece and help me fill in the blanks.

In the meantime we have the coveted artifacts of the Old Kentucky Liquor Company to remind us of Manuel and Joseph Rosenfield and how their financial success in the liquor trade in the Wild West led eventually to an icon of American grocery shelves.

Note:  Much of the information contained in this post and the photo of the Rosefields were taken from the book “Creamy & Crunchy:  An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food.” by Jon Krampner, Columbia University Press, 2014.

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