Foreword: In the process of profiling more than 600 whiskey men — distillers, distributors, saloonkeepers — I have found several who began their careers in what many might consider the lowly occupation of peddler, an individual going from place to place to sell food or other small items. One writer says: “A distinctive way of making a living, peddling required that the man–since in the United States women nearly never engaged in it—knock on doors, go up to the homes of each one of his customers, cross their thresholds, communicate with them in their own language and develop a pleasant enough manner to convince them to buy something.” The occupation required long, hard hours of dedicated effort, but the individuals profiled here found success and hewed a better life for themselves and their families.
No one knew the hardships of peddling better than Isaac Merkel, a German-born immigrant who after marrying in his native Germany, emigrated in 1870 with his new wife to the United States. Settling in Plattsburgh, New York, not far from the Canadian border, Isaac found himself in immediate need of employment. His wife was pregnant. When he arrived in the Adirondack wilderness he found few compatible occupations. Peddling was the best option.
Sjnce Isaac could no money to open a store, he carried it to others. We can imagine him on Sunday mornings, waking up at dawn, joining dozens of other peddlers, shouldering a heavy knapsack and setting off on foot for a weeklong journey among the mountains and valleys. Merkel’s route took him over poor country roads that were little more than cart paths to isolated New York villages. As a peddler he would travel all day and at night sleep where he could find a warm place, in summer camping out under the sky. He walked home on Fridays for the Jewish Sabbath.
Years of toil and a keen business sense eventually paid off for Merkel. In time he established a liquor blending operation and distributorship. A 1913 Plattsburgh city directory lists his firm as “rectifiers and wholesale liquor dealers, bottlers and jobbers in cigars.” His trademarked flagship whiskey was “Bachelor Rye.” Merkel’s plant and office was at 56-50 Bridge St. and his retail store at 22-24 Bridge. He also founded a brewery and later a department store. As his sons grew to manhood, Isaac introduced them into his businesses.
Merkel increasingly was recognized as a business leader in northern New York State, specifically cited in a 1891 history of Plattsburgh for his success as a merchant. In addition to his beverage interests, he served as treasurer of the Clinton Telephone Company and in 1915 as a director of the Mountain Home Telephone Company. In 1900 he was active as a court juror and in 1905 served as a member of the Plattsburgh Board of Education. All this was a far cry from Isaac’s beginnings.
In 1859, Dominico Canale, an immigrant Italian boy of 16 stepped off the steamer “John Simon” onto the dock at Memphis, Tennessee. Memphis would be his home for the rest of his life and upon his death he had created a liquor and mercantile family dynasty that survived until 2010.
After working for relatives at their Memphis liquor store, Canale began peddling fruits and vegetables from his own push cart while continuing an interest in the whiskey trade. Before long he graduated from his produce wagon to selling from a warehouse at 8 Madison St., near Front, and called his establishment D. Canale & Co. In addition to wholesaling fruits and vegetables he featured a quality bourbon whiskey that he labeled “Old Dominick.” The brand rapidly gained a local and regional customer base, advertised lavishly by Canale in large signs in downtown Memphis.
The Canale liquor and produce interests found significant success. They allowed him to bring his sons into the business and thrust him into the forefront of Memphis commerce. In 1905 a book entitled “Notable Men of Tennessee” featured him with the photo shown here. Canale’s biography stated that: “…Today [he] stands at the head of the fruit business of Memphis and, perhaps, of the South….Mr. Canale is what is rightly termed a self-made man, and has won his position in the social and commercial life of Memphis by his industry, his native ability, and the exercise of correct business principles.”
In 1889 Moses (Mose) Weinberger, a Wichita grocer, headed for the newly opened Oklahoma Territory to seek his fortune. Upon arrival in the town of Guthrie he initially made a living through the sale of bananas to homesteaders and later started the first legal saloon in the Territory. Today Moses is counted among “Oklahoma State Greats.” He is the central figure in the photo above, standing in front of his saloon.
An immigrant from Hungary, Weinberger came to America in 1877. After settling in Kansas for a few years, he joined the Oklahoma Land Rush, taking a train from Wichita to Guthrie Station. Between noon and 6 p.m. on that date about 10,000 people descended on that once sleepy railroad stop. By day’s end Guthrie, shown below, was the largest town in the Oklahoma Territory. Food, however, was at a premium and prices skyrocketed.
Weinberger sized up the situation and immediately wired the Bryan Brothers Fruit Company of Wichita for boxes of bananas. They came the next day by train and Moses went up and down the street selling bananas at two for five cents — the equivalent today of $1.25. With the proceeds he hired a team of mules and a wagon, and during the following months peddled fruit all over town. Mose staked a claim on two lots, built a house on them and moved his family down from Wichita.
Tiring of peddling fruit, in June 1891 Mose heard a rumor that it might be possible to obtain a license from the Federal Government to sell liquor in Oklahoma. Although he never before had run a saloon he made application and obtained a federal license from Leavenworth, Kansas. Weinberger quickly opened the first legal drinking establishment in the Oklahoma Territory. Later he added a liquor store.
Operated for 36 years, Weinberger’s “Same Old Moses” saloon was a huge success, even to having Carry Nation take her hatchet to his bar. Today the site in Guthrie bears a historical marker. Moses also has been acknowledged in a history book used in Oklahoma schools. On a list of “State Greats,” the name Moses Weinberger can be found in the company of Humorist Will Rogers and Athlete Jim Thorpe. His claim to fame: “Opened first legal saloon in Oklahoma.” Truly, Moses did -- and he started by peddling bananas.
The nattily dressed young man shown right is David Feltenstein, a well-known prosperous whiskey man in St. Joseph, Missouri. Feltenstein had not always known the affluence he attained as a successful wholesale, retail, and mail order liquor dealer. He was born about 1873 in New York City of Russian Jewish immigrant parents who lived in a tenement on Manhattan’s lower East Side, David’s father was a peddler, selling merchandise on the street and going door to door to support his family.
About 1893 David Feltenstein left New York City for Missouri where early on he was engaged in the whiskey trade. Exactly when Feltenstein founded his liquor dealership cannot be determined, but his business first showed up in St. Joseph directories in 1902, located at 315-319 Edmond Street. That would be his location for the life of the company, an enterprise that proved very profitable.
In his success Feltenstein never forgot his roots, demonstrated several ways of saluting his heritage. Outside his establishment he kept a cart similar to those that peddlers would push though the streets of New York, crying out their wares. The sides of the cart advertised “Old Joel Whiskey.”
Note too that in front of his store Feltenstein kept a line of barrels on the sidewalk, reminiscent of peddlers spreading out their products for passersby. Most important, he named his flagship whiskey “Old Joel” after his father, Joel Feltenstein, the peddler, and put his picture on company bottles.
Briefly profiled here are three peddlers and the scion of a peddler — all of them successful whiskey men. Clearly the skills and know-how that is required of the itinerant can carry over into more formal businesses, including those doing business in the liquor trade.
Note: More lengthy profiles of each of the four men featured here can be found elsewhere on this blog: Isaac Merkel, January 26, 2012; Dominic Canale, November 26, 2011; Moses Weinberger, February 15, 2014, and David (and Joel) Feltenstein, February 20, 2016.