Friday, January 18, 2019

Detroit's Pfeiffer Brewery and Johnny Pfeiffer


The Johnny Pfeiffer plaster-of-paris figurine depicts a Revolutionary War minuteman playing a fife. Designed by Walt Disney Studios in 1951 for the Pfeiffer Brewing Company, the back bar statuette was made by the Plasto Corporation in Chicago. A company spokesperson says Pfeiffer Brewing commissioned eight different versions of Johnny over the 1950s. Two thousand of the 7.25 inch figurines were produced every month making it the most common and least valuable statue they ever produced, currently selling on Ebay for $25 to $45 depending on condition and the motivation of the buyer.

Brewery founder Conrad Pfeiffer brought the original beer recipes from Germany in the late nineteenth century. The original styles were "Pfeiffer's Famous"--a light lager--and "Pfeiffer's Wurtzburger"--a dark lager. Their brew masters used only new seasoned white oak kegs and barrels to insure consistent quality and taste. Pfeiffer became Detroit's third most popular beer brand behind Stroh's and Goebel before Prohibition took effect in 1920.


Repeal was passed by Congress and signed by President Franklin Roosevelt in December 1933, ending America's nightmare experience with Prohibition. Beginning in February 1934, Pfeiffer restored the exterior beauty of its original building built in 1889. The interior of the plant was completely remodeled, enlarged, and modernized. Legal beer shipments resumed on May 15, 1934.

Pfeiffer gained considerable market share after Prohibition repeal largely due to heavy-handed distributors who intimidated vendors and tavern owners to take their beer products over other brands. Complaints from vendors prompted the Michigan Liquor Commission to investigate Pfeiffer distributorships.

On February 22, 1935, Michigan Assistant Attorney General Gordon E. Tappan testified at a Liquor Commission public hearing that "(Pfeiffer Brewing Company) made no attempt to screen its distributors for character, qualifications, morals, or police records." Tappan charged the company and its agents with using strong-arm tactics to muscle in on Michigan's beer industry. The company made no attempt to rid itself of underworld influence.


The Macomb Distribution Company had Mafia boss Joe "Uno" Zerilli and his underboss William "Black Bill" Tocco on their board of directors with Anthony Lambrecht, Alfred Epstein, Abe Rogoff, and H. Armin Weil, who also had police records. The board of Meyer's Products Company--another Pfeiffer distributor--included Donald F. Gray--president; Charles Leiter--vice-president and Oakland Sugar House Gang co-boss; Henry Shorr--treasurer and Sugar House Gang co-boss; Elda Ruffert--secretary; James Syla--manager; Sam "the Gorilla" Davis--company agent and known Purple Gang enforcer; and Henry Toprofsky--company agent and known Purple Gang enforcer. 

Pfeiffer Brewery officials were required by the Michigan Liquor Control Commission to show cause why their brewing license shouldn't be revoked. Then president William G. Breitmeyer pled ignorance and said the company was having trouble keeping up with demand. They didn't need to force their products on anyone. On April 10, 1935, the company agreed to bar all persons with criminal records from serving as beer distributors and suspended their contracts. Despite the bad Depression-era publicity, Pfeiffer became Detroit's most popular brand overtaking Stroh's and Goebel by the end of the 1950s. But trouble was brewing on the horizon.

In the 1960s, Budweiser, Miller, and Pabst sought to become national brands. Because of their assets, access to capital, and huge advertising budgets, the Big Three brewers put many regional brewers out of business--not because of superior products but because of marketing and financial resources.


To compete with the Big Three, Pfeiffer changed its corporate name to Associated Brewing Company (ABC) in 1962. ABC acquired and consolidated smaller Midwestern brands and breweries to position itself in the national market, but they overextended themselves and became overburdened with debt. The old Pfeiffer brewery and bottling plant on Beaufait Avenue closed in 1966, and by 1972, the rest of ABC's remaining assets were sold off.

Detroiters are left with some aging memorabilia and a few random facts. In some small measure, the microbrewery movement of the twenty-first century is nipping at the heels of the national brands and cutting into their profits. Many of the old-style beers are once again available for our quaffing pleasure.

Many thanks Renee Reilly-Menard for gifting Johnny Pfeiffer to me along with the Vernor's gnome. The Detroit Historical Museum already has Johnny Pfeiffer in its collection. He looks good on my mantelpiece. I think I'll keep him.

Home for the gnome: https://fornology.blogspot.com/2019/01/vernors-gnome-found.html

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Vernor's Gnome Found


The Vernor's gnome--created by artist Noble Fellows--is one of Detroit's beloved corporate mascots. In the 1970s, the company ran a Gname the Gnome contest. The chosen name--Jerome the Gnome--happily never caught on. The Gnome was forced into an early severance program in the 1980s. The bearded man in the green hat faded from sight until the Dr. Pepper-Snapple Beverage Group--present brand owners--brought the logo out of retirement in 2002. They renamed the gnome Woody. That didn't catch on any better than Jerome. Most people call him the Vernor's Gnome.

In case you aren't from Detroit and don't know what Vernor's is, I'll try to describe it for you. Vernor's is a mildly sweet, highly carbonated ginger-flavored soda, with a touch of caramel for golden color and a kiss of vanilla for flavor and bouquet. Warm Vernor's was grandma's remedy for upset stomach or nasal congestion. It is a great hydrating fluid.

In summer, few things go down better on a hot day than a Boston Cooler--ice cold Vernor's blended with vanilla ice cream thin enough to draw easily up a straw. Cafe D'Mongo's Speakeasy on Griswald Street in Downtown Detroit combines Vernor's with Royal Crown and bitters and calls it a Detroit Brown.


A friend of mine--Renee Reilly Menard--from my Allen Park High School days--was going through a box she hadn't opened for many years and found a Vernor's Gnome mascot plush toy from the 1960s in its original packaging. Renee's father worked for Vernor's and brought the plush doll home one day. This stuffed mascot was a point-of-sale promotional item. At some point, it was thrown into a box and forgotten about.

Renee entrusted me with it. I'm tempted to tear open the sealed plastic bag and enjoy the gnome in the moment, but it's rare. I'm thinking it belongs in the Detroit Historical Museum so more people can enjoy seeing it too.
 
The label reads: Canasia Toys & Gifts Inc, Downsview, Ontario, Made in Korea.

Vernor's Ginger Ale Story: https://fornology.blogspot.com/2014/09/detroits-liquid-gold-vernors-ginger-ale.html

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Zug Island Novel Gets Facelift

July 2017 marks fifty years since the Detroit Riot left its indelible mark on American history. Anyone who experienced this week of bloodshed and arson can never forget it--43 reported deaths, 7,000 arrests, 4,000 injuries, 2,500 buildings looted or burned to the ground, 5,000 residents left homeless, 16,682 fire runs, and a river of fire ten blocks long.

Zug Island: A Detroit Riot Novel tells the story of two young men, one white and one black, who push the boundaries of race as they explore each others culture. Set in 1967 against a backdrop of industrial blight and urban decay, Jake Malone and Theo Semple get a crash course in race relations as they stumble in and out of rhythm on Detroit's mean streets discovering the face of racism comes in every shade of color.
 
Kirkus Reviews, a publishing trade magazine, said of Zug Island, "The novel is tightly written with a dramatic plot, well-rounded characters, and clear insights into social history. An engaging, dynamic story that grapples intelligently with the themes of race, class, and morality."

My award-winning revised 2nd edition has a new cover and includes several enhanced scenes. Since writing Zug Island in 2011, I've learned more about the Detroit communities of Delray, Black Bottom, and Paradise Valley, and this edition reflects that. Also new is a segment on the Algiers Motel murders conspicuous by its absence from the original. 

Paperback copies are available online from Amazon, B&N, and all five ebook formats. Zug Island Amazon Site

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Detroit's Numbers Racket



Today's state run lotteries are first cousins to the illegal policy rackets of the early twentieth century--known by players as the numbers game. Curious how things once illegal become legal when the government gets involved. The grass-roots game had much better odds but much lower payouts than today's state-run lotteries. To win, a player needed to match only three numbers rather than the six or seven used today with astronomical odds against winning. Then as now, some of the most avid players were the people who could least afford it.

Beginning in the 1920s, the Purple Gang-controlled numbers game in Detroit was a profitable money machine for the Bernstein Brothers and their associates who were many. Numbers runners, bag men, and accountants kept the money flowing. There was a fortune to be made from the pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, and dollars of working-class immigrants--particularly Italians, Jews, and the Irish. Members of Detroit's black community developed into major players in the innercity numbers racket where the game was popular.

Many people made tax-free extra bucks running numbers. Seemed like everybody had a favorite number or several numbers they played daily if they had some small change. Playing was convenient, bets could be taken over the phone. People could also place more costly combination bets of any permutation of their three numbers. For example, 127 could win with 127, 172, 217, 271, 712, and 721. Every place where liquor or soda pop was consumed became a numbers drop. Every grocery store, barber shop, beauty shop, candy store, and virtually every business within a runners assigned territory was a potential numbers drop. The more money a numbers runner collected, the more money he or she made. 

The numbers game appealed to people who were not habitues of the “high-class” gambling establishments of Detroit’s high rollers, social climbers, and underworld figures that mingled nightly with unsettling familiarity. The urge to gamble was not limited to the well-heeled public and wealthy industrialists. Everyday people wanted to place bets. If they couldn’t afford to chase Dame Fortune, they were content to wink at Lady Luck.

Spare change and small bills made up the bulk of the daily take. The game was easy to play—pick three numbers ranging from 000 to 999 and wait for the daily winning number. Players placed bets with a numbers runner who collected the money and recorded the bets in a handbook with the bettor’s name and date written in. A receipt with a serial number printed at the bottom was given to the bettor to prove he or she placed the bet in the event they won. A more sophisticated version of the game we known as Keno had greater payouts but greater odds.

The odds for the basic game were one in a thousand. If you were the only person to hit that number that day, your payoff could be 600 to 1, otherwise the jackpot was split among the winners. Bagmen collected the money from the runners and took it to a central location called a numbers bank where a group of accountants processed the bets, counted the money, and passed it on to a central drop at a secret location.

At first, the numbers were drawn from numbered balls in a ball cage or three spins of a wheel of fortune. These methods could be manipulated and soon fell out of favor. Players wanted three numbers that were certified random. Bernstein’s game used the last three numbers of the United States Treasury Department balance which was printed daily in the business section of newspapers. When the Treasury Department began to round off their numbers—so they wouldn’t be a party to illegal gambling schemes—the three last digits of the number of shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange became the daily winning number. That number was found conveniently in the daily papers. Choosing today's lotto number picks have gone back to the numbered-ball drops which are televised to prevent fraud.


Accounting books seized by treasury agents in a 1940 raid of a Paradise Valley numbers drop revealed as many as 6,000 men and women were employed by Detroit numbers operators. The average payout was 16% of the take divided among the winners. The number runners who took the bets filled out the betting slips and got 25% of their daily take. The bagmen who collected the money and betting slips from the bookies took them to a secret central location. They made 10% of what they brought in. Finally, the promoters took 49% for themselves and their overhead. All of those accountants needed to be paid—not to mention the occasional bail bondsman.

Because of the large territories where the game was played, the profits were huge. But this scheme was not without its dark side. Anyone skimming money off the top, holding out on winners, compromising the operation, or attracting unwanted attention from the authorities would be quickly eliminated.

Link to the wine brick rackethttps://www.blogger.com/blogger.g?blogID=7073297057923413840#editor/target=post;postID=2979020335839039617;onPublishedMenu=postsstats;onClosedMenu=postsstats;postNum=5;src=postname

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Coca-Cola Santa Story


Santa's origin can be traced back to ancient Germanic folklore and the Norse god Odin. The modern character of Santa was embraced by America with the 1823 publication of Clement Clarke Moore's poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas"--better known as "Twas the Night Before Christmas." In 1881, political cartoonist Thomas Nast created the first Santa images based on Clement's fifty-six line poem.


Haddon Sundblom at work.
Michigan artist Haddon Sundblom painted the iconic image we now recognize as Santa Claus--for the Coca-Cola company from 1931 until 1964. These images appeared in Coke's print advertising, store displays, billboards, posters, calendars, and on television commercials. Sundblom helped make Santa the most recognizable and successful pitchman in advertising history.

The Coca-Cola Santa story: http://www.coca-colacompany.com/stories/coke-lore-santa-claus/

Friday, December 14, 2018

The Elusive Purple Gang

Purple Gang lineup in 13th Precinct--the Canfield Street station.

Since May 2018, I've been researching Detroit's Prohibition-era kingpins--the Purple Gang--for an untitled book I'm writing. As helpful as the Midtown Detroit Public Library Burton Historical Collection and the Walter Reuther Library were to my early research, a couple of trips to the Windsor, Ontario Library, Biblioasis bookstore, and landmarks where the liquor trade flourished were information-rich finds. Seems like the Canadians have done a better job documenting their Prohibition history than Americans have.

One thing I've learned is that Al Capone had more to do with smuggling on both sides of the international border than most people realize. He was the larger than life figure who defined the Big City gang boss. Capone ruled from Chicago and his organization financed affiliates in Detroit, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Cleveland.

Rather than muscle in on the Purple Gang's Detroit territory, Capone cut a fat deal with the gang to take all the uncut liquor they could hijack or smuggle across the Detroit River. The Purples were not the only gang in the liquor acquisition business. They competed with the Italian Dago Mob to the east and the Italian Moustache Pete's to the west for control of the illegal booze business. The Jewish Purple Gang worked with anybody who could help them make money. They worked with members of both gangs and acted as a buffer between them until the 1931s.


Some background reading.
In addition to reading books on the various aspects of the liquor trade and scouring the Internet for information, my most fertile area for details on the gang is coming from Newspapers.com. The site carries Detroit Free Press archives dating to the nineteenth-century. Patient navigating brings up the original headlines and articles. The gang's bloody history reported on by the yellow press of the time is well-known--their arrest records, acquittals, convictions, murders, and assaults. What isn't known is much about their personal lives.

Tommy's Bar 1928 Purple Gang roundup at the height of their power.

I'm struggling to find out some factual information about gang members families. Obtaining death certificates should be routine, but these are proving difficult to get. Purple Gang members I'd like to know more about are the Bernstein brothers Abe, Ray, Joe, and Isadore; the Keywells Harry and Phil; Harry Millman; Irving Milberg; Abe Axler and Eddie Fletcher. If any of these wise guys have relatives with some basic information, contact me at www.gregoryafournier@gmail.com. I want to portray them as accurately as possible.

Right now, I'm most interested in Joe Bernstein's wife. One source says she was Marguerite Ball--a dancer with the George White Follies based in Chicago. Ancestry.com disputes this. She may be the Yoko Ono of this story. After her husband took a slug in the spleen in 1930, she gave him an ultimatum, "Either the gang or me." I know there is more to that story than is readily apparent.

The Purple Gang members were real people beyond the headlines but little documentation is available. I have two theories why so little personal information is available about these "well-known" underworld figures. The first and most obvious reason is they fiercely protected their wives and kids and kept them out of the public eye. Reporters who harassed or threatened the security of family members soon felt the wrath of a gang inspired beating. My other theory is that their Jewish families were ashamed and embarrassed by their hoodlum sons. Photos and other memorabilia must exist, but they are surely closely guarded family artifacts. After eighty years, it would be wonderful if some of that history were preserved and shared.


Tough street kids with a rifle.
Many immigrant children from Detroit's lower east side worked as hard as their parents to rise above poverty and squalor to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses, rabbis, priests, policemen, firemen, and tradesmen. But others were too smart for that. These boys saw how tough life was for their struggling immigrant parents. They wanted to short-circuit the system and snatch the American Dream rather than work a real job. The Purple Gang developed into one of the most feared, wealthy, and successful crime organizations in the country. They were the only Jewish gang in the country who dominated a large American city. But in time, most of the gang members pushed their luck and ended up in either prison or the cemetery. By the mid-thirties--after a bloody Italian mob war--the Mafia consolidated and took over the Detroit underworld. The Purple Gang was finished as an organization.

I'm surprised how many Detroiters have never heard of the Purple Gang. There are some people who maintain there never was a Purple Gang--that they were only a media creation of the yellow press looking for headlines. Back in the day, whenever alleged Purples were questioned by police about the gang, their answer was always the same, "The Purple Gang? Never heard of them." One thing is for certain, every one of them broke their mother's heart.


The Las Vegas Mob Museumhttps://fornology.blogspot.com/2018/11/las-vegas-mob-museum.html

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Ypsilanti's Hutchinson House Built with S&H Green Stamp Fortune

In 1896, Thomas A. Sperry and Shelley Byron Hutchinson went into the S&H Green Stamp business together. The New York Times business section described this newly formed company "the first independent trading stamp company to distribute stamps and books to merchants."

Not much is known about Mr. Sperry. He was an Easterner. His home was destroyed by fire in 1912, with damages estimated to be $150,000. He was an avid art collector and a number of valuable paintings went up in flames. A year later, Sperry contracted ptomaine poisoning on a return ocean cruise from Europe. When he returned to the United States, he was so ill he couldn't travel to his home in Cranford, New Jersey. He was forty-nine years old when he died.

Sperry's brother, William Miller Sperry, inherited his brother's business interests and gained control of the company. In 1921, Shelley Hutchinson sued the estate of Thomas A. Sperry alleging that Sperry defrauded him of his full share of dividends to the tune of $5,000,000. Secret funds were diverted from company funds to Sperry. Hutchinson won the suit. The founders' family successors sold the franchise in 1981.


Much more in known about Shelley Hutchinson. His grandparents were among the first settlers in Ypsilanti, Michigan, still little more than a frontier outpost. Shelley's father Stephen Hutchinson married Loretta Jaycox on November 26, 1862. Shelley was born two years later in a log cabin in Superior Township on October 19, 1864. From 1874 until 1894, the Hutchinsons lived in a four room wood frame house at 509 N. River Street, across the street from the Champlain mansion. As a kid, he attended the Union School through the eighth grade--a typical education for a nineteenth-century boy.

Shelley was ambitious and intelligent. While working at a family shoe business with his father and brother in Battle Creek, Michigan, in the 1880s, he conjured up the idea for a trading stamp business he could promote to merchants as a customer retention program. On a small scale, the idea was promising, so a regional headquarters was established in Jackson, Michigan, chosen for its central location between the state's eastern and western borders.

Three years later, Hutchinson met Sperry in New York--an Easterner with money and business connections. Soon after they went into business, stamp redemption centers sprung up in many of Michigan's major cities. With early success, the promotion was expanded eventually growing into a nationwide coast-to-coast business concern. Sperry and Hutchinson made money hand over fist.

Shelley Hutchinson met Clara Unsinger, who was a stenographer in the company. Clara was the granddaughter of an Ypsilanti deacon. They were married on April 27, 1894. By the turn of the century, Hutchinson had amassed enough money to build his dream house. He considered building in New York, but his father urged him to build in Ypsilanti to be reunited with family and friends.

Feeling a boyhood affinity for the area, Hutchinson decided to build his thirty-room Richardsonian Revival mansion across the street from where he grew up--the site of the deteriorating Champlain mansion on the corner of North River and East Forest streets. Construction began in 1902 and was completed in 1904. Hutchinson called his mansion Casa Loma--Spanish for house on the hill. The site was believed to be Ypsilanti's highest point--on the east side anyway. He moved in with his wife, three children, parents, and brothers and sisters.

See the link below for more views of the house.

Building his mansion on Ypsilanti's east side was a social mistake for the wealthy millionaire. The Huron River was the town's dividing line. The east side was the working class neighborhood, and the west side was primarily for the wealthy and social elite. Hutchinson was never accepted into Ypsilanti high society because he was "new money" and shunned the "old money" denizens. He and his wife Clara rode around town in a fine phaeton carriage with matching horses. The newly rich pair wore only the finest clothes, and the "Stamp King" wore a silk top hat. During the height of his success, Hutchinson bought diamonds by the pocketful from Tiffany's in New York.

In an early undated Ypsilanti Daily Press article, the reporter wrote a "rags to riches" story about Hutchinson. Quoting merchant A.A. Bedell, "Hutchinson was always immaculate in dress, dark haired and handsome. One day, he stood in (my shoe store in Depot Town) and a shaft of light struck his diamonds, a glittering array. He had half-caret diamonds in each cuff link and wore two diamond rings, one of three carets and one between seven and eight. His shirt stud had a three and a half-caret stone." People said when Hutchinson walked in the sunshine, he sparkled.

But the domestic situation at Casa Loma was less than stellar. The Detroit News reported on July 3, 1906, that Mrs. Hutchinson deserted "the mansion on the hill" in anger taking her three children with her to live with neighbors across the street at 629 N. River Street. Clara had had it with her Hutchinson in laws and complained to the reporter that she was forced from her home penniless--except for some diamonds she left with. Hutchinson's father and sister publicly claimed they wished Clara would return to manage the place. As for her husband, Shelley retreated and went south for his health. The domestic situation was intolerable for him too.

As the story goes, Shelley had been gravely ill and entrusted his wife with his diamonds. Upon recovery, he asked for them back. Clara refused saying he gave them to her. She hid the diamonds away, but while she was sleeping one night, her husband found her hiding place. Shelley locked the diamonds in a tin box and placed them in his roll-top desk in his locked home office. Two could play at that game. Clara took her husband's key and unlocked the office door. After a brief search, she found the tin box and opened it with a can opener. Then she left the mansion taking her children.

The Ypsilanti Daily Press reported on January 14, 1910, that a divorce was granted giving Clara custody of the three children, $9,000 cash paid out over five years, and her husband's diamonds. She sold the largest one to a neighbor and the rest to a diamond broker in Detroit. In 1912, Hutchinson's mansion was sold at public auction to the Ypsilanti Savings Bank to satisfy an unpaid mortgage and back taxes. The home is now used for a commercial property and houses several businesses.

In an Ypsilanti Press interview in 1955, the ninety-one-year-old Hutchinson was living in New York. He was quoted as saying, "Some of the people (in Ypsilanti) were jealous of me because of the big house, but they had no reason to be. I was good to everybody." Shelley Hutchinson returned to Ypsilanti one last time time in 1961 for burial in a family plot at Highland Cemetery--several blocks north of his mansion. He was ninety-seven.


Most people in Ypsilanti are familiar with the outside of the Hutchinson House but have never seen the interior. Check out this link to see just how extravagant it is. https://www.flickr.com/photos/sjb4photos/sets/72157622572604360/

For more detailed information about the Hutchinson family, read Janice Anschuetz's article "River Street Neighbor's Gossip and the Hutchinson Marriage," which appeared in the Ypsilanti Historical Society's September 27, 2010, newsletter Ypsilanti Gleanings. http://ypsigleanings.aadl.org/ypsigleanings/37044