Lower Merion Historical Society

The Lower Merion Historical Society

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Hires and the root of root beer

By David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life

Perhaps the most famous name on the Main Line, at least for those in other parts of America, is Hires — Charles E. Hires, the father of root beer.

He started out as a drug store boy in a country town at when he was 12. Like others of his generation, he knew that the big city was where he’d find success, so he was off to Philadelphia. He worked in a Philadelphia pharmacy and saved his money until he had saved nearly $400. Using thing money, he started his own store at Sixth and Spruce, living on the premises.

Pharmacists at that time became pharmacists by working for one and learning as he worked — an apprentice system which overcame the lack of educational institutions and the time and money to attend one if your father weren’t already rich.

Pharmacists weren’t the only ones who learned their trade this way — most professions had similar systems. Lawyers “clerked” for a law firm until they could pass the bar exam. Engineers assisted experienced men until they knew enough to venture out on their own. The world was moving too fast in the second half of the of the 19th century for ambitious young men to await professorial approval.

Hires discussed his start in an article which appeared in American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record in Oct.1913. He talked at length about the spirit that he felt allowed him to become successful, and encouraged youths to follow in his philosophical footsteps.

For example, he attended the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy in the winters of 1867, 1868 and 1869, although he wasn’t registered as a student. At that time it was common for the school to extend and invitation to working pharmacists to attend lectures — realizing that there was value in improving the education of those that dispensed drugs.

“I was not a registered college of pharmacy student, but after serving my apprenticeship of four years in a country store, from the time I was twelve until I was sixteen, I came to Philadelphia and after obtaining a situation as clerk here, I attended lectures occasionally,” Hires said.

Keep in mind there was no Federal Drug Administration to oversee things. For the most part pharmacists commonly dispensed nostrums, patent medicines, and lots of drugs now considered dangerous and often illegal. Cocaine and Opium were often ingredients in medicines. There were no clear-cut formulas for many medicines — in fact few came pre-mixed or as pills — pharmacists mixed them up for each. Finally in 1872 a state law was passed that all druggists had to pass an examination and be registered.

Hires was also generous in commending those who helped him. He often talked about the help he got from Philadelphia wholesale drug providers “Mr. Creashak, of Bullock & Creashak, Valentine H. Smith, Clayton French and Robert.” According to Hires, they gave him credit when he needed it. In spite of a line of credit, he wasn’t afraid to pitch in — he even helped the car carpenter in “fixing the place up.

It was that spirit that led him to an opportunity to repay his friends.

He was waling on Spruce street, when he noticed a cellar being dug. Looking into the hole, he noticed a lead colored clay-like substance. He said it seemed to be almost of the consistence of putty. He took some back: to his store and after drying it and examining it, found it to be fullers’ earth or potter’s clay.

At that time, Fuller’s earth was used quite extensively for taking out grease spots and cleaning woolens and flannels and was sold in drug stores. But was messy, sold in broken clumps and powder which caused a great deal of dirt and dust in handling, and that often contaminated the clay.

It occurred to Hires that he might shape the clay in convenient-sized cakes that would be handy to retail and more convenient for people to use. So he experiments and eventually made the cakes, and even figured out a way to impress his name on each cake. He first offered it to those same friends that had backed him in starting the drug store, and they all took it.

But more than that, he didn’t sell the cakes to them for cash — but asked them to keep the price of them on their books against stock he would buy. That helped them, and of course created a steady flow of products for him to sell. Most of all it solidified his reputation as a good businessman and a good friend.

Eventually he was selling them in New York City as well and made a sizable profit. But here was the difference in Hires. Others began selling it, and shortly it became difficult to make a profit, so he walked away from the business without a backward glance, happy with the money he made rather than bitter about the others who ‘stole’ his idea.

The story of where root beer came from has become apocryphal. Antiquarian League President Joseph DeLuca has spent years tracking down facts about Hires, because he is the town’s local boy made good. According to him “Legend has it he was vacationing on a farm,” says DeLuca, “but I think he was just visiting his parents’ farm in Roadstown N.J.

Some say he discovered it on his honeymoon in New Jersey where the woman who ran their honeymoon hotel served root tea. Bridgeton (N.J.) Her recipe called for 26 roots, berries and herbs — similar to a recipe used by Native Americans for years. Others say it came from his youth in New Jersey and was a secret recipe from the Indians. Whatever the truth, it is lost to history now

Hires almost named his new concoction “root tea.” It was, after all, made of tea brewed from roots and herbs. Crush International, Inc. of Cincinnati, Ohio, which now produces Hires Root Beer, goes with the honeymoon version. “It was there that he discovered an exciting new drink made of 16 wild roots and berries, including juniper, pipsissewa, spikenard, wintergreen, and sarsaparilla and hops,” states the company.

Even that name change has a number of different stories. His obituary in 1937 says that the Rev. Dr. Russell Conwell, the founder of Temple University, asked Hires to help him concoct a beverage that might be sold among hard-drinking Pennsylvania miners in the interest of the temperance movement.

Others think it was named that because it was what was called at the time a “small beer.” That was beer that was fresh and not yet fermented, so it contained no alcohol. What ever the reason, it was the right one and made Hires a millionaire. According to Mary Wood, the fact that it was named beer made him unpopular with his Philadelphia Quaker and led him to move membership to the Merion Meetinghouse. Fun as that sounds, even she is doubtful. The Quakers weren’t against drinking, so why would they make a fuss?,” she says.

Originally Hires packaged the mixture in boxes and sold it to housewives and soda fountains. They needed to mix in water, sugar and yeast.

Hires would become the largest manufacturer of the soft drink “root beer” in the world. But at first the drink was slow to catch on. Conwell did persuade Hires to present his product at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. Four years later, Hires marketed a liquid concentrate and in 1893 launched a bottled, ready-to-drink product. The editor of the Public Ledger, George W. Childs, liked the drink so much, he gave Hires free advertisement in his newspaper. “He sold 115,000 glasses of his product during the first year it was marketed,” says DeLuca. “That quickly expanded to 700 million glasses.” Hires stayed at the helm of his business, Hires, Wright & Brooks drugstore in Philadelphia until 1925 when his sons took over.

In addition to root beer, Hires sold his drug business and went into the wholesale business, specializing in vanilla beans. He made a trip to Mexico, studied the vanill plant and wrote a small book on the subject – long considered to be the authoritative work on vanilla. He was an early experimenter with condensed milk, and had factories in towns near dairies, including Malvern. He also owned Purock Water Company, and sugar plantations in Cuba.

After making his fortune, Hires moved his family including five children to the Main Line. The Hires estate, called Rose Hill, was at Highland Ave. and Old Lancaster in Merion Station, although grandson William remembers the name as Melrose. This is from Ann Bagley’s Oral History interview with Charles Hires’ grandson William Hires, recorded on Jan 26, 1998

The estate included 21 acres, five of which were lawn. This was quite a lavish arrangement, because caring for a lawn was more difficult than sitting on a riding mower and watching the grass get shorter. It was a labor intensive task to keep grass short enough to be called a lawn.

Hires lived there from 1894 until 1906 or 1907 when he moves to 842 Buck Lance in Haverford. “He lived there until he died on Aug. 1 1937 at the age of 85, either in the house or at Bryn Mawr Hospital,” William says. The house was torn down and today Adath Israel synagogue stands there.

Although he was of German descent the family name was originally Hoyer, the first American relative, was Conrad, who arrived prior to the Revolution. “He lived in New Jersey although there is evidence that during the Revolutionary War he was in the New Jersey Militia and delivered supplies to Valley Force. He died in 1780.

After 35 years of marriage and five children Hires’ first wife, Clara Kate Smith Hires died. Hires evidently was grief-stricken for some time, but eventually married again. His second wife, Emma Wain, was a very active Quaker and Hires, although an activist in the temperance Hires didn’t actually become one until he married her. “She was very bitter against Germans,” says Hires, “and didn’t want any Germany connection. She concocted various stories that they were Welsh, and another one that they were French,” William says.

Hires wrote a book called A Short Sketch of Old Merion Meetinghouse. “He had given this as a lecture, and I’m not sure how he went about compiling it. It’s an interesting little history,” William says.

Although the process of becoming famous started in a Philadelphia drug store, like many of his wealthy colleagues, he came to the Main Line to live. Family members still do. And unlike many of the rich, he tied himself through his ideals Quakerism, hard work and honor to the original precepts of the Welsh Barony. He may not have come from the Main Line, but he became what its citizens should be.