Friday, September 14, 2012

Vernor's - Deliciously Different

Vernor's ghost sign
Westland, Michigan

The 2006 demolition of a building adjacent to what was then Westland Hardware on Joy Rd. at Inkster Rd. revealed this long-forgotten, but well preserved Vernor's sign. The J&M Market telephone number (GArfield-2) and the fact that the Vernor's name still had an apostrophe, date this sign to the mid-1950s. (The apostrophe was gone from Vernor's products by the end of that decade.)

The Founder
Born in Albany, New York in 1843, James Vernor moved to Detroit as a small child with his parents. In 1858 he got a job at Higby & Stern's drug store where he learned the business, became a pharmacist. Vernor experimented with various flavored waters and drinks to serve at the soda fountain in the store. One particular concoction was stored in a keg in the basement just before he enlisted in the 4th Michigan Cavalry as a Union hospital steward in 1862. 

He was promoted to 2nd Lt. and served to the end of the Civil War. His unit, the 4th Michigan Cavalry, was in several battles and is credited with capturing Confederate President Jefferson Davis as he attempted to escape. Vernor was discharged from the Army in 1865 and returned to Detroit and the pharmacy business. In 1866 he opened his own pharmacy on Woodward at Clifford in downtown Detroit. He also opened the keg that had been stored for four years. Vernor declared it to be "deliciously different" and ginger ale was born. For years, the fountain at James Vernor's pharmacy was the only place one could buy a Vernors. But demand for the drink continued to grow and soon soda fountains throughout the city began selling cold, carbonated Vernors.

The Family
In 1873 he married Emily Walker Smith. Their son James II, who was born in 1877, joined his father in the operation of the company. Demand for Vernor's ginger ale grew at such a rate that in 1896 they closed the drug store to produce ginger ale full time. James Vernor Sr. was one of the original members of the Michigan Board of Pharmacy, formed in 1887, and was very proud of holding License #1 throughout his life.

The Fame
As Vernor's Ginger Ale became wildly popular throughout Michigan and as far as Toledo, Cleveland, Buffalo and Niagara Falls, James the younger's marketing genius made tremendous profits for the company, especially during prohibition. When other soft drink concerns went bankrupt during the great depression, Vernor's made millions of dollars.

Eventually the Vernors Company would open a bottling plant on Woodward south of Jefferson Avenue to handle its expanding demand. This riverfront landmark became a favorite stop for locals and tourists alike in the 1940s. Here one could sip a fresh Vernors for only a nickel and watch as it was being produced.

 James Sr., James II, & James III
 James Sr. served on the Detroit City Council for 25 years and on several civic and philanthropic organizations. He remained president of the Vernor Company until his death at age 84 from pneumonia and influenza on October 29, 1927 when his son succeeded him. James II led the firm through World War II and served as president until his death at age 77 on April 11, 1954.

James Vernor III, attended Cranbrook School and Culver Military Academy. After graduating 2nd in his class from Culver he enrolled at Michigan State University. When World War II broke out he was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserves and assigned to the Coast Artillery. He served in the Aleutians until September 1945 and retired with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He joined Vernor's as Vice President but did not long survive his father and died on April 9, 1957. James Vernor Davis, James Jr.'s nephew became president of Vernor's.

In 1966, the Vernor family sold the company to an outside investment group. Subsequently, the company was acquired by American Consumer Products and, later, by United Brands. Vernors returned to the ownership of a soft drink company when A&W Beverages, Inc. purchased The Vernors Company in 1987.

Today, Vernors is part of Plano, Texas-based Dr Pepper Snapple Group, an integrated refreshment beverage business marketing more than 50 beverage brands throughout North America.

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