Bottling up a Century of Progress in Cairo - the Jacobs Bottling Works

by Robert Uzzilia
Cairo Town Historian

Originally published in the Daily Mail 


James LeRoy Jacobs, like many before him, was striving to live the American Dream. Around 1880 he moved his family from the tiny hamlet of South Durham, Greene County, to nearby Cairo, because of the tremendous business potential he saw there. It was a common occurrence for Cairo's population to double in the Summer months. Hordes of visitors from New York City’s Metropolitan area, the New England states, New Jersey and beyond, came by boat, train and coach to spend a relaxing vacation in the Catskills. Stunning scenes of mountains and waterfalls, along with the charm of local legend, created a sense of intrigue and romance.
 
The month of August found people flocking to Cairo for the annual Greene County Agricultural Fair. The event drew thousands to see the horse races and sample the best home baked goods in the county. It was great fun and a social gathering point for local families. Many surviving post cards of the period refer to “meeting at the fair.”

Jacobs surmised that, with all those summer guests, came summer thirst. Bottling beverages, such as mineral water and tasty flavored sodas, was sure to be a hit.
It was November of 1880 when Jacobs commenced his ambitious plan on the site of a former blacksmith shop. In actuality, the Walters brothers, Francis and Ambrose had established a bottling business there the previous year, but opted to sell it, to concentrate on running their prosperous mid-town hotel. The source of mineral water for Jacobs was a deep hand-dug well, tapping a natural spring running under the property. 

Four short years later, the Catskill Mountain Railroad brought a branch line into Cairo from Catskill Point. This not only created freight revenues for the railroad, but increased passenger travel to town. Farmers were adding rooms to accommodate the influx and Jacobs products were becoming popular throughout the area. Business boomed. The varied product offering included soda flavors such as Birch Beer, Lemon and Sarsaparilla, Vichy Water and New York Yeungling Beer, for which Jacobs was an agent. During the 1880’s and 90’s Jacobs would become one of the areas most successful businessmen, as well as a respected public official. A Republican, he served with distinction as Greene County Chairman of the Legislature for eight years and Cairo Town Supervisor in 1881 and ‘82.

Ironically, the very containers Jacobs used to bottle his products would later add to his legacy, providing a chronological benchmarks to his success and that of his successors.
Some of the earliest examples were of an experimental type. One utilized a molded slot in the top which held a rubber washer, securing a black marble. The marble was pushed into the bottle. Molded indentations near the bottom then suspended the marble inside, while pouring. It is said by some that the term “pop bottle” originated at this time and was later shortened to “pop.” Other variants were tried. Most were aqua in color and thick-walled to withstand the pressurized contents. All retained the name “J.L. JACOBS”
in embossed (raised) lettering. Some even sported a tall, fancy monogram. Advertising was an important aspect of success in the highly competitive beverage business. Ego played a role as well.

In the mid and late 1880’s the Hutchinson-style bottle (named for its English inventor), became the commonly accepted form. Among Jacobs’ emissions there were several amusing “error” bottles. One bore a misspelled town name, with Cairo becoming “C-A-R-I-O” and another displayed a backward “L” in the word “Bottling.” Later variants included a beautiful cobalt blue seltzer, using an acid-etched star design. Another clear seltzer depicted the proprietor’s name on an open scroll.

Brought up from New York City by barge, the empty bottles were then conveyed to town from Catskill Landing via train to the Cairo depot and from there by horse and wagon to the bottling works. Filled on premises by steam driven-machines, the products were placed in wooden crates and loaded on wagons for delivery to local boarding houses, hotels and general merchants.

In 1898 Jacob's, then well-established works, suffered a major fire which nearly destroyed the main building, causing $10,000 in losses. He quickly rebuilt, however, adding an attractive cupola and expanded loading dock. 

In November of the following year, after attending the funeral of longtime friend and Masonic colleague, the Honorable Augustus Hill, Jacobs collapsed, suffering a massive coronary. He died several hours later at the youthful age of 49 years, leaving a wife, the former Louise Graham, three sons and two daughters. 

James LeRoy, Junior, helped manage the business, but quickly lost interest. Rufus, while showing more interest in the business, was a troublesome young man and found the pressures of business difficult to cope with and began to drink in excess, causing his mother to relinquish his position. Frank, while the most responsible of the trio, opted to serve his country in the military and would be decorated for bravery in World War I.

After a few years of inactivity, another local entrepreneur saw potential for success. George M. White bought the business in 1911. He was, like his predecessor, aggressive and visionary. He lived with his wife, the former Jennie Adams, in a tidy two story clapboard just across the road from the business. He was considered a very honest individual by his peers. Former Cairo druggist John Earl said of White, “His word was his bond.” He was a communicant of Calvary Episcopal Church in the village from which ironically can be seen both the bottling works and the Village Cemetery, (where White would be put to rest at the advanced age of 83 years). During his eleven-year tenure as a bottler would come the innovations of the crown-top soda, still used today, and the use of amber-colored glass for the bottling of beer.

By March of 1922, White decided to sell the business to pair of enterprising young Italians, Joseph Agostino and Antonio DiBenedetto, both of Brooklyn. In that same year Angelo DiBenedetto would join them. Using modern machine-made bottles, the trio kept the trade name of “White’s” but added some flair to the container, adding script lettering and a petal design to the shoulder. A good clientele developed. 

Around the mid 1930’s the Coca-Cola Company experimented with a franchise in Cairo. They supplied the familiar light green tinted hobble-skirt bottles, as well as a very specific and secret formula their popular drink. According to discussions with local seniors and examination of correspondence, it seems there was a breech of contract by selling in unauthorized locations and the company terminated privileges and demanded return of all unused containers. An occasional bottle from this period surfaces, bearing the unusual patent date of “Dec. 25, 1923” thus being dubbed the “Christmas Coke.”

Two other unusual soft drinks were bottled in Cairo during this period. Brownie, a chocolate soda bore a strange elf-like creature on its clear container and the patent date of Feb. 23, 1926 on the bottom. Another was Whistle, described as “the liquid food,” a tasty orange drink offered in a tall curvaceous bottle with an embossed web-like texture. 

In October of 1928 Frank Maggio, Sr. and two DiBenedetto brothers, John and Leo, would form a corporation with a capital stock of $75,000, consisting mostly of machines from the Meyers Automatic Bottling Co.. Progress had arrived in town again.

With new machinery came a new building. It was designed by Otto Steurnagel, a local architect and photographer. Julius Lamanec, a longtime resident of the nearby hamlet of Acra, worked on the project and remembered it as a difficult but satisfying job. The building’s walls were of local brick, attractively accented by “burnt” bricks or yard rejects. The beams used for the front loading dock were drawn from icehouses along the Hudson River, abandoned with the advent of electric freezers. The crew hustled to finish the job, enduring sub-zero cold on one February day under foreman “Old man Grafio” a husky former blacksmith, who was seen by some locals as obstinate and unyielding. The results, however, endured, standing straight and true for many years to come. 

Just after the business got well established in the area, the great stock market crash of 1929 occurred and the crushing Depression soon set in. Money for improvements became difficult to obtain. Overly lenient credit to good customers and several deaths in the family contributed to the gradual decay of the business.

The year 1935 saw fresh change. Micheal Siciliano and son Thomas, came South from Albany, where they had run a successful works of their own and took on the challenge. Using the same clear container with the petal design on the shoulder, they simply changed the name to Catskill Mountain Beverage Company, most likely to capitalize on the area’s continued appeal as a resort haven.

During the next decade business would improve dramatically and expansion became necessary. Hence Cliquot Club based in Millis, Mass. became the parent company, eventually absorbing the Cairo plant in 1948. A large variety of flavored sodas with the familiar Eskimo boy pyro-glazed on the front, were offered in clear and dark green bottles of various sizes. Vichy water and Topper brand beer became big sellers with local resorts. 

By 1960 Cairo had grown to just 3000 permanent residents from around 2000 a century earlier. Much of the commerce still came from serving the many summer boarders in the village and surrounding hamlets of Purling, Round Top, Acra, South Cairo and Gayhead. This provided many jobs for locals, including truck drivers to deliver product and bring back returns, truck mechanics and sales people. 

During the latter part of the decade, competitive forces crept up on small bottlers all across America. Large companies such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Seven Up built massive advertising campaigns. They also successfully introduced the concept of throw-away containers into the American consciousness. This produced further economies of scale and distanced them from their nearest competition. Small local bottlers were fast becoming inefficient and eventually obsolete, symbols of a hard-working past. 
In 1968 the brick building closed its doors and went into a state of decay. Local youths roamed its grounds and broke windows. Passers-by wondered about its future, knowing of its active past. 

Eventually a reprieve of sorts came in the form of Round Top resident James Bartman, Sr. who purchased the building in 1977. While finding it unfeasible to refurbish the structure, he was instrumental in preserving remnants of its rich history. He contributed items found inside to various institutions. Among them were a large advertising banner painted on cloth, a 1930’s reverse painting produced in an adjacent studio, and an important commercial short film, depicting the bottling process, shown during intermission at the local Van Buren Theatre. 

At present the site is again a hub of activity. It was purchased and refurbished by Robert Levine, who operates Bilbee Thermostat Controls. These units are shipped all over the world to major corporations.

On the facade one can still read the proud name of “White’s Bottling Works” looming over the historic Susquehannah Turnpike, linking Cairo to far away trading points. With some imagination one can still make out the wavy silhouette of James LeRoy Jacobs through a window, at his desk, where he built a dream over a century ago. 


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