By Keith D. Wunderlich
Have you ever taken a drink
of ginger ale and had to cough or sneeze before it ever hit your lips? That's
Vernors Ginger Ale. It has that sparkling fizz, the unique taste, and a history
that goes back before Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Hires or Moxie. Vernors is
Detroiters remember the huge
illuminated sign on the river, the gnome,
The Bob-lo boats are gone.
The huge sign and the fountain at the foot of Woodward are gone. Vernors has
gone through a series of owners since 1966 and is now owned by Cadbury-Schweppes
140 years ago, James Vernor
served the first glass of Vernor's in his pharmacy at
Higby and Sterns' Drug Store was young James Vernor's first good job as an errand boy. He began working there in 1858 with all the spirit and enthusiasm that a 15-year-old would have. He made quite a name for himself due to his parcel wrapping and fast deliveries. He was soon promoted to the position of Junior Clerk.
Vernor stayed with Higby
& Sterns until the age of 19, when he enlisted in the Fourth Michigan
Cavalry. In July of 1865, he was discharged and returned home to
Vernor was admired as a pharmacist. He closely scrutinized his prescriptions for quality, accuracy, and possible drug interactions. Vernor was meticulous about his work. Everything he did needed to meet his high standards. He served on the State Board of Pharmacy for eight years and was
one of the driving forces to
pass the state's first pharmacy law. He held
Like all good pharmacists, Vernor also had a soda fountain in his drug store.
There are conflicting stories about how the ginger ale first began. The most popular story, and one found frequently in the Vernor's Company's own literature, says that Vernor began experimenting with a formula for ginger ale prior to leaving for the Civil War. Upon returning from the war, he opened a wooden cask of his extract and found the taste he had been hoping to discover. The secret combination of ingredients, along with the four years of aging in wooden casks during the Civil War, perfected his ginger ale. Another story says he began experimenting with his formula after returning from the war.
At the age of 84, James
Vernor died. The Vernor family was once asked when the first Mr. Vernor retired
from business. The answer was, "A few hours before he died." He was a
hard-working and energetic man. One that made his mark on the city of
The second James Vernor came into the business as early as he could, working alongside his father in the old drug store. In the beginning, the father and son team were the only employees. They often worked 16 hour days together washing bottles, making and bottling the ginger ale, delivering it to various sites in the city, and taking care of clerical duties.
He was born in
The drug store was closed
and a small plant established at the foot of
Vernor's grew as
The demand for Vernor's was
huge. Every first class drug store in
The same standards that had been applied to the consistency of his prescriptions were applied to the consistency of Vernor's Ginger Ale. The water had to be specially purified. The blending needed the finest Jamaican Ginger distilled in the absolute proper proportion with other fruit juices. Even the carbonic gas used was produced by Vernor so it would meet their requirements.
It was about that time that
the two Vernors decided a great way to expand the business even more would be to
produce the extract for sale to franchise holders. The expansion of their plant
illustrates how successful this idea and strategy was. In 1918, Vernor purchased
the old Riverside Power Plant. In 1919 a six story main building was erected
adjacent to the other two. In 1939, the 10-story Siegel building was purchased
and renovated. In 1941, the "most modern bottling facility in the world" was
James Vernor II had a son; another James Vernor. James Vernor III also had a son; James Vernor. Yet, the company did not pass on to either one of them. It is impossible to predict if the company would have remained in the family if either had been president. J. Vernor Davis, the grandson of the founder, took over the presidency of the company.
The James Vernor Company had always been a family owned company. The death of James Vernor II forced the company to sell some stock to the public. Possibly due to the fact that the company was no longer primarily in the hands of the family, or for some other corporate reason, in the late 1950's, Vernor's became Vernors. (Note the lack of the apostrophe between the 'r' and the 's'.)
Vernor Davis had been with
the firm since 1931. Prior to the death of his uncle, he became president of the
company, in 1952. James Vernor III was concurrently named vice president. Under
In 1966, the one hundredth
birthday of the James Vernor Company,
Again in 1971, Vernors was
sold to American Consumer Products. By 1979, another company, United Brands,
owned Vernors. This ownership would be the one most costly to the City of
The property was purchased
in 1986 by Shula Associates, who had plans to knock it down for a shopping mall.
The plant was eventually demolished. An apartment building for
Just two years after
Even with all the changes,
all the owners, and the closing of the bottling plant; Vernors remains
There is also a small group
of Vernors collectors (including this author!) who regularly pursue the history
of Vernors Ginger Ale through its advertising. From many points across the
The plant is gone. The huge
illuminated sign is gone. The fountain at the foot of Woodward is gone. But,
Keith Wunderlich has been an avid Vernor's Ginger Ale collector for 30 years. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org. The Vernor’s Collector’s Club website is: www.wowway.com/~vernors/index.html