Friday, October 25, 2013

“The World’s Tallest Man” and Blatz Beer

At the Wisconsin State Fair in 1938, Clifford Marshall Thompson who recently had quit a job with the Cole Brothers Circus, strolled through the crowds wearing a sign that read “Drink milk, look what it did for me.”  He was stopped by a brewery executive who jokingly told Thompson that he should be hawking beer, not milk.  That is how the “Tallest Man in the World” came to be a star salesman for the Blatz Brewery.

Thompson was born in Ramsey County, North Dakota, in 1904.  None of his family were unusually tall.  A Blatz trade card he widely handed out bore a photo of him with his father.  That Thompson was much taller and larger than most people became apparent while he was still young but he did not stop growing until he was 27 years old.

Obviously intelligent, Thompson’s objective was to be a high school math and science teacher. He obtained a certificate from the Wisconsin teacher’s college at Stevens Point but was unable to find a job.  By now over eight feet tall, he speculated that school officials feared he would frighten the children.  Frustrated, Thompson joined the circus and rapidly became one of America’s best known circus big men, billed as “The Scandinavian Giant,”  “Wisconsin’s Paul Bunyan,” and “Count Olaf from Norway.”

A photograph from that era shows him standing behind “Johnny Jones Famous Midgets.”  He is dressed in a suit and tie with a stove pipe hat that accentuated his height.  Moving from one side show to another and often pitched as “The World’s Tallest Man,”  Thompson eventually wound up with the Barnes Circus in Los Angeles where his proximity to Hollywood put him in motion pictures.

In 1932 Cliff received screen credits in a short film, “Seal Skins,” with Zasu Pitts and a monkey named Jocko.  In 1934 he appeared in feature length pictures, including “Twentieth Century,” with John Barrymore and Carole Lombard and “Murder in the Private Car”  with Charles Ruggles and Una Merkel.  These were largely “walk on” roles designed to startle the audience.

Still a young man, Cliff made personal appearances and traveled with the Ringling Brothers organization and later with the Cole Brothers Circus.  There he met and fell in love with Mary Mars, a 5 foot, 6 inch dancer from Milwaukee who had left her career as a night club performer to join Cole Brothers in 1938.  Seeking a more stable lifestyle once they were married, they moved to Milwaukee where Thompson sought to capitalize on his fame and size as a product spokesman for a Ford dealer and milk producers.  That is when Blatz beer came into his life.

When the State Fair concluded,  Thompson went to the Blatz head offices in Milwaukee where he convinced the management to hire him as spokesman for their products.  As shown here by an early Blatz ad, the company had frequently featured robust figures in their merchandising.  Buckeye Beer in Toledo was featuring a dwarf and midgets in its merchandising.  Why not a giant?

The financial security of the job allowed Cliff and Mary to wed.  At the time he was 34 years old and she was 32.  Over the next few years on behalf of Blatz, the couple traveled by automobile all over the United States,  logging approximately 40,000 miles annually.  At state fairs and other events, Thompson would walk through the crowds having his photograph taken, as shown here, and handing out cards with his picture on them, some with his father, some with Mary.  The back of the card provided vital statistics on “the tallest salesman in the world.”  It noted that all his clothing except neckties had to be made to order.  His automobile also had to be modified.  Thompson drove a 1935 Ford sedan which, in effect, he operated from the back seat.

The beer the giant was selling was from one of Milwaukee’s oldest breweries.   It had been founded by John Braun in 1846, shortly before Wisconsin achieved statehood, and was originally called the City Brewery. Braun's fledgling business produced about 150 barrels of beer annually – until 1851 when Valentine Blatz, a former employee, established a brewery
Cliff & Mary Blatz trade card
of his own next door to the City Brewery. Braun died later that year and Blatz soon married his widow, thereby uniting the City Brewery and his own operation.

At the time of the marriage, the combined breweries produced only 350 barrels per year. However, by 1880 total annual production reached 125,000 barrels. The brewery's growth continued, and in 1884 Blatz ranked as the third-largest beer producer in Milwaukee.  Blatz was the first Milwaukee brewer to market beer nationally. He set up distribution centers in Chicago, New York, Boston, New Orleans, Memphis, Charleston, and Savannah. He also was the first of the city’s brewers to include a bottling plant within his operation.
Trade card-back

In 1890 Blatz sold his brewery to a group of London investors, who continued to operate the plant until Prohibition.  With Repeal, the owners made Old Heidelberg, a German style lager their flagship. When it again became legal once again to make and sell beer, that Blatz brand was the first to be crated at City Hall in Milwaukee and sent to President Roosevelt.  Old Heidelberg was the beer Thompson was hawking nationwide to a customer base thirsty after 14 years of Prohibition.

Eventually tiring of his life on the road for Blatz, Thompson in 1942 enrolled in the law school at Marquette University in Milwaukee.  He was still enough of a celebrity to have the event noted in Billboard Magazine.  Several classrooms had to be altered to accommodate his size.  After graduation he practiced law for a time in Wisconsin, ultimately moving to work in Portland, Oregon.  Hollywood made him the subject of a short film called “The Paul Bunyan of the Legal Profession.”  A photo shows him as a lawyer towering over an associate.

For someone as large as Thompson, he lived a fairly long and fulfilling life.  While in his early 50’s, however, he developed a number of medical problems and died on October 15, 1955, four days short of his 51st birthday.  The cause was recorded as a combination of gallstones and what may have been cancer of the liver.  At the time of his death he weighed 460 pounds.

The question remains:  How tall really was Cliff Thompson?  Skeptics said that he made himself appear taller by wearing a hat and elevator shoes.  Recent analysis, however, indicates that he stood 8 feet and between 3 to 6 inches tall.  Clifford Thompson continues to be remembered by a mannequin at the Pioneer Village and Museum in Rugby, North Dakota, not far from where he was born.  His home town exhibit continues to describe him as “The World’s Tallest Man.”

Note:  A significant amount of the information for this article came from a 2010 article in the Marquette University Law Review by J. Gordon Hylton entitled “Clifford Thompson:  Marquette’s Giant of the Law.”

Saturday, October 12, 2013

“Circle the Wagons!” (Under Glass)

In the past this blog has featured vintage glass paperweights that depict products from an earlier age but today are found mainly in museums.  Those have included early automobiles,  combination hearse/ambulances, and horse drawn buggies.  Here are I have “circled the wagons” -- use a phrase straight out of movie Westerns.  Ten  paperweights of wagons are featured, fully enough to make small circle.

The first weight shown here is from the Fish Bro’s Wagon Company of Racine, Wisconsin.  This wagon was advertised as a farm wagon with “heavy teaming gears.”  The Fish brothers were Titus,  Abner and Edwin, originally from Janesville, Wisconsin.   At their time Racine was a major center for wagon-building.   The trio bought out an existing wagon maker and in 1866 formed their manufacturing enterprise.  Using a fish as their company trademark, the brothers boasted that they made the best wagon on wheels. 

A history of the firm relates that Fish Bros. turned out a wagon at a rate of one every half hour or 500 per month.  According to his account it was a common sight in Racine during the company heyday to see: "...Strings of freshly painted wagons being hauled through the streets on their way to steamboat docks or railroad freight yards, headed for Mexico, South America, and Australia, to be used a livery, milk, lumber, and police well as phaetons, trotting buggies, road and spring wagons of every description."

No assembly line here.  Each Fish Bros. wagon was handmade by workers who earned $1.25 to $1.75 an hour for shaping bar iron into wheels and crafting slatted wooden sides.  The company’s main office building still stands in Racine at 1215 State Street, corner of Marquette. Appropriately enough the structure has been used as the headquarters of Merchants Moving and Storage.

Another Wisconsin manufacturer of wagons was the Stoughton Wagon Company from the city of the same name.  This company had been founded at the end of the Civil War by T. G. Mandt.   After he incorporated the Mandt Wagon Company he attracted many investors whom the owner came to believe were denying him business latitude.  Taking his name and wagon patents with him, he left his company and began again.

Undaunted local investors took over management of the original Mandt factory, calling it Stoughton Wagon Co. Their products were built for a wide range of needs for farms, ranches, and businesses.  Already boasting a broad distribution network throughout the U.S.,  the company continued to be highly competitive and prosperous.   Stoughton Wagon advertised its products as being stronger and featuring better reinforcement for the wagon bed.   While the company was best known for its farm and freight wagons, it also built carriages, spring wagons and sleighs.

A major competitor to the Wisconsin wagon makers was the Auburn Wagon Company.  This well known farm equipment and carriage company originated in New York State but opened a plant in Greencastle, Pennsylvania, in 1893.  Choosing to rent space rather than build its own factory, it employed 150 men there.  Temporary quarters might also have suited its business outlook.  When Martinsburg, West Virginia, offered a better facility, Auburn Wagon promptly pulled up stakes and moved out of Greencastle in 1896.  Thus the paperweight shown here can be dated to a short, three year period.

If Fish Bros. claimed they made the best wagon on wheels,  the Hackney Wagon Co. of Wilson, North Carolina, advertised that no wagon surpassed theirs “for style, durability & light running.”   The founder was Willis Napoleon Hackney who became a partner in a carriage shop in Wilson about 1854. In 1903 Hackney’s sons, George and W. D., incorporated Hackney Wagon Company, a venture whose mission was to manufacture farm and delivery wagons.   Although the firm prospered in the early part of the 20th Century from the demand for wagons,  especially during World War One when horse-drawn vehicles were heavily used.  In 1930, with the Great Depression and a glut of wagons in the postwar era,  Hackney declared bankruptcy.

Coming out of receivership with new ownership,  Hackney Wagon continued to manufacture wagons into the 1940s.  From there the corporate history gets muddy.   An outside firm purchased the company in the 1980s and continued to operate it in Wilson.  In 1996 they moved all production to a site in Washington, North Carolina, and the Hackney name, which became identified with transportation, disappeared.  This paperweight can be dated to pre-1930.

My research yielded virtually nothing on the following paperweight  except that the John J. App organization was a Colorado firm.   Information gleaned from the weight itself indicates that the company was involved in manufacturing livestock and farm implement wagons.  Interestingly, however, the illustration,   somewhat damaged, appears to show a circus wagon being drawn by two horses.  The wagon has a peaked roof and a picture painted on the side, typical of the circus wagons of that time and ours.

The App wagon,  opens a door to other wagons constructed for specific purposes.  Trimble & Welcher chose to feature their coal wagon,  appropriately painted black, on a paperweight.  This firm also provided bricks and kindling wood to customers.  Details on this Patterson, New Jersey, outfit are scant.  They show up in an 1888 city directory, located a East 18th Street.  One of their owners was George C. Trimble whose home was at 357 Totoawa Avenue.  This weight was made under patent to the Abrams Paperweight Company, that held the rights to a glass transfer process conveying the ad message.

The next weight was issued by the Franklin Fire Company of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.  It shows two firemen and a single horse-drawn fire wagon.  This company of volunteers was organized in December, 1903, after the Borough Council, had disbanded an earlier fire company, known as the “Rabbit Hunters” because of their speed in reaching a blaze.  Also known for their rowdy ways,  the Rabbit Hunters were terminated and within a short time a new organization was formed and christened the “Franklin Fire Company.”

The Council not only chipped for construction and furnishing of a new firehouse, dedicated in 1905, but also bought the wagon shown here.   It was the first hose wagon in town to be drawn by a horse.  The Rabbit Hunters apparently had hauled their apparatus by hand through the streets of Chambersburg.  Within a few years, the Franklin Fire Company began to agitate to be motorized.  The city fathers thereupon bought a Ford chassis and the bed of the wagon was loaded on to hold the hoses.

I can remember the ice wagon rolling down the street in front of our house in Toledo, Ohio, looking much like the horse-drawn vehicle shown here on a weight.   We had a refrigerator but many of our neighbors still had iceboxes.  The Chautaugua Ice Company served  the need for ice over many years in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Founded in the late 1800s, the company had offices at 13th and Pike Street and a warehouse at 1212 Smallman Street.  The warehouse contained stockpiled ice harvested from New York State lakes and shipped south to Pittsburgh.  A fire destroyed Chautaugua’s storage building, but by 1898 it was back in business again, shipping blocks of ice throughout the city.

As more and more people acquired refrigerators, the demand for ice dwindled to a trickle, forcing Chautaugua to close its doors in 1952, about the same time that the ice wagons ceased to rumble past my front porch.  The building subsequently was used as a lumber and millwork warehouse until 1991 when the Senator Henry Heinz Center acquired the building and made it part of a museum celebrating the history of Western Pennsylvania.  The Chautaugua Ice Company is memorialized there, as it is on the paperweight shown here.

Despite the next paperweight bearing my surname, I have no idea who W. E. Sullivan might have been.  On this weight showing a moving van drawn by two non-tandem horses,  Sullivan identified himself as president of what appears to be the Globe Company,  apparently in the cartage and moving business.   Movers then and now have favored paperweights as an advertising tool, likely figuring that they stay on customer desks  for extended periods as reminders.

The final weight is a nostalgic one for me, remembering both the horse drawn hay wagons on the family farm during World War Two, when gasoline was scarce and animal power regained its former importance.  The memories extend to more recent years, of hay rides on a date with a winsome lass,  and more recently, wagon rides to show the kids what the past was like.  The wagon shown here might have been one of Fish Bro’s. or Stoughton’s or Hackney’s.  Farm wagons tended to last a long time.

There they are, ten wagon paperweights.  Original wagons increasingly can be found in museums from coast to coast where they provide a down-to-earth look into America’s early transportation scene. Those wagons, however, occupy considerable display space.  Our ten wagons can be accommodated within the dimensions of a cigar box.  We have drawn them into this circle of our blog and taken a leisurely ride back into the 19th and 20th Centuries.