Famous Michigander Friday: James Vernor

For this week’s Famous Michigander Friday, I wanted to delve into a little “pop” culture – the story of James Vernor, inventor of Vernors Ginger Ale (what can I say – I love puns!). Vernors* is, after all, quintessentially Michiganian (Michiganderan?), for as the slogan says, “it’s what we drink around here.” It is also considered the oldest surviving soda brand in the country. We all know the legend of how Vernors was supposedly created: James Vernor experimented with ginger sodas before the Civil War, but the ginger was always too strong. He enlisted in the war, forgetting that he had one batch still in a barrel. When he returned home after the war, he opened the cask and discovered that the drink had aged to perfection. But how much of that story is true? And what about the man behind the drink? What made James Vernor interested in ginger ale, and why on earth would he think it was a good idea to drink something that had been hanging out in a barrel for three years?

Image from Dr. Pepper Snapple Group website

Image from Dr. Pepper Snapple Group website

First of all, the basics. Vernor was born in 1843 in Albany, New York and moved to Detroit with his family at age 5. As a teen he worked as an errand boy for Higby and Stearns’ Drugstore. He did well in the position, being promoted to junior clerk before he left the store to enlist in the Union Army in 1862. During the war he was part of the 4th Michigan Cavalry as a hospital steward. He was captured by the Confederate Army twice, once because he refused to leave his medical post. After his second capture, in Tennessee, he escaped to Murfreesboro where he hid in an attic for three days until the Union Army captured the city.

After the war, he opened up a drugstore at 235 Woodward Ave. According to Keith Wunderlich’s book Vernors Ginger Ale, it is likely that it was only at this point that Vernor started experimenting with ginger sodas. Wunderlich argues that Vernor was an entrepreneur who started selling ginger ale along with many other non-typical items such as flowers and perfumes to get people to come to his drugstore, which was far north of downtown. He may have started selling Vernors Ginger Ale in 1866, but it was not perfected for a few more years.

This version of this story corroborates with an interview with Vernor’s son, James Vernor Jr. in 1936, in which he states that he suspects that his father had the idea for the Vernors formula in his head during the war and tested it as soon as he came home. The 1911 trademark application for the drink also notes that it was not sold until 1870.

Vernor worked at his pharmacy for the next 30 years. During this time he was very active in the community and his profession. Starting in 1887, he served on the Michigan Board of Pharmacy and helped push for standards and certifications for pharmacists. He was also a Detroit alderman and joined the Detroit Post of the Grand Army of the Republic. The Detroit Post was the most prestigious of the local GAR clubs. It was founded in 1887 by veterans who wanted a more gentlemanly club than was previously in the city. Also called the Millionaires Post or the Silk Stockings Post, the Detroit Post only allowed for 150 members at a time and boasted some of the most distinguished men in the city such as Hazen Pingree, August Goebbel and Samuel Burroughs. James Vernor was clearly moving up the ranks of society.

During all this time, of course, Vernor continued selling the increasingly popular Vernors drink in his store. He also sold Vernors extract to pharmacists around the country with directions on how to make it into soda at soda fountains. He refused to bottle the drink at the time as technology for bottling soda produced inconsistent results, and he was quite a perfectionist. He even went as far as sending pamphlets to soda fountain owners with specific directions for making the drink (serve it at 36 degrees, no ice) and worked with soda fountain manufacturers to make better fountains.

The Vernors Building in the 1940sImage from the Wayne State University Virtual Motor City Collection

The Vernors Building in the 1940s
Image from the Wayne State University Virtual Motor City Collection

Finally, in 1896, he decided that bottling technology had advanced to the point where he was comfortable bottling the drink. He sold the drugstore and focused on his ginger ale, although he still had a location with a soda fountain closer to downtown. Vernors became a true family business at this time as well, as son James Vernor Jr. came aboard. The company continued to expand, selling the drink in an ever wider market. Nonetheless, it remain rooted in its hometown as seen in its early 20th century slogan “Detroit’s Drink.”

James Vernor died in 1927 at the age of 84. His drink lives on as a beloved regional soda that has become a part of Detroit’s culture. However, it is no longer a family company, as it was sold in 1966 and after a succession of ownership changes it is currently owned by the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group.

This post is getting rather long, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the best way to drink Vernors Ginger Ale. Straight out of the bottle (or can) is great, and there are a number of mixed drinks out there, but my personal favorite is the Boston Cooler. A Boston Cooler is like a root beer float, but with Vernors instead of root beer with the ice cream. The name, however, is a bit of a mystery. It has nothing to do with Boston, Massachusetts, where the drink is unheard of. One theory claims the drink was named after Boston Boulevard in the Boston-Edison district of Detroit, but that theory is questioned by those who point out that that area was not platted until 1891 and had no homes until 1905, while the drink was known to be enjoyed as early as 1880. Maybe we’ll never know know. But one thing is for sure – a Boston Cooler really hits the spot on a hot Michigan summer afternoon!

*Vernors started out as “Vernor’s,” but dropped the apostrophe in the 1950s.

Sources:
Rouch, Lawrence L. The Vernors Story: From Gnomes to Now. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003
Wunderlich, Keith. Vernor’s Ginger Ale. Chicago: Arcadia Publishing, 2008
Vernors: Our History.” Dr. Pepper Snapple Group

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