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Industries of old put Flour City on the map

Most Rochesterians have heard of the mills that gave their town its Flour City moniker.
Likely still more know of the nurseries and seed companies that sprouted the Flower City name.
But in the late 1800s, fueled by a steadily growing population of skilled tradespeople, Rochester began to stretch beyond the industries that relied on the river for power and started cranking out a host of other products, including clothes, shoes, buttons and beer, says city historian Ruth Naparsteck.
Few Rochesterians know about the companies that produced those goods because most of them no longer survive.
“So many of our industries just went away, and we don’t have much information about them,” Naparsteck says.
For a good many years, these firms kept Rochester’s economy humming along. The river continued as a source of power. William Peck, in his “Semi-Centennial History of Rochester,” describes the bustle of activity on the Andrews Street Bridge and in the city’s other manufacturing centers during the 1880s:
“At noon or at the close of labor, this bridge is thronged with thousands who pour from the various shops and factories. A similar daily scene is enacted at Central Avenue, … at Vincent Place and at Court Street.”
Clothing and shoes, the city’s two giant industries in the late 19th century, were the cause of much of this activity. Together they employed approximately half of the city’s wage earners, writes former city historian Blake McKelvey in his book, “Rochester: The Quest for Quality.”
At its peak in the 1880s, Rochester shoe production ranked fourth in the country behind Lynn, Mass., New York City and Philadelphia. Though it never rivaled the other three in size, the shoe industry here comprised some 150 manufacturers, 50 retailers and 50 wholesale firms.
Local companies stood out on the national scene, however, for the high quality of the footwear they turned out, particularly women’s shoes. Storefronts around the country displayed cards proclaiming, “Rochester-made shoes sold here.”
Abner Wakelee, who set up shop in 1812, was the city’s first shoemaker. During the next century or so, it proved a fluid industry, with shoe and boot makers opening, closing, merging and moving frequently. Nine-tenths of Rochester’s shoe manufacturers once operated out of crowded factories that lined North Water Street. Men named Reed, Johnson, Cox, Hatch, Peters and Weaver ran these companies in buildings now occupied by the Water Street Grill, the Water Street Music Hall and Clark Patterson Associates.
The shoe trade’s lead in local manufacturing began to slip in the 1890s as clothing, metalworks and photographic companies multiplied. But it maintained a solid presence with a niche in baby shoes (first manufactured here) and a reputation as the national style center for women’s shoes until well into the 20th century.
Like shoe firms, Rochester clothiers were noted for their quality products. At the height of their success, they ranked fourth in the country for bulk of business, behind New York City, Philadelphia and Chicago. During the 1880s, the industry employed 15,000 people and had annual sales of $9 million.
The local garment trade got its start in 1820 in Patrick Kearney’s small shop on State Street, where he hung a sign that read, “Good clothing for sale cheap here.” Around 1850, Meyer Greentree founded a wholesale-clothing manufacturing company, and the industry soon burgeoned with the names of Seligman, Wiles, Altman, Stettheimer, Wollf and Bachman.
As companies grew, some moved from the industry’s nucleus on Mill Street into “magnificent buildings devoted to the interest” on North St. Paul Street, Peck writes. Soon whole streets, most notably in the 5th, 6th, 11th and 13th wards, were devoted to the manufacture of clothing.
The trade specialized in high-end menswear, led by four older firms that were outgrowths of earlier mergers: Fashion Park, Timely Clothes, Hickey-Freeman and Michaels, Stern. Together they employed a full half of the city’s clothing workers during the 1920s. Rochester produced a modest amount of clothing compared with other cities: approximately 1.5 million suits and coats, a mere 5 percent of the industry’s total national output. Even so, its product was considered superior in craftsmanship and value.
Rochester clothing houses shipped their goods to every state and territory and sold in all major retail centers. By the 1940s, however, local clothiers were having a hard time finding experienced workers and launched a program to recruit skilled craftsmen from abroad. Hickey-Freeman Co. Inc. alone still operates a factory in Rochester.
The others remain in name only, whether in memory or engraved in stone on city buildings: Michaels, Stern; L. Adler Bros.; Rosenberg & Blum; Knopf; Wile, Stern; J. Stern; and Garson, Meyer.
Only one old-time company remains in Rochester’s once-prolific brewing industry: Genesee Brewing Co. Inc. While most Rochesterians equate local beer production with Genesee and a handful of microbreweries, the city over the years was home to dozens of beer makers.
“We were well-known, well before the microbrewery, for the brewing industry, owing in part to the large German population here,” Naparsteck says.
A growing number of Germans and other Europeans moving to Rochester “swelled the number of those who had a traditional taste for light wines and beer,” Peck writes. More than 50 breweries and two extensive malthouses were based in Rochester between 1875 and 1920 and after Prohibition. Many of the early breweries perched high above the river and thrived despite the concerted efforts of temperance workers to handcuff the trade.
Some names, such as Standard and American, still ring familiar to beer enthusiasts and longtime residents. Genesee, then a young operation, earned only a modest mention in Peck’s 1884 history: “On the east bank of the river, at Bismarck Place, is the latest extensive structure erected; capacity 60,000 barrels.”
Genesee’s Liebotschaner beer was the company’s leading brand during the 1930s and 1940s, says Mark Holdren, the brewery’s vice president for promotions. The company no longer produces the brand.
The first lager beer in Rochester was sold on Dec. 7, 1852, by Henry Bartholomay and Philip Will, the year they founded Bartholomay Brewing Co., one of Rochester’s most prominent breweries. The limestone rock forming the abrupt bank of the river proved the perfect setting for its cellars, which were 50 feet deep and quite large.
Bartholomay, who came from a family of brewers, was the manager of the Heidelberg, Germany, brewery and other similar European operations before moving to Rochester. After an English syndicate merged three local breweries into Bartholomay in 1889, the company increased its output and built a miniature model of a brewery for display at the World’s Fair in Chicago.
Other well-known names in the beer business here included Miller Brewing Co., Cataract Brewing Co. and Rochester Brewing Co. on the west bank of the river at Cliff Street. Many smaller firms, such as Lion Brewery, which sat at the corner of Hudson and Channing streets, ran successful operations as well, their names long committed to the history books: Baetzel, Enright, Matthias, Weinmann, Yaman, Zimmerman, Boehm, Kase, Marburger, Moerlbach and Nunn.
“City saloon men tended to favor the independent brewers,” McKelvey writes.
Indeed, Rochester’s economic livelihood has relied on not only large, heavy-hitting organizations in well-established industries, but also smaller yet equally adroit businesses and imaginative inventors.
“This has been a very creative area,” Naparsteck says.
Here is a sampling of industries that once put Rochester in the headlines:
–By 1910, more than half the buttons in the United States were being produced by three Rochester companies, led by Rochester Button Co. Together they employed more than 1,500 workers.
Hickok Manufacturing Co., which began as a men’s belt maker, expanded production in 1954 to include safety belts for planes and automobiles. For a time the company employed some 1,100 workers.
–More than a dozen electrical-appliance manufacturers called Rochester home at one time, most notably North East Electric Co. (later Delco); the industry ranked fourth in employment by 1924, when it reached 4,000.
–The first practical ballot machine was perfected by Rochester inventor Jacob Meyers, and early ballot machines were manufactured here.
–Perfume companies called Rochester home for many years. The largest and oldest, that of Alfred Wright, sold out and moved to Philadelphia in 1909. But another, C.B. Woodworth & Sons, remained here under a variety of ownerships until its close in 1974. Established in 1855, Woodworth manufactured and bottled Blue Lillies perfume and, later, as Bourjois Inc., the popular Evening in Paris line.
–Led by National Casket Co., Rochester dominated the coffin trade even after the leading trade journal, “The Casket,” moved to New York City in 1914. Stein Manufacturing Co. produced cloth-covered caskets from its headquarters at Court and Exchange streets. The firm employed 200 and had branch offices in New York City, Boston, Chicago and St. Louis.
–Rochester was a busy center of box manufacturing around the turn of the century. The reasons: The city’s shoe and photographic industries were big customers, and box-making machinery was manufactured here.
–James Palmer’s Sons, founded in 1840, was the world’s leading manufacturer of “pyrotechnics,” or fireworks, in the late 19th century, according to Peck’s history. The company was located on New Main Street.
–Archer Manufacturing Co., founded in 1857, sold its dental and barber chairs all over the world.
–Before William S. Kimball & Co. closed in 1905 after the death of its founder, the Court Street company was one of the principal tobacco works in the United States. Among its specialties was the manufacture of cigarettes; production averaged nearly a million a day in the 1880s.
On its towering chimney rested a 21-foot copper statue that could be seen from any elevated part of the city. Mercury, god of commerce, now crowns the skyline atop Lawyers Cooperative Publishing’s Broad Street offices–a continuing reminder of Rochester’s innovative past.
(Sally Parker is a Rochester-area free-lance writer.)


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