Article courtesy The Press of Atlantic City
Cumberland County 250th Anniversary Special - 6/28/98
Local historians argue over the root of the story of how Hires first brewed beer that made millions
Eileen Bennett, Staff Writer
Foamy, frothy, spicy, sassy. Root beer.
If an icy cold mug of the creamy, licorice-wintergreen-and-vanilla-blended soda is just your cup of tea in a warm summer day, you have Charles E. Hires of Cumberland County to thank.
Hires almost named his new concoction "root tea." It was, after all, made of tea brewed from roots and herbs. But through a twist of fate, or perhaps just a clever marketing ploy, Hires was persuaded to switch the name to "root beer" to appeal to the large market of hard-drinking Pennsylvania miners.
It was a decision that would prove wildly successful, making Hires a wealthy man while providing a major boost to the temperance movement, just gaining momentum in the mid-1800s.
How the drink came to be is a blend of legends similar to the beverage itself: each of the many flowers in the brew is individually distinct and interesting, but difficult to pin down.
Millville historians claim Hires invented the drink in the 1870s while working at a confectionery store at High and Main streets.
Hires, they say, took his inspiration from an eccentric relative, who would roam the Millville woods, "collecting bark and roots for medicinal purposes, rather than following the glass trade to which he had been apprenticed."
While working at the High and Main streets store, Millville historians claim, Hires experimented with various brews, until he was satisfied with the product.
He then married a wealthy widow, the tales goes, and wither her backing, patented Hires Root Beer.
No so, claims Bridgeton Antiquarian League President Joseph DeLuca; DeLuca claims Hires developed his famous drink in 1876 while on his father's farm in Roadstown, Stow Creek Township.
According to DeLuca, Hires grew up on his father's farm in Roadstown, just outside of Bridgeton.
Even at a young age, though, DeLuca says, "he knew he didn't want to be a farmer like his father."
He took a job as an apprentice to an area pharmacist at the grand salary of $12 a week, according to DeLuca. At 16, Hires moved to Philadelphia, took a job as a pharmacist's apprentice (at $10 a week), and took night classes at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science.
By the time he was 18, Hires had squirreled away $400 and invested in a drugstore at Sixth and Spruce streets in Philadelphia.
He invested in a potter's clay business that "really took off," says DeLuca, and before the young man knew it, he had $5000 in the bank.
That allowed him to divulge in his real passion -- the spicy, foamy drink not yet called root beer. The new brew was described as "woodsy-," "minty-," "and even "medicinal-" tasting.
Crush International, Inc. of Cincinnati, Ohio, which now produces Hires Root Beer, offers up a slightly more romantic version of the tale.
The company says Charles Hires, a Philadelphia pharmacist who originally hailed from Roadstown, spent his honeymoon on a New Jersey farm.
"It was there that he discovered an exciting new drink made of 16 wild roots and berries, including juniper, pipsissewa, spikenard, wintergreen, and sarsaparilla and hops," states the company.
And yet another version conjures up a slightly more devious slant to the story: while on his honeymoon at a southern New Jersey farm, the legend goes, Hires persuaded his hostess to part with her recipe for the root tea she served.
Her recipe called for 26 roots, berries and herbs -- similar to a recipe used by Native Americans for years.
Hires then packaged the mixture in boxes and sold it to be mixed with water, sugar and yeast to housewives and soda fountains.
But DeLuca has been studying the hometown-boy-makes-it-big story for years.
He's heard the honeymoon story, and, romantic as it might sound, he hasn't been able to verify it.
"Legend has it he was vacationing on a farm," says DeLuca, "but I think he was just visiting his parents' farm in Roadstown."
DeLuca's has been scouring the archives for years in search of the real Hires story. He's been able to ferret out some of the basic facts of Hires' life from newspaper articles and tidbits of trivia, although he admits, "There's not much there."
Charles E. Hires' obituary which ran in the Bridgeton Evening News on Aug. 2, 1937, gives yet a different version of events.
The obituary says that the Rev. Dr. Russell Conwell, the founder of Temple University, asked Hires to help him concoct a beverage that might be sold among hard-drinking Pennsylvania miners in the interest of the temperance movement.
Hires, who was studying medicine at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia at the time, was happy to comply, and was assisted by two medical professors.
Conwell, smitten with the results, convinced Hires to call it a "beer," instead of a "tea," feeling it would be easier to sell to the working class.
This seems to be the one point in the Hires story on which all parties seem to agree: marketing it as "beer" instead of a "tea" was a key to its success. Hires would become the largest manufacturer of the soft drink "root beer" in the world.
But at first the drink was slow to catch on.
Hires sold his drug business and went into the wholesale business, specializing in vanilla beans. He made a trip to Mexico, studied the vanilla plant and wrote a small book on the subject - long considered to be the authoritative work on vanilla.
Conwell persuaded Hires to present his product at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. Four years later, Hires marketed a liquid concentrate and in 1893 launched a bottled, ready-to-drink product.
According to DeLuca, the demand for the drink (the recipe supposedly consisted of sugar or honey with such ingredients as sarsaparilla, sassafras, licorice extracts, and vanilla and wintergreen) skyrocketed. A sideline plus: it contained no caffeine.
"He took the ingredients and began to experiment with the mixture," says DeLuca. As it turned out, the editor of the Public Ledger, a gentleman by the name of George W. Childs, liked the drink so much, he gave Hires free advertisement in his newspaper.
One of the most successful ventures in the history of marketing began to take shape.
"He sold 115,000 glasses of his products during the first year it was marketed," says DeLuca. "That quickly expanded to 700 million glasses. He became a multimillionaire."
The Hires Root Beer Co. lost the patent for the name "root beer" in 1879. That's when Congress passed a law stating that no word in the dictionary could be registered -- a law that was repealed in 1920.
Hires stayed at the helm of his business, Hires, Wright & Brooks drugstore in Philadelphia until 1925 when his sons took over.
Hires, who was active in the temperance and Quaker movements, died at the age of 85 in Haverford, Pa., on Aug. 1, 1937, leaving behind more questions than answers regarding his drink.
Genealogical records provided by descendant William L. Hires to the Millville Historical Society show the root-beer king was actually born in Elsinboro on Aug. 19, 1851.
Hires' obituary, in fact, lists his place of birth as Roadstown.