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The History of Vernors

Our Nations oldest soda is Vernors Ginger Ale, and it was created over 130 years ago. Many of today's soft drinks take an understandable pride in their histories, but they all must bow to Vernors.

In 1858, a 15-year old boy, named James Vernor, started working at Higby and Sterns' Drug Store as an errand boy. He was obviously a pretty sharp young man as he quickly worked his way up to Junior Clerk, and would eventually go on to help pass the state's first pharmacy law and would also sit on the State Board of Pharmacy for eight years.

A golden colored ginger ale was being imported from Belfast, Ireland and was becoming quite popular throughout the United States (ginger ale would be the nations most popular soft drink for about seventy years). A nineteen-year-old James Vernor began experimenting with his own ginger ale recipe. However, like many young men his age, during 1862 in Detroit, he put his plans on hold and enlisted as a Union soldier with the Fourth Michigan Cavalry. Before leaving for war though, James placed his experimental ginger ale extract into an old oak cask. At the end of the Civil War, James would return home and open a drug store of his own at 235 Woodward. Another thing that James opened was that old oak cask. To his surprise, the four years of aging blended a select group of secret ingredients to perfection.

Mr. Vernor would offer his ginger ale to his drug stores soda fountain patrons for the next thirty years (all good drug stores had a soda fountain) However, Vernor's Ginger Ale was not an overnight success (at least not on a large scale). In fact, it would not be until 1896 that enough business was being generated from the sale of ginger ale that Mr. Vernor was able to close his drug store. Mr. Vernor opened a small plant at the foot of Woodward Avenue just a few doors down from his old drug store. It was here that Mr. Vernor, along with his nineteen-year-old son, James Vernor II, (the companies only employee) blended, aged, bottled, and distributed Vernor's Ginger Ale. You may have noticed that I said "aged" that is because Vernors Ginger Ale extract was still aged in oak cask for four years before it was ever used to produce the soft drink. This process of aging in oak would continue until at least the 1980's, and for all I know the current bottlers may still be aging the extract.

The Standard Manual of Soda and Other Beverages
Dr. Emil Hiss -- 1897

Ginger ale extract,Vernor's.....fl.oz. 4
Sugar, granulated...............av.lb. 9
Solution of citric acid..............fl.dr. 4
Water, filtered..........................gal. 10
     Dissolve the sugar in the water cold, add the solution of citric acid and the extract, and strain through cloth into the fountain and charge with carbonic acid gas to 120 pounds.
Cost, $1.00.  Retail in 12-ounce glasses $6.00
           --James Vernor, Detroit, Mich.

Over the next few decades Vernor's Ginger Ale would grow by leaps and bounds. It would become the ginger ale that all other ginger ales were judged. Most bottlers had some type of specialty product that differentiated them from their competitors (like Cherry Nip, or Dr. Flints Julep), but they all went head to head with their ginger ales. For Vernors to dominate the market the way that he did was a huge (and I mean HUGE) deal. James Vernor became synonymous with ginger ale, and in fact, a publisher of a soda fountain formulary guide even included a ginger ale formula in his guide that used Mr Vernor's extract. Until a little after 1920 ginger ale had been our nations most popular style of soda. What happened? How did ginger ale lose its popularity?

Prohibition killed golden ginger ale. In the 1920's Americans were visiting illegal speakeasies in droves, and the cocktail was at the height of fashion Many soft drinks were used as a mix with alcohol, and there was even one specifically made to mix with alcohol. It was called "dry" ginger ale (colorless, almost tasteless, and less sweet than golden ginger ale). During prohibition, dry ginger ale became immensely popular. However, golden ginger ale quickly fell off in popularity, as all forms of ginger ale would become associated with liquor in the non-drinking public's mind.

 

 

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Vernor's delivery trucks line up outside the newly expanded plant on Woodward in this 1915 photo.

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The old plant: The old Vernor's building near the foot of Woodward as it appeared in the early 1950s.

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James Vernor stumbled onto the secrets to what later became Vernor's ginger ale while running this Detroit pharmacy in the 1860s.

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The current plant: The red-bearded elf, long a trademark of the Vernor's company, graces the entrance to the current plant on Woodward near Warren.

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The aging room: A Vernor's worker checks a barrel of ginger ale in the plant's aging room.

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Water filters: All the water that goes into the brewing of Vernor's ginger ale must first go through this water filtration system, which is capable of treating 15,000 gallons per hour.

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Extract storage: The ingredients that make up Vernor's ginger ale are stored in barrels in the extract storage room.

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Vernor's tour: A popular spot for tour groups in the 1950s was Vernor's Fountain, where visitors could sample the company wares after a tour of the plant.

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Demolition: The old building as it was being demolished in 1955 to make way for the new civic center. 

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VERNER'S GINGER ALE Detroit MI, 7.5 oz
"Genuine only when crown cork has the above design in red" 
June 30 1906

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On March 20, 2001 the Byrnes Building on the corner of Grand River Avenue and M.A.C. Avenue in downtown East Lansing was demolished. The demolition exposed several painted advertisments on the west side of the D.S. Brown Building (307 E. Grand River) that had been painted in the early 1950s and then covered by the construction of the Byrnes Building in the late 1950s. The largest ad, covering over half of the wall, was for Vernor's Ginger Ale. It features the large Vernor's script logo and the Vernor's Gnome (note the Spartan Helmet on the Gnome). It was painted by Dyer Company employee Ray Myers (b. 1928).

73-year-old creator says he talked of day ad would be revealed

Painter of Vernor's sign knew it would be found

By Jessie De La Cruz Lansing State Journal

EAST LANSING -- Almost 50 years ago, Ray Myers went out on a routine assignment to paint a Vernor's ginger ale advertisement on the corner of M.A.C. and Grand River avenues.

Today, that handiwork has new life as a local attraction and piece of nostalgia of a forgotten era. For Myers, 73, it is also a vivd image of the beginnings of his sign-painting career.

He considers it one of his best signs, although it was covered only a few months after he painted it in 1955.

The sign re-emerged in February, when the Byrnes Building that protected it was razed to make way for the $30 million City Center development. "It was like digging up old bones," said Myers, a lifelong Lansing resident. "We've even said if they ever tear the building down, there it will be -- and it was."

Some people want to preserve the sign, perhaps through an acrylic or glass window of the new building. If that doesn't happen, it's likely to be covered by the end of June.

It took a few days for Myers to paint the sign, from putting the primer on to filling the charcoal powder outline that would later be colored. "I painted Vernor's walls all around Lansing," said Myers, who worked for the Dyer Company at the time. "The only difference was on this one we put a little Sparty hat on [the gnome]."

The Vernor's sign has become a topic of many conversations at the Curious Book Shop, which is in the building the sign is on. Owner Ray Walsh wants to make a postcard from a picture of the sign that was dropped off at his store. "It's a vanished East Lansing," Walsh said.

The 1955 sign was not unusual for its time. Hand-painted advertisements decorated many buildings in the Lansing area and nationwide. It's the nostalgia of the Vernor's sign that makes it important to local people, said Janice Bukovac, assistant professor in the advertising department at Michigan State University. "I think for a lot of people that is old East Lansing," she said. "That in and of itself is a very important value of the community and people of this area." Bukovac said the old-fashioned style of advertising also has become popular as an art form.

In Flint, the Greater Flint Arts Council has raised money several times over the past 30 years to save a three-story Vernor's advertisement on its office downtown. The mural, painted in 1932, features the Vernor's gnomes storing soda syrup in oak barrels and taking them to their castle. "It has that fairyland appeal to the young people," said Greg Fiedler, the council's executive director. "It's always been a community attraction."

How to Make a Boston Cooler, Michigan Style 

Don't worry about the 'Boston' reference. This is a concoction that is uniquely Michigan, thanks to that magical ginger ale, Vernor's.

Here's How:

Open a 12-ounce can of Vernor's Ginger Ale. Positively no substitutions are allowed. Pour the Vernor's in a blender. Add two large scoops of vanilla ice cream. Lick your lips in anticipation. Add one tablespoon of vanilla extract. Turn on blender; mix till thick, creamy and wonderful. Pour into a frosted glass. Try not to burst into blissful song as you enjoy your Michigan Cooler.

Tip: Never ever ever use Canada Dry ginger ale, or any other brand. If you cannot find Vernor's, abandon all hope.

 

Compiled by Joe Blizzard
(with copious apologies to everyone I swiped this stuff from)