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"The Coffee
that Won the West"

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

"The Coffee that Won the West" actually came from the East coast.

And no, the company that roasted and packaged the coffee beans that helped fuel Manifest Destiny did not have a nine-letter name beginning with "S." The brand that helped western types get up in the morning and stay at it during the day was Arbuckles'.

Coffee had been around a long time before Arbuckles', but with one grandee latte of a difference: Merchants sold green coffee beans only. A consumer had to do his or her own roasting. After a long, hard day in the saddle, someone wanting a cup or two or three of Joe had to roast coffee beans in a skillet over the campfire (or, if such convenience was available, over a wood-burning stove). Of course, before brewing a pot, the roasted beans had to be ground.

Meanwhile, back east, about the time the Civil War ended Pittsburgh grocers John and Charles Arbuckle came up with an idea, doubtless after a strong cup of coffee, that changed everything for coffee sellers and coffee consumers. In 1865, the brothers Arbuckle patented a process for covering roasted beans with a glaze made of egg and sugar. That, they had discovered, kept the beans fresh and aromatic.

They began selling their new product in air-tight, one-pound paper packages under the brand name of Arbuckles' Ariosa Coffee. Each package had a yellow label with the word "Arbuckles'" in large red type. Below that was their trademark, a flying angel (who better to deliver coffee to a caffeine-needing populace?). Beneath the trademark, in a red-bordered box were the words "Ariosa Coffee" in black type.

(A note on nomenclature. "Ariosa" is a created name with "A" standing for Arbuckles' while 'rio" and "sa" refer to the company's South American coffee bean sources.)

The new product proved an instant success. It smelled good, it tasted good and it was strong. The old joke is that when brewing a pot of cowboy coffee made with Arbuckles', the only way to tell when it was ready to drink was to toss in a horseshoe. If the horseshoe sank to the bottom, the coffee wasn't fit to drink yet. "The cook firmly believed there is no such thing as strong coffee but only weak people," writer-historian Edward Everett Dale wrote.

Especially in the west, Arbuckles' became a synonym for coffee. Shipped in strong wooden crates, Arbuckles' spread nation-wide, particularly across the wild west.

The crates, made of Maine fir and holding 100 packages each, became almost as popular as the coffee they contained. Seldom simply discarded, the crates usually ended up being taken apart for use as interior paneling, shelves, storage boxes, baby cradles, coffins, wagon seats and more. If nothing else, they made good firewood. Accordingly, today vintage Arbuckles' boxes are pretty rare and costly when they do show up on the market.

The Arbuckle brothers not only manufactured good coffee, they had a genius for marketing. The backside of their coffee bags featured a coupon redeemable for assorted products that back then were categorized as "notions." A cowboy who went to the effort of cutting and saving coupons could redeem them for handkerchiefs, razors, guns and even wedding rings. Each coupon was worth one cent.

Not only that, as today's TV marketers would say, each package of Arbuckles' included a stick of peppermint candy. Chuck wagon bosses learned to use the candy as an inducement to get some cowpoke to grind the coffee. The candy apparently was tasty enough to trigger competition for the "right" to take on the extra work of turning the crank on the coffee grinder, truly a sweet deal for a cook who had no shortage of other chores needing his attention.

In the 1880s, the Arbuckle brothers moved their business to Brooklyn, where at the high point of their business they operated 85 roasting ovens.

Despite its huge popularity, Arbuckles' did not survive the Great Depression. But in the late 1970s, Pennsylvanian Denney Willis acquired the Arbuckles' brand and began roasting and selling coffee marketed under the famous name. He and his wife eventually relocated to Tucson, where the couple and their son have kept the brand alive.

In 1994, El Paso professor and writer Francis L. Fugate wrote a book on the history of Arbuckles'. Published by Texas Western Press, the now out-of-print 233-page book was Fugate's final work. In fact, he died sitting in front of his desktop computer, putting the finishing touches on his manuscript.

One of the last things he must have typed was this refrain from an old cowboy song, which does a good job of summing up Arbuckles mystique:

"Under the star-studded canopy vast
Arbuckles' Coffee and comfort at last,
Bacon that sizzles and crisps in the pan,
After the roundup smells good to a man.
Tales of the ranchman and rustlers retold,
Over the pipes as embers grow cold;
These are the tunes that memories play,
So make me a cowboy again for a day."

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" February 2, 2017 column
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