History of Fee Brothers
The year was 1835. It was a cold March day when 31 year old Owen Fee first set eyes on America. He had been born in Ireland’s County Monaghan. By 1847 Owen had opened a butcher shop and was living in the Northeast area of Rochester, New York with his wife, Margaret McMahon, and their three children, James, Mary Jane, and Owen Jr. Within the next three years two younger brothers were added to the family. John Fee was born in 1848. (This was also the year that Owen Sr. became a US citizen.) Joseph arrived in 1850. Later, the records of St. Bridget’s Church indicate that six-year-old John and his 15 year-old brother, James were the first altar boys there when it formed in 1854.
Owen Sr. died in 1855 and on that sad day left Margaret to raise their five children alone. This was a daunting task as they ranged in age from five to mid-teens. Margaret was a strong woman though. She brought James through some stormy teen years and by 1863 the family had converted the butcher shop into a saloon and delicatessen. Together they made sandwiches and sold them at the depot to passengers waiting on trains. By the time James was 25, he had opened a grocery/liquor store at 5 St. Paul Street on the corner of Main St. in Rochester. He named it James Fee & Company. On March 5, 1864, Margaret mortgaged her house to enable her son to do this. The proceeds of this business were to be used to support the whole family.
The years passed by quickly and James grew to be a fine young man. In his mid-thirties he was elected Collector of Canal Tolls in Rochester. James must have had unbounded energy for he ran this post as well as managing the business. He did, however, invite his brothers to help him with the liquor store. They were now located on North Water Street near the Genesee River in downtown Rochester. Their company further developed into a winery and import business. The Fee brothers not only made many kinds of their own wine but also brought in wine from California and imported European wine. Various brands of liquor were handled there as well. Much of this was stored in wooden barrels. The story has been told of a tenant in that same building who drilled a hole through the wall and into a barrel. Then, with a long tube inserted into the barrel, his liquor supply was endless.
Brother Owen was a partner and bookkeeper until November 1881 when he died of heart failure at the age of 35. It was only four short months later that their mother, Margaret, died of cancer. In 1883, the three remaining brothers changed the company name from “James Fee and Brothers” to “Fee Brothers.” James and John had formed a partnership and Joseph was their right-hand man. They worked together for twelve years building their business until Joseph died in 1895 at the age of 45.
James and John had been through some rough times but more hard times were yet to come. On February 5, 1908, one of the worst fires in Rochester history caused $400,000 destruction to their building on North Water Street. It must have been difficult for them to pick up the pieces of their shattered business and continue. However, by August of that same year, rebuilding was completed and they were back in business. By this time the next generation (John's son, 15 year old John, Jr. and James' children, 29 year old J. Leo and 21 year old Marguerite) had begun to help at Fee Brothers.
It is said that John Fee always had a sparkle in his eye, a good sense of humor and a ready laugh. He raised his son with those same attributes and also with good business sense. John died in 1912 at the age of 64,leaving John, Jr. to succeed him. One year later, at the age of 20, John, Jr. enlisted in the New York Cavalry. During his five-year service John was assigned to the Mexican border. At that time the U.S. was engaged in the Mexican Border Incident with Pancho Villa. Upon returning to Rochester, John, Jr. continued working alongside his cousins, Marguerite and J. Leo and his Uncle James until April of 1920 when James died at the age of 79. Fee Brothers had been passed on to the next generation.
1920 marked the beginning of Prohibition, during which Fee Brothers continued the business by making altar wine. This was sold throughout the Eastern United States. Also, it was legal for homeowners to make a limited amount of wine for their own consumption. The Fees would send a representative to a client’s home. There he would set up a barrel with concentrated grape juice, sugar, water, and yeast to make a good batch of wine. He would return to monitor its progress and eventually to bottle the wine. The homeowner would pay for this service. There was also a non-alcoholic malt extract beer put out by Fee Brothers. It was labeled with the picture of a bear and called “Bruno”. The label said “It’s a bear” (meaning beer) and “Do not add yeast to this product as it is likely to ferment”. We read this today with a smile. John Jr., it seems, was very creative. During Prohibition, saloons survived by obtaining and serving illicit alcohol. This type of liquid refreshment (having been made by amateurs) was not very tasty. Fee Brothers produced flavorings such as Benedictine, Chartreuse, Brandy, Rum and dozens more including cordial syrups during Prohibition. These could be added to homemade alcohol to flavor it.
In 1920, John Jr. married a beautiful young woman of English and Irish Canadian descent named BlancheAllwork who had grown up in Brooklyn and Long Island. Blanche had always been thrifty. With her expertise in not spending money and John’s good business sense, Fee Brothers slowly began to grow. John and Blanche had two children. Their son, John C. Fee III (“Jack”), was born in July of 1921. Their daughter, Nancy, was born in May of 1923. During the 1930’s and 1940’s, John and Blanche continued in their efforts to expand the business.
With the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, Fee Brothers returned to the sale of liquor in December of 1933. Around this time, records show that Fee Brothers had 28 employees. However, the decreased sales during the Prohibition years combined with the terrible economic conditions of the Great Depression forced the company to downsize substantially. With the survival of Fee Brothers in question, Marguerite and J. Leo lost interest. By the late 1930’s, Marguerite had moved to New York City and J. Leo had moved to Albany, New York. This left the business entirely to their cousin, John. Soon many of the liquor products were dropped and John decided to concentrate on wine and cordial syrup sales. John also developed an easy-to use concentrated product called Frothy Mixer. It gave a delicious lemon flavor to Whiskey Sours and Tom Collins and an attractive frothy “head.” This became very popular along with the motto ".Don’t Squeeze,Use Fee's".
As 1950 approached, their wine business was receding so John started making plans to drop that portion of the business and concentrate on the non-alcoholic products which were gaining popularity. The most profound change came to Fee Brothers when John C. Fee II died suddenly in October 1951 at the age of 58.
Blanche completed the transaction that her husband had started of selling the building on North Water Street to the Rochester Daily Record Co. in December of that same year. For about a year and a half, Blanche and daughter, Nancy, attempted to manage the business, renting space from the Daily Record.
Since John's plans had been to discontinue production of all their alcoholic items, it was necessary to declare these intentions to the government. Fee Brothers was going to be taxed on all wine which was yet unsold. Blanche stood by as the Internal Revenue Service, using axes and hatchets, dumped thousands of gallons of wine into the Genesee River. Unfortunately, much good wine was wasted that day.
With the passing of John went the passing of much needed knowledge. Neither Blanche nor her daughter Nancy knew enough about production or finance to continue managing the business without advice.
Jack Fee had graduated from St. Bonaventure University in 1943 with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Chemistry. After graduation, he worked in the US Army in the Chemical Corps and also for Eastman Kodak as a Chemist. Jack had helped his father for a couple of summers but his duties mainly involved maintenance. He had no experience in production.
In November 1947, 26 year old Jack married Margaret Benn. She was the daughter of the widely respected funeral director, Joseph Benn, and his wife, Genevieve. When John died in 1951, Jack started to help his mother and sister. He worked days at Kodak and the evenings making batches at Fee Brothers. In 1953, he quit his job at Kodak. Once again, Fee Brothers had been passed to the next generation.
The business needed to relocate to a better building. By the end of 1953, Fee Brothers was moved to 114 Field Street off of Monroe Avenue in Rochester.
Jack knew very little about how to produce and market drink mixes. However, he started with the already established Frothy Mixer and from there continued on a never-ending quest to develop new products. His ever-supportive wife, Margaret, handled the books and customer service. She performed both these tasks in expert fashion. Blanche continued to help when needed. Jack read volumes and asked questions until he gained enough knowledge to satisfy the void. Before long, new products such as Grenadine and Bitters began to appear on the display shelves in the Fee Brothers front office. Soon Fee Brothers was again hiring employees to help keep up with the orders. One of the most beloved employees during the Field Street years was Margaret’s father, Joseph Benn. “Joe” worked at Fee Brothers for about four years while at the same time managing his own business, Miller & Benn Funeral Home. Joe’s intelligence, mechanical ability and great knowledge of tax matters were of enormous help to Fee Brothers during this time. He was missed by all after his sudden death in 1958.
With the addition of new products and more employees, came the need for more space. It was June 1964 when Fee Brothers picked up and moved. The Field Street building had approximately 3,000 square feet of space. The new building on Portland Avenue had about 12,000 square feet. Thinking that this would be all the space he would ever need, Jack smiled and spread out into this vast expanse. It was only one month prior to the big move to Portland Avenue that Jack and Margaret’s eighth child, Joseph, was born. Their children were: John C. Fee IV, Mary, Elizabeth, Margaret, Francis, Ellen, Lucy, and Joseph. Of course Jack and Margaret worked there daily but those children who were old enough helped during their summers. All this help, along with the steadfast efforts of three loyal employees (Lucille Gianforti-office, Joe Kearns and Mel Thurman-production) during the 1960’s and 1970’s, helped Fee Brothers to make a name for itself. New customers and increased orders began pouring in. Fee Brothers became nationally known. Sales were being made all over the U.S., mostly to restaurants, bars and bar wholesalers. New and better equipment was purchased. Two 1,500 gallon tanks were acquired to handle the increased demand. Larger and faster production line machinery was put in place. However, even with all this modernization, care was still taken to assure a clean and neat looking product. Because of the distinctly unique type of label used for Bitters, those bottles would be labeled by hand. Blanche would often do this job, carefully labeling them one by one. Unfortunately in the Spring of 1974, Blanche had a stroke and passed away at the age of 80. By this time, Jack's son, John C. Fee IV, had begun to work full time at Fee Brothers as Sales Manager. From 1973 to 1985 he would prove to be a great influence on sales and company growth.
In May 1979, Ellen Fee graduated from Nazareth College as an Art Major and came to work at Fee Brothers permanently. Before too long, with Jack's guidance, Ellen became Production Manager. She also took up the quest to develop new products. The future would prove that it is very convenient to have the service of an in-house artist.
Fee Brothers was growing rapidly now. What was first viewed as a vast expanse of space, the Portland Avenue building started to become confining. In the late 1970’s the adjacent property to the south was purchased so that a loading dock could be built. This addition also housed the whole shipping department. In May 1992, the building adjacent to Fee Brothers on the north was added to the property. By cutting an opening in the wall, the two buildings were connected. The addition doubled the warehouse space and enabled Jack to realize his dream of a Fee Brothers Museum.
In May 1991, having graduated from Notre Dame University with a degree in Business Administration, Joseph started working on a permanent basis. He was the youngest child of Margaret and Jack. Under Margaret’s watchful eye he began to take on not only the duties of Office Manager but also the responsibilities of the sales department. In the course of all these administrative challenges, Joe brought Fee Brothers into the computer age.
In 1995, it became necessary to create labels for several different products. However, by this time the label design for the established products had become outdated. With this in mind, Ellen and Joe developed a new label design depicting the four original brothers: Owen, John, James, and Joseph. The original Fee Brothers signature logo was kept for this new label design. This signature was first written by a man named James O’Rorke who worked as a bookkeeper for James and John in the 1890’s. This label symbolically combines the old with the new, the roots with the descendants, and the good ideas of the past with the good ideas of the present.
In June of 2012, Jack (almost 90 years old) transferred ownership of the business to daughter, Ellen and his son, Joe. Jack, however, continued to keep a hand in the day to day operations.
In the first year of ownership, Ellen and Joe tackled the need for an additional bottling line. By the summer of 2014, just after the 150 year anniversary, they were able to open a newly built warehouse to the south end of the building. It gave much need storage space as well as over 270 racks for pallets of finished goods.
In May 2015, the matriarch of Fee Brothers, Jack's wife, Margaret passed away after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. In the weeks following her death, Jack would often say that she was the best wife a man could ever want and he missed her terribly. It was just four months later that Jack died in September 2015 at the ripe old age of 94.
Today, Fee Brothers is still stretching and expanding. The product list boasts almost 100 drink mix products. Fee Brothers’ market stretches from coast to coast in the United States. Products are also shipped to six continents. Fee Brothers sells their products to a variety of different types of distributors as well as restaurants, bars, coffee shops, ice cream shops, and other food service operations.
Many years have passed since the little saloon/delicatessen was established in 1863. Now the fourth generation of Fees is looking ahead with positive anticipation. The care that Fee Brothers puts into bottling their products and the concern for each and every customer’s needs carries the company into the future. The Fee family takes pride in their company’s history by displaying this little verse:
"The House of Fee by the Genesee since eighteen hundred and sixty-three."