February 6, 2007

Folger's

And the man behind the brand is...
James Folger

The Folgers were an old Nantucket family who traced their roots to the founding of the island in the early 1600s. Generation after generation of Folger men worked in or around the whaling business as Nantucket grew into the greatest whaling center in the world. All that ended one morning in 1846 when a great fire destroyed the entire business district and waterfront - 33 acres in all. The townspeople set about rebuilding immediately but it was clear that a young man’s prospects in Nantucket would never be the same again.

Accordingly three of the five Folger brothers; 20-year old Edward, 16-year old Henry and 14-year old James, set sail for the Gold Rush taking place in California in 1849. They arrived in San Francisco on May 5, 1850 to find a town whose population had burst from 800 to 40,000 in two years. Most were ornately bearded males between 20 and 40 seeking the same fortune as the Folgers.

It was decided the two older brothers would head for the gold country while James remained in town, working as a carpenter. James had helped rebuild Nantucket and recognized the same building boom now embracing San Francisco. Work was plentiful and wages were high enough to temper some of his disappointment at not joining his brothers in the gold fields.

Folger signed on with William Bovee, then 27, to erect a spice-and-coffee mill. Bovee had tried his hand in the gold fields himself but soon decided to return to the coffee trade he had learned in New York. There was no roast coffee then available in northern California and ground coffee was unheard of in the mining camps.

Bovee called his new business the Pioneer Steam Coffee & Spice Mill although there was no steam engine and the mill was often powered by Jim Folger’s hands. From his time digging for gold Bovee knew that ground coffee, ready to brew, was what busy miners would want. He roasted, ground and packaged ready-to-brew coffee in labeled tins.

The business grew and after a year Folger left to finally seek his fortune in the northern California hills but just in case he took along a trunk loaded with coffee samples and spices to call on provision stores. In between gathering orders Folger actually made a strike and with a small bag of gold dust made his way deeper into gold country to Auburn. He found plenty of miners but no store so he opened his own in 1852.

His timing was perfect. A big strike hit near Auburn and he was able to sell his business for a handsome profit and return to San Francisco. He dallied for awhile as a hardware merchant before returning to Bovee’s and investing money in the coffee firm. In 1859 Bovee had still not shaken his own gold fever and sold all but a small interest in the coffee mill to Folger.

Now 24, Folger took on a partner and aggressively expanded the business of the newly named Marden & Folger. When the economy collapsed following the Civil War the partners found themselves badly overextended and went into bankruptcy. Folger’s first response was to buy out his partner after convincing creditors their best hope of recovering outstanding debts was to allow the mill to stay open.

It took until 1874 for J.A. Folger & Company to be thoroughly solvent but the business was thriving with the West. Folger bought into several mines and part of a newspaper. He moved across the bay to the oak-lined coast of Oakland, joining several prominent clubs. He was elected to the Oakland City Council and the Board of Education.

Folger died suddenly of a coronary occlusion in 1889 at the age of 54. Flags were lowered to half-mast throughout Oakland. James Folger III followed his father as company president, just as Folgers had continued the family business back in Nantucket for centuries.

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