The House That Ginger Ale Built

Driving along in the backroads of Lapeer County, one will come across the ruins of a grand country estate that once belonged to James Vernor II, son of the famous Detroit ginger ale magnate who invented the world's most popular ginger ale.

James Vernor, Sr. was an employee at Higby & Sterns’ Drug Store in Detroit in 1858, where--as the classic story goes--he began experimenting to create a new kind of tonic, but everything he tried was too bitter. According to the much-celebrated local legend, he had an oak cask of the stuff made up, but in 1862 he was called away to fight in the Civil War with the 4th Michigan Cavalry. When he finally returned after war's end in 1866 he remembered the cask and cracked it open to find that it had changed...and was "Deliciously Different." The blend had mellowed while sitting in the wooden barrel.

That's not precisely the factual order of events, but that is the story that has endured, and it is nonetheless true that Vernor's is the world's oldest continuously brewed soda pop.

Regardless of when Vernor actually invented the stuff, it is true however that the much-touted secret formula involved the ginger ale being aged four years in oak. Something about oak is what gave it that pizzazz that Vernor was looking for, and the oak barrels are still part of the Vernor's brand image, as well as the slogans "Barrel-Aged, Bold Taste," and "Flavor Mellowed in Wood 4 Years." Contrary to what might seem cost-effective for a mass-produced beverage, Vernor's is still aged in oak barrels to this day.

According to the Detroit Historical Society, by 1880 Vernor decided to strike out on his own, and opened a drug store at Woodward Avenue & Clifford to begin replicating and selling "Vernor's Ginger Ale" from his "secret ingredients" at the fountain. He became one of the original members of the Michigan Board of Pharmacy (formed in 1887), and held Michigan Pharmacy License No. 1 throughout his career.

In 1896 Vernor closed his Clifford Street drug store to concentrate on marketing his ginger ale by opening a soda fountain closer to the center of the city (Clifford wasn't yet considered "downtown" in those days). The Woodward Building stands there today. His new place was at 33 Woodward, south of Jefferson Avenue, to be near the ferry docks (this address was renumbered to 239 Woodward after 1920).

That was where Vernor's got famous. He opened a manufacturing and bottling plant there, which eventually took up most if not all of that block, and by 1941 was dubbed "the most modern bottling facility in the world," standing at 239 Woodward. It had a gigantic illuminated sign that could be seen from Canada, and the building--as well as the famous Vernor's gnome mascot--became one of the most iconic landmarks of the city.

According to the book The Vernor's Story: From Gnomes to Now by Lawrence L. Rouch, the bottling plant was designed by local architects Harley & Ellington, which is one half of the firm that designed the Fort Wayne Hotel, the Metropolitan Building, as well as parts of the Goebel's and Stroh's breweries. Harley & Ellington went on to later design the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, the Rackham Memorial Building, and GM's Pontiac Truck Product Center.

Vernor's distribution started out as just him and his son, James II, making local deliveries with a horse and wagon they had purchased. They also did all the brewing, bottling, and washing of used bottles together, but as the enterprise grew they hired a staff, and the Vernor name was eventually carried across the Midwest.

For generations and generations of Detroiters, Michiganders, and near-Michiganders, Vernor's became one of those iconic things that is just synonymous with Detroit, and it still is today. In fact I have heard that the local supermarkets of Metro-Detroit learned to stock extra Vernor's on their shelves during December, because of the surge in demand for it that goes along with ex-Michiganders and snowbirds coming home to visit relatives during the holidays, all of whom can't wait to get their fix once they get here. And it never seems to take long for all of it to sell out, leaving the store shelves bare.

And it goes without saying that Vernor's was an instant sensation with the public in the 1800s. It was in such high demand that other drug stores began selling it under franchise, and even hospitals used it. The secret formula was not only delicious, but it was used to calm upset stomachs.

One of my earliest memories (this is back in the days when pop came only in glass bottles, mind you) is of having a really bad bout of stomach flu when I was a child, and my mom finally got sick of my incessant throwing up, and resorted to the age-old Vernor's cure. Unfortunately she did not sufficiently remove the carbonation beforehand, and the results were...uh, disastrous. I just remember seeing that god-damned gnome winking at me from the side of the bottle sitting on top of the TV table while in the throes of my misery.... As a child I adored Vernor's, and I still do. But on that particular night, I could have strangled that f#$@%ng gnome.

James Vernor was a perfectionist. According to the book Vernor's Ginger Ale by Keith Wunderlich, he was meticulous as a pharmacist, and the same care went into the detailed production of his ginger ale. The water had to be specially purified, the blending needed the finest Jamaican ginger distilled in the absolute proper proportion with the other fruit juices, and Vernor even produced his own carbonic gas to ensure that it was up to snuff.

He also served as a hospital steward during the Civil War thanks to his prior experience in the pharmacy. The young Vernor was captured at the Battle of LaVergne when he refused to leave his post, but was released to care for wounded soldiers on the battlefield. He was soon taken prisoner for a second time, but escaped and hid in the attic of a house near a Confederate prison camp in Murfreesboro for three days until the Union Army captured the town.

As time went on Vernor's became more of a recreational beverage, and it was mixed with other things. The most notable invention of this sort was the "Boston Cooler." No, it was not invented in Massachusetts, it was invented in Detroit at a Sander's Confection soda fountain at the corner of Woodward and Boston Street.

James Vernor was amongst the city's most admired citizens and eventually served as a Detroit alderman for 25 years, where he famously butted heads with Mayor Hazen Pingree. He was also a member of "dozens" of civic and philanthropic organizations. The major east-west artery Vernor Highway is named after him, as well as other landmarks, including a school. He lived at 45 W. Canfield from 1896 to 1923, and was married there in 1903.

At first I didn't find much in the area where it looked like the Eagle Nook lodge had sat, but peeks of a flagstone floor poked through the fallen leaves to remind me that I was still standing on its ruin:

The fact that I was on a promontory elevated above the forest floor also made it seem like I was standing on the foundation of what had once been a Bavarian-style castle or something equally magnificent:

I dropped down to follow this long, curving wall for a ways:

On October 29, 1927, at the age of 84, James Vernor died in Grosse Ile, Michigan from pneumonia and influenza. He is buried in Detroit's Woodmere Cemetery, which happens to be bordered by Vernor Highway. I have to wonder if he attempted to treat his ailment with a well-stirred glass of his own ginger ale...?

At any rate James Vernor II inherited his father's company, and an article in The County Press says that in the early 1930s he bought the 3,351 acres that would come to be known as the the Arcadia Ridge Farm, or "Vernor Estate." The estate embraced all of Long Lake, as well as other smaller lakes. The large "rustic lodge" that used to sit on this spot was named "Eagle Nook," and had eight bedrooms, four bathrooms, three wood-burning stoves and five "8-foot-wide fireplaces."

Eagle Nook was not James II's year-round residence, but rather a retreat where he hunted and raised thoroughbred horses, and entertained guests. The Social Secretary of Detroit for 1948 lists "Major James Vernor Jr. [II]" as living in Bloomfield Hills, with a summer home at "Eagle Nook," Arcadia Ridge Farm, Lapeer. 

James Vernor II served as Commander-in-Chief of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS) during World War II. His term of service was 1941 to 1947, and he was reportedly chosen for the post due to his business acumen, which MOLLUS says wartime commanders-in-chief ought to have. Vernor was the only Companion of the Michigan Commandery to have served as commander-in-chief.

The lodge was heated by a wood-fueled boiler when the Vernors were entertaining, but when the caretakers were there alone they had electric space heaters for their use. The head caretaker was Odus Williams, and he lived here with his wife. If the Vernors or their guests bagged any pheasants, according to the article Mrs. Williams would cook them up. Mr. Vernor’s horse trainer was a man named Clyde, who in fact later went on to become the horse trainer for the Firestone family as well, according to The County Press.

An old issue of the Automobile Quarterly describes perhaps one of the more glamorous gatherings that occurred at this grand abode. On September 2nd, 1938, Detroit automaker Hupmobile "held a spectacular barbecue and press preview of the 1938 line at the Eagle Nook country estate of Detroit ginger ale magnate James Vernor"...
Inside the horse corral the prototypes of the new cars lay under checkered blankets. Suddenly, in the distance horses were heard, and genuine Texas cowboys on thoroughbred steeds galloped in and tore the coverings off the cars. These festivities were followed by a trip back to the factory, yet another banquet, and President Tom Bradley's marking of Hupp's 30th anniversary with the firing off of 30 aerial bombs, and the pulling of a new switch illuminating the new sign atop the Hupp plant, and huge, 30-foot tall letters flashed "H-U-P-P" into the night sky.

Another piece of titillating Detroit trivia that involved James II was a plan to start a new brewery in Dearborn after Prohibition was repealed, called the Fort Dearborn Brewery. The book Brewed in Detroit by Peter H. Blum explains that in late 1933 Bernhard Stroh's grandson Edwin applied for a brewing license and hired Albert Kahn to design him a massive modern brewery, which curiously was to be built almost next to the infamous teetotaler, Henry Ford's Fair Lane Estate.

The board members of the newly formed company read like a Detroit who's-who: Hiram Walker, Edwin Stroh, Bernhard Stroh, Jerome Remick, Albert Kahn, Fritz Goebel, and James Vernor II. The Fort Dearborn Brewery was to be a division of Hiram Walker Distillery, but Walker backed out. It is not known what caused Walker to change his mind, but one can certainly speculate that as usual it was intimidation from Henry Ford that laid down the NIMBY kibosh in a big way. Supposedly Albert Kahn's sketch of the Fort Dearborn Brewery still exists somewhere; I think one of our local micro-brewers should put it on a label....

A 1942 tourism brochure invites visitors to come see Eagle Nook, which it describes as the hobby ranch of James Vernor Jr., Detroit's "Ginger Ale King." 
If fine horses are your hobby, you may arrange by permission to inspect the thoroughbreds at Eagle Nook...Many a well coached hunter and jumper has come from his stables.

Sadly, a rather gruesome Associated Press story tells of the death of caretaker "Otto [Odus?] D. Williams," and the demise of the Vernor Estate. On January 27, 1943, Mr. Williams' body "was recovered...from the ruins of Eagle Nook, clubhouse on the James Vernor cattle-breeding ranch" several hours after the $50,000 building was destroyed by fire. Williams was found on the wire springs of his mattress, which had fallen through the floor into the furnace room.

Cause of the fire was "undetermined" when the story was printed, but it was speculated that it may have been started by one of the electric space heaters the servants used when the house was empty. The loss was estimated by Mrs. Vernor at $150,000, including many pieces of Italian art that were inside.

The County Press article says that the Vernor family held onto the Eagle Nook property after the tragedy. Mr. Vernor died in April 1954, but it was finally sold to the state in 1956 and became part of the Lapeer State Game Area, a state-designated wildlife refuge, which is closed to the public except during certain months, outside of waterfowl nesting times.

The Vernor business (and secret formula) remained in the family until 1966 when it was sold.

It was not until recently however that Vernor's was known outside of the Great Lakes region. Vernor's was bottled in Detroit for over a century, with production finally ending in 1985--ironically the same year that the mighty Stroh's Beer ceased brewing in Detroit. The old downtown bottling plant was demolished in 1955 however; Hart Plaza stands there now. The Vernor's brand was picked up by Dr. Pepper Corporation and received worldwide distribution for the first time.

Here, a second stone staircase led down to a trail that continued down the hill toward the lake:

This was pretty epic in my book.

Groves of cedars, once planted as ornamentals on either side of the steps had grown wild and huge, and now shaded the stonework from the sun. Perhaps this was the only thing that kept the foundations from being ripped apart by plant life?

Coming down the back of the hill, with Long Lake seen in the distance:

Here was the "spring house":

Like the rest of the stone ruins it had a fairy-tale appearance to it, as if this was the kind of abode that a Vernor's gnome would inhabit.

The axe-marks in the wooden beam (lintel?) over the door suggest that it was hewn by hand, but then again I suppose that if you're a rich man like James Vernor then you could pay just to have one fashioned to look that way for your rustic retreat.

On the door was evidence that this was now state-managed property:

I gingerly opened the door and peeked inside.

Sure enough, there was a real spring in here. It was presently trickling everywhere.

I imagine the big steel tank was for holding water to be pumped up to the house or stables?

It doesn't seem that there is any effort to preserve this structure, or any other ruins on the site.

Another separate pond, I believe, on the other side of the hill:

A very old cattle fence:

On my way back to the road, I walked down below for much of the way, with the estate ruins up on the hill above me:

The sun briefly glimmered, casting a whole different mood on the setting.

I found some chunks that had broken off and rolled down the cliff:

Back up top...

Some sort of a drain in what had been the floor of the lodge:

Was this the corner of the lodge itself?

The dark depths of the ancient cedars seemed to hold onto stray memories that couldn't find their way out of the thick groves after the house's occupants had all gone.

Strangely positioned in the midst of a few of them, I found this...

...a makeshift Ouija board:

Peculiar, since I was actually visiting on Samhain, the day after Halloween.

So I guess now this means I have visited the ruins of two famous Detroiters' summer homes. In case you missed my post from Edsel Ford's Haven Hill Lodge, here it is.

The Vernor's Story: From Gnomes to Now, by Lawrence L. Rouch
Vernor's Ginger Ale, by Keith Wunderlich
All Our Yesterdays, Woodford & Woodford
East Michigan Invites You, by the East Michigan Tourist Association, 1942
The Social Secretary of Detroit (1948)
Automobile Quarterly, Vol. 16, Issue 1 (1938), p. 1940
"Clubhouse Fire Takes Caretaker," Ludington Daily News (AP), Jan 27, 1943
"Memories of Vernor Estate; Soda heir had lodge on shore of Long Lake," The County Press, October 20, 2013
Reform in Detroit, Hazen S. Pingree and Urban Politics, by Melvin G. Holli
Brewed in Detroit: Breweries and Beers Since 1830, Vol. 1, by Peter H. Blum, p. 145-146


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  2. My father worked at the Detroit Athletic Club from 1926 to 1941 and told me the following story. The DAC was catering a party at the Vernor Estate, and my dad's job was to set up tables and chairs brought from the DAC. Mr. Vernor had umbrellas and he wanted them placed at each table. The DAC tables did not have holes for umbrellas to be placed in. My dad was told to get the holes drilled asap to get the umbrella up. I guess what the Vernor's wanted they got. I assume they were DAC members.


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