BLOOMINGTON — Whatever it’s called — java, liquid lightning, mojo, morning mud, or even skeleton juice — coffee is the fuel that has kept Twin City residents wide awake and on their toes for nearly 180 years.
Today, with locally owned coffee shops in uptown Normal and downtown Bloomington, the leading national chain (you know who) staked along Veterans Parkway, and several newer homegrown establishments hither and yon, there’s no shortage of places for those needing a daily (or hourly) caffeine fix.
Yet 80 years ago, during the Great Depression, coffee shops as they exist today were nowhere to be seen. Instead, locals patronized cafes, cafeterias, restaurants and even the corner tavern to drink coffee with or without a meal.
There were coffee and tea stores in Bloomington, mind you, but they were more like general grocers than places to sit down and enjoy a cup o’ joe and read the local rag. For instance, the McLean County Museum of History holds in its archives a 1912 price list for H.O. Stone’s Tea & Coffee Store, 116 E. Front St., Bloomington. Stone’s establishment was a full-service grocery store, and though you probably couldn’t purchase coffee by the cup, you could pick up a wide variety of packaged coffees and teas, as well as dried fruit, extracts, laundry soap and toilet paper.
But what the Twin Cities had 80 years ago that we lack today were large-scale commercial coffee roasters. In the early 1930s, three firms — J.F. Humphreys, Campbell Holton and McAtee Newell — made Bloomington the most important coffee roasting center in downstate Illinois.
On days when the gas-fired roasters were in operation, the unmistakable, pungent aroma of roasting coffee would waft through the south end of downtown and the city’s southeast side.
Perhaps the most successful roaster was Campbell Holton & Co., established by a grocer of the same name. Campbell Holton (the man, not the company) was a purchasing manager for J.F. Humphreys before striking out on his own in 1908.
For several decades, Campbell Holton (the company, not the man) was at the corner of Gridley Street and what’s now called Oakland Avenue, roasting and packaging more than 1 million pounds of coffee annually. Under its Happy Hour label, Holton also sold olives and olive oil from France and Spain; sweet potatoes from New Jersey; salmon from Alaska; peas from Colorado; and dozens of other canned food items.
In 1954, Holton relocated to the 400 block of South Center Street, the site of what was then Springfield-based grocer Bunn-Capitol’s Bloomington operation (which Holton, by this time part of General Grocery Co. of St. Louis, had just acquired).
McAtee Newell Coffee Co. operated out of 804 S. Bunn St. from the mid-1920s until the late 1930s. Much like Campbell Holton, McAtee Newell roasted and sold upward of 1 million pounds of coffee a year. This company was less a wholesale grocer than Holton, but it did sell a variety of teas and spices.
The Pantagraph surveyed the robust local coffee roasting scene in an Oct. 16, 1932, article. At this time, Bloomington roasters were procuring more than 170 train carloads of “green” (unroasted) coffee beans annually, most coming from Central and South America. When the beans were roasted and ground, and the coffee packed and sold, those 170 carloads translated into roughly 200 million cups of coffee.
Each of the three Bloomington roasters employed a coffee taster charged with first purchasing the beans, and then mixing the various grades or types to create their company’s unique commercial blends.
The Depression-era industrial roasters were large enough to accommodate 500 pounds of green coffee. “The extent of the heat and exact time allotted each batch depends on several factors which make the roasting process a delicate matter,” The Pantagraph noted. Once roasted, the beans passed through “coolers and cleaning machines and finally to the steel cutters, automatic weighers and package machines.”
A 1927 advertisement for McAtee Newell showcased four Bloomington blends sold as differently priced brand names: Mainstay, the discount label; Inca Maiden; Rosy Morn (“Cheerful as the Morning Sun”); and the top-of-the-line Pal-O-Mine.
An ad the following year for Rosy Morn coffee mentioned it was available in one-pound tins and four-pound pails. Back then, decades before plastics became ubiquitous in grocery packaging, coffee was often sold in pails, allowing consumers to make creative use of the empties.