Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Eastern Cider for the West

The early life of our subject has been very elusive. Donald Chester Mitchell was a native of Connecticut, born there about 1833. Until he is documented in Ottumwa, Iowa, in 1856, his early life could not be determined. He married Frances A. Davis on June 29, 1856, in the relatively new town of Ottumwa, Iowa, which had recently become the governmental seat for Wapello County. Her father, Edward Springer Davis, had moved there from Marietta, Ohio, with his wife and seven children, where he took up farming. Davis’ interest then turned to the potential of river transportation along the Des Moines River and he sold his farm in 1852, concentrating on moving goods on the river.
This endeavor began with the position of pilot aboard the steamer N.L. Milburn, which usually plied the Des Moines River between Keokuk to the south and as far upstream as Fort DesMoines, Iowa. She was eventually sunk while trying to cross the Gulf of Mexico (History of Steamboating on the Des Moines River, From 1837 to 1862. Tacitus Hussey. April 1900, pg. 355) Meanwhile, it appears Don C. Mitchell gained some knowledge as a municipal clerk and also worked as a real estate agent. He also became active in politics as he was a devoted Republican and donated considerable time to furthering its election efforts. He often served as the Republican Central Committee secretary for Wapello County.

Of his varied endeavors Mitchell served his father-in-law in one unusual capacity in 1857. Edward Davis had returned to Marietta to oversee the construction of a steamer to be used on the Des Moines River. One news article notes, . . . “The boat is to be very light draught, so as to run in very low water.  Our fellow citizen, Mr. D. C. Mitchell, leaves for Marietta in a few days, to fill the position of Clerk on the boat.  We wish all parties success in this enterprise.  We can say for Capt. Davis, that few men know the Demoines better than he does.  From present appearances, the river will be open and navigable, with any quantity of water, in a few days.” (Weekly Ottumwa Courier, February 19, 1857) Davis soon retired from the steamboat business and obtained a license to establish a ferry that crossed the Des Moines River at Ottumwa. (There being no bridge to cross the river Davis was in direct competition with the original ferry owner, John Prosser. The competition became quite heated and resulted in lawsuits. Davis eventually moved to Iola, Kansas, and died there on December 19, 1870, where he worked as a miller.

In 1858 Mitchell also opened a lumber yard in Ottumwa, at the corner of Second and Marion Streets, specializing in pine. The town was experiencing substantial growth during this period and he took advantage of the increased demand for building materials. (Weekly Ottumwa Courier, Apr 22, 1858) Mitchell’s time in Ottumwa was extremely active for sure, although he did turn down his nomination for the position of treasurer for the city of Ottumwa in 1858. (Weekly Ottumwa Courier, May 06, 1858)

In the first three months of 1860 Mitchell’s name occurs frequently in association with his occupation as deputy county clerk of Wapello County, as well as in June of that year relative to the business of the Republican convention of Wapello. He was also elected alderman of Ottumwa in 1860 but he resigned February 4, 1861. (History of Wapello County, Iowa, and Representative Citizens, by S. B. Evans. 1901, pg. 80)

Regarding the Wapello County Aldermen meeting of Feb 4, 1861.  (Note: From Weekly Ottumwa Courier, Feb 6, 1861, pg. 4) “The resignation of A. Lotspeich, Alderman from the 1st Ward, was received, and the resignation accepted.  The Council proceeded to ballot for an Alderman to fill the vacancy thus created….William Dagget was declared duly elected.” No mention of Mitchell resigning at that time but he did not attend any more meetings.

One interesting bottle, of decided western manufacture, but with a deceptively eastern name, is occasionally found on the West Coast. Not particularly rare but within a small category of amber soda water shaped bottles lightly scattered throughout the United States. Perhaps because of the color of the liquid product, cider was often bottled in bottles made of amber glass. 

Cider, and especially apple cider, has been a popular drink for many years, which was no exception in California. In the 1850’s Oregon cider was the closest source until adequate numbers of apple trees began producing in the Golden State. As if appellation was important, in those early years the eastern made product was still preferred. One news article notes that,  “where a good article of eastern cider could be found it commands a much higher price than the Oregon manufacture”. (Sacramento Daily Union, July 7, 1858)

In fact, as early as late 1875, the moniker of ‘Pure Eastern Cider” was being freely used in San Francisco, and it was likely the product of none other than Don C. Mitchell. One newspaper noted, “Such is the label we observe hung out attractively at the doors of some first-class groceries.  On ‘sampling’ some of it and inquiring if it was really and truly Eastern cider, we were told, confidentially, that it was nothing of the kind, but that it was still good cider; and so it was. Nor is it the first good California cider that we have tasted; the more the pity that it is necessary to attach an Eastern brand to it to make it popular”. (Pacific Rural Press, December 18, 1875)

Mitchell received California Trade Mark No. 553 on December 27, 1879, for the words, EASTERN CIDER. In his registration, partially noted above, he declared the use of the words for the previous four months, including blowing it into his bottles.

Real Eastern cider, actually made in the East, became virtually indistinguishable from Mitchell’s California grown version. Consistency of flavor is certainly a challenge for any maker, and while the Eastern Cider Co. held a decent market share up to the time of Mitchell’s death, another local brand soon became a serious competitor. As noted in the San Francisco Call on October 19, 1890,  . . “Among the notable exhibits at the recent State Fair was a display of Martinelli’s pure apple cider, made from Pajaro Vally apples by S. Martinelli, Watsonville.  In competition with the home product were two of the best brands of Eastern cider, and after a thorough test the judges emphasized the popular verdict regarding Mr. Martinelli’s beverage by awarding him the medal.  His cider is remarkable for its fine flavor, clear color, heavy body and perfect purity, no chemical of any kind being used in its manufacture.  Its superiority has been universally conceded since it was placed on the market some years ago, . . “ (San Francisco Call, October 19, 1890)

This advertisement for Eastern Cider implies that Mitchell also sold his product in barrels which was then bottled by second parties, in this case, W. E. Deamer. (Morning Union, Grass Valley, California, June 25, 1878)

Found in a number of color variations that range into green, from the standard amber, the bottles are not particularly rare but are popular with many collectors. They have been found throughout the Western states. A particularly large number were recovered from the coal mining areas near Mount Diablo in Contra Costa County, California.

By the numbers of bottles excavated throughout the West, business must have been good, but family troubles soon altered his life. In February 1880 his wife died of an unknown cause, leaving him with his two young daughters, Fannie, age 23, and Martha, age 15. But a mere month later, young Martha, likely depressed from the loss of her mother, chose to release her earthly bonds. The following tragic article is located in the Daily Alta California, 11 March 1880.


An extraordinary suicide, the victim being a young girl, occurred on Rincon Hill, yesterday afternoon  Martha Mitchell, aged fifteen years, a pupil of Rincon School, had remained at home, to aid her sister Fannie at some seamstress work, at the direction of her father, D.C. Mitchell, Superintendent of the Eastern Cider Company.


In the house, 118 Silver street, and quarreled, Martha refusing to work,  At 3 o’clock in the afternoon, Fannie left the house, telling Martha that she was going to her father to lodge a complaint against her.  Martha bade her good-bye, in an unusually despondent way.  Half an hour later, Fannie returned, and entering the bedroom where she had left her sister, found her


Blood was oozing from a pistol-shot wound in the region of the heart and near her lay a single barreled breach-loading pistol, discharged.  The pistol belonged to the father, and had been lying unloaded in a bureau drawer, a box of cartridges being with it.  Martha was generally of a very lively disposition, but for several days previous to her suicide had been in painfully 


And refused to state the cause of her trouble.  She had made several inquiries as to the region of the heart, but they were not particularly noticed at the time.  Evidently she premeditated suicide.  The quarrel with her sister angered her to firmer determination, and her sister’s absence afforded the opportunity.  In all its phases the suicide is peculiarly sad.

The following year Mitchell joined in partnership with the veteran soda water maker, James I. Bliven. He was one of he original trustees who formed the Bay City Soda Water Company in 1870. This partnership continued until 1886 whereby they were proprietors of the Pacific Congress Springs Depot in San Francisco and the Eastern Cider Company.

Mitchell then went to work for I.H. Morse & Company, commission merchants of San Francisco, for a few years. Upon parting with Bliven, Don C. Mitchell took his Eastern Cider brand with him, which was then incorporated into the Morse product line.

At some time in his past life, probably between 1861 and 1875, when Mitchell was first documented in San Francisco, his political activities brought him close to Benjamin Harrison, who was elected as the  23rd president of the United States. Mitchell’s obituary attests to that.

D.C. Mitchell, well known among business men in this city, accidentally shot and killed himself yesterday afternoon in the Burlington House on Market and Second streets.  He was in the office with the clerk cleaning his pistol. By some means the weapon was discharged. The bullet entered Mr. Mitchell’s stomach pit, passed through the liver and out of the body near the backbone.  In its course it fractured the backbone and cut the aorta, which caused him to bleed to death in a few minutes.  The accident happened at 3:15 o’clock, and at 3:25 he was dead.  Mr. Mitchell has for the past ten years been an agent for mineral waters, and doing business on New Montgomery street.  He has also taken a lively interest in politics and has frequently delivered addresses from the stump.  He was intimately acquainted with President Harrison, and a few weeks ago received a letter from him containing an offer of a position in the Internal Revenue Office.

Mr. Mitchell accepted and was going to Washington with his daughter, Fannie, in a few days. He was preparing for the trip yesterday, and a part of the preparation was cleaning and lading the weapon that caused his death.  Mr. Mitchell was a native of Connecticut, sixty-seven years of age.  He was a widower with an only daughter.
(Daily Alta California, 31 December 1889)

It is unclear how Mitchell had befriended President Benjamin Harrison. Had Mitchell not accidentally killed himself, his obituary may have had a much greater significance with regard to American history. Benjamin Harrison, the grandson of William Henry Harrison, the ninth president of the U.S. won his bid for the job of the 23rd president on November 6. 1888. Previously he had been elected to the U.S. Senate from 1881 to 1887. But, prior to his political career on the national stage, Harrison participated in the Civil War and was confirmed as a brevet brigadier general of volunteers in 1865. After being seated in office on March 4, 1889, President Harrison commenced with picking his new cabinet members. It is probable that due to a previous alliance with Don Mitchell, he was tapped for a lucrative position in the Internal Revenue Office.

I will leave it to others to determine how Don C. Mitchell befriended President Harrison. There is still a lot to learn about the man who we only know as the proprietor of the Eastern Cider Company.

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