A World Famous Business
On March 5, 1864, Margaret Fee mortgaged her house to enable her son, James, age 25, to open a grocery/liquor store at 5 St. Paul Street, on the corner of Main Street, in Rochester. It was called James Fee & Brothers, which was in 1883 changed to Fee Brothers. Margaret’s husband, Owen, Sr., had died in 1855, leaving her to raise five children. James had begun the business in 1863, converting the family butcher shop into a saloon and delicatessen, which sold sandwiches at the depot to passengers waiting on trains.
The business moved to several new buildings in the early years, including North Water Street, which was destroyed by fire on February 5, 1908, and subsequently rebuilt. That location was sold to the Rochester Daily Record in 1951, but the family rented space in that building. In 1953, they had moved to 114 Field Street off Monroe Avenue. The expansion to the Portland Avenue area occurred in June, 1964, quadrupling the size of the Field Street facility. The Portland Avenue location has since grown with the purchase of adjacent properties in the 1970’s and, again, in May, 1992. This allowed additional warehouse space and the realization of Jack Fee’s dream of a Fee Brothers Museum.
Prohibition, which began in 1920 (the same year that James died), presented a problem, since the Fee family could not get alcohol. They continued the business by making altar wine. It was legal for homeowners to make a limited amount of wine for their own consumption and the Fees would send a representative to a client’s home, where he would set up a barrel with concentrated grape juice, sugar, water, and yeast to make a good batch of wine. The Fee representative would return several months later to monitor its progress.
But they also produced flavorings such as Benedictine, Chartreuse, Brandy, Rum, and dozens of cordial syrups, which could be added to homemade alcohol to flavor it. They returned to the sale of liquor in December, 1933, with the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. They also developed a product called Frothy Mixer, which gave a delicious lemon flavor to Whiskey Sours and Tom Collins and an attractive frothy head. This became popular thanks to the motto, “Don’t Squeeze, Use Fee’s.”
After 153 years in business, the family-owned Fee Brothers’ sales continue to grow. In addition to its well-known cocktail bitters, made from different herbs, roots and plants, it makes almost 100 products. It is one of the landmarks of the 14621 community and a great example of a historic treasure for Rochester which is still a reference point for the strength and integrity of the Lower Falls neighborhoods.