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Jim McKee: Omaha roots for a coffee roaster

Jim McKee: Omaha roots for a coffee roaster

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butternut

This Butter-Nut Coffee can is not the oldest or the newest design but will be familiar to many readers. This design was used for a considerable time around the 1950s and appears full of old nails and screws under many a work bench.

For decades Butter-Nut Coffee was a staple product in not just Nebraska homes but pantries across the U. S. Many will be surprised to hear about its local ties to Nebraska before it was even a territory while others may have yet to realize the brand has completely disappeared.

Benjamin Gallagher was born in Burlington, Iowa, in 1841 and received a presidential appointment as a sutler selling provisions including coffee, at Fort McPherson, Nebraska Territory, in 1863.

Gallagher relocated to Omaha in 1868, forming Morgan & Gallagher Wholesale Grocers. William Paxton a major Nebraska rancher and key financier in Omaha and South Omaha left his name on almost countless businesses including a hotel, steel works, banks and the South Omaha Stockyards.

In 1879 Paxton & Gallagher Wholesale Grocery formed with a first small store at 15th and Farnam streets. Being wholesale grocers Paxton & Gallagher handled a wide variety of goods but perhaps more unusual in an establishment in the middle of the U. S., they were coffee roasters. The brand name for their coffee was Royal Combination for which they proclaimed they used gas rather than coal in the roasting process which cost them roughly 10 times as much as coal.

Paxton & Gallagher purchased the six-story Parlin, Orendorff & Martin Plow Company warehouse in 1905 as the plow company moved to larger quarters. Scarcely two years later, the eastern potion of the building collapsed, resulting in construction of a new nine-story structure on the site with coffee roasting completed on the upper two floors giving a pleasant coffee aroma through the area.

In 1913 Paxton & Gallagher incorporated Butter-Nut Foods which distributed a number of food products including three coffee labels: Butternut, “a coffee as sweet as a nut,” Kamo meaning “came from Omaha” and their house brand Paxton & Gallagher blend.

A 1916 ad showed Butter-Nut, now often one word Butternut, employed a careful mixture of shade-grown beans from 18 countries. While a number of products had been sold under the name Butter-Nut, by 1940 only coffee used the name and the coffee division alone had 150 employees.

Gilbert and Clark Swanson acquired Paxton & Gallaher in 1958 and the firm name was changed to Butter-Nut Foods. In order to move Butternut Coffee into a more national brand, Stan Freberg was hired to produce an advertising campaign.

Freberg wrote a satire based on the musical “Oklahoma.” The nine-minutes of music was written by Billy May, primarily narrated by Freberg and produced by Capitol Records. The story line featured Eustis K. Butternut, stolen by Gypsies as a boy, who was identified by a coffee bean-shaped birthmark. The four major songs included “What ‘a They Got in Omaha,” “I Look in Your Face and See Omaha,” “Omaha Moon,” and You’re Doin’ Fine, Omaha! Omaha, Okay!” All were easily sung and caught on. Almost immediately Butternut became the No. 2  coffee in California and a bestseller nationally.

Donald Keough, who had joined Paxton & Gallaher in 1950, was instrumental in the firm’s purchase by Coca-Cola Company when they also acquired Minute Maid Corporation in 1964. Coca-Cola in turn sold their coffee business to Parkview Investments in 1988 which in turn became part of Maryland Club, then the largest coffee roaster in the U. S. When Procter & Gamble took over Butternut Coffee in 1989 it became a variant of their Folgers Coffee brand.

As the 10th and Jones building, primarily still identified by the large coffee can/water tower on its roof, was being renovated as a combination retail, condominium, apartment in January of 2004 the interior was completely destroyed by a fire which left only the brick shell which had to be razed.

In 2018, on what some called Butternut’s 100th birthday, 75 remaining employees donated 100 butternut trees, a relative of the walnut, to a park in southwest Omaha. In June of 2020 Folgers Coffee discontinued all production and mention of what was then left of the once iconic Butternut brand.

12 things invented in Nebraska

Historian Jim McKee, who still writes with a fountain pen, invites comments or questions. Write to him in care of the Journal Star or at jim@leebooksellers.com

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