, Newburyport, MA

May 7, 2011

Yo, ho, ho ... and a bottle of Caldwell's rum!

John Lagoulis

For many years, Newburyport and the rum trade were synonymous, and the rum trade here was known throughout the world.

As we know, rum is manufactured and distilled from molasses. Years ago, molasses was imported to Newburyport from the West Indies. The Caldwell Co. was known for distilling and producing one of the finest, if not the finest, rums in the world. It lasted well into the 20th century. The Caldwell building, consisting of the business office and distillery, was located along the Merrimack River in the area of Cashman Park. And, of course, every wharf rat who grew up along the river knew well of them, their distillery and the wharf.

In 1872, the Caldwell Building was constructed at 200 Merrimac St. They extended the building and distillery down toward the wharf and ... raised the roof in 1876. Caldwell's wharf was located behind the building and stretched between their building and what now is known as Lombardi's Fuel Co. Caldwell's was still operating up into the 1940s.

It was a thriving business. We, young wharf rats, were familiar with Caldwell's during the 1920s and 1930s, and we enjoyed their empty bottles. They had very fancy, thick, glass bottles, both round and square. Their bottles were of a very heavy glass, and the words, Caldwell's Old Newburyport Rum were embossed in large italic lettering on every bottle. Both, the round and square quart bottles, were just beautiful.

Molasses was imported on ships from the West Indies and distilled here. I happen to know a William Caldwell (born 1791 and died 1868) was married to Jane Wheelwright of Newburyport. Earlier, an Alexander Caldwell, who was born in Litchfield, N.H., in 1746, had migrated to Newburyport, where he was employed in the distillery. Later, that distillery became his company — The Caldwell Rum Co.

During the height of the slave trade, the company supplied rum to owners of the slave ships for trading in Africa. Distilleries were located around Market Square and near the waterfront. The two largest merchants in the distillery of rum were Moses Brown and, of course, the Caldwell family.

There were two Moses Browns in Newburyport. I personally knew the latter; he worked at the Garrison Inn. He was always well-dressed in blue jacket with brass buttons, always had a wide smile. Because of his friendly personality and his good nature and impeccable colonial attire, he handled the luggage of the travelers who stayed at the Garrison Inn or Wolfe Tavern. I often played in Brown Park, and when we children played a little too close to the inn, he would shoo us away.

Some years later, a curious event took place. It involved a bottle of Caldwell's rum. I had purchased two square bottles of rum after WWII and saved them as gifts. I had heard that a former wharf rat and very close friend of mine from Market Square had gone off to war and was stationed on the "Big Moe" Missouri battleship. His name was Arthur "Soup" Melonis. I finally located my friend. He was married and living in Miami, Fla., and working high up in the ranks of the Police Department.

He knew only too well about the distillery because when we were young we would bring our empty bottles there, and Caldwell's would give us 5 cents for every bottle. Later on, they included Moxie in their business and would also give us 5 cents for a returned Moxie bottle. I had brought the two bottles of rum as gifts that I'd had in my house for some years. I had planned to give one as a gift to Soup and the other to Peter Chetsas, who was now retired and also living in Florida.

I located both men, and we enjoyed reminiscing together. During each visit, just before leaving, I surprised each friend with a bottle of Caldwell's Old Newburyport Rum. What I did not know was that Soup had married into a very staunch family of southern Baptists who do not permit liquor in their homes. At the close of my visit, I produced the gift. Arthur took it in his hands, and he just stood there sort of frozen-like. He didn't know how to react, nor did I, as his wife and his mother-in-law stomped across the living room, ran into a nearby bedroom and locked the door!

I couldn't understand it. Everyone I'd ever known, especially from Newburyport, always welcomed a bottle of Caldwell's rum. "Soup" briefly explained to me somewhat about what was going on. Mr. Chetsas had kept his bottle of rum.

That was the last time I'd ever seen them or discussed Caldwell's rum, until a few days ago when I purchased gas at Rob Germinara's gas station, now known as Caldwell's Corner on Merrimac Street.

As a tribute to the Caldwell industry and the best rum ever made, Mr. Germinara has named his station and store, Caldwell's Corner Gas Station, thus preserving a valuable history and paying tribute to the Caldwell family. Always remember dear readers, some of the best distilled rum and renowned in its time was made right here in Newburyport.

So, let us raise our glasses high and a toast be made with a "Yo, ho, ho to a bottle of Caldwell's Old Newburyport Rum!"

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John Lagoulis is a columnist for The Daily News and writes about Newburyport as he lived it in the 1920's... John is 91 and is completing his first book which will soon be available.