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John R. Arbuckle, 1839-1912

It is hard to believe that our coffee-drinking habits can be attributed in part to a man from Allegheny City, Pennsylvania with a vision. Brothers John and Charlie Arbuckle moved to Brooklyn in 1881 to become the greatest coffee roasters of their generation in the 1860s. Arbuckle invented a machine that efficiently roasted, ground, and packaged coffee into small bags for mass distribution throughout the country. Prior to this innovation, coffee beans had to be sold unroasted from barrels and were easily spoiled. These beans burnt easily as they were roasted at home. Their first national brand was patented under the name “Arbuckle Ariosa”.

Coffee was stored in Empire Stores Warehouse. Photo by Berenice Abbott, 1936.

1880s advertising card for Ariosa coffee showing Arbuckle's Brooklyn coffee plants.

Arbuckle patented a unique egg-and-sugar glaze that prolonged the freshness of their coffee beans as they were transported west. In 1887, Arbuckle launched a sugar refinery at 10 Jay Street when Havemeyer Sugar refused to lower prices for their biggest customer. Havemeyer went into the coffee business in response, resulting in depressed coffee and sugar prices for years. Arbuckle eventually built up much of the real estate along Jay Street in what is now the DUMBO section of Brooklyn.

The Deep Sea Hotel provided lodging for low-income working adults. Photo from Library of Congress, 1913.

Dining area in Deep Sea Hotel. Photo from Library of Congress, ca 1910.

Instead of donating money to charities, John Arbuckle took it upon himself to find solutions to societal ills. Noticing the overcrowding and poor air quality in the tenement slums of New York City, Arbuckle renovated ships into floating recreational centers for the poor. These ships offered areas for dining and physical activities for those who could not escape from the filth and noise of the city. Although he had good intentions, Arbuckle’s ideas did not last but the ships continued to provide low-cost meals and job training sites for people with little means.

25 Jay Street, currently for residential and commercial use.

Former tracks of the Jay Street Connecting Railroad, owned by John Arbuckle and used to shuttle cargo from the East River into warehouses.

The Empire Stores Warehouse today. Empty and dilapidated, but still standing.

By the 1940s, most of Arbuckle’s buildings in Brooklyn were being used by other businesses. Today it’s not hard to imagine what Brooklyn manufacturing must have looked like at the height of the Industrial Revolution. Visitors walking around DUMBO can find large warehouses made of brick and concrete. The Empire Stores Warehouse continues to exist as a dilapidated site, but developers are hungrily eyeing the building while the court system determines who has rights to oversee its transformation.