Originally published in the Historic Nantucket, Vol 48, no. 3 (Summer 1999), p. 24
The Nantucket Coffee Connection
by Robert F. Mooney
ONE OF THE YOUNGEST OF THE FORTY-niners was James A. Folger, who sailed from Nantucket bound for the goldfields of California at the age of fourteen in 1849. He was accompanied by his brothers — Henry, sixteen, and Edward, twenty. Their father, Samuel B. Folger, had nine children and welcomed the opportunity for his sons to seek their fortune in California, using his savings to help finance their journey. The trio agreed that if the family funds could not support all three boys, the older boys would have the first chance at the gold-fields. Traveling via the Panama route, the three arrived in San Francisco on May 5,1850.
It was soon decided that James would stay in the city, alone at age fourteen, while his brothers went to the mines. Fortunately, he had worked as a carpenter since age eleven when he had helped rebuild Nantucket after the Great Fire of 1846. He accepted a job offer from William H. Bovee, who had come from New York at the age of 27 with a novel idea. Bovee had arrived in San Francisco to find there was no coffee fit to drink in California. He had run a coffee-roasting business in New York, but roasted coffee was then a city luxury. Most consumers had to buy green coffee beans, roast them, grind them in portable mills, and spend half a day to produce a cup of coffee. In the mining country, where men were desperate for hot coffee, Bovee found a ready market. He decided to build a spice and coffee mill on Powell Street, six blocks from the waterfront, and hired young Jim Folger to help him. The original hand-operated mill proved insufficient for the business, so Jim Folger helped build the first wind-powered mill in San Francisco, rigged with sails from abandoned whaleships in the harbor. The two men went into partnership as the Pioneer Steam Coffee and Spice Mills.
Brother Henry returned to Nantucket, but Edward set up a whale oil business next to the Pioneer Mills. As the mining business was spreading through the sierras of California, James became a traveling salesman, carrying samples of Pioneer Coffee in tin cans, which kept the flavor and aroma the miners expected.
For a time, Jim Folger left the business to try his hand at mining. He made one gold strike, and he used the proceeds to set up a country store at an appropriately named camp called Yankee Jim's. As the 1850s drew to a close, he sold the store at a good profit and returned to San Francisco. He was only eighteen years old when he showed up on William Bovee's doorstep and resumed his role as a partner in the Pioneer Mills.
Bovee sold his interest in the coffee company to Jim Folger in 1859, and after buying out other partners, Jim renamed the firm the James A. Folger Company. He soon had his salesmen covering the West with such success that the name Folger became synonymous with coffee. In later years, the company expanded from California to became a national product.
Jim Folger married at twenty-four and built a home in the new suburb of Oakland, where he became a leading citizen, active in both business and civic affairs. He continued to keep up his interest in his native island and visited Nantucket in the summertime to keep in touch with his family. He died unexpectedly of a heart attack at the age of fifty-four, leaving the business to be carried on by his sons and grandsons. Both James A. Folger II and James A. Folger III have been president of the coffee company, which now carries the famous Nantucket family name to millions of loyal consumers.
After Folger's business was well established, the old-timers who had taken part in the Gold Rush spoke of him with admiration and amazement: "How about young Jim Folger, only fourteen, that came all the way out from Nantucket to make his own way," commented one. "Now look at him — in business for himself down in Frisco and selling coffee to every damn diggings in California!"
This article is an excerpt from an article that appeared in the Early Summer 1997 issue of Nantucket Magazine. It is reprinted here with permission. Bob Mooney is an attorney, historian, and member of the Nantucket Historical Association's editorial committee.