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Charmed Life

Full of Beans

Sam Holden

By Charles Cohen | Posted 8/18/1999

When Louis Pfefferkorn (pictured) talks about his grandfather delivering fresh-roasted coffee by horse and wagon from Camden Street into the hinterlands of Ellicott City, it may sound like he’s talking about the industry’s good-old days. But he’s really describing the precursor to today’s modern coffee-service industry.

“They would have regular routes,” says the 74-year-old head of South Baltimore-based Pfefferkorn’s Coffee Inc. of his namesake grandfather’s horse-driven business—just like today’s microroasters traversing the region in their vans. “They would call on people and these people would expect to see them. People today, they want UPS to deliver things. They order from the Internet. It [was] not too much different from that.”

ýndeed, by 1900, when the Pfefferkorn family decided to get out of the grocery business and concentrate exclusively on selling coffee and tea, the industry was entering the modern era—and the golden age of Baltimore’s coffee business, when delivering the aromatic beans reeked of high-seas adventure, was fading.

ýoday, there are virtually no remnants of a trade that for a century and a half was part of the lifeblood of Baltimore’s waterfront economy, when sailing ships laden with coffee beans from Brazil crowded the harbor. The ships and the men who sailed them are long gone; the few remaining records are like artifacts from a lost civilization.

“It’s almost incredible that no complete and authoritative account of Baltimore’s coffee trade with South America has been written,” The Sun’s Ralph J. Robinson wrote in a 1951 article about a Maryland Historical Society exhibit on “The Coffee Trade of Baltimore.” “Surely there is a need for such a volume and the field is fallow.”

Baltimore’s rise and fall as one of the nation’s coffee capitals coincides with its history as a major sailing town with a reputation for shipbuilding and seamanship. In 1851, according to a brochure from the 1951 exhibit, no U.S. port, not even New York, was bringing in more of the magic bean. In the years following the Civil War, as much as 38 percent of the nation’s coffee landed here.

The city’s earliest forays into the coffee trade predate the American Revolution. As the most inland port on the Chesapeake Bay, Baltimore had great connections to mills deep in farm country that produced flour and grain for export; among the many products that arrived in return were small amounts of coffee from the West Indies.

In the early 19th century, with trade routes to the Caribbean well established, Baltimore and Fells Point merchants turned their attention to Brazil. Ships would venture down to Rio de Janeiro filled with flour bought from mills in Ellicott City and Ilchester and return with cargo holds full of coffee. But trading during these times was risky. Vessels could take months making the trip and becoming lost at sea was a real danger. Merchants and residents would await the flying of a ship’s flags from Federal Hill—meaning the boat had been spotted rounding Bodkin Point (just north of Gibson Island) and its crew and cargo were home.

The story of the Peggy, recounted by Geoffrey M. Footner in his book ]idewater Triumph: The Development and Worldwide Success of the Chesapeake Bay Pilot Schooner, gives some insight into the dangers of the trade. On a voyage through the West Indies in 1794, the Peggy was twice captured by privateers and robbed. The captain had kept enough hidden from the thieves to purchase a cargo of coffee at a safe port to take back to the States, but on the way back he fell sick, was knocked overboard by a boom, and died. Before the poor Peggy could make it back to the States, it was captured again, by privateers loyal to Britain. The ship was escorted to Bermuda and again relieved of its cargo before being released to return to Fells Point.

Such perils notwithstanding, Baltimore was becoming a dominant player in the coffee business, and remained so until the Civil War bought the trade to a virtual halt. Edward P. Duffy, The Sun’s marine reporter in the 1920s, wrote in a 1924 article about the Rebel capture of the Rio-bound mpress Theresa in 1864. The southerners torched the Baltimore clipper as its captain stood by on a Confederate warship.

With the war’s end the following year, however, the port returned to even higher coffee-fueled heights. With commerce resuming unhampered, Baltimore merchants commissioned the building of special coffee boats called “barks” or “barkentines,” that became known as “coffee clippers” (although they were not built in the style of the famous Baltimore clippers). Bustling coffee warehouses sprouted on Brown’s Wharf and Belt’s Wharf in Fells Point. From 1869 to 1885, Baltimore’s “coffee fleet,” as it was known, was bringing in between 18 and 38 percent of coffee imported to the United States, mostly from Brazil. One sailing ship, the Josephine, made the trip from Rio de Janeiro in 22 days in 1893, setting a coffee-fleet record.

But as the 19th century drew to a close and “steam superseded sail,” more and more of the coffee trade was concentrated in New York, according to a Maryland Historical Society exhibit brochure. Duffy—who interviewed surviving coffee captains in the ’20s and celebrated their ships as reputedly “the cleanest and daintiest merchant craft afloat”—lamented in 1924 that “by force of change in the carriers of commerce, some were sold and others abandoned their high estate to become [carriers] of coal, lumber, and bulk cargoes. . . . Not one is afloat today.”

These days, Louis Pfefferkorn, while using beans from around the world, gets most of his coffee delivered by truck. The beans are now mainly shipped to ports other than Baltimore. But every now and then a container will come in by boat, arriving at the Dundalk docks.

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