Saturday, June 9, 2012

Jabez Burns, The Coffee Roaster: My Story of The Jabezes, Part 2

circa 1870, Jabez Burns,
Founder of Jabez Burns & Sons
Courtesy of  The Margaret Burmeister Family

So that you, dear reader, may place this Jabez Burns in my family tree, the Jabez of this story was the nephew of Jabez Burns, the temperance Baptist minster of Part 1. As you may remember, William Gibson Burns and Jabez Burns were sons of the basket maker and vendor of worm medicine Joseph Burn and his devout Wesleyan wife Mary. The Jabez of this story is also the son of my 3rd great grandparents,William Gibson Burns and Elizabeth Horrock (or Herrick in later records) and the brother of my 2nd great grandmother Mary Burns McPherson.

Reportedly he was born in London on the 12th of February 1826 and the family moved to Dundee, Scotland when he was a small child. So far very little verifiable information has turned up on their life in Dundee. We do know, however, that his father was a basket maker like his father before him and an ardent Chartist. Based on later letters and speeches, the father William Gibson Burns was fairly well educated for that time and place. It appears that a similar education was most likely given to young Jabez because during his first winter in America he taught in a country school in Summit, New Jersey.

Although the exact date of Jabez' emigration to America is yet unknown, it is likely that is was between 1844 and 1845. His mother may have made the journey with him or perhaps at a later date. According to later writings, in about 1846 Jabez Burns was working as a “teamster” for Henry Blair, a prominent coffee merchant. Blair attended the little “Disciples” church on lower Sixth Avenue in New York City, where many of the city's Scots congregated. Evidently, Blair introduced Jabez Burns to the church and the attending Scots community where Burns met and courted Agnes Brown, a young Scots girl, a daughter of a Paisley weaver.

The 1850 Federal Census lists twenty-five year old Jabez Burns as living in New York's 16th Ward, District 1, with his twenty-six year old wife Agnes, their baby William, and Jabez's mother Elizabeth. At this time, the 16th Ward, District 1, was comprised of eight blocks of tenement buildings, bounded by West 22nd Street and West 18th Street, between Sixth and Eighth Avenues. Just a block away from New York's “North River” (Hudson River) and the meat packing district and docks. Jabez was working as a “cartman” – possibly this occupation was the same as being a teamster for Henry Blair.

The next decade was busy for Jabez and Agnes. Young William was joined by three brothers (Jabez in 1853; Joseph in 1855; and Robert in 1857) and the only sister (Agnes in 1858). Jabez was listed on the 1860 New York Census as a peddler, probably with the Globe Mills. A biography in All About Coffee (published by the Tea and Coffee Trade Journal), noted that he was not a talented salesman, but learned all aspects of the coffee business, from bookkeeping, to purchasing, to delivery,
During this period he was also working on a number inventions, which the struggling family hoped would add to their income. In 1858 he had a patent for the Burns Addometer, a primitive adding machine. He was reportedly always working on some kind of invention.
By 1860, according to the 1869 Federal Census, Jabez had moved his family to the 16th Ward's District 2, which was a bit further east, away from the river, meat packing and docks – most likely a better place to live. The 1860s heralded the birth of their last three sons (James B in 1863; Abraham Lincoln in 1866; and George Washington Burns in 1868) and on September 19, 1864 he received his naturalized citizenship. It is interesting to note that Jabez Burn's employer Thomas Reid of the Globe Mills witnessed his citizenship proceedings.
In that same year of 1864, Jabez Burns founded his trademark company, Jabez Burns & Sons, and began to manufacture the improved coffee roaster which he invented. The first location was on Warren Street in New York City, which was was close to the docks on the east and to the west just a few blocks from the notorious Five Points district. The company outgrew its location several times. By 1908, the business moved to the northwest corner of 11th Avenue and 43rd Street, occupying a six story building which was doubled in size in 1917.
1937 Image of the Jabez Burns & Sons Facility
11th Avenue & 42st Street West
Courtesty of NYPL Digital Library

  Jabez had risen from a cartman, to a peddler, to bookkeeper, an ertstwhile inventor, to founding a company that has been referred to as the “unique coffee-machinery workshop, the greatest of its kind in the United States.” The 1880s saw the Jabez Burns family living in upscale Brooklyn, and several of his sons attending Columbia University before entering the family company. Several, and perhaps all of, his sons worked in the Jabez Burns & Sons Company.
Burns was looked to as an authority in the coffee industry because of his wide experience and also the articles he wrote for the American Grocer. Then in 1878 he began publishing the 32-page quarterly Spice Mill, which gained great interest with the spice and coffee traders. He also published a pocket volume called the Spice Mill Companion in which he distributed valuable information on coffee, spices and baking powder. His valuable advice, it was said, started a number of coffee-roasters on the road to success.
Although the Burns family seemed to be hard workers, they exhibited a strong sense of family and apparently enjoyed playing music together. Jabez and his sons started and participated in the Burns Amateur Brass Band. Jabez also took care of his mother until her death in 1861. His father William Gibson Burns was in the United States at least a couple of times, but it doesn't appear that he lived with Jabez and Agnes for any length of time.

circa 1880, Burns Amateur Brass Band, Brooklyn, NY
Frt. Row: George Washington, Jabez, Sr, and A. Lincoln Burns
Back Row could include: Wm G, Jabez Jr, Joseph, Robert and/or James Burns
Picture Courtesy of Margaret Burmeister Family

 Death came to Jabez Burns on September 16, 1888 at the age of 62. His life was a true rags to riches story. After his death, the business continued and prospered; first as the firm of Jabez Burns and Sons, composed of his sons, Jabez, Robert, and A.Lincoln Burns; and later, in 1906 as Jabez Burns & Sons, Inc., with next generation making their appearance in the family business. Jabez Burns & Sons continued designing, fabricating and erecting entire facilities for the processing coffeee, cocoa, and tea for 100 years until it was acquired by the Blaw-Knox Co. in 1964.

1850 Census Report, 16th Ward, Dist. 1, NY NY
1860 New York Census, 16th Ward, Dist. 2, NY NY
1880 Census Report, Kings (Brooklyn) NY
1864 Sep 19 Naturalization Citizenship from Common Pleas Court, NY County
1888 Illustrated New York: The Metropolis of To-Day, International Publishing Co., New York.
1922 All About Coffee, William H. Ukers, editor, Tea and Coffee Trade Journal, New York

Jabezes, Part 1
~  ~ ~
 © Joan Hill, Roots'n'Leaves Publications


  1. What an interesting story--it's awesome how Jabez progressed from teamster and cartman to the founder of a very successful company. I guess it didn't hurt him that he wasn't a talented salesman.

  2. What a wonderfully rich history you have.

  3. Very interesting...I am the great grandson of Robert Burns and the great great grandson of Jabez Burns. Robert Burns had a son and a daughter. The daughter is my grandmother. It is always interesting to learn about details about your family thru various sources.

    1. Brian, I hope that you get this reply as I have been hoping to make contact with the Burns side of the family. I am happy to share pictures and stories with kin. T'is an interesting family. However, I have had problems contacting the Burns descendants. Looking forward to hearing from you. BTW, there is an email address on the upper right hand corner of this blog. As I said, I would love to hear from you again.

  4. I have a Jabez Burns & Son 2 barrel coffee roaster patient 1909 -1925 for sale please email me at HighTecinstaller@gmail.com

  5. March 2, 2015: Does anyone know the value of a Jabez Burns 5 burner Sample Roaster? It was purchased new about 1950 and is powered by natural gas/120v.
    Please reply to dakattan@gmail.com