Sunday, August 21, 2005
When I saw recently that an entrepreneur is setting out to revive Narragansett Beer, I immediately thought of former Gov. J. Joseph Garrahy, who worked in sales and promotions for the old Cranston brewery in the 1950s and '60s.
Democrat Garrahy, now 74, agreed to meet me at the Garfield Avenue locale where the vast Gansett complex stood. At its spiritual epicenter is the gleaming home of Gibbs College, the new incarnation of the Katherine Gibbs School. This is around the corner from Cranston Street, where an ancient trolley barn the brewery used as a warehouse was just demolished.
Standing in front of Gibbs and amid its vast parking areas, it was hard for me to conjure how things once looked, but I'd brought a copy of an old newspaper photo of the Gansett operations, and Garrahy studied it and helped orient me:
"This was the bottling shop . . . Over here was the brewery, where the kettles were . . . This little building right here was the sales office . . ."
He declared, "This was a bustling enterprise." He said hundreds and hundreds of Rhode Islanders had jobs there. "All over the state you'll run into doctors, lawyers, and governors who worked at the brewery at one time or another."
Well, one governor.
I thought the old photo was neat, but it was nothing compared with the artifact Garrahy brought to show me:
A paycheck from September 1958, just a year or two after he began working there.
It was for $69.66, drawn on the brewery's account with Industrial National Bank, and made out to -- well, as the style had it -- John J. Garrahy Jr.
This was not a stub, not a copy, but the actual check, replete with green print and gold and red trim. He had endorsed it -- there's his signature on the back in blue pen -- and then the canceled check came back to the brewery.
In 1999, John O'Leary, a friend of the Garrahy family, became mayor of Cranston. Early in his tenure, he was touring the vacant trolley barn/warehouse and spotted a box of old checks on the ground. He reached down, picked one up, and, wouldn't you know it, it was Garrahy's. O'Leary passed it on to him.
Garrahy and I went to a nearby McDonald's for breakfast and a chat.
Several old-timers among the patrons recognized him. Well, after all, he was governor for eight years. And, sure enough, over there, toward the back of the restaurant, customer Donna Davis, 48, remembered the 1978 blizzard and blurted out, "I watched you on TV." And, yes, she mentioned the plaid shirt he wore.
"This must happen to you every day," I said to Garrahy.
"Every day," he said.
Of course, becoming governor was something beyond his dreams when he went to work for Gansett just after his 1956 marriage to Margherite DiPietro. He'd been in the Air Force and had taken college courses, but he had no degree and he needed a job.
Garrahy lives now in Narragansett, but he grew up on Providence's Smith Hill. His parents were Irish immigrants. At times, his mother, Margaret, worked as a maid on the East Side. But, more strikingly, she also was a State House cleaning woman, a job she held even when her son served in the state Senate and as lieutenant governor.
Garrahy's father had worked in the bottling shop at the old Hanley Brewery in Providence. This was something Governor Garrahy first mentioned to me in passing, but it came up again as he told me that sometimes, as part of his job at Gansett, he'd show guests around the Cranston facility.
"We would take them on a tour of the brewery and then bring them back to the hospitality room and give them a little tasting," he said.
We talked about the smell of the hops. Then I asked about noise. He said, "The bottling shop was very noisy -- the canning operation, the bottling operation. There was a lot of noise, the bottles clinking against one another, bottles clinking against metal. I can remember when my father worked at the Hanley Brewery. I often think of it . . . Many times, he would be cut from the bottles breaking."
Early on, Garrahy's job was salesman, but it wasn't a matter of actually taking orders. Instead, he'd visit package stores, bars, and restaurants, talking up the beer, sometimes buying everyone a round. He had to make sure the beer was not only carried but also advertised. "The big thing was putting signs in the store windows," he said.
Much of the effort was designed to exploit the brewery's sponsorship of Boston Red Sox broadcasts.
In my collection of sports memorabilia from my youth, I have a roster of the Narragansett Baseball Network, the line-up of TV and radio stations throughout New England that aired Sox games. They included WJAR-TV and two Rhode Island radio stations, WEAN in Providence and WWON in Woonsocket.
This particular roster was on the back of the Sox 1955 season schedule.
Garrahy said he may well have gone into bars and left stacks of Sox schedules for the patrons.
He said many of Gansett sales materials were tied to the Sox and that the the sponsorship helped build Narragansett into a New England powerhouse.
In Rhode Island, of course, the brand was huge. "I don't think there was a bar or a club in Rhode Island who did not have Narragansett," Garrahy said. In some establishments, it was the only beer.
In my memory, Gansett's big advantage was that it was cheaper. Garrahy asserts that the appeal was that it was local and fresh, and friendly. Take a good look at that pay check. It bears the brewery's classic expression, "Hi -- Neighbor!" (Or you may remember: "hi neighbor...have a Gansett!".)
Garrahy said the company was generous -- for example, donating beer for charitable outings.
He says he wasn't much of a beer drinker himself -- in the old days, he liked a Gansett with Italian food -- and now passes up beer altogether.
In his later years at the company, he worked closely with the late Bill Considine, whom he describes as a genius who built the business and became a good friend. Garrahy handled special projects, like bringing the Boston Pops to Rhodes on the Pawtuxet.
His work for the company extended into his Senate years; he won his first term, from a sprawling Providence district, in 1962. He left Gansett at some point to help start an electronics firm, then returned for another stint.
He was elected lieutenant governor in 1968 and governor in 1976.
When Garrahy was at Gansett, it was owned by the Haffenreffer family. But it was sold and the plant closed in 1981. The beer continued to be made elsewhere. Sales dwindled dramatically.
Now Rhode Islander Mark Hellendrung and some other New England investors have bought the rights to the beer, plan to reinvigorate the brand, and eventually open an office and small brewing operation in Providence.
Garrahy says Hellendrung called him some time ago to tell him what he wanted to do. "I wished him well. I said there's still a lot of loyal supporters of Narragansett in Rhode Island. It was a great local product."
M. Charles Bakst is The Journal's political columnist. This was first publish in The Journal's Sunday edition on August 21, 2005.