More than a century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt paid a visit to Nashville that is best remembered for a cup of coffee he drank and something people think he said but probably didn’t say.
The story starts in the 1850s, when John Overton financed a five-story, 240-room hotel in Nashville. The Maxwell House, as it was called, was arguably the finest hostelry outside New York and Chicago. The lobby was decorated with massive chandeliers, the finest marble and beautiful artwork.
Unfortunately for Overton, his new hotel was completed just before the Civil War started. During the war, the Union Army turned it into a barracks and a place to house prisoners of war. By the end of the war, the hotel was stripped clean.
Nevertheless, it was renovated and reopened in 1869. It became a glorious place to stay and the best place to eat in town. It also was the crossroads of Nashville’s social life and business life. Only the finest gentlemen could afford to get their hair cut and their shoes shined in the Maxwell House lobby. An upscale luncheon might signify a notable marriage engagement. A get-together in a side conference room might indicate a board meeting for the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway.
What does this hotel have to do with the coffee that now bears its name?
In the 1890s, Nashville had several companies that were grounding, mixing, canning and marketing coffee. H.G. Hill Co. produced the Fit for a King brand. The Phillips-Trawick Co. produced Capitol Coffee. The Fletch-Wilson Coffee Co. produced University Club Coffee (and was co-owned by the grandfather of Tennessee Comptroller Justin Wilson).
The biggest of Nashville’s coffee companies was Cheek-Neal Coffee Co. In the 1890s, Cheek-Neal sold coffee under several brand names. Joel Cheek, owner of the business, apparently approached Maxwell House Hotel staff around 1895 with the idea that he name a new brand of coffee after it. Shortly thereafter, the first advertisement for Maxwell House Coffee appeared in Nashville’s newspapers. It soon became Nashville’s best-selling brand.
On Oct. 21, 1907, President Roosevelt came to Nashville, mainly to visit Andrew Jackson’s former home and pledge federal support to its restoration. While touring The Hermitage, Roosevelt said he was impressed with everything that he saw. Then, as he was entering the dining room, he asked for a cup of coffee.
“I must have the privilege of saying that I have eaten at Gen. Jackson’s table,” the Nashville Banner, a newspaper, quoted him as saying.
The president was handed a cup and saucer, and he sipped it.
“This is the kind of stuff I like to drink, by George, when I hunt bears,” he said, according to the Banner article.
The article didn’t say what brand of coffee Roosevelt had tasted. But in newspaper advertisements that ran immediately after Roosevelt’s visit, two companies claimed that he had been sipping their coffee. H.G. Hill claimed he had been sipping Fit for a King coffee. Cheek-Neal claimed that the president had been drinking Maxwell House.
“Maxwell House Coffee pleased the palate of the head of the nation and will please all who desire the best in the cup,” maintained the Cheek-Neal ad.
About eight years later, Cheek-Neal began using a “good to the last drop” slogan to advertise Maxwell House Coffee in national publications such as the Saturday Evening Post. Eventually, the Roosevelt story got merged into the Maxwell House Coffee story and the slogan. However, I maintain, based on the newspaper coverage of his visit, that the future president said something entirely different than “good to the last drop” when he sipped the mysterious cup of coffee in Nashville in 1907.
As for the Maxwell House Hotel, its splendor faded, and on Christmas night 1961, it burned down. Years later, a new hotel under the name Maxwell House was built in the MetroCenter office park near downtown. Today it operates under the name Millennium Maxwell House Hotel.
Carey is the founder and executive director of Tennessee History for Kids, online at www.tnhistoryforkids.org.