MY KENTUCKY: Maxwell House Coffee’s Kentucky Roots
By SAM TERRY
Jobe Publishing, Inc.
Sunday, October 22 marks the 110th anniversary of President Theodore Roosevelt famously requesting a second cup of coffee while dining at Nashville’s fashionable Maxwell House Hotel and commenting that it was “good to the last drop.” Roosevelt’s quip was seized upon by two southern Kentucky natives – Joel Owsley Cheek and Christopher Tompkins Cheek – who had turned their family grocery firm into a business focusing on their blend of coffee which became known as Maxwell House Coffee.
The Kentucky cousins – Joel from Burkesville and Christopher from Glasgow – had given the prestigious hostelry 20 pounds of their prepared coffee to try in the dining room. In time the supply of coffee was exhausted and regular diners noticed the change back to the old brand and complained. As a result, the hotel began using the Cheek’s coffee exclusively.
In turn, the Cheeks acquired the use of the hotel’s name to market their coffee and began using the famous “good to the last drop” comment as their timeless slogan. At one point, Maxwell House Coffee had gained one-third of the American coffee market. In 1928, the company was sold to Postum for $42 million that was shared by extended Cheek family members who had invested in the company. The Postum company eventually sold to General Foods which was later sold to Kraft Foods.
Christopher T. Cheek married Ann Valeria Leslie, daughter of Gov. Preston H. Leslie of Glasgow. Their son, Glasgow native Leslie Cheek Sr., became an investor in the family business and in time, was president of the company.
Romance leads to Cheekwood
While on a train traveling from New York to Nashville with a stop in Guthrie, Kentucky, Leslie Cheek noticed a beautiful young lady. He bribed the porter with a box of cigars to obtain her name, a ploy that failed. With a bit of maneuvering, Cheek found John Clemens, a friend of the young woman, who offered to introduce him but he refused. Instead, Cheek insisted he wished to meet her at her home and a few days later the gentlemen arrived in Clarksville, Tennessee to call on Mabel Wood.
According to family oral history, Mabel watched from an upstairs window as Cheek and Clemens approached and found she was pleased with Cheek’s handsome and youthful appearance. Clemens explained Cheek’s interest and of his special trip from Nashville to meet her. Apparently agreeable, they all went to church together.
For the next eighteen months Leslie sent Mabel a box of candy from Mitchell’s Confectionary each Tuesday. On Thursdays, he sent fruit or a personally selected book while Sundays brought a weekly delivery of flowers. On October 3, 1896, Mabel Wood and Leslie Cheek were married at the Methodist Church in Clarksville.
When the company was sold to Postum, Leslie and Mabel Wood Cheek used some of their fortune to purchase 100 acres of woodland in west Nashville on which to build a new home. They retained the services of New York residential and landscape architect Bryant Fleming to design their mansion, its interior furnishings, and the landscaping of the grounds. The result was “Cheekwood,” a name combining Leslie and Mabel’s respective surnames. After three years of construction, the Cheeks moved into their country estate at Thanksgiving 1932. Only two years later, Leslie Cheek died at age 61.
The Cheeks and the arts
Cheekwood passed to Leslie and Mabel’s daughter, Huldah Cheek Sharp who resided in the mansion with her husband, Walter, until the 1950s. It was at that time Cheekwood became an art museum and botanical garden that continues to delight visitors.
Cheekwood is not the only contribution of the family to the world of art. Leslie and Mabel’s son, Leslie Cheek Jr., studied art at Harvard and architecture at Yale and Columbia. After serving as head of the Fine Arts Department at the College of William and Mary, he worked as director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts which he transformed from a small gallery to a nationally recognized cultural center.
Realizing that rural areas of Virginia had limited access to fine art, Leslie Cheek Jr., designed the Artmobile to take exhibitions of the museum’s collection to the public. He later established the Virginia Museum Theatre to integrate the exhibition galleries with film, dance, and music.
Sam Terry’s “My Kentucky” column appears each week in Jobe Publishing newspapers as part of the celebration of Kentucky’s 225th year of statehood. Previous columns are available at www.jpinews.com.