Joseph Michael Kavanagh : Founder of the Joseph Kavanagh Company
Old Uncle Joe as he is known by the Kavanaghs was born on January 10, 1836 in New Ross, County Wexford, Ireland. He traveled as a teen with his mother, two brothers and a sister to America. The Kavanaghs settled in Baltimore in the early 1850s. First living at Center Market then for over thirty years on Albemarle Street. When he came of age, he began training as a coppersmith. He even took a trip to France to learn about the French Column Still. A new innovation in the distilling industry. Joe became a very accomplished smith.
On April 9, 1866, he partnered with George Smith to form Kavanagh & Smith. A coppersmith Shop. The precursor to the Joseph Kavanagh Co. In 1868, the Black Friday Flood destroyed their stall at 1 W. Falls Ave. He and his partner continued. They quickly moved to 708 E. Lombard Street. They made household items at first such as pitchers, pans and cooking kettles. They also made fountains and did repairs for steamships. Soon, Joe began to tinker with the Continuous Column Still that was becoming more and more popular with distilleries. They began making and repairing these stills. In 1877, Joe bought out George Smith and became the sole owner. Word of the quality of Joe’s work began to spread and they became big players in the distilling industry. Producing and servicing stills and associated apparatus for customers up and down the east coast. He hired more men and expanded. Several of his nephews began working for him and he trained them in the trade.
When he married, it was late in life at the age of 40. His wife, Mary (Doyle), died two years later in childbirth. The baby died, as well. A little over two years of happiness with the woman he loved and that short span of her pregnancy to be a father. That’s all he got. Happiness seemed to allude him, but he persevered. He was certainly heartbroken and perhaps that is why he never re-married. He threw himself even more into his work and business. He began reading about a statue that would be built in New York. A huge copper structure. The Statue of Liberty. He took some time away from the Shop and traveled to New York. He stayed with one of his brothers and sought out work on Liberty. He was disappointed to learn that the coppersmith work was completed in France. He was undaunted. With no coppersmith work to be done, he took a job as a laborer/rigger. He helped raise the sections of the statue until they were placed and mounted. He was very inspired by the idea of this colossus and what it stood for. It meant quite a bit to him to be involved. He never forgot where he came from and that he was an immigrant in this country.
In his later years, he devoted himself to establishing his business and insuring its future. Thus insuring the future of his nephews The Shop began producing beer brewing vessels and vats. Joe and his crew worked for many of the local breweries before and after the turn of the century. There were five nephews who worked for him at one time. He was very close to his family. He loved his nephews as if they were his boys. Of course, he did work with them and teach them. They shared a strong love and a comaradarie. He was deeply religious too. A devout Roman Catholic who attended church regularly and was involved in his parish, St. Vincent De Paul and later St. Elizabeth’s. Though an expert on distilling, he was not in any way a big drinker. He would enjoy a glass or two of rye whiskey certainly, but rarely more than that. As the Joseph Kavanagh Company prospered and grew, Joe gave thought to its future. I’m sure he dreamed of the Shop being a source of support and employment for his nephews and beyond.
The last two years of his life would surely shake that dream to the core. One nephew, Eugene, was killed in a train accident in 1903. He was returning from taking measurements at a distillery in Conn. The following year the Shop was destroyed in the Great Baltimore Fire. Joe and the surviving nephews stood on the East side of the Lombard Street bridge and watched the building burn. They saw it all quite literally go up in smoke. Uncle Joe watched everything he worked for come crashing down. He was devastated, but not destroyed. The next day he met with his nephews and made plans to move forward. To keep the Shop going. He acquired temporary premises and they went back to work. Sadly, Joe died on Dec. 4, 1904, about ten months after the Fire. He had no assurance that the business would continue. They were still very much in doubt. Their recovery would take time as would all of Baltimore’s. Joe died not knowing if what he worked for and built in his lifetime would last. He wasn’t sure it would make it through the next winter.
As we all know, the Shop does go on. Old Uncle Joe becomes nearly a mythical figure in the annuls of the Shop. His skills were legendary and though I am not saying they were exaggerated. I am saying that his presence and abilities became almost super-human in our eyes. I remember well when I was a teenager working here, we were doing a job that was tough. A tricky one. I recall my father saying matter-of-factly, this is a tough one. We could use Old Joe right now. I saw my uncle nodding very knowingly as he listened. Joseph M. Kavanagh had a reputation. He lived up to it. The reputation out-lived him. It did help to inspire those generations that followed. Joe becomes a strong figure representing hard work, great skills and determination. He NEVER gave up. He fought a flood, depressions, fire and death. He NEVER gave up. Those that follow have no choice but to try to measure up. Many of the dates and deeds of this man were lost to memory. Even the date of the Shop’s beginning was lost to time until I discovered it early this year. A combination of research and oral history are what we have left to build his story on. And, of course, that reputation he had.
I can’t help but wonder what his thoughts would be today. We still exist. The Joseph Kavanagh Co. celebrated its 152nd Anniversary in April. My great-grandfather, Joseph Anthony Kavanagh, was Old Uncle Joe’s nephew. The Shop has passed from my great-grandfather to my grandfather and his brother, to my father and his cousin and finally to my sister and I. We are in Dundalk now, but spent over 90 years on the corner of Pratt & Central. That building still exists. Still with our name on the side. We are no longer coppersmiths, but we still work with copper occasionally. We bend metal of almost any alloy now. It is not the same as what Uncle Joe did, but it is not all that different. He worked here for 38 years. I’ve worked here for 38 years. His nephews worked for him. My nephews work for me. I am named for Uncle Joe. In many ways, he is my hero. Though there have been several Joes, I am the first Joseph Michael since Old Uncle Joe. Sometimes history repeats itself whether by accident or intent.
Joseph Michael Kavanagh