By Michael Baker
I first heard about Kaoka, a coffee substitute concocted from bran and molasses and briefly made in St. Thomas around 1880, from Eric Little, a researcher working on official weights and measures. He had come to the museum to examine our newly acquired Elgin County quart measure and provided us with information on a number of the brass founders who made these vessels, including a Henry Booth and Sons of Toronto. It was one of Booth’s two sons, Henry, who started the coffee substitute business in St. Thomas. Booth and Sons were well-known coppersmiths in the province; among many clients, they had supplied the Gooderham-Worts distillery with their copper stills and piping and outfitted the kitchens of the Tecumseh House Hotel in London – the city’s biggest in the late 19th century.
Henry Wood Booth, b. 1837, had come to St. Thomas during the boom years of the 1870s likely at his father’s request to operate the firm’s nearly acquired hardware store located on the north side of Talbot between New and St. George Streets. Formerly the Horsman store, it was one the largest in town. Booth and Sons also advertised as metal workers, as
plumbers, and as gas and steam fitters. Their full-page ad can be found in the 1877 county atlas. His knowledge of steam pipe fitting and metal working was likely key in the establishment of the coffee works.
The recipe for Kaoka was provided by Booth’s doctor who asked him to try it in place of coffee. Booth was an active temperance worker and knew that supplying alternative non-alcoholic drinks would help in the campaign against booze. His drink proved a hit, first with the family – he had 10 children which almost served as a market survey in itself. Advertising widely, he created a market for the product beginning in the spring of 1879 that grew ra
pidly. A very faded photo exists showing a group of four separate buildings near the Horton Market including a box-making plant where 70 girls were employed packing the mixture.
Needing to expand, Henry found investors including W. E. Idsardi, a former engineer who had worked on the construction of the CASO line and was later mayor. They soon sent Booth to Detroit to open a U.S. branch operation in 1880. Here he seems to have tried to set up a separate company on his own, but it wasn’t successful and Booth never returned to St. Thomas. The hardware store was sold to a Mr. Blackmore. But the move to Detroit was fortuitous. His son George would meet and marry Ellen Warren Scripps, daughter of The Detroit News founder James Scripps. George eventually took over the paper and built a substantial home in Bloomfield Hills, now part of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, and where father Henry lived out his remaining years in considerable comfort.
Despite the photo of the plant, on Cranbrook’s website, I was always a little skeptical of the Kaoka story. However, last year, retired St. Thomas antique dealer Ron Gillingham generously donated a complete box that had once held possibly a pound of Kaoka. Proof positive of a little-known 19th century fad.