Alfred Speer was born of humble parentage near Belleville, N.J., Nov. 23, 1823. His father, Henry Speer, a shoemaker, who had learned his trade in Newark, N.J., when it was but a village, never rose above being a foreman in a custom (ladies’) shoe-store in New York. He died poor, leaving a wife and two children; the oldest, Alfred, in his early childhood was brought up by his grandfather, Henry I. Speer, a poor, hard-working farmer, who lived on his small farm, situated on the west bank of the Passaic River, two miles below the village of Acquackanonk, now the city of Passaic. His education was limited. The only school was two miles distant, and the only time he could be spared from work was during the winter months, and his schooling never exceeded four or five quarters.
At the early age of fifteen young Speer was bound out as an apprentice to learn the cabinet-making trade at Newark, N.J. He boarded with his employer, and received twenty-five dollars per year for each year until the age of twenty-one. Out of this salary the apprentice had to pay for his washing and buy all his clothing, so it can be easily seen what economy he was obliged to practice. Boys were not known to have overcoats nor wear kid gloves in those days. Young Speer’s tastes did not run in that mechanical direction at that time: it was for a literary life he yearned, but, being poor and with a limited education, at the age of twenty-one his first thoughts were to start a shop in the country at his native place, with the hope of getting sufficient work from the neighborhood to enable him, by working half the week, to earn enough to command the other half for study and experiment. With this object in view he built a shop near his grandfather’s farm-house. The New York Evening Post, a year or two ago, in speaking of Mr. Speer’s success as a wine producer, says,—
"It may serve a good purpose, as an example of what energy will accomplish, to notice briefly Mr. Speer’s career. Thrown upon the world when a child, he was at fifteen years of age apprenticed to a cabinetmaker, who agreed to board him, teach him the trade, and give him twenty-five dollars a year for his clothes until twenty-one years of age. Any one who served an apprenticeship forty-five years ago knows what that means,— ten hours in the shop, and a rest from labor in the evening, which was generally enjoyed in splitting wood, milking cows, and by daylight in the morning weeding gardens, and with making fires and ‘doing chores.’ At this period of his life young, Speer had an ambition to become a literary man, and every spare moment was devoted to study. He devised various expedients to secure funds for the purchase of books, and almost invariably got up long before day in the morning to study an hour or two before beginning the morning chores. At the expiration of his apprenticeship he resolved to start a shop of his own, of course on a small scale, in his native village of Passaic. A friend leased him a piece of ground, whereon he built him a shop with his own hands, and got all the business of the neighborhood, which was scant enough. Often he has come to New York, bought the stuff for a bureau or sofa, shipped it by rail, and returned home on foot, a distance of twelve miles, not having money left to pay his fare. He would then turn the raw material into furniture, which would produce funds enough to make another trip for still more material to the city.
"Energy and determination to succeed soon brought their reward, and in a few years he had a larger shop and was able to employ several journeymen; but, notwithstanding his apparent success, he was still without capital. To supply this he was in the habit of making journeys through the country, taking a circuit of ten or fifteen miles, carrying with him his tools and varnish-pot. Thus armed he would call at the farm-houses, repair furniture, revarnish the chairs and tables in the ‘best rooms,’ and occasionally send a peculiarly crazy and dearly-cherished piece of antique furniture to his shop to be ‘made as good as new.’ In this way he accumulated enough to buy his shop and the lot on which it stood, and soon after the house and grounds which he now occupies as a dwelling. During this close application to business he found time to employ his inventive faculties, which he did in devising a piano on an entirely new plan, for which he obtained a patent. He also invented and patented a window-fastener, now in general use; since then the much talked-of traveling sidewalk for rapid transit in cities. Want of means (which in his case included time as well as money) impelled him reluctantly to partially abandon his idea of a literary life, and he turned his attention to horticulture and arboriculture as a means of recreation (thus proving that the busiest men have the most leisure), and incidentally to those pursuits manufactured some wines, which he stored for his own use.
"Ambitious to enlarge his establishment, he started out with his window-fasteners, intending to sell the patent right of different States, and invest the proceeds in the other invention or in making and storing wines. When in New Orleans he found his patent right poor stock, and not wishing to leave Louisiana without at least clearing his expenses, he sent home for a basket of his wine. This he used as a sample, and took large orders in New Orleans and Mobile. This unlooked-for success led him to the conclusion that anything that appealed to the sense of taste, especially the bibulous taste, would prove more profitable than window-fasteners or new style pianos, and he at once returned home and directed his attention to fruit and wine-making.
"From a small beginning, and in spite of obstacles of no ordinary kind, he has attained great success as a vine-grower. His Mount Prospect Vineyards are at Passaic, on which are raised vines of different varieties, some of the most difficult to bring to maturity. Among them is the imported Oporto grape, from which is made the Port grape wine, which rivals in every quality the Spanish Port. As may be supposed, the utmost care and unceasing attention during ten years of costly experiments were necessary to bring the Oporto grape to a bearing point, in which time thousands of vines sickened and died during our winters and springs. A few, however, survived, and they, after eight and ten years’ nursing, at last became hardy, and formed the stock from which vigorous layers were made for propagating. The vines thus obtained have now become acclimated and thrive well. Having passed all the vicissitudes of our climate, they become healthy, vigorous, and prolific bearers. The grapes are allowed to hang until October, when they become ‘dead ripe.’ They are then gathered and put in the wine-press, whence the juice is conveyed in pipes to vats, where it is allowed to remain.
"The average production of the vineyards controlled by Mr. Speer is about thirty-two thousand gallons a year.
"Mr. Speer has devoted over twenty years to the study of vinous fermentation. He first commenced in a small way by making fruit wines from currants and berries, and soon became interested in the planting of vineyards at Passaic, N.J., where he has expended thousands of dollars in experimenting on the cultivation of foreign wine grapes and in the employment of the most skilled wine-growers of Europe. Mr. Speer was the first in this country who extensively advertised American wines.
"So rapidly has the demand for Socialite (a claret) and Port grape wine of New Jersey production increased, that it was found necessary to enlarge the cellarage and storage accommodations, and a fine three-story building, one hundred feet front, has been erected, having underneath several cellars, one within another, where any degree of temperature can be steadily maintained.
"What he began as an experiment has proved the stepping-stone to fortune, and he now has the most extensive vineyards and wine-vaults in the Eastern States, and an office and salesroom at No. 16 Warren Street, New York. Notwithstanding his many engagements, he still found time to spare to fulfill the duties of a good citizen by taking an active part in every movement that tended to the welfare of the village. In 1867 lie saw that grading and paving the streets would enhance the value of property largely, so, after obtaining the necessary authority from the Legislature, at it he went, devoting an entire year, without hope or prospect of reward, to the enterprise. He graded and laid over five miles of sidewalk in about five months, and the result is seen in the fact that more houses have been erected in Passaic during the past twelve years than in one hundred years before, and handsome villas and cottages dot the landscape in every direction. As a consequence, the value of property has more than doubled, and, although there are many beautiful sites for buildings, they are held at largely enhanced prices as compared with two years ago. His Port grape wines have acquired a worldwide reputation among physicians, and are used in hospitals as the best wine for medical purposes, and are largely used by churches for communion.
In 1870, Mr. Speer being owner of considerable property in Passaic, which he had purchased from time to time during the five years previous, was deeply interested in the welfare of the city. He conceived the idea of starting a printing-office and publishing a newspaper in the interests of the village. Accordingly, Jan. 9, 1870, the first copy of the Weekly Item, an independent four-page paper, was issued. Before six months had expired he found it necessary to enlarge the paper, which he did to eight pages, and it is yet published and edited by Mr. Speer.
Since the Item was started two daily papers have sprung up in Passaic, each published by estimable parties, whom Mr. Speer brought to Passaic at different periods as foremen in his office, in which capacity they each served faithfully until they started for themselves.
Mr. Speer is also the inventor of several new and useful improvements not yet fully developed; one is a new method for rapid transit in cities, called "Speer’s Traveling Sidewalk," about which there was so much excitement a few years ago when the New York Legislature passed a bill giving Mr. Speer a charter for building it the whole length of the city of New York. Large capital stood ready, and but for the veto of Governor Dix it would have been built. The plan is a novel one, and is said by eminent engineers to be practically a series of platforms connected together, forming an endless train of cars, to be run continuously without stopping, by stationary engines. The most ingenious thing about it is the plan by which passengers are to get on and off the train without stopping it; even if run at a speed of fifty miles an hour, an old man or one on crutches can get on and off as easily as to get from one chair to another on his own piazza. This invention Mr. Speer is still working to have introduced on some short route to prove to the traveling public its practicability. Mr. Speer has done much for the prosperity of Passaic. He built the first public hall in the city; he secured by subscription the first set of street-lights, purchased the lamps, and had them placed on wooden posts about the streets; procured the change of the name of the village from Acquackanonk to Passaic; was the first to apply to the representative in Congress to get the government to improve the navigation of the Passaic River; and he has expended hundreds of dollars in grading the streets and laying the first crosswalks and sidewalks in the village. In various other ways he has aided in its improvement and encouraged a general spirit of enterprise.
Cedar Lawn Cemetery
New Jersey, USA
Created by: Gregory Speciale
Record added: Aug 23, 2005
Find A Grave Memorial# 11595557
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