Gail & Ax Tobacco Mural

Gail & Ax Tobacco Mural, Little Falls, Minnesota. Photo by Alice Smuda, January 2008.

Gail & Ax Tobacco Mural, Little Falls, Minnesota. Photo by Alice Smuda, January 2008.

“Oh, what is that?”  I got only a glimpse as my husband drove by.  I wanted to see more, so around the block we went to get a better look.  There on the entire west wall of the Hauer Electric building is a mural for Navy Blue Cigarettes.  “Never heard of that cigarette”, we both said.  The mural states the manufacturer to be Gale & Ax Tobacco Company in Baltimore, Maryland.  Now that was a big surprise to me, as that is my hometown.
Now I am really curious about this mural and anxious to get home.  I went straight to my computer and sent an email to The Enoch Pratt Free Library in ­Baltimore, Maryland.  They acknowledged my request right away and I had the information within the week.  A copy of an article that appears in “A Descriptive Review of the Manufacturing and Mercantile Industries of the City of Baltimore – Historical Publishing Company, Publishers, 1882”, reads as follows:

“The well-known house of Messrs Gail & Ax has a national and worldwide reputation as manufacturers of smoking tobacco, fine cut chewing tobacco and snuff of various grades.  The firm consists of Mr. George W. Gail and Mr. Christian Ax.  The father of Mr. Gail, the founder of the house, began business at Glesen, in Germany, in 1807.  The son began business in 1850 on Pratt Street near Charles Street, on a small scale.  In 1853 the first wing of the present large factory was built on Barre near Charles Street, and in 1855 Mr. Ax joined the firm.  In 1850 the present large factory was completed, and to accommodate a largely increased business, two additional wings were built making a structure five stories in height, 144×183 feet, giving employment to about 350 hands, including many skilled workmen.  This establishment is supplied with the most perfect machinery in use for manufacturing purposes, for the making of smoking tobacco; fine cut chewing tobacco and snuff.  One of the most famous brands of smoking tobacco turned out by this house is the “Little Joker”, which is popular all over the United States on account of its excellence.  The bulk of the trade of the firm is in the long cut smoking tobacco.  The house uses Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Maryland and some imported tobacco in the manufacture of their goods.  The annual consumption of this firm reaches between two and a half and three million pounds.  The trade of the house extends all over the United States and abroad.  This is the pioneer firm in smoking tobacco in Baltimore, and has done much to build up permanently and substantially the tobacco trade of the city.”

Well, that all sounded very impressive to me.  In fact, the next day at work I mentioned the mural to Mary Warner.  She thought I should write a story for our news feed “Skimming the Cream”.  After writing my first draft, and keeping it at a minimum of words, she said “I’ve decided to use this in the newsletter, so now you can expand your story”.  Now that scared me more than a little bit, especially when she suggested I call Cathy Van Rissenghem and tell her I was interested in the history of the mural.  Oh no, Mary wants me to call the Mayor.  After that shock, I got on the phone and talked with the mayor’s assistant and she promptly put me through to Cathy.  During our conversation, she told me she would have “Frank” call me, and he did that very same day.   I told Mary I was talking with Frank Gosiak and he told me he is Cathy Van Rissenghem’s brother.  Mary looked at me with that smile and said “Uh huh”.  She is so good at letting people find out things for themselves.  Frank told me approximately when he finished painting the mural and I researched the newspaper to get the following details:

“The mural is actually a repainting of, and addition to, the advertisement for Navy Blue Tobacco, located on the west side of the Hauer Electric Building on 1st Avenue SE.  The idea conceived was to turn the fading ad into one that would be anti-smoking.  The original painting was done by Pete Lind.  It was completed on December 17, 1906, when the temperature was minus 17 degrees.  I wondered how the paint would hold at that low temperature, related Frank Gosiak.  Then, I learned they had put up a false wall next to the wall and heated that space in between.  You can still see the metal rods coming out of the building’s side that held the false wall.
Gosiak was hired by the Freshwater Education District to spearhead the current project.  The district also accepted the cost for all the necessary materials.  Rural MN CEP paid the wages of the 11 students who helped with the project.  In addition to doing much of the actual painting of the mural, the students also did research on the area and ad, designed the addition, power washed the wall, put on the primer and did some landscaping.  They will be given credit for their work from the high school.
The addition includes a cemetery with tombstones. These have 10 year increments which will soon have the number of smoke-related deaths added on.  The last panel also includes a pack of tobacco going up in smoke.  Numerous individuals can be picked out in the smoke.  A book added to the original ad gives the names of those who did the update, as well as the date it was completed and the temperature of the day–August 4, 2000, 87 degrees above.  It did get hot, said Gosiak.” (Morrison County Record, August 13, 2000, “City’s newest mural makes a statement”)

So ends my story on a “hidden treasure” I found in our small town of Little Falls, Minnesota.  Thanks to all, past and present, for their time and talent for a job well done.

Alice Smuda
Copyright 2008, Morrison County Historical Society

6 Comments

  1. william l lucas

    I,am a certified Antique Appraiser and Estate liquadator.recently i was approached by a client to do a appraisal on a large statue that was put out by the. little Joker smoking and cigarette tobacco G.W.Gail & AX Baltimore,MD.the statue is just wonderful and very,very rare.this info was important to me. nice going. W.L.Lucas.CAP.ddhofibros

  2. Hi, William – We’re glad the article was helpful to you.

    Mary Warner
    Museum Manager

  3. Thomas A. Bowditch

    G.W. Gail in Baltimore of Gail and Ax Tobacco was my great, great grandfather and we all remain proud of our German ancestor today. Interesting story on the mural. Their tobacco was very popular during the Civil War and sold in small, flat tin containers which you can still see in museums at places like Gettysburg. Tom

  4. Hi, Tom – We’re always so thrilled to hear from people related to those who have a connection to Morrison County history because it makes our history come alive. Thanks so much for adding to our story of the mural.

    Mary Warner
    Museum Manager

  5. Hi I live in England and have some cigarette cards given with G W Gail & Ax’s Navy tobacco I have no idea of the date of these cards and they feature ladies of the day in various poses some which I imagine would have been very risque back then. Apologies as I realise this is not what you are interested in but do you know any other organisation that would be interested in buying these.

  6. My goodness, Linda, the lateness of our reply is shameful. Once in a while the blog comments get away from us. Please accept our apologies.

    If you’re looking for a home for your Gail & Ax cards, there are a number of options. You can try to place them with an organization in the Baltimore, Maryland, area due to the company’s connection with the place. You could also try to place them with a museum that collects tobacco- or smoking-related artifacts. You’ll find a number of possibilities by Googling “tobacco museum.”

    A lot of small museums don’t have the ability to pay for artifacts, but if you donate an artifact, you can take a tax deduction based on an independent appraisal off the item. Museum staff can’t legally provide appraisals, so you’ll have to find an appraiser.

    If you are looking to sell your items, there are collectors willing to purchase tobacco-related memorabilia. You may be able to find someone interested in them in England. Just ask around at local antique shops. If someone at an antique shop offers to purchase your items, be aware that you will not get full retail price for them because the antique shop needs to be able to sell the items at a higher price in order to make money on them.

    Mary Warner
    Museum Manager

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