Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Vernor, James

James Vernor, Sr. was an American pharmacist, who became famous for the invention of Vernor’s Ginger Ale. Born on April 11, 1843 in Albany, New York, Vernor moved to Detroit, Michigan with his family when he was five years old. Working as an errand boy, then junior clerk, at Higby and Stearns Drug Store, Vernor began to experiment with flavors in an attempt to create a new recipe for ginger ale. In 1862, during the Civil War, Vernor enlisted in the 4th Michigan Calvary - the unit that captured Jefferson Davis - where he rose to second lieutenant before his 1865 discharge.

According to Vernor's company legend, before Vernor left to serve in the Civil War, he stored some of his experimental ginger ale in an oak cask. When he returned to Detroit four years later, he opened the cask and found that the taste of the beverage had improved, possibly due to the four years it had aged, tasting even better than before. He claimed that the ginger ale was “deliciously different,” which became one of the many slogans for the drink. 

In 1866 Vernor opened his own drug store on Woodward Avenue at the corner of Clifford Street, where he sold “Vernor’s Ginger Ale” at the store’s soda fountain. He married Emily Walker Smith in 1873 and they had a son, James Vernor II and a daughter Emily Louise Vernor. 

In 1896, Vernor closed the drug store and opened a small plant closer to the center of the city on Woodward, south of Jefferson Avenue near the riverfront ferry docks, to concentrate on the manufacturing and bottling of his soda. That same year, Vernor’s son, James Vernor II, became the first in a line of namesakes to run the company.

Although he will always be most well known for creating Vernor’s Ginger Ale, James Vernor was very active in Detroit politics, serving on the Detroit Common Council, as it was then known, for 25 years. During that time, he was involved in several controversies, most significantly his opposition to Mayor Pingree’s plan for public transportation. That opposition cost him his council seat. 

A major contribution was the opening of a new water filtration plant for the city, using the principles of the clean water filtration system used for bottling his soda. He was an original member of the Michigan Board of Pharmacy, formed in 1887, and held License No. 1 throughout his career. On October 29, 1927, at the age of 84, James Vernor died in Grosse Ile, Michigan from pneumonia and influenza. He is buried in Detroit ‘s Woodmere Cemetery. Vernor Highway is named in his honor.

Vernor’s was bottled in Detroit for more than 100 years, finally ending production in Detroit in 1985. Today, the soda is made by the Dr. Pepper Corporation, with a larger distribution than ever before.



James Vernor, 1910 - 2009.053.027

Vernor's Pharmacy on Woodward, 1870s - 2009.004.168c

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