Coffee, Cowboys and a Ranch: The Arbuckle Brothers’ Wyoming Connection

By Phil Roberts, University of Wyoming Department of History


Arbuckle Coffee was the mainstay for every cowboy on the range in the late 19th century and the owners had a Wyoming connection. While the two coffee magnates never had homes in Cheyenne, John and Charles Arbuckle owned the PO Ranch north of the city and John Arbuckle frequently visited in Cheyenne.

Before Arbuckles’ coffee innovations, coffee beans were sold green in general stores. The purchaser then roasted the beans, usually on a wood stove or, if he was a range cowboy, in a skillet over a campfire. Only after that could the beans be ground and brewed. If the process was done incorrectly and even one bean was burned, the entire batch was ruined. But even when the job was done right, the coffee lacked consistency.

Arbuckles’ coffee had unique properties because of the way the Arbuckles packed the ground coffee. First, they roasted the coffee beans, then they packed the ground coffee, while it was still warm, in small individual metal containers.

John Arbuckle came up with the unique packing method six years after he joined the already existing coffee importing firm established in 1859 by his uncle Duncan McDonald, a friend William Roseburg, and John’s older brother Charles. While working in the family’s grocery company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, John experimented with ways to seal the flavor and aroma of already roasted coffee.  When Arbuckle added an egg and sugar glaze to the beans after roasting, they seemed to retain freshness. He then packed the treated beans in air-tight one-pound packages and shipped them off.

As the firm grew, the brand adopted a distinctive yellow label, each package of coffee having emblazoned on it the name “Arbuckles” in large red letters across the front. Beneath the name was a “flying angel” trademark over the words “Ariosa Coffee” printed in black letters. .

The Arbuckles called their coffee “Ariosa.” The “A” apparently was for Arbuckle, “rio” for Rio de Janeiro, and “sa” for Santos, both important coffee ports in Brazil. 

The firm advertised the product extensively. A handbill the firm circulated in 1873 is considered the first coffee advertisement ever printed in color.

For shipment to retailers, the Arbuckles packed the one-pound coffee packages in sturdy wooden crates, 100 packages per crate. General store owners throughout the West utilized the crates for shelving. One historian notes that Navajo Indians used the crates in wood-scarce locations in Arizona for repairing housing.

As time passed, the Arbuckle company printed coupons on the coffee packages that could be redeemed for handkerchiefs, razors, scissors, and even wedding rings. Each package also contained one stick of peppermint candy.

The packed coffee beans were a particularly big hit among chuckwagon cooks on the range in the West. The cooks often outfitted chuckwagons with a crate of the Arbuckle coffee bean packages.  When cowboys demanded fresh coffee, the cook would either open a package of beans and grind them himself or ask, “Who wants the candy?” The cowboy wanting the peppermint stick could earn it by doing the grinding of the beans.

After the firm became the largest coffee importer in the world in the 1880s, John Arbuckle turned to selling sugar in a similar fashion. He purchased refined sugar from the American Sugar Company, a firm controlling 95 percent of all sugar sales in the U. S. in 1892, packed it in small packages and distributed it like he had done with coffee. Soon, the Arbuckles decided to build their own sugar refinery. 

American Sugar, controlled by entrepreneur H. O. Havemayer reacted to what the firm viewed as infringement on its monopoly by entering the coffee importing business. For the next ten years, the two firms battled. Finally, in 1900, the companies reached a cooperative agreement and the trade war came to an end.  Historians point out that the historic Arbuckle-Havemeyer trade battle cost the combined sugar and coffee forces $25 million, making it one of the most expensive legal disputes in early American industrial history.

Two years after building their first sugar refinery in the East and a year after Wyoming statehood, the Arbuckle Coffee Company purchased the PO Ranch. They bought the ranch in 1891 from M. E. Post, prominent territorial politician and rancher who had started the ranch in 1872.  Francis E. Warren, Wyoming governor and senator, later became a Post partner in the venture.  

The record is unclear as to how the Arbuckles became interested in the Wyoming ranch.  Neither of them had Western ties. Both were born in Scotland, coming to America with their father as children. Both lived most of their lives in Pittsburgh. One of the brothers may have traveled West or became interested in the ranch through an agent.

Charles Arbuckle, the younger brother, had little time to enjoy the brothers’ ranch. He died two years after the purchase and John took over direct management, even though he spent considerable time away on business. At the time, Arbuckle was not only the owner of the nation’s largest coffee importing firm, but also owned the largest shipping in America. In the 1890s, every merchant ship engaged in the South American coffee trade was owned by the firm.

John Arbuckle not only “invented” packing methods for coffee. He is also was granted a patent on a design for a mitten. On July 9, 1889, the patent office issued him the exclusive right to manufacture a mitten with a hole in the thumb through which one could blow in order to keep one’s hands warm.  Unlike the coffee-packing inventions that endure to this day, the mitten seemed not to gain universal acceptance.

John Arbuckle died in 1912 and his wife took over as administrator of the Wyoming ranch. Manager Edgar Boice ran the ranch operations, however. After Mrs. Arbuckle’s death, the estate went to five unmarried Arbuckle sisters who owned it jointly until it was willed to the Presbyterian Mission Board. The church organization sold portions of the ranch in 1945 to Fred Boice (son of long-time manager Edger) and to the Warren Livestock Company. Later, Boice’s sons Fred II and Robert operated the PO until the 1970s when they sold to Oppenheimer Industries who later sold it to private investors.

The ranch continues in operation, but Arbuckle coffee faded into history even though several brands trademarked by the firm continue to be sold in vacuum-packed cans today.