Like any member of a longtime Philly family, J. Del Conner seems to be related to half the neighborhood. Except his old hood is Society Hill and his family helped found the country.
There was great-great-great-great-great-grandpop Philip Syng, a silversmith who palled around with Ben Franklin and crafted the inkstand that the founders used to sign the Declaration.
There was a great-great-great-grandfather, Dr. Philip Syng Physick, praised as the father of American surgery, private physician to John Adams and Dolley Madison, inventor of techniques and instruments that revolutionized medicine, and creator of health insurance.
And, of import for this tale, also the man who introduced soda pop to America.
Like his ancestors, Conner is a man of myriad interests. He builds firebacks (reproductions of decorative cast-iron fireplace pieces), two of which are now on display at the Museum of the American Revolution. He designs old-timey maps of Philly and even made the pin for the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, of which I am a proud member.
He also plays in a honky-tonk band called the Saddle Sores. “I’m an old cowhand from the Rio Grande,” sings Conner, who lives in the Northeast with his wife, Jacque.
And like ole Dr. Physick, he’s dipped his beak in the soda business.
Conner, who is 66, started bottling and selling the family recipe – or as close as he could get – 10 years ago, the 200th anniversary of when Dr. Physick first followed a European fad and prescribed soda water for upset stomachs. For $1.50 a month, patients were delivered a morning dose of soda. To add flavor, Physick mixed in some cherry shrub. Boom. Soda pop.
Conner’s brand is called simply Dr. Physick. Black Cherry, just like the good doctor’s. It’s good, with enough sugarcane to open your eyes.
But Conner’s really more in the history business, than in soda. He sells about 500 cases a year, mostly at gift shops in the historic district. The old stuff is not cheap to make, he says.
“The champagne of soda,” he says of the tonic that sells for $13 a four-pack.
And if in those first fiery days of rebellion Conner’s ancestors risked it all over tariffs on their tea and sugar, these days Conner is pretty peeved over the soda tax.
He frets it could mean the end of America’s first fizz. At $4.32 of tax on a case – he absorbs 32 cents. His sales are down by half so far this year, he said. But it's early in the season.
I’m a soda-tax supporter, and this isn’t the case to sway me. But I am a soft touch for history.
And Conner, an extremely gracious man, has got serious history cred.
Many of the men in his family tree fathered children into their old age, he said, explaining why only three “greats” separate him from Dr. Physick, who died in 1837.
Next, there was a great-great-grandfather, Commodore David Conner, who gallantly led men in both the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War.
Then, great-granddaddy Philip Syng Physick Conner, a noted historian.
Then came grandpop Edward Conner, who didn’t really have a job except for being a Conner with money to spend. And he did. He lost lots of it during the Great Depression.
Conner’s dad, Alan, worked as a tool-and-die maker at the Budd Plant.
For 12 years, before retiring last January, Conner served as the caretaker for the Physick House, the doctor’s mansion in Society Hill. He lived in an upstairs bedroom, and the place is totally haunted, he said.
Many a morn, he’d come downstairs to discover upturned furniture. Once, his tale goes, the ghostly apparition of Conner’s great-great-great grandmother Elizabeth showed up on the front step and inquired, redundantly, if the house was haunted.
As he grew up in Germantown, Conner said, kids would beat him up when he told them his family had invented soda.
Now, it sells, and the family fizz lives on. At least, Conner hopes it will still.
But what I found by talking to his customers should allay the soda man’s fears. The guys at Franklin’s Fountain, by far his biggest client, say they hope to buy even more cases for the Spruce Street Harbor summer shop, if the weather is drier than last year.
Hearing the hopeful news, Conner let himself relax a moment in Dr. Physick’s beautifully appointed breakfast parlor, the ghosts quiet for the time being. He marked the moment by popping a bottle of great-great-great grandpop’s soda water. For upset stomachs.