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Interview with Michael Gruss

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Michael Gruss speaks about Willis Sharpe Kilmer, his horses and the Swamp Root Medicine he produced.


This audio file and digital image may only be used for educational purposes. Please cite as: Broome County Oral History Project, Special Collections, Binghamton University Libraries, Binghamton University, State University of New York. For usage beyond fair use please contact the Binghamton University Libraries Special Collections for more information.


Broome County Oral History Project

Interview with: Michael Gruss

Interviewed by: Anna Caganek, Dan O'Neil, Joe Newcomb, Nettie Politylo

Date of interview: 30 January 1978

Dan: Okay. Uh, when will this be, uh…?
Joe: Oh, it’ll be, uh…it’ll be a little while. We’ll let you all know when it’s gonna be out; it’ll probably be a couple’a weeks.
Dan: Couple’a weeks?
Joe: Couple weeks we get to…permission. That, We’ll have a couple more to talk with, eh…some other people [unintelligible]
Michael: And then you’re all through with that.
Joe: Yeah, we’re all done for now.
Michael: Yeah.
Joe: Yeah.
Dan: [chuckles]
Nettie: That was really interesting, Mr. Gruss.
Michael: Now, I thought maybe you’d want a picture there taken of that shrine in the back.
Joe: Uh, what’s that?
Michael: Huh?
Joe: Shrine?
Michael: You go toe - go through the-
Dan: Y-y-you can show - yeah. You can show him the, the, the shrine; it’s right through the back door there.
Michael: Wait, you go right, straight through - you look through that window there.
Nettie: Through that window.
[Cut to a bit later]
Michael: In the town, Vixen.
Dan: Mm-hm.
Michael: And that [unintelligible] was desperately, you know, against anything like that. Because yeah, he was one…
[Background noise interruption]
Dan: Huh, huh, go ahead. Yeah, it’s on now. Yeah. Yeah…
Joe: Yeah, we’ll be going back to the, uh…
Annie: Thank you very much.
Joe: Back to the office.
Annie: I appreciated hearing this story so - Endicott Johnson, especially. History.
Michael: How did you like that in the back? That shrine?
Annie: That’s part of your handiwork, huh?
Joe: That’s very nice. Very nice.
Annie: It’s a powerful tree.
Michael: You know, I thought maybe if one wanted a picture of that sometime, they could go down and take ‘em.
Joe: Yeah, okay. We-
[Unintelligible mix of voices]
Dan: Have you, eh…have you got any more of these here I could give to Joe? One to Joe?
Joe: What’s that?
Dan: This is a, this is a pin of the s-Johnson City Arch.
Joe: Oh, yeah. Yeah, you got any of those?
Nettie: We all got pins, but we all got one, yes.
Dan: Yeah.
Joe: Oh, did you? Good.
Nettie: So you have to have one, too.
Michael: There’s you.
Dan: That would be for a man.
Nettie: For a man, you gotta have the rum.
Michael: And, and you just got the one head over, the other head [unintelligible]-
Nettie: The rum, Mr. Gruss.
Michael: You have to have one of those. [clears throat]
Dan: Nah, that’s just-
Nettie: This one here.
[Unintelligible mix of voices]
Michael: No, the, the other [unintelligible]. Mm-hm.
Nettie: Oh, yeah.
Dan: Mm-hm.
Joe: Yeah.
Michael: You got one?
Nettie: Yeah, I have a small one. Yeah, I have a small one.
Michael: That’s all I get out of 22 pounds.
Dan: Yeah [laughing].
Michael: No, I see it. Eh, eh, I’d have to get it for, for every room. Well, anyway…they cost - you see that…it cost, er, the shoes and [unintelligible]-
Joe: We don’t know if they can touch.
Dan: Brass, isn’t it?
Michael: Huh?
Dan: Brass, isn’t it?
Michael: No.
Dan: Brass, probably.
Michael: No, it was bronze.
Dan: Bronze?
Joe: Oh, yeah.
Dan: I imagine you could take-
[Unintelligible mix of voices]
Michael: And I have to get from every room - for all the ages - how many male, how many female. Go to each room, and I put it in an envelope, and put mark that down there, and that’s - put on my suggestion: 10 cents a piece.
Dan: Yeah.
Michael: And that, that’s what it cost, ebeh, when I, eh, had to mail.
Dan: Yeah.
Michael: And that’s, everybody got ‘em because everybody was 100 back then for, eh, you know…E. J. Well, you know what they did years ago. My job was, eh - during the wintertime, they - every week there’d be two cargos of oranges or fruit. And, and we had four rows in, eh, Florida, you know.
Dan: Mm-hm.
Michael: E. J.’s.
Dan: Yeah.
Michael: Yeah, so we, eh…I was down there. Well, Patterson. He used to be the market master. And, eh, they sent two cargos here: One for Endicott, one for Binghamton.
Joe: Right.
Michael: So they sold the tops.
Joe: Right.
Michael: 50 cents a pack for your oranges. Three if it was all, all right there on the tree. Because if it was on every car, there had to be two men.
Dan: Mm-hm.
Michael: See, when your left floor - they’re in Florida, when they loaded, they had to put ice in there.
Dan: Mm-hm.
Michael: But, when you got to the cold country, you had to dump the ice. And, uh, light these kerosene lamps to decide - so they wouldn’t freeze.
Joe: Do you remember anything about the Kilmer, eh…Swamp Root factory?
Michael: The what?
Dan: Kilmer Swamp Root? Do you remember anything about the Kilmer Swamp Root?
Michael: Oh, yeah. Willis Sharpe Kilmer?
Dan: Yeah.
Michael: Oh, yes! I knew him good.
Dan: Hm, did you?
Michael: Everybody said he was a mean - he had that, um…place there, eh…bought up [Route] 17…uh…Sky Lake.
Joe: Mm-hm.
Dan: Mm-hm.
Michael: Yes. See, my son was doing some floor work up in there, and I had to have some more tile.
Dan: Yeah.
Michael: And there come up - drove up in there. And Willis was up in there. And, eh…he said, “You got any business here?”
I said, “I sure have.” Said, “I’m bringing some tile up here for my son.”
He said, “Who?”
I said, “John.”
He says, “Is that your son?”
I said, “Yes.”
Ooooh!” He grabbed, he said, “Let’s goin’ up in there.”
He helped me to carry it there. He had four buildings here and two lakes.
Dan: Mm-hm.
Michael: He said, “Gee.” He says, “I’m glad to meet you. I got every - take ‘em.” He says, “Anytime you wanna come in here, come.” And he said, “The place is yours.”
Dan: Uh-huh.
Michael: Yeah, he was awful, awful nice.
Dan: George, George Ely was his Treasurer.
Michael: Huh?
Dan: George Ely was his Treasurer.
Michael: Yeah. Well…
Dan: As I understand it, there was-
Michael: I think there was a, eh…wh-where, uh, there’s whatcha call there…? That Slovak cemetery. That whole place, all the way up to the top - that’s where his barns were for his horses.
Joe: Did he have a race track there?
Michael: Yes - big race track.
Dan: That was on Riverside Dr., though?
Michael: Riverside Dr.
Dan: Yeah.
Michael: There was no Riverside Dr. at that time because that was all fenced in up ‘till that hill there.
Dan: Yeah.
Michael: And there was all barns up in there. You take for instance, eh, the horses. [clears throat] You can see today, they’re all in bronze. Was you ever up to the Kilmer Ceme-Cemetery?
Dan: Yeah, that’s, uh, that’s, uh, LaFrance Cemetery on Morgan Rd.
Michael: Where?
Dan: LaFrance Cemetery on Morgan Rd.
Michael: Right. Yeah.
Dan: They’ve got a monument to Exterminator.
Michael: Exterminator. And the other one there is, eh…
Dan: Sun Briar.
Michael: Sun Briar.
Dan: And, yeah.
Michael: That was the fastest horse. That, that, the horse brought him money.
Dan: Exterminator won the Derby.
Michael: Yeah.
Dan: That was a last-minute switch.
Michael: Yeah.
Dan: Yeah.
Michael: He was, he was, you’ll see, you’ll see there’s other animals in there: Dogs, and cats, and everything.
Dan: Yeah, yeah.
Michael: Am I right? There’s monuments all around there.
Dan: [clears throat] He’s got one big plot.
Michael: Yeah.
Dan: There, it’s very well-kept.
Michael: Yep.
Dan: Mm-hm.
Michael: You know, uh…everyone said he was a mean guy, and this and that.
Dan: Mm-hm.
Michael: Well, I didn’t find him that way.
Dan: Mm-hm.
Joe: What other association did you have with him?
Michael: Wi’im?
Joe: Yeah.
Michael: Not - no kind of a personal association at all.
Joe: I see, I just wanted to-
Michael: It was just that way.
Joe: Yeah.
Michael: Meet him that way, and I always found him very, very good.
Dan: Mm-hm.
Michael: Because you see, uh, here, when he died? Everybody was, yelled that there were out, said this and that. They told me, they said, “Well, why don’t you put your name in there? You’ll get something, anyway.”
I said, “No, I don’t want anything.”
Nettie: [laughs]
Michael: “Don’t want anything that don’t belong to me.”
But I’ll tell you, as far I was concerned? I thought Willis Sharpe Kilmer was a very good man.
Dan: Yeah.
Joe: Now, did he found the company or was it his father?
Michael: Huh?
Joe: Did he found the company or was it his father?
Michael: Well, I’ll tell you the truth about it. He had a brother. And his brother, ah, eh, made that swamp root medicine.
Dan: Right.
Michael: Am I right?
Dan: Right.
Michael: I mean, he stole the patent.
Dan: That’s right. That’s, that’s where he-
Joe: Who, who did, now?
Michael: Willis.
Dan: Wi-Wi-Willis and his father-
Michael: [chuckles]
Dan: -stole the patent from [chuckles] the uncle.
Michael: Am I right?
Dan: Right.
Joe: Well, wa-was it his father or was it Willis?
Michael: It’s his brother.
Joe: Yeah. But, who stole the patent?
Michael: Willis stole it from his brother.
Joe: I see, alright. Okay.
Dan & Nettie: [chuckles]
Michael: You see, they had to, whatcha call it…? Had it, eh…you know, to have, eh, have patents made, it’s quite tricky.
Nettie: Right.
Joe: Yeah. Now, who’s - who was Dr. Kilmer? The one they used in the advertising? They called it, “Dr. Kilmer.” Now, that was-
Michael: That was Willis Sharpe.
Annie: Thank you.
Joe: Oh, was that Willis?
Dan: Yeah, the thing-
Annie: -we can talk to you then.
Dan: Okay.
Annie: Thank you very much for letting us-
Michael: Yeah, it was nice here.
Annie: Thank you.
Michael: Yeah. Good talking to you.
Annie: We’ll talk to you soon.
Joe: Thank you.
Annie: Bye, nice to meet you.
Joe: We’ll let you know if there’s good - we’ll let you know if this is going to be on so you can watch yourself.
[Shared laughter]
Annie: We’ll tell you when. Okay?
Michael: Well, that’s, that’s the whole story.
[Unintelligible voices]
Dan: I, I, uh, I’ve got, uh, I’ve got that on another tape. Uh, uh, about the, uh…
Joe: Do you? Of Kilmer?
Dan: Kilmer, yeah.
Joe: Oh, okay.
Dan: Stealin’ that, stealin’ that-
Joe: Alright.
Dan: -eh, patent. But, eh, as I understand, of course, in those days-
Michael: You didn’t know it was a swamp root, did you?
Dan: Eh, yeah, yes, I knew it was not a swamp root. But, eh, in those days, advertising was such that it was, eh, eh, it was, it was shady. In other words, somebody would send me on, and would advertise a yard of soap for 10 cents.
Michael: Yeah.
Dan: So you’d send in your 10 cents and they’d send you a, a yard of soap thread.
Michael: Well…
Joe: Yeah, it was-
Michael: The thing is, know you take places like the First Ward. That’s where everybody came here to do their shopping. Everybody from whole [sic] Binghamton.
Dan: Mm-hm.
Michael: ‘Cause they had the stuff they needed. And you take for instance Dr. Mary Ross…she was 100%, she was, uh, as I said before, on maternity cases.
Joe: Yeah.
Dan: Mm-hm.
Joe: Well, I think we-
Michael: And I couldn’t turn anybody down. I couldn’t, you know? People were poor. There was a lot of poor ones who, they-
Dan: [clears throat]
Michael: But, I still say what they love - what we need over here…we need a good shopping center and a good drug store. We have no drug store.
Dan: No.
Joe: You keep plugging that.
Michael: Huh?
Joe: You-
[Tape cuts to sometime later]
Dan: This concludes a televised interview with Mr. Michael Gruss of 10 Phelps St., Binghamton, New York.

Date of Interview



Caganek, Anna


Gruss, Michael


12:35 Minutes

Date of Digitization



Broome County Oral History Project

Subject LCSH

Gruss, Michael -- Interviews; Broome County (N.Y.) -- History; Johnson City (N.Y.)

Willis Sharpe Kilmer; Swamp Root Medicine

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This audio file and digital image may only be used for educational purposes. Please cite as: Broome County Oral History Project, Special Collections, Binghamton University Libraries, Binghamton University, State University of New York. For usage beyond fair use please contact the Binghamton University Libraries Special Collections for more information.



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The Broome County Oral History Project was conceived and administered by the Senior Services Unit of the Office for the Aging. Funding for this project was provided by the Broome County Office of Employment and Training (C.E.T.A.), with additional funding from the Senior Service Unit of the National Council on Aging and Broome… More

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