James “Jimmie” Durkin: The "Main Avenue Philosopher"
James “Jimmie” Durkin
Jimmie was born in Walsall, England, on September 8, 1859, to Irish immigrants Thomas and Mary (McGuire) Durkin. Thomas, a coal miner, passed away in 1863 leaving his widow with five young children, the youngest born the year he died. Mary Durkin married Patrick Murphy on September 24, that same year and, in 1867, they immigrated to America. The family moved to the Midwest, but 9-year-old Jimmie remained in Brooklyn, New York, with an uncle. One of his jobs in those years was working at a bar and learning the liquor business. Eventually Jimmie moved to Perham, Minnesota, where his mother and stepfather had finally settled. There he met Margaret Daley. They were married on August 8, 1882. After their first son was born in September 1884, Jimmie moved his family to the town of Colville in Washington Territory in 1886. There, he discovered that local bars were overpaying for freight deliveries. With his knowledge of the liquor business, he knew he could cut costs. Durkin became Colville’s 10th liquor distributor. He prospered, and within a few years his $2,500 investment had grown in value to $65,000. Jimmie and Margaret’s family also expanded while in Colville, with the births of four more children.
In late spring 1897, Durkin moved to Spokane, which, along with Coeur d’Alene, was booming. He located in a downtown storefront on the corner of Sprague and Mill (today’s Wall) and began retailing liquor. In an adjoining bar, he served fine alcoholic beverages and quality cigars. Durkin’s bar offered better-priced drinks than its competitors and earned a reputation as being respectable. Drunks and their boisterous behavior were not tolerated, and bartenders could not imbibe while on duty. He eventually had two other downtown establishments, one on Sprague Avenue and the other on Howard Street.
Durkin was known for his flair for advertising. Seeing the boulders along the road one day as he was on a stagecoach, he had an inspiration. He hired a sign-painter to apply “Jimmie Durkin's Fine Wines and Liquor” on nearly every boulder along the roadway. Durkin also used bar window displays to promote his products and created uniquely shaped bottles and jugs.
Prior to national prohibition, Washington State was in the throes of a temperance movement. In 1907, a local Baptist minister took offense at Durkin's window displays and railed from the pulpit on the evils of liquor, stating that he would like to put his own display at Durkin's. Learning of this, Jimmie told the minister he could use all of Durkin’s bar windows to advertise anything he wanted at Jimmie’s expense.
The minister created an eight-window display of alcohol’s ability to destroy lives and dreams. Although they drew considerable attention over the weeks, business at Durkin’s increased dramatically. The minister finally conceded: "Jimmie Durkin is a man of his word." Durkin proudly used the phrase as his motto ever after.
Jimmie Durkin was known as a generous man. It was reported that he and other prominent Spokane businessmen made large personal cash contributions to aid the town of Wallace, Idaho, after it was destroyed in the “Big Burn” of 1910.
In 1915, Washington enacted a state prohibition, Durkin was quoted as saying, “We finish here now. Someday … there will be a reversal of the prohibition policy. In any case, I and my organization will give the law the strictest obedience.” Durkin wholesaled his current stock to various buyers and closed down two stores. The third business, at 415 W. Main, was sold and became Stewart and Ulrich, a card and billiard hall. Meanwhile, Jimmie had begun a business known as “Durkin’s Soft Drinks, Inc.” After the repeal of prohibition, Durkin rejoined Ulrich on Main Street.
Durkin was an outspoken individualist in a city not noted for progressive politics. He spent most days holding court at his small wooden desk, doling out witty opinions on many topics. Durkin himself reflected a remarkably open mind for the times and earned a well-deserved reputation as the “Main Avenue Philosopher.”
Jimmie Durkin passed away at Sacred Heart Hospital on July 8, 1934. In 1935, the Spokesman-Review reminisced, saying: “He belonged to the vanishing race of individuals, men who developed in original molds and not in the machine standardization of today. He was an Irishman who dared to be himself.”