Bernard Heinrich Kroger Portrait

Bernard Heinrich Kroger Portrait

Bernard Heinrich Kroger


Bernard Heinrich Kroger, known nationally for his eponymous chain of wholesale grocery stores, capitalized on America’s growing consumerism by buying wholesale and slashing prices, and by reaching a massive audience with his colorful and innovative advertising campaigns. By the end of World War I, the Kroger grocery store had evolved from a local neighborhood shop into a national business.


After Bernard Heinrich Kroger (born January 24, 1860 in Cincinnati, OH; died July 21, 1938 in Cape Cod, MA), better known as “B.H.,” died in January 1938, praise for his business acumen and philanthropy could be heard in virtually every corner of his hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. Though known nationally for his eponymous chain of wholesale grocery stores, Kroger, the son of German immigrants, was particularly celebrated locally, especially within the city’s prominent German-American community. For many, in a time of economic depression, Kroger represented a uniquely American brand of self-made prosperity, and he served as an example for other second- and third-generation German immigrants in Cincinnati. In an article published the year of his death, the Cincinnati Freie Presse emphasized that Kroger was “descended from German parents,” and was “highly valued as a businessman and human being.”[1] But while the German-American community was understandably eager to claim him as one of their own, Kroger himself strove for assimilation and even exhibited a touch of amnesia with regard to his own ethnic roots. Tellingly, as his business outgrew “Over-the Rhine,” Cincinnati’s well-known German neighborhood, Bernard Heinrich became Barney Henry, and his business strategies moved beyond local tastes in an attempt to attract regional and national markets. Indeed, Kroger capitalized on America’s growing consumerism by buying wholesale and slashing prices, and by reaching a massive audience with his colorful and innovative advertising campaigns. By the end of World War I, the Kroger grocery store had evolved from a local neighborhood shop into a national business, and Bernard Kroger had become an American businessman.

Family and Ethnic Background

Kroger was born in the American Midwest on the eve of the U.S. Civil War. His parents, however, spent much of their youth in Germany. Bernard’s father, Johan, arrived in America after leaving the Kingdom of Hanover at the age of ten in 1827. He lived in Baltimore before traveling down the Ohio River, working on flat boats in an attempt to save money and move west. Filled with ambition and expectation, he ultimately settled in Cincinnati, where he opened a small dry goods store. Above his place of business, Johan and his new wife, Mary, whom he had met in Cincinnati, lived in a small apartment. Mary Gertrude Kroger (née Schlebbe), Bernard’s mother, was born in Elve, a tiny village in Westphalia. Her family owned a small farm and produced household items for the local market, though, like many, they struggled on a daily basis. In 1837, Mary’s family decided to emigrate, hoping to purchase cheap land in the American West. Like many Westphalians, the Schlebbes seem to have been drawn to America by the reports of friends and family who had already emigrated – in their case, by former neighbors who sent letters describing their successes in America.[2] Following the basic migration chain, Mary and her family arrived in Cincinnati but pushed on to the nearby German settlement of Minster, Ohio, after seeing recruitment posters that promised cheap land and a strong immigrant community. Their arrival, however, was marked by disappointment, since land speculators had already purchased nearly all of the usable farmland in Minster, leaving only low-level swamps and impenetrable forests. Within two years, Mary’s mother and father died of typhoid. Lacking any next of kin, Mary traveled back to Cincinnati to live as a domestic worker in the growing German community. It was there that she met and married Johan Kroger in 1850.[3]

In later accounts, Bernard described his mother in reverent tones as a strict disciplinarian who was responsible both for the initial success of the family store and for instilling a sense of discipline in her children. One of nine children, Bernard was born on January 24, 1860, on the Western Row in Over-the-Rhine, a neighborhood then separated from the urban core of Cincinnati by the Miami-Erie Canal, which connected the Ohio River to Lake Erie. As a child, Kroger swam in the canal and ran around “the bottoms” of Over-the-Rhine. Named somewhat ironically after the iconic Rhine River so strongly associated with Germany, Over-the-Rhine served as a destination for Cincinnati’s German immigrants, many of whom had been drawn to the city by the promise of economic opportunities. Known as the “Queen City of the West,” Cincinnati had undergone rapid manufacturing and commercial growth in the early nineteenth century, and it dominated the flow of trade on the Ohio.[4]

Though the Kroger family stayed well connected to the German immigrant community, Bernard, like many children of immigrants, attended a local, English-language, Protestant parochial school, where German was treated as a second language.[5] Thus, while Kroger spent his early years surrounded by German immigrant culture, he also assimilated into the majority society.[6] In an article on German-Americans in Cincinnati, “The Cincinnati Germans, 1870-1920; Disintegration of an Immigrant Community,” author G.A. Dobbert examined the formation of immigrant identity, which, as he noted, underwent “erosion by rapid assimilation” by the time the second generation was born. This trend toward assimilation was further strengthened in the 1870-80s, with the slowing of German immigration to Cincinnati. As a second-generation German-American who came of age during the “third wave,” or the last push of nineteenth century immigration (1865-1914), Bernard Kroger grew up in a strong German community in the 1860s; however, by the time Kroger’s business began to realize its potential at the turn of the century, that same community was fragmented and had dispersed throughout the city and its growing suburbs. Therefore, although Kroger began his career within the German-American community, he quickly pushed to transcend ethnicity and create an American company.

In his family life, B.H. kept those closest to him deeply involved in the operation of his first stores. His mother and older brother helped manage his initial expansion to locations in and around Cincinnati. At the age of twenty-five, after a long courtship, Kroger married Mary Emily Jansen, the daughter of German immigrants who had settled across the Ohio River in Newport, Kentucky. Initially, Mary’s father proved reluctant to allow the young and not yet established grocer to pursue his daughter, but Kroger, who was nothing if not ambitious, refused to let up until his future father-in-law conceded. Together, the couple had seven children – three boys and four girls. Sadly, in 1899, both Mary and Kroger’s oldest son died of diphtheria, leaving behind a grieving family and a widowed B.H., who, from that point on, committed himself even more wholeheartedly to his business – ushering in a period of expansion and innovation at the Kroger Company. He kept up the furious pace of activity until 1928, when he slowed into retirement in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and married thirty-six-year-old Alice Flynn Maher, the daughter of a prominent Cincinnati family. He then gave each of his children $1.3 million (approximately $16.5 million in 2010)[7] and advised them to make their own fortune.

Business Development

Though Kroger would go on to establish one of America’s largest and most successful grocery store chains, his family’s first venture into the retail business – Johan Kroger’s dry goods store –ended in failure. Johan Kroger may have been the official proprietor of the small store that provided for his family, but it was Mary Kroger who, according to Bernard Kroger, worked the books and kept the business running while his gregarious father spent more time on leisure activities. Despite Mary Kroger’s best efforts, the financial panic of 1873 ruined Johan Kroger’s business, and an illness sent him to his grave shortly thereafter. In order to help support the family, Bernard dropped out of school at age thirteen and went to work as a clerk in Rheum’s German Drugstore on the corner of 5th and Broadway. A year later, seeking to escape the city and earn extra money, Bernard took a job as a laborer on a farm near Pleasant Plain, Ohio, where he earned six dollars a month. Life on the farm proved to be an eye-opening experience; as Bernard recalled, “I shall never forget that first night I spent away from home…. Although I was but fourteen and weighed only one hundred pounds, my job on the farm was that of any man.[8] Kroger despised his employer, an old German farmer, contracted malaria, and eventually walked the thirty-seven miles back to Cincinnati.[9]

Upon his less than triumphal return to the city, Kroger drew on his experience in the dry goods business and accepted a series of positions as a clerk and door-to-door salesman throughout Over-the-Rhine. After saving the business of a local grocer who then refused to let him in as a partner, Kroger began scouting locations for his own enterprise. In 1883, at the age of twenty-three, Kroger invested his life-savings of about $372 (approximately $8,350 in 2010), and together with his friend, B.A. Branagan, himself an Irish immigrant, he founded the Great Western Tea Company in downtown Cincinnati at 66 East Pearl Street. Despite an unbounded willingness to work, the new businessmen quickly found their resolve tested.Disaster first struck while Branagan made a delivery run in the store’s brand new wagon. In an attempt to outpace a train and make an on-time delivery, Branagan streaked across the tracks. He managed to escape unharmed, but the wagon and the firm’s only horse were not so lucky. Total losses amounted to over $500 (approximately $11,200 in 2010), a heavy blow no doubt. Shortly thereafter, the Ohio River swelled up over its banks in one of the worst floods in the city’s history. Rising to a level of seventy-one feet, the river swept through downtown Cincinnati, including Kroger’s store. By the time the water had receded, Kroger suffered over $350 in losses. The economic environment in which Kroger began his business was harsh and severe. Kroger’s own experience was illustrative of the devastating impact of the multitude of potential disasters and losses that lurked around every corner. Undeterred, Kroger pushed forward and within two years bought out his friend and partner. Soon thereafter, he expanded his operation by opening four new locations within Cincinnati. Kroger attributed his success to his work ethic and noted with satisfaction, “By the time other people were taking down their shutters, I already had seventy-five dollars in the till.”

While hard work surely played a role in his success, other factors were important, too – namely, his immigrant consumer base and his ambitious advertising tactics. Cincinnati’s German population reached 50,000, or twenty-seven percent, in 1850 and continued to grow into the 1880s as the city’s industrial and commercial life flourished, creating an ever-expanding market.[10] Kroger’s years as a deliveryman in Over-the-Rhine meant that he was familiar with the streets and marketplaces of the German neighborhood, and this gave him a practical entry point. But he had other advantages as well – not least his mother's homemade sauerkraut and pickles, which he sold in his store and which proved very popular with local residents.

Kroger was deeply involved in the everyday affairs of his business. His account book, which was held with Cincinnati’s Metropolitan National Bank and kept for the years 1887-1889, includes meticulous records of the business’s accounts, deposits, and purchases. He listed all acquisitions, including one from Proctor and Gamble, the future manufacturing behemoth, for forty boxes of Ivory soap at $4.00 (approximately $97.60) per box. Included at the end of the account book was a list of potential employees interviewed personally by Kroger. Specific details were kept for each candidate: for instance, Kroger described one George Keyer as having a “smart appearance,” took note of his address, 36 Michales Street, and mentioned his experience at keeping books.[11] Guided by his mother’s business ethic, Kroger guarded every bit of information about his store and began to craft the business formula he would later describe in an interview: “First: Do it first. When seasonable goods come into the market, have the first. When prices go down, be the first to reduce them. Second: Never sell anything except for just what it is, and don’t sell it then if it isn’t good. Third: Advertise as liberally as business income permits. Fourth: sell on a small margin and make the turnover rapid.”[12]

Early on, in an attempt to reach out to his growing consumer base, Kroger devised marketing strategies to grab the attention of potential customers. His first store, and each one that followed, featured prominent, eye-catching displays; as one newspaper described, “the front of [Kroger’s] stores look more like billboards than grocery stores.”[13] Tiny illustrated cards featuring children at play and courting couples were passed out to his earliest tea and coffee customers. The backs of these cards were stamped with the Kroger name and store location.[14] Later, as the business expanded, red and gold delivery wagons emblazoned with the Kroger brand and the addresses of Kroger’s stores rambled up and down the congested streets of Cincinnati, leaving an indelible image in the minds of all who saw them. By 1908, 200 horses and wagons were making regular store deliveries. Many compared the wagons to those used by traveling circuses, and when a friend mentioned this, Kroger is said to have replied, “Good, if you noticed, so will other people. It’s good advertising.”[15] Kroger’s wagons were so well known that after one accidently ran over a small dog, eight-year-old Albert Remke, the dog’s owner, wrote a letter imploring, “Mr. Kroger, won’t you please get us another dog in place of the one your wagon killed and we will thank you very much.”[16] Unfortunately, it is unclear whether Kroger ever responded. One thing is certain, however: the wagons were recognized by all, and even a young boy associated them with Barney Kroger.

In addition to the customer cards and brightly painted wagons, Kroger invested heavily in the advertising of grocery products. Kroger’s advertisements, which made ample use of large print and illustrations of specialty items, appeared regularly in Cincinnati’s numerous newspapers. They often took up whole pages in the Sunday morning issue, a strategy unheard of up to that point. As mail-order catalogs grew in popularity, Kroger placed his specialized circulars in publications bound for regional markets and remote locations such as Appalachia, allowing potential customers to enjoy the Kroger experience without ever having to walk into a store. Much later, when asked about the single greatest factor in his success, Kroger answered, “Advertising.” He went on to explain, “I find the [news]paper that reaches the most homes, and through it, tell them what I have.” This simple yet innovative emphasis on marketing ensured that the Kroger brand name soon found recognition well outside of its humble point of origin in the German neighborhoods of Cincinnati.[17]

During the economic panic of 1893, twenty years after a similar downturn that had put his father out of business, Kroger scrambled together all his resources, $80,000 (approximately $2 million in 2010) in savings. Instead of hunkering down in the hopes of waiting out the financial storm, he began buying up competitors, seventeen different stores in total. It was a gamble, one that might very well have left him bankrupt, but within a year the stores turned a profit. With this expansion came new and pioneering strategies that aimed to offer lower prices through wholesale buying. Instead of purchasing individual cases of a certain product, Kroger stores began ordering in bulk, filling whole railroad cars. Ultimately, Kroger saw bulk-buying as a chance to cut prices and force his competitors to match him step-for-step or fall by the wayside. As a way of implementing this tactic, Kroger advised his store managers, “Run the price down as far as you can go so the other fellow won’t slice your throat.”[18] In 1902, news outlets in Dayton, Ohio, announced that B.H. Kroger planned to purchase a local grocery chain. In a story entitled “Kroger’s Peculiar Ways,” one local newspaper reported that the newly managed stores were, “showing evidence of the Cincinnati man’s famous cutthroat methods.” The writer went on to explain, “The cut prices are displayed in letters and figures which scream.”[19] It was clear that Kroger intended to seize the Dayton market by employing the same aggressive advertising and wholesale buying strategies that had proved so successful in Cincinnati. After securing Dayton in a matter of months, B.H. widened his gaze in search of new markets and new customers.

In 1902, after establishing forty stores in Hamilton, Dayton, and Columbus, Ohio, and reaching $1.75 million (approximately $45.8 million in 2010) in annual sales, Kroger sought incorporation as the majority stockholder in “The Kroger Grocery and Baking Company.” Much of the company’s success is attributable to its decision to become the first grocery chain in the nation to operate in-house bakeries, which mass produced loaf upon loaf of affordable bread. By severing his store’s dependency on the whims of local baking companies, Kroger acquired a new level of autonomy. Essentially, Kroger bought ingredients in bulk and then baked and sold the bread directly to his customers. Two years later, after recognizing the efficacy of self-efficiency, Kroger purchased the Nagel chain of meat and deli operations in Cincinnati, along with several local meat packinghouses. This allowed Kroger to put butcher shops next to bakeries – all of which were conveniently located inside his stores. Increasingly, a trip to the local Kroger turned into a one-stop affair: produce, bread, and meat were all at available at one location and for lower prices.[20] Perhaps inspired by Andrew Carnegie’s experiments with vertical integration, Kroger sought to streamline and control every aspect of his business. In-house production in combination with wholesale buying practices increased efficiency, integrated the “middle-man” into the overall business strategy, and led to further price reductions. Such a business plan, however, raised the ire of Kroger’s competitors, particularly smaller ones who could not afford to lower their prices to meet Kroger’s. This lead to what the press called “the Bread War.”

With the addition of in-store bakeries, Kroger dropped the price of a loaf of bread to three cents at a time when six cents was customary. During a trip to New York City in 1901, the New York Times reported on Kroger’s activities back in Cincinnati, where, according to the paper, Kroger “established a plant, baking bread by electricity, and thereby inaugurating a bread war.” In an interview with the Times published under the headline “Will Sell Bread at Half Price,” Kroger made it clear he was “not talking as a philanthropist, but as a businessmen…. I propose to do in New York exactly as I did in Cincinnati. My flour comes direct from the mills and loaves go directly to the purchaser.” Kroger predicted even greater success, because, as he argued, “In Cincinnati, with its large percentage of thrifty Germans, bread is usually baked in the home,” whereas, in New York, few had the kitchen space or the time.[21] In response, the American Bread Company, along with several other bakery chains, vilified Kroger and claimed they would soon be run out of business. At his home address, Kroger received multiple death threats, one of which warned, “If you don’t raise the price of bread at once you will be killed or shot.” The intimidating missive was signed “A. Citizen.”[22] In the face of such criticism, Kroger brazenly made plans to open more stores and expand the size of his bakeries.

As part of his growth plan, Kroger eventually established locations outside of Ohio. In 1912, he opened his first out-of-state store in St. Louis, Missouri. Local grocers expressed concern, while the Post-Dispatch, St. Louis’ largest newspaper, referred to the store as just the beginning of a “Kroger Invasion.” In response, Kroger stepped into the public relations fray and told the Post, “I have the best help and pay them well. I cut out the middleman and give the people the benefit of direct sales. I have made between four and five millions of dollars by being honest and treating everyone on the square.”[23]

Eager to engage the press and mindful of public perception, Kroger seemed inclined to enter the political fold. In 1912, he was besieged by calls to run for governor of Ohio. The Hamilton County Republican delegation urged him to campaign, writing, “We believe that the people of Ohio this year demand a candidate for Governor who is not a politician but a businessman.”[24] Though he ultimately chose not to run, Kroger nonetheless combined his financial and political interests as world affairs threatened to obstruct economic growth. On the eve of World War I, Carl G. Voigt, an “importer-exporter” magnate from Hamburg, Germany, held a meeting with Kroger to discuss business prospects in light of growing international disputes. Afterwards, the two spoke to reporters, agreeing, “Germany is too prosperous, too busy industrially to go to war with France.” Prosperity in Germany, Kroger assured, was such that, in his estimation, America was no longer attractive for the working class and for those who had historically been likely to emigrate.[25] Although Kroger was the son of German immigrants, he saw more to be gained from emphasizing economic interests and cooperation than from stressing ethnic ties and heritage. Of course, these predictions of mutual benefit proved less than prophetic, and with the outbreak of the “war to end all wars,” and America’s eventual involvement in it, German-Americans found their loyalty questioned. The German community in Cincinnati, like German-Americans throughout the country, found itself under attack. German culture came to symbolize the pervasive presence of the enemy, the “Hun,” as well as general disloyalty.[26] In Cincinnati, German-named streets were changed, organizations were disbanded, and the use of the German language was all but prohibited, at least in public. One historian of German Cincinnati noted that those Germans who sought to survive displayed, “a positive public commitment to all things American,” which included “helping the American war effort on a local scale.”[27] In 1918, the Enquirer, Cincinnati’s largest newspaper, described the dangers of “Kaiserism” on its front page and included the comments of Otto H. Kahn, a leading financier and German American. Kahn admonished the “Fatherland” and encouraged “Americans of German descent,” especially business leaders, to support the war effort and purchase war bonds. As Kahn declared, “Professions of loyalty are empty…. By our acts we shall be judged. Let each American of German descent say to himself that his subscription to the liberty loan is and will be considered a test and proof of his wholehearted allegiance to America.” Speaking for the city of his birth, Kroger promised, “We are going to demonstrate that Cincinnati is loyal to the core.”

In keeping with this, Kroger took whatever steps were necessary to cast himself as an American businessman. Almost immediately, Kroger was elected chairman of the Red Cross’ campaign executive committee, which drove local efforts to supply the Allies and announced its intention to teach the “Teutonic child killers” a lesson. Kroger’s expertise in foodstuffs and its distribution made him a sought-after figure on the national level. He was soon named an official advisor and spokesman for the drive to conserve food, with the goal of contributing 100,000 bushels of wheat to the Allies. In widely disseminated announcements, Kroger spoke to women on the home front, announcing: “Now we are calling upon the women to assist us in food conservation. We must stand shoulder to shoulder in this great cause for victory.”[28] In support of the war effort, he asked wives, daughters, and sweethearts to conserve food and send letters: “Those boys are being trained so that they will equal the German armies… so that [one American] will be equal to two Germans.”[29] Kroger was familiar with the situation, as both of his sons were in the armed forces. The oldest, Chester, served as 2nd Lieutenant in the American Legion. In a letter to his father, which was printed in the Cincinnati Post, Chester praised his fellow American soldiers and then went on to disparage the German “Huns.”[30]

With the end of the war, Kroger returned to advancing the nation-wide expansion of his grocery store; yet the postwar period also saw him gradually retreat from his central role in the company. Nonetheless, B.H. was still at the helm and the Kroger Company experienced twenty- two-percent growth between 1921 and 1927. In 1902, at the start of Kroger’s expansion program, he had forty stores that brought in $1.75 million (approximately $45.8 million in 2010) in sales. In 1927, he had 3,749 stores and registered $161 million (approximately $2.02 billion in 2010) in sales.[31] At the end of 1927, B.H. sold the controlling interests in the Kroger Company, primarily to the Lehman brothers, for an estimated $28 million (approximately $352 million in 2010) – this, of course, would soon prove a timely transaction. A month later, amidst a transitional period, Bernard Kroger stepped down as president. A new management regime took over and introduced fresh expansion strategies. In his study of the Kroger Company’s evolving financial policies, Charles F. Phillips described the time after Kroger’s departure as a period of “galloping consumption.” Under B.H.’s close watch, the company expanded through the purchase of individual grocery stores or small chains at a gradual pace. B.H. insisted on transforming each store to meet his high standards, and he made sure to insert his own personality into each community where he established his brand. In the sixteen months following Kroger’s departure, 1,828 stores were bought up in vast mergers involving whole regional chains. These mergers were made possible by the accrued capital and stock earnings that resulted from the previous decade of growth. With the financial panic and crash in 1929, the Kroger Company saw devastating losses, and within five years 1,223 stores were closed and planned openings were postponed or canceled.[32] During the struggle, B.H. stepped back into the fray by purchasing enough stock in the Kroger Company to become the third largest stockholder. As Kroger reasoned, “I have been through every panic and depression since 1860. The first one that impressed itself in my mind was in 1873.There was a boom on…. People were speculating in real estate especially. Suddenly the bubble burst and there were hard times just like those we have been going through.”[33]

Full of confidence, B.H. insisted that the company he founded, and the American economy in general, would endure the crash of 1929. At the time, Kroger’s optimism and financial support offered buoyancy to a sinking ship; still, it is worth remembering that Kroger’s own confidence had been somewhat bolstered when, at the age of sixty-eight (and less than a year before the onset of the Great Depression), he sold his interest in the Kroger Company and increased his private wealth immensely while avoiding any personal loss. In the end, though, Kroger’s public demonstration of faith and confidence helped the Kroger Company push forward. By 1933, after managing its losses, it was the second largest grocery chain in America, in terms size (i.e. number of stores), and the third largest in sales.[34] The Kroger Company also instituted a host of customer-friendly policies and initiatives – for instance, the company started sending produce buyers to farms to inspect the quality of crops. It was a well-publicized move that sought to dispel criticisms that chain grocery stores sold inferior, low-quality foods. The Wesco Food Company was subsequently established and served as Kroger's own official inspection service, lending formality and seriousness to the project. The Kroger Food Foundation, formed in 1930, took quality assurance a step further by becoming the first grocery store chain to scientifically chart and monitor incoming foods.

With his company stabilized, B.H. went into full retirement, splitting his time between Cincinnati, Palm Beach, and Cape Cod. Nonetheless, Kroger remained connected to his home city through local philanthropies, politics, and even financial emergencies. In 1933, during a local panic and a run on several city banks, the Provident Savings Bank and Trust Company, which Kroger had helped found in 1900, saw its doors crowded with worried patrons who were desperately trying to withdraw their funds from the bank’s vaults. Kroger strode into the chaotic scene and offered up several million of his own savings to guarantee the bank and mollify the anxieties of the crowd. Kroger’s actions proved effective and the bank soldiered on. Though he increasingly backed away from everything he had built, B.H. remained a prominent figure in the community where he had gotten his start.

Social Status

As a man of great wealth, Kroger sought to help those who struggled like his own family once had. B.H. launched his philanthropic efforts in 1903, when he paid for 5,000 school children to be admitted to Cincinnati’s Coney Island, a theme park located outside of the city. In gratitude, one child wrote to him, “I went to your picnic Tuesday and enjoyed myself very much as I think many others did.”[35] Kroger continued to help the less fortunate children of Cincinnati by supporting the Anti-tuberculosis League and by building Kroger Hill’s farm for anemic and tubercular children.[36] In 1929, at the very beginning of the depression, he addressed the Cincinnati “Community Chest,” a civic charity charged with distributing funds to worthy causes. In a speech to encourage donations, B.H. explained his own motivations: “I will never forget the days of my boyhood…how the poor took care of the poor, sharing their miserable possessions with their neighbors.”[37] By 1933, Kroger was giving, on average, around $30,000 per year to various charities (approximately $505,000 in 2010), most often anonymously; and in August of 1935, he donated $4,000 (approximately $63,500 in 2010) to reopen the city playgrounds.[38]

Along with philanthropy, Kroger also found himself increasingly drawn to local politics. Upon entering the political scene after the outbreak of World War I, he became a particularly vocal opponent of the city’s Republican political machine, which was led by George “Boss” Cox. Kroger compared the “Old Gang” of Cincinnati’s political machine to the “Spitzbuben” (or thieves and rascals) from his days in Over-the-Rhine, the “mischief makers of the neighborhood…the ne’er do wells.”[39] Kroger’s personal battle with Cox spilled over into the local press, and when his Provident Bank bought out the Cincinnati Trust Company, of which Cox served as president, Kroger was viewed as the victor. One newspaper editor portrayed the conflict as an epic battle, writing, “It was as millionaires that these two men met…their methods matched them against each other, and Cox fell and Kroger was victorious.” Though Cox claimed to be a man of the people, Kroger was loved for giving them three-cent bread.[40]

Kroger’s face-off with Cox led him to further forays into Cincinnati’s local political scene, where he supported the Charter Party, a third party bent on reforming the city’s corrupt Republican machine in the years after Cox’s death.[41] Later, throughout the Great Depression, Kroger championed the Republican Party and remained critical of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom he described as “a man who wants to be dictator of the United States.” He added, “Our President is surrounded by men who would like to Russianize this country.”[42] Though he remained interested and engaged in public life, Kroger began to step back from the political and economic concerns of the day and focused on family and recreation instead. On July 21, 1938, on a family trip to his home on Cape Cod, Bernard Kroger died of a sudden heart attack. His death made national news but was felt particularly strongly in Cincinnati, where obituaries praised his contributions to the city.


Later in life, Kroger was described by a contemporary as a “titan” of his industry, a man whose “white head was like a plume among the warriors.” He was known for his temper, which he himself lamented, and which he often attributed to his youth “in the streets of the bottoms” in Over-the-Rhine.[43] Fiercely competitive, he was often criticized as a cold-hearted and calculating personality who saw only dollar signs. While Kroger acknowledged his own cutthroat mentality, he also displayed a fondness for his customers and for Cincinnatians in general. His charitable works were extensive, and his efforts to aid local children’s organizations were unmatched. Beyond philanthropy, Kroger held a place of reverence in his home city, and he was beloved for ensuring that his company headquarters and chief production centers remained in Cincinnati, where they provided employment for thousands. At the time of his death, the Enquirer estimated Kroger’s personal wealth at $20 million (approximately $319 million in 2010) and praised him as a “great Cincinnatian,” who in “his early struggles and in his great achievements,… typified the best of the American tradition.” For its part, the Cincinnati Freie Presse described him as a “‘self-made man’ in the best sense.”[44]

Within Cincinnati, Kroger’s German heritage was certainly widely known. In fact, when former Prince Wilhelm of Germany visited Cincinnati, he met with the city’s most famous German-American, Bernard Kroger. In some ways, however, it is difficult to envision the man who died as one of America’s most successful businessmen as the young German-American boy who once knocked on doors in Over-the-Rhine.[45] No records suggest that Kroger belonged to any of Cincinnati’s German clubs or associations, though they were myriad, and he was never associated with a German church. Having come of age during the last great wave of German immigration, he rose to prominence while simultaneously supporting the American war effort to defeat the country of his parents' birth. His biography charts a path of integration into American culture and, to a certain extent, it also illustrates the pressures of American capitalism. Kroger’s business legacy continues today: presently, according to the Kroger Company website, B.H.’s empire includes nearly 2,500 stores in 31 states with annual sales exceeding $70 billion, making Kroger one of the largest retailers in the country.


[1] Cincinnati Freie Presse, July 22, 1938.

[2] Walter Kamphoefner, The Westphalians: From Germany to Missouri (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987).

[3] Robert A. Tonnies, “A Brief Biography of Mary Gertrude Kroger, Nee Schlebbe, 1831-1918,” Cincinnati Historical Society (hereafter, CHS), 1991.

[4] Peter M. Harsham, “A Community Portrait: Over-the-Rhine, 1860,” Cincinnati Historical Society Bulletin 40 (Spring 1982), 63-72.

[5] George Laycock, The Kroger Story: A Century of Innovation (Cincinnati, OH: The Kroger Company, 1983), 13-15.

[6] G.A. Dobbart, “The Cincinnati Germans, 1870-1920; Disintegration of an Immigrant Community,” Cincinnati Historical Society Bulletin 23 (October 1965), 229-42.

[7] All current values (in 2010 USD) are based on Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,” MeasuringWorth, 2011, using the Consumer Price Index.

[8] “Barney Builds a Business,” 4, Pamphlet 650-B259 (CHS).

[9] “Barney Builds a Business,” 5 (CHS).

[10] Carl Wittke, “The Germans of Cincinnati,” Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio 20, no. 1 (January 1962).

[11] B.H. Kroger, Account Book, MSS-qk93-RMV (CHS).

[12] Laycock, The Kroger Story, 23.

[13] B. Kroger Scrapbook, MSS 63 (CHS).

[14] The Kroger Magazine, L. 10, no. 2, February-March, 1937.

[15] “Barney Builds a Business,” 10-13.

[16] MSSVF 4281, Albert Remke, letter to Bernard Kroger, March 29, 1903 (CHS).

[17] “Barney Builds a Business,” 14-18.

[18] “Barney Builds a Business,” 14.

[19] “Kroger’s Peculiar Ways,” B. Kroger Scrapbook, MSS 63 (CHS).

[20] “Barney Builds a Business,” 19-20.

[21] New York Times, November 12, 1901; New York Times, November 14, 1901.

[22] B. Kroger Scrapbook. The “Bread War” played out dramatically in the local press and many articles about it can be found in this scrapbook collection.

[23] “Kroger Invasion,” B. Kroger Scrapbook (CHS).

[24] Letter to B.H., B. Kroger Scrapbook and Manuscript Collection (CHS).

[25] B. Kroger Scrapbook and Manuscript Collection (CHS).

[26] John Arkas Hawgood, The Tragedy of German-America (1940; reprint, New York, NY: Arno Press, 1970).

[27] G.A. Dobbert, “The Cincinnati Germans, 1870-1920,” 240.

[28] Cincinnati Enquirer, December 13, 1917.

[29] Kentucky Post, November 2, 1917.

[30] Cincinnati Post, August 19, 1918.

[31] Charles F. Phillips, “A History of the Kroger Grocery and Baking Company,” National Marketing Review, no. 3 (Winter 1936), 207-10.

[32] Phillips, “A History of the Kroger Grocery and Baking Company,” 209-15.

[33] Cincinnati Post, November 1, 1930.

[34] Phillips, “A History of the Kroger Grocery and Baking Company,” 205.

[35] B. Kroger Scrapbook and Manuscript Collection (CHS)

[36] Cincinnati Post, July 22, 1938.

[37] Clipping from April 6, 1920, B. Kroger Scrapbook and Manuscript Collection (CHS).

[38] Cincinnati Post, August 15, 1935.

[39] Cincinnati Post, October 11, 1929.

[40] B. Kroger Scrapbook and Manuscript Collection (CHS). For more on Boss Cox, see, Zane L. Miller, Boss Cox’s Cincinnati: Urban Politics in the Progressive Era (1968; reprint, Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2000).

[41] Zane Miller, “Thinking, Politics, City Government: Charter Reform in Cincinnati, 1890s-1990s,” Queen City Heritage 55 (Winter 1997), 24-37.

[42] Cincinnati Times Star, October 15, 1936.

[43] “Barney Builds a Business,” 2.

[44] Cincinnati Freie Presse, July 22, 1938.

[45] B. Kroger Scrapbook and Manuscript Collection (CHS).

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Bernard Heinrich Kroger
  • Coverage 1860-1938
  • Author
  • Website Name Immigrant Entrepreneurship
  • URL
  • Access Date June 23, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 22, 2018