On the corner of Lewis and Chenango Street in downtown Binghamton stands an enormous building that towers over the rest of the city. This particular building standing at six stories high, and resembles nothing like that of its surroundings. Although it is now renovated into a modern upscale restaurant, it used to be home to one of the most successful patent medicines ever sold: Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root Kidney, Liver and Bladder Cure. The successful merchandising empire of Swamp Root can be accredited to one individual who used his creative advertising and went on to become a millionaire: Willis Sharp Kilmer.
Where did Swamp Root come from?
The origination of the Swamp Root legacy can be traced back to Sylvester Andral Kilmer. Born in 1840 in Cobleskill, New York, Kilmer was interested in homeopathic medicine and traveled around the country in order to learn various techniques. Kilmer was met with success when he moved to Binghamton and became a traveling doctor, going to patient’s homes and providing remedies. By creating laboratories to manufacture his products, he was able to quickly spread his products all over town. Some of his medicines included Ocean Weed Heart Remedy, Indian Cough and Consumption Cure, Female Remedy, Autumn Leaf Extract, U & O Ointment, Prompt Parilla Pills, but the most famous one was known as Swamp Root Kidney Liver and Bladder Cure. Many people claimed that Swamp Root’s curing abilities came from the high alcohol content, when in fact, it had a very small percentage of alcohol as an ingredient. It consisted of oil of Juniper, swamp sassafras, mandrake root, valerian root, skullcap leaves, cinnamon, aloe, and sugar. As Kilmer gained recognition for Swamp Root, his brother, Jonas Kilmer joined and helped run the business in 1878, eventually buying out his brother’s share of the company.
How did Willis Sharpe Kilmer take over the business?
After taking ownership of the company, Jonas Kilmer invited his son, Willis Sharp Kilmer to take over the advertising department of the business. As a recent Cornell graduate, Willis Kilmer single-handedly transformed the advertising business by using new innovative ideas to spread information about Swamp Root. Since advertising was a relatively new field during the 1900s, he needed connections in order to get the word out about Swamp Root. He married his first wife, Beatrice Richardson and used her father’s connections as a newspaper executive to print pictures of Swamp Root in local newspapers and eventually made it possible to print it nationally. It was a very risky move for the company and Kilmer almost bankrupted the business, until all of the orders came flooding in. Within a couple of years, the Kilmers were shipping Swamp Root all of the country and even to Europe, Asia, and Australia. Once he gained more enterprise, Kilmer created an almanac where a picture of a different one of their medications appeared on every page and described the ailments it would cure. As the demand for Swamp Root increased, Kilmer felt the pressure to expand his productive and hence the Kilmer building was created in 1903. Standing at six stories high, it was made of stone faceted walls and covered 72,000 square feet. This magnificent structure glorified Binghamton’s increasing Swamp Root industry.
What type of criticism did Kilmer receive?
As a successful business entrepreneur, Willis Kilmer dealt with a lot of backlash and criticism from the local media. In their advertisements, Kilmer encouraged people to send urine samples in order to be evaluated for Swamp Root treatment. A story published claimed that their evaluations were not thorough because even when horse urine samples were sent in, they were still prescribed Swamp Root. However, this did not decrease any sales for Kilmer and his empire continued to grow throughout the country. Another competitor known as Guy Beardsley, editor of the Binghamton Evening Herald, published a story that claimed that Willis Kilmer and his young ward, Ester Wadsworth, were seen together at a racetrack in New Jersey and accused them of having an affair. The story enraged Kilmer and he swore that he would destroy Beardsley by forming his own newspaper. He needed to have the tallest skyscraper in Binghamton, and therefore constructed the Press Building on Chenango Street. The twelve story building towered over the city of Binghamton. Kilmer even added an extra story to ensure that it would be even taller than the Security Mutual building, the largest one at the time. It became home to the Binghamton Press and grew to be the largest newspaper in the area, successfully putting Beardsley out of business.
What happened after Swamp Root?
Along with his manufacturing of patent medicines, Kilmer also focused his efforts on breeding horses and created Sun Briar Court, where he could train his race
horses. His two main horses, Sun Briar and the Exterminator, went on to become two of the most famous race horses in history and earned over $200,000 in purse money. After expanding his empire along the entire East Coast and creating the Binghamton Country Club, Kilmer died of pneumonia in 1940. He is currently buried in Floral Park Cemetery in Johnson City, New York.
What is the significance of the Kilmer building today?
The Kilmer building holds a special part of Binghamton’s past. After Kilmer passed away, ownership changed many times, but eventually was bought by Frank and Lynn Whitney and ultimately renovated into a local space for businesses to lease. Some businesses that are currently located within the Kilmer building are the Goldsmith, Remlik’s (which of course is Kilmer spelled backwards), and Kilmer Brassiere and Steakhouse, and CMS Imaging Solutions. By restoring the architecture and magnificence of the building, the Whitneys were able to revive the prosperity of the enormous building.