Mobile’s Other “Banana Man”

Ashbel Hubbard worked his way up the ladder of success in Mobile’s most important industry of the early 1900s.

Ashbel Hubbard golfing, unknown date. Erik Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama. Unloading bananas in Mobile circa 1901. Courtesy the Library of Congress.

Few parts of Mobile’s long history of commerce are more romanticized than the banana trade. Writers like Celestine Sibley and Julian Rayford gave us lyrical descriptions of the sights and sounds of the docks where the green-gold bounty was unloaded, sorted, stamped and sold. Photographers such as Erik Overbey and Arthur Rothstein captured the black and brown faces of the workmen who carried banana bunches on their backs from warehouses to awaiting refrigerator cars. In many of these images, the men are watched by stern-looking supervisors while executives with pencils and ledgers count every load, their starched white shirts in glowing contrast to the scene. 

Fortunes were made along these docks. Legends were made there, too. None more so than that of Samuel Zemurray, a Bessarabian Jew who arrived in Mobile near the turn of the 20th century and, within a few decades, took over United Fruit Company, a global behemoth. “The Banana Man,” they called him. 

But, as it turns out, Mobile had a banana man before Zemurray arrived. Though his career has been overshadowed by his more bombastic former partner, Ashbel Hubbard helped keep the fruit flowing to his native Mobile, and in the process helped stabilize the city’s economy in the early 20th century.      

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Hubbard was born on February 6, 1869, the middle child of Martha and Dudley Hubbard. The Mobile that young Hubbard knew was one of economic instability. His own prospects were limited, even more so in 1884, with the death of his father. Fifteen-year-old Ashbel Hubbard went to work. Over the next decade, he made his way through the city’s manufacturing and retail companies. In 1894, Hubbard came into the business of bananas, working as a bookkeeper for the J. B. Camors Company, one of several small fruit importers along Mobile’s growing banana docks.  

The banana makes for an oddly-shaped sort of savior. But for Mobile, the oblong fruit was precisely that. Reliable imports from Latin America had long been the desire of city leaders, who in 1893, even offered a cash reward for the first firm to secure a steady supply of bananas. When the Sala arrived at the docks later that year, it heralded the first consistent trade into the old city in many years. By the turn of the century, Mobile was the nation’s third-largest importer of the fruit. More than 400,000 bunches arrived each year. Ashbel Hubbard was present at the beginning of this new economic era. He worked with several early banana companies, sometimes simultaneously. By 1901, he had branched out as a wholesaler in his own right. He built a two-story warehouse at the corner of Marine and Church streets.   

As the money came in, Hubbard kept up appearances. He owned a summer cottage along the Biloxi shore. In 1907, he purchased the mansion at 1060 Government Street. Hubbard was a member of the Knights of Pythias, an officer in the Chamber of Commerce and a frequent promoter of his hometown. He once paid to have nearly 100 refrigerator cars traveling throughout the nation placarded with signs touting “Mobile Mardi Gras, the Mother of Mystics.”   

It is not clear when or where Hubbard and Zemurray first met, though it seems likely to have occurred at the docks. Both men had known hardships. Both were good businessmen. There, the similarities would appear to end. A Life magazine profile once compared Zemurray to “a cactus in a rose garden.” None would have said this of Mobilian Ashbel Hubbard. Around 1903, the two men formed a wholesaling partnership. Soon thereafter, they bought out a struggling New Orleans shipping company for $30,000 in capital. With a single, wave-battered vessel, the Hubbard-Zemurray Steamship Company was born.  

The elder Hubbard brought to the partnership the cachet Zemurray lacked and a measure of stability amongst fellow fruit importers and financers. Not that sharp-elbowed Zemurray cared for such things, of course. He knew them as necessary for success. He and Hubbard bought the Cuyamel Fruit Company a few years later, giving them a foothold in Honduras for future growth. In 1910, they purchased an additional 5,000-acre tract. Hubbard-Zemurray was no longer a mere wholesale business or even another importer. Now the strivers atop the company’s masthead were growers, with no middlemen cutting into their profits along the route from their forests of banana trees to American kitchens. Only United Fruit did more business at Mobile’s banana docks than did Hubbard-Zemurray.  

Still, Zemurray wanted more land, more ships. Though nervous at the further extension of their resources, Hubbard dutifully lined up loans for additional acreage. When that money ran out, Zemurray wanted to tap into what could only charitably be called less savory, extra-legal sources of income. Hubbard refused to go along with the scheme. And so, their partnership came to an end. Zemurray bought out Hubbard’s stake and renamed their business after the Cuyamel Fruit Company. Asked later by a New Orleans newspaper for comment on his erstwhile partner, all Hubbard could manage was, “He’s a man with big ideas.”        

But Ashbel Hubbard was not out of the banana game. In March 1914, he founded the Chamelecon Steamship Company with three new partners and $50,000 in cash. The fruit continued to flow into Mobile. A little more than a year after Zemurray had redirected all of his ships to New Orleans in a huff, most of the vessels returned through a partnership with Hubbard’s new concern. 

Businesses come and go. The short-lived Chamelecon Steamship Company dissolved in October 1916. With his fortune secure, Hubbard returned to dabbling in the wholesaling business. He also joined the board of Merchants National Bank and became a vice president in 1918. And he found more time to invest in his favorite hobby: Mobile’s Southern League baseball club. Hubbard was a keen supporter who kept the team solvent in leaner years.     

Personal matters returned him to the headlines as well. In 1919, Hubbard divorced his wife of 23 years and married a woman three decades his junior. He then hired noted architect George B. Rogers to execute a $60,000 remodel of his Government Street home to better suit the tastes of his new bride. 

In the early 1920s, Hubbard got back into the boat-buying business. On a cold mid-January day in 1922, he strolled down to a public auction at the federal courthouse and bought a British steamer whose owners had defaulted on their repair bill. Hubbard purchased the 670-ton vessel for just $2,000 — a song. The next year, he secured a stake in a new business, the Mexicana Trader Steamship Company, and relocated one of its fruiters from Norfolk. This ensured an additional 10,000 bunches of bananas a month to Mobile. In 1925, a new, twin-screw vessel anchored along the Mobile dock, adding 15,000 bunches to Hubbard’s monthly haul.  

Mobile banana dock workers, 1920s. Erik Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama. Hubbard’s Government Street home. The William B. Wilson Photographic Collection at the Historic Mobile Preservation Society. 

Perhaps eager to move out from the unsavory shadows of his double-dealing, meddling fellow banana men, Hubbard gave liberally of his fortune. He supported Reverend A. F. Owens’ annual charitable efforts to feed Mobile’s poor and infirm. Hubbard provided much of the funding for the new edifice of Dauphin Way Methodist Episcopal. His name is engraved upon the cornerstone.   

During the fall of 1928, he was stricken with poor health. As he convalesced, Hubbard conducted his business affairs from a bedroom in his Government Street home. There, Ashbel Hubbard died on March 29, 1929. His obituary on the front page of the Mobile Register noted his philanthropy and long career, saying “his rise from a clerk to a high position in the business world was rapid.”  

A few months after Hubbard’s death, United Fruit purchased Cuyamel Fruit Company, the business he founded with Sam Zemurray almost three decades earlier. The deal made Zemurray one of the richest men in America and laid the foundation for his takeover of United Fruit a decade later. Ashbel Hubbard became a footnote in the story of “Sam The Banana Man.”    

In Mobile, litigation between Hubbard’s first and second wives stymied the philanthropic spirit found in his last will and testament. This was to the benefit of teams of lawyers, of course, but few others. The final resolution of his assets took more than two decades, by which time only a small number of people remembered Mobile’s own “banana man” and his connection to the industry that helped pull his native city out of economic ruin.

Writer and historian Scotty E. Kirkland is the author of a forthcoming book entitled, “Jordan’s Stormy Banks: Politics and Race in Twentieth-Century Mobile” and is a regular contributor to Business Alabama Magazine

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