Sam Zemurray – Banana Man of New Orleans

Sam The Banana Man

In the late 1800s, at age 15, Sam Zemurray immigrated from Russia to Selma, Alabama, where he saw his first banana. At that time, shiploads of bananas arrived in Alabama. They loaded green bananas on trains bound for cities all across America. They threw the ripe bananas into the bay. This gave Sam an idea. For hardly nothing he bought a large lot of the ripe bananas destined for the bay. He loaded them on a train to Selma, selling them at every stop. He sold out before he made it back home. Hence his nickname the Banana Man of New Orleans.

In 1899, he sold 20,000 bananas. In 1903, he sold 574,000 bananas. A decade later, he sold one million bananas a year. By Sam’s 21st birthday he was worth a million dollars in today’s market. Then the banana grew in popularity. Zemurray moved to New Orleans. He traveled to Honduras on a land acquisition spree, buying underpriced swampland ideal for growing bananas.

Sam Zemurray The Banana Man
Sam Zemurray The Banana Man

A Military Coup

In the process he also acquired some of the best politicians money could buy. When the Honduran President opposed his scheme, Sam Zemurray, Banana Man of New Orleans, began a war. A military coup disguised as a revolution removed El Presidente from office. Throughout Honduras Sam bought more land along with more politicians. He built a banana empire named Cayumel. Then he merged with Boston based United Fruit.

Sam Zemurray's home on St. Charles Avenue
Sam Zemurray’s home on St. Charles Avenue – the Tulane Chancellor’s Home Today

Sam bought and restored a plush mansion built by a lumber baron at 2 Audubon Place on St. Charles Avenue. Today that mansion is home to Tulane University’s Chancellor. Sam acquired several thousand acres of land around Folsom, Louisiana, that became the famous Zemurray Gardens. Furthermore, he endowed Tulane University with buildings and a program in tropical medicine.

A Big Part of History

He took part in the United Nations vote to create Israel. Central and South American votes were crucial and he had connections. In the 1950s, Sam battled Central American reformers that wanted the gringos out. Central American governments began taking over United Fruit’s lands with the idea of dividing them up and giving them to the poor. Sam engaged public relations front men who devised communist takeover threats to scare The US into opposing the reform. Regime change was once again on his mind.

Stories were fed to the press and the State Department. McCarthy’s Red Scare fanned the flames. Che Grifeura rose as a hero of the downtrodden on the isthmus and the revolutionary dreamers on US college campuses. Ever wonder where the phrase “banana republics” came from? The phrase was created because of the favorable treatment the fruit companies were given. The war wasn’t about communism, it was about United Fruit getting its land back.

Sam Zemurray The Banana Man
Billions of bananas imported to the U.S each year and the Port of New Orleans is a main entryway

Eventually, US antitrust laws forced Zemurray to downsize, selling off part of his empire to DelMonte. Years later, United Fruit was bought and the name was changed to Chiquita. The U.S. imports billions of bananas each year. The port of New Orleans is one of the main entryways.

Bananas Foster is Born

Owen Brennan opened Brennan’s Restaurant at its current location in 1955. Because of the banana boom in New Orleans, Brennan challenged his chef to include bananas in a new dessert. Named after a frequent customer, Bananas Foster has become an international favorite and the most requested item on the menu. Brennan’s flames 35,000 pounds of bananas each year in preparation of the world famous dessert.

Brennan's Famous Bananas Foster
Brennan’s Famous Bananas Foster

This story about Sam Zemurray – Banana Man of New Orleans is just one of many you might hear when you take a walk with The Savvy Native. Choose from over 20 historically accurate, entertaining & memorable walking tours. We’d love to show you around!

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