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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Golden Arches Intersect With Peculiar Alabama Prosecution

What do hamburgers have to do with the peculiar federal prosecution of noted outdoorsman Edmond H. "Eddie" Smith IV in Mobile, Alabama?

The answer, apparently, is everything.

Smith has been held in the Mobile County Jail for more than eight months following his conviction on federal ammunition charges--a crime that court documents indicate he did not commit.

So why is Smith a federal prisoner? Why is his case generating a foul odor similar to the one that has surrounded the prosecution of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman?

It might be because Smith was living in one of Mobile's most prestigious homes, one built by a key figure in the McDonald's chain of hamburger restaurants. Smith has told Legal Schnauzer, in a phone interview from the Mobile jail, that certain individuals wanted him out of the home so they could turn it into a commercial and residential development.

We will take a closer look at Smith's claims in future posts. But first, let's examine this spectacular piece of property, which is known as the Sonneborn House on Fowl River near Mobile.

The Mobile Press-Register calls the "sprawling, architecturally unique" Sonneborn House "one of Mobile County's most celebrated homes."

It was built in the early 1970s by Harry J. Sonneborn, the first president and chief executive officer of McDonald's. The Press-Register provides some history on the house:

Construction of the 17,000-square-foot home began in 1969 on a lot near Bellingrath Gardens, on some of the hundreds of acres that the Sonneborns purchased in the area. Design complications postponed completion until 1972, but the wait was worth it. The home built with hardwood floors and 12-foot ceilings instantly became a local landmark, something to gawk at then and still, especially by boaters.

Among the amenities: A heated indoor pool, a sauna and steamroom, a wine cellar, an elevator, four fireplaces and a pond, part of which is in the house, the rest outside. Strangely for a house that size, it had only one bedroom, but it was huge, and with a full view of the river.

Many people know that Ray Kroc was the founder of McDonald's. But few people know of the critical role Harry Sonneborn played in turning the Golden Arches into a national brand:

Ask any trivia hound who founded McDonald's, and they'll spit out Ray Kroc's name.

In the mid-1950s, Kroc bought the ninth hamburger store built by company founders Dick and Mac McDonald, and later bought the first eight and the company name as well. The rest is history.

According to accounts of the burger empire, a lesser-known figure, Harry J. Sonneborn, also deserves much of the credit for McDonald's ascendance as one of the world's most recognizable brand names.

In 1955, the adopted son of German Jewish immigrants and a former Tastee Freeze vice president approached Kroc to present his ideas about growing McDonald's through store ownership and franchising.

"What converted McDonald's into a money machine had nothing to do with Ray Kroc, or the McDonald brothers, or even the popularity of McDonald's hamburgers, French fries, and milkshakes. It was Harry J. Sonneborn," wrote John Love in his book, McDonald's: Behind the Arches.

Sonneborn became to McDonald's what Keith Richards has been to the Rolling Stones--a "second banana" who was essential to the organization's future huge success:

Although Kroc was the majority stockholder, Sonneborn was, for the first 12 years, the company's president and chief executive officer. He quit in 1967 over disagreements with Kroc, and sold his shares - meaning he left as a millionaire, and not the future billionaire he would have otherwise become.

Sonneborn's future would rest in, of all places, Alabama:

Two years after departing, Sonneborn and his wife, Aloyis, a Mobile native, decided to build their dream home.

"Harry fell in love with Mobile the first time he ever came here," Aloyis Sonneborn said in an interview a few weeks ago. "We looked at Palm Springs, at Palm Beach, but we just loved Fowl River."

Harry Sonneborn died in 1993, and Aloyis Sonneborn decided to sell the property in 2000. A local businessman bought the home, along with two adjacent lots, one with a guest house, for $1.1 million.

The businessman renovated the home, mainly to add some bedrooms, and put the landmark home up for sale in 2005.

That started a complicated chain of events that ended with Eddie Smith living in the Sonneborn House. And that, Smith says, is why he now finds himself in the Mobile County Jail for a federal crime he did not commit.

Could a man become a target of federal prosecutors because he lives on a magnificent piece of property--one that might have enormous value to developers?

The Eddie Smith story suggests the answer to that question might be yes.

(To be continued)

1 comment:

Suzan said...

What a great blog!

Got my hint from Mark Crispin Miller.

I'm blogrolling you!

S