Joseph C. Culligan was apparently quite a character. Born in Ireland in 1889, he served an apprenticeship with blacksmiths and foundries in Liverpool, England, before emigrating to the United States in 1915. He moved to Memphis, so I’m told, because his sister was already living here, and by the 1920s had established Culligan Iron Works.
The company was originally located downtown on Washington, but by the 1940s had moved east, to 4976 Summer, the address shown on this old telephone directory ad. That’s apparently where he lived, too.
Culligan became good friends with Holiday Inns founder Kemmons Wilson, and as a result, his company wound up forging much of the ornamental ironwork — railings, signs, bannisters — for most of the Holiday Inns being constructed around the country. He pretty much pioneered the high-end ornamental-iron business in Memphis, crafting elaborate ironwork for The Peabody, Methodist Hospital, the original Pink Palace Museum, the old Shelby County Jail, and quite a few private homes in town.
For a blacksmith, he certainly enjoyed an impressive social life. He became friends with Elvis Presley and Bing Crosby, and the files in Special Collections at the University of Memphis Libraries contain several photos of a dapper, tuxedo-clad gentleman dancing the night away at various social affairs around town. Why, one photo taken in the 1970s shows him with blonde bombshell Mamie Van Doren, which she signed on the back, “To Joe. You're the best!”
The very next item in that same file folder was a newspaper clipping headlined, “Culligan Seeks Divorce” but I don’t know if that had anything to do with Mamie Van Doren.
When Culligan died in 1978, a Memphis Press-Scimitar columnist noted that, “with his passing, a little bit of Americana died as well.” Today, the site of Culligan Iron Works is just a vacant lot.