Say a Prayer for Benny Magoon

St. Joseph Museum
4 min readMar 29, 2024

The Magoons Collection at the St. Joseph Museums, Inc.

By Jerrad Hardin

Shortly after his father passed, Ben Magoon said a prayer for his dad in the synagogue. The rabbi assured him that God would send blessings if he did. Nearly a decade after the repeal of alcohol prohibition in the US, Ben paid thirty dollars each for 1,400 cases of whiskey. Just days after he made his prayer for dad, with the intention of selling each case for three dollars profit, two men walked into Magoon’s Famous Delicatessen and offered him seventy-five dollars a case.

Escaping political tyranny, Ben Magoon’s dad traveled from Germany to the United States, signing immigration papers at Ellis Island, and found work in his trade as a glass painter in Holyoke, Massachusetts in the early 20th century. “Magun” is the name Ben’s dad scribbled onto the paperwork they gave him. Unable to make out the letters, the name was rewritten as “Magoon” on his immigration papers. The whole family eventually sailed from Germany, selecting St. Joseph as their home for the family connections to Ben’s mother. On the day that 9-year-old Ben Magoon and family arrived, St. Joseph was in a season of baseball, streetcars, piano rolls, and Lake Contrary in the year 1914.

Benny Magoon began selling soda and sandwiches when he was only thirteen. He’d learned from a local shopkeeper the trade of making chocolate soda and charming customers. Opening Magoon’s Famous Delicatessen originally in his dad’s paint shop across the street from its current location, Ben and his mother ran the deli, and boasted having served some people’s first-ever Reuben sandwiches. Ben’s personality and good business caused his Deli shop on 8th Street to develop into a common ground for politicians, Hollywood actors, St. Joseph families and socialites. All of which began in 1918.

Blue Prints for the Magoon Complex at the Missouri Theater that Never was.

It may be hard to believe that Jay Sarno, born in St. Joe in 1922, was the glitz and glam behind the Las Vegas we know today, but it’s true! Benny Magoon made many friends, including people such as Jay Sarno, who opened Caesars Palace and Circus-Circus in Las Vegas in the 1960s. That friendship earned Ben a special ticket, signed by Jay, that gave him entry to any show on the Las Vegas strip. Ben was also a friend to Roy Coy, the first Executive Director of the St. Joseph Museum. Roy Coy, Ben Magoon, and the St. Joseph Museum traveled together to Canada and beyond, taking wildlife photographs at Bonaventure Island for the Museum’s natural history collection. This story and more can be found at our website, which features an online database of Museum Graphics from the early 1950s.

Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower became the first Republican President in 20 years in January 1952. Accused by his rivals for “selling the presidency like cereal”, Eisenhower’s presidential campaign is cited among the first to have a heavy emphasis on TV advertisements. St. Joseph liked Ike also, including Ben Magoon, who was invited to attend the President’s inaugural ball that season. Addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Magoon, it was some mark of achievement for a first-generation immigrant to grow up and be invited to a party hosted by the President of the United States. The Magoon’s empire stretched far, with a second Magoon’s Deli in Miami, Florida, opened for a time by Ben’s brother. Blueprints in our collection of Magoon’s Theater and Restaurant point to a partnership with the Missouri Theater that was never finalized, and supposedly an original cast of Magoon’s Deli characters including Delores, a longtime manager and Pastry Chef.

The Magoon’s Invitation to the Inagural Ball

For much of the 20th century, politicians, vaudeville actors, gangsters, boxing champions, teamsters, and thousands of dreamers from around the world breached the drafty doorway and marched toward the lunchtime counter to have their order taken by Lilly Magoon. Magoon’s Famous Delicatessen is an important gathering place in the great painting of St. Joseph history. Its magnetic appeal, meats and cheeses from all over the world, and rich history continue to draw lunchtime crowds and local musical talent. Resurrected by some local dreamers in 2004, Magoon’s remains an energy center for community, art, and chili. The Ben Magoon collection at St. Joseph Museums reminds us of his support for the Museum and the community, and his adventurous and entrepreneurial spirit.

The war-time immigrant child who came of age near the corner of 8th and Locust streets, contemplated the commemorative Pony Express whiskey decanter that he donated to our collection. On one side, a hand-sculpted relief of a Pony Express Rider, and on the other, a red line, spread out like a lightning bolt, mapping the old pony express route, meant to carry the prayers of thousands through ancient forests to the sea, reminding Ben Magoon of the same human story that is continually told — of people exploring the landscape praying to God to send blessings.

Pony Express Whiskey Decanter from Magoons



St. Joseph Museum

Glore Psychiatric Museum, Black Archives, Native American Galleries, WWI Gallery, Wyeth-Tootle Mansion