10 Quirky Families That Still Rule the World

Katie Carey
Katie Carey / Katie Carey

By Jeff Wilser

You’d never confuse them for the Rockefellers. But you also wouldn’t have curling without ’em.


Power: Hydrating Wall Street, Broadway, and the media 

Look up in New York City and you’ll no doubt see a wooden water tower topping a roof. Resembling rustic grain silos, the towers are an iconic part of the cityscape and quietly keep millions of people alive. (Normal pipes can’t pump water more than six stories, and these barrels help hydrate higher floors.) The whole industry is run by just three families, but the Rosenwachs reign supreme. They made their first barrel in 1894 and have built more than 10,000 since. The technology hasn’t changed much: Each tank lasts 30 to 35 years, at which point it will be replaced … likely by a Rosenwach.


Power: Keeping the World Stoned

An uninhabited 240-acre slab Keats once called an “ocean-pyramid,” Ailsa Craig in Scotland is the only known source of common green and blue hone granite, the crucial ingredients for Olympic curling stones. The granites’ molecular structure sits in a Goldilocks zone: Water can’t soak in, but a hint of elasticity stops the stones from cracking when they bump on the rink. Thanks to a 200-year-old agreement, the Kay family has exclusive rights to quarry these magical rocks, making them the world’s largest—and nearly only—supplier of curling stones.


Power: New Jersey Politicking

Forget the Kennedys and Roosevelts: This is America’s real political dynasty. In 1775, Frederick Frelinghuysen joined the New Jersey Provincial Congress and later served in the Senate. Every generation of Frelinghuysens has produced a politician since, including a secretary of state (in Chester Arthur’s cabinet), a vice-presidential candidate (remember 1844’s Clay-Frelinghuysen vs. Polk-Dallas?), and four more senators. Today, Rodney Frelinghuysen—Frederick’s great-great-great-great-grandson—represents New Jersey’s 11th district in the U.S. House of Representatives.


Power: Building Religion

Shigemitsu Kongō was commissioned to build Japan’s first Buddhist temple in 593, even though almost nobody there practiced the religion. (Most Japanese were Shintoists.) But as Buddhism spread, Kongō’s family acted as the country’s default temple architects, building nearly every major temple for the next 1400 years. After 40 generations of keeping it in the family, the business went under in 2006. However, the Kongōs’ influence on Japan’s architecture—and its 45 million Buddhists—remains unshakable.


Power: Designing Wartime Fashion

John Brooke & Sons (and sons and sons … ) specialized in military uniforms, with 15 generations making wool outfits for the British army and navy, the French army, and even the Russian army. British troops kept warm in their wool while fighting everybody from Napoleon to Hitler. At the dawn of the Cold War, even Soviet military police wore John Brooke & Sons overcoats—proof the two sides could agree on at least one thing: fashion.


Power: Making the People Cough-Free

In 1898, Fritz Hoffmann-La Roche invented an effective over-the-counter cough syrup. To make it drinkable, he flavored it with orange, the way he took his cognac. And to help it move off shelves, he partnered with makers of “saint cards.” The baseball cards of their day, the collectibles depicted a saint—and an ad for “Roche’s Syrup.” Somehow the marketing scheme worked, and the saints have been looking out for the family ever since. He used the booming sales to branch out; Bloomberg recently valued the health care juggernaut at $35 billion.


Power: Building Budding Engineers

Put aside the fact that there are 86 Legos for every human on the planet, or the fact that your grandpa’s blocks will snap into ones made in 2016. The Lego company—a family business started by Ole Kirk Christiansen in 1932—helps build the world. At MIT, a project called Lifelong Kindergarten partners with Lego to teach kids how to create robots, assemble jets, and master principles like torque. And Lego’s Architecture Studio, a monochrome kit of 1200 pieces with a 272-page book from architecture firms, unlocks secrets behind structures like Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. (Assembly required.)


Power: Ringing Praise for Church and High School Music Programs

Biggie vs. Tupac. Jobs vs. Gates. Hooli vs. Pied Piper. They have nothing on the Handbell Wars. In 1973, Jake Malta, a star engineer for the handbell company Schulmerich, quit to start his own business, Malmark, just 10 miles down the road. After traveling Europe to study the science of bells, he designed a new handbell that he insisted was purer than all the bells before it—perfection, really. Lawsuits followed. A legal war raged for 30 years, one case almost reaching the Supreme Court in 1992. As NPR reported, though, the titans finally reached peace. “The enemy is the 300 million people out there who don’t ring handbells,” Schulmerich’s Jonathan Goldstein said.


Power: Dictating Schmaltz

When Joyce C. Hall was a broke teenager, he earned extra cash by selling postcards. In 1910, he moved to Kansas City with a shoebox full of wares and began selling them out of a YMCA. His brothers joined in, and the company grew as demand to send cards to troops rose over the two world wars. Today, the company pumps out 10,000 products every year and has seemingly touched every American’s birthday, wedding, and funeral. You know it as Hallmark.


Power: Bolstering the Wisconsin Economy

Every bottle of Kikkoman soy sauce you buy in the United States comes not from Japan, but from either Wisconsin or California. The Mogi family began making soy sauce in Japan in 1630. But in 1972, under the leadership of Yuzaburo Mogi, Kikkoman opened a factory near the abundant soy fields of Walworth, Wisconsin. The factory now churns out 29 million gallons a year, making it the single biggest soy sauce factory on the planet. (A second Kikkoman production facility opened in Folsom, California in 1998.)

Note: This article has been updated to include mention of Kikkoman's California facility.