Sunday, September 14, 2014

Preserving the Memory of the KC Whiskey Riegers

    
One of the prime objectives of this blog is to recount the histories and pay tribute to the many remarkable men, and a few women, who were an integral part of the alcoholic drink industry in America before the onset of National Prohibition.  In Kansas City, Missouri, some dedicated folks have gone way beyond my efforts to keep fresh the memory of Jacob and Alexander Rieger, whiskey men of considerable accomplishments.

The Rieger story began 1827 in what was known then as the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Jacob was the son of Isaac Rieger, with his birthplace given variously as Austria,  Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.  He married in his homeland, a woman named Mary, last name possibly Rizor.  The couple had two children, Sallie, born 1866, and Alexander, born 1870.
The family immigrated to the United States in 1876, settling in Kansas City where there was a substantial German population. By this time Jacob was 52,  somewhat old for pulling up stakes in his homeland and starting over in America.  My suspicion is that he had been involved in the liquor trade in Europe and brought that experience with him to our shores.  He seems rapidly to have established himself, reportedly opening a liquor store in Kansas City’s West Bottoms neighborhood just months after arriving.  His location put him on what was known locally as “The Wettest Block in the World.”  Across from the famous Kansas City stockyards, the neighborhood was an easy jaunt for folks from Kansas City, Kansas, to reach after that state went completely dry in 1881.  In the West Bottoms they could drink freely, dance, gamble and party, party, party.  Rieger was among the beneficiaries.

 The photo that opens this vignette shows Rieger’s extensive wholesale and retail liquor store as it looked around 1900.  Standing front and center of his 1529 Genesee address was Jacob himself.  Wearing a homberg hat, he assumed a jaunty stance, hands in pockets.  His numerous staff, one that included both women and blacks, were arrayed around him.

Over time the Rieger Company featured a number of brands, many of them carrying the owner’s name.  Among them were: "Rieger's Atlantic,” "Rieger's Monogram", "Rieger's Monogram 1875 Brand", "Rieger's Monogram 1888 Brand", "Rieger's Monogram 1890 Brand", "Rieger's White", "Rieger's White Corn", "Rieger's Yellow Corn.”  Also in its inventory were "Canadian Process,” "O - So - Good,” "Prairie King,” "Shady Brook", and "Tiger's Head.”  Many of these whiskeys came with colorful and distinctive labels for the retail trade.  Rieger does not appear to have trademarked any of his brands.  
The firm advertised widely across the country,  billing itself as “Largest Wholesale Whiskey House in the United States.”  Its flagship brand was Rieger’s Monogram Whiskey.  A full gallon could be had for $3.50 and Rieger would throw in a pint flask of the same whiskey for free and pre-pay the express charges.   A colorful Christmas ad advertised Rieger’s Monogram as “the World’ Finest Liquor.”  Because many of the states went of Missouri had gone “dry” to one extent or another — and mail order whiskey into those areas was still legal — the firm did a booming business in the West.
Competition from other KC outfits was stiff, however, particularly for business in the city itself.  Rieger responded with a number of distinctive shot glasses that would have been provided to saloon owners and bartenders.   Another distinctive gift item was a coin purse, also aimed at the men behind the bar who often were called upon for change.

By the dawn of the 20th Century, Jacob Rieger was well into his 70s.  He is shown here in what is said to be the only known photo of him in his later years.  Always provident, he had brought his son, Alexander, with him into the liquor business as the boy had matured.  By 1914 Alexander was advertising that he was “sole owner” of the liquor firm, Jacob having retired from its management.  The following year,  age 88, Jacob died and was buried next to his wife, Mary, at the Rieger plot in Elwood Cemetery in Kansas City.  His grave is marked with the date and “Father.”
Alexander Rieger, shown here, proved to be every bit the businessman his father was.  While continuing the liquor business Jacob had founded, he branched out in new directions.  In 1915 he opened the Rieger Hotel that is said to have become the home away from home for many traveling salesmen, railroad workers and other transients in Kansas City.  The three story building shown here had a long, rich history and much of the decor, including a fancy tile floor and ornate bathroom fixtures were much admired.  The lobby included a front desk and a lounge restaurant.

The son also moved into banking, becoming the chairman of the Mercantile Bank, was on the the boards of several philanthropic organizations, and served as Honorary Consul for Czechoslovakia in Kansas City.  Because Alexander seems to have escaped the census for most of his years, information on his personal life is sketchy.  He is said to have been married three times. He had two sons, Nathan and Jack, who followed him  into the banking business.  In the 1930 census, living in the Rieger Hotel, he was listed as a widower.  He subsequently was married a third time to a Mrs. Cora Peiser, and the couple lived in the glamorous Sombart Apartments at 420 Armour Boulevard.
Alexander Rieger died in 1936 at the age of 59.  He had long since shut the doors of the J. Rieger liquor business because of the onset of National Prohibition.  The memory of the Riegers as whiskey men might have faded as badly as the sign shown below.  It is still slightly visible on the side of the Rieger Hotel, an ad featuring a 20 foot tall bottle and the brand name, O-So-Good.  

In recent years, however, several Kansas City residents have worked to preserve the memory of the Riegers.  One of them is Ryan Maybee, who has restored the almost century old hotel and calls it the Rieger Hotel Grill and Exchange.  The website for the establishment gives a brief history of the family.  In his efforts Maybee has been assisted by others, principal among them Paul Gronquist, a Topeka resident who is a noted collector of pre-Prohibition artifacts.  He has a sizable assemblage of Rieger items and has given some to the refurbished hotel and restaurant for display.  Through these strong efforts the notable Riegers live on in Kansas City.
Note:   Some of the information and illustrations for this post are from the website of the Rieger Hotel Grill and Exchange.  The bottles shown are from the Paul Gronquist collection.



  




















Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Henry Luyties: Under the Bridge and Before the Flood


In the late 19th Century Henry E. G. Luyties was credited with processing one-tenth of the liquor output of the country from the Luyties Bros. Company located in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge in Manhattan.  Henry’s efforts in several directions brought him and a brand of whiskey he called “Antediluvian” considerable recognition in “The Big Apple” and throughout the United States.

Shown here in maturity, Henry Luyties was born in Germany in November 1847.  Sometime in the mid-1660s, while still a teenager, likely with other family members, he emigrated to the United States.  Later he would testify that he had been involved in alcoholic beverages since 1866.   His first exposure would seem to be with California wines because from early on he had ties with West Coast vintners.  The 1880 U.S. Census found him, age 32, living in New York City, his occupation given as “wine importer.”  he was married to Amalie, a woman nine years his junior and they had two children,  Clara, 3, and Otto, 1.   Also in the household was Henry’s younger sister, also Clara, and his older brother, Gerhard, whose occupation also was “wine importer.”
The building of the Brooklyn Bridge, spanning the East River, was underway.  Shown above as it looks today, it was the first steel wire suspension bridge constructed and long considered one of the wonders of the New World.  About the same time Henry and Gerhard had formed Luyties Brothers Co.   The brothers Luyties advertised extensively that their “Model Wine Cellars,” shown here, were nestled in the shadow of the bridge on Manhattan Island.  The address was 204 William Street.

Although Henry was the principal partner in the enterprise, Gerhard may have been the inventive brother.  In 1882, the Luyties, with Gerhard listed first, patented three different devices for closures of wine bottles.  The patent illustration shown here is the most elaborate of the three and was designed to insure that the cork “…cannot be removed without detection.”  Note that the invention is displayed on a bottle of Luyties Bros. Old Port.  The other Luyties patented stoppers involved compressing corks with wooden tops securely within the neck of specially blown glass bottles.

From their beginning in wines, the Luyties soon branched out into the liquor trade, both wholesale and retail.  Their whiskey sold to saloon was packaged in large stoneware jugs with their name in cobalt scrip across the front.   For the retail trade the brothers seemed to have a single flagship brand with the highly unusual name of “Antediluvian,” a word means “before the flood,” referring to the Biblical deluge.  The company advertised the label showing a bottle washing along in the foamy deep;  Mount Ararat, where Noah is said to have landed his ark, was shown in the distance.  Antediluvian Whiskey also came in a unusual bottle.  It was a dark amber with the name and “Luyties Bros.” etched — not embossed — on the surface.  Some bottles also included “New York.”
In time Luyties Brothers became one of the largest “rectifiers” of raw whiskey, blending, compounding, and distributing liquor to bottlers all across the East and Midwest.  For several years in the mid-1890s, the firm maintained sales offices in Chicago at 97 North Clark St.  According to information presented to the New York Industrial Commission, by the late 1890s Luyties Brothers was providing about ten percent of the rectified whiskey in the U.S.  Little wonder then that the Commission called Henry Luyties as a key witness in its 1889 investigative hearings on the infamous “Whiskey Trust.”
Luyties was a friendly witness in that he confirmed that the Trust, known formally as the Distilling and Cattle Feeding Company, held a strong hand in the industry:  “Every large dealer uses a considerable quantity of spirits, and the consumption is important and very great just now.  it is the most important article in the trade, being really the cornerstone of the whole business.”  He acknowledged that the Trust “makes a special effort to retain the trade or else drive us out of the business.  I do not know that it has any other objective.” 
On the other hand, Luyties endorsed the notion of trusts in the whiskey industry.  “There is no business in which the existence of a combination, or trust, as you call it, has become more beneficial and has become more of a matter of necessity than in this line,” he said, arguing that heavy federal and state taxes on liquor had created the need.
The problem with the Distillers & Cattle Feeding organization, he added, was the greed and mismanagement of those running it.

That same year, 1889, Gerhard Luyties returned to live in Germany.  Although Henry did not immediately change the company name and Gerhard continued to be listed as a director, Henry found, as one observer put it, the management task “became too burdensome for one man, no matter how energetic.”  In addition, Henry had purchased the Federal Distilling Company, a gin manufacturer, and had become a director of the Germania Bank in New York.  In November 1904 he effected a merger with wine and spirits business owned by Gustav Amsinck and operated by William Kessler.  The merged business was named Luyties Bros. & Kessler, with Henry and Kessler sharing the management burdens.  A trade publication commented: “…We can well compare the solidity of Luyties Bros. & Kessler with the foundations of the Brooklyn Bridge, under which their unique establishment, now perfected in every detail, is carried on.”
Henry survived the merger only one year, however, dying at the age of 58 in March of 1905. Stricken with pneumonia, he passed away at his home at 987 Madison Avenue and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York.  His wife Amalie joined him there 23 years later in 1928.  The business he had co-founded continued on for years after his death.  Shown here is an 1910 ad from the firm.

In a reasonably short lifetime this German immigrant had fashioned a flourishing nationally recognized business encompassing both wine and liquor. It was fitting that Henry E. G. Luyties would be among those honored with his photograph included in the book “Notable New Yorkers of 1896-1899 — the portrait that opened this post.

















Monday, September 8, 2014

Magnus: A Father’s Death and a Son’s Redemption

It is likely that Joseph A. Magnus did not remember his father.   Saul Magnus marched away to fight for the Confederate cause when the boy was only three years old.  As the eldest of four young and fatherless children, Joseph struggled through his early life to restore the family fortunes.  He succeeded by prospering in the whiskey trade.

The 1860 U.S. census found the Magnus family at home in Rome, Georgia.  Saul Magnus was recorded as a 30-year-old merchant, even at that young age affluent for the times.  He had come from Germany to join an extended Jewish family headed by Ralph Moses, a plantation owner who  had pioneered the growing of peaches in Georgia and grown wealthy in the process.  When Moses joined the Confederate rebellion in 1861 as chief supply officer for General  Longstreet’s Army, many of his male relatives joined the South’s cause. Saul was among them. Leaving his wife, children and business, he marched away as a private to fight with other Georgians as part of Maxmillian Van Den Corput’s “Cherokee Battery” of Confederate artillery.
Saul Magnus survived a number of battles until the morning of May 14, 1864, when his unit was commanded to take up positions 20 yards in front of Confederate lines at Resaca, Georgia.  When the Yankees attacked, supporting troops fled, leaving Rebel gunners exposed. The Yankee rushed in with bayonets.  Many Confederates were killed, including Saul.  The illustration above is from a Northern publication recording the Southern defeat.  His wife, Rebecca, was left a widow with four small children.  Joseph was six.

The Magnus family’s financial struggles after Saul’s death are not recorded.  As a widow with young children in an economically devastated South, Rebecca must have toiled relentlessly to feed, clothe and house her children.  At some point the family moved to Atlanta, possibly because of better employment possibilities.   As the eldest, Joseph appears to have become the principal breadwinner as soon as he was able.  At an early age he was hired as a traveling salesman, likely for a liquor firm. The 1880 Census found him living and working in Atlanta with Rebecca, a brother and two sisters, all three siblings in their teen years.  

Joseph Magnus appears to have been successful from the beginning.  By the age of 26 he was financially secure enough to marry.  His bride was Helena Eleanor, five years his junior, who was born in South Carolina into an established family there.  Subsequently the couple moved to Cincinnati, Ohio.  The1900 census found them living there with four children.  The eldest, 13, was named Saul after his deceased grandfather.  The others were Kate, 10; Herman, 6; and Julian, 3.  The family was wealthy enough to had three live-in servants.  Magnus’s occupation was given as “wholesale liquors.”
Magnus had struck out on his own about 1894, creating a liquor dealership that grew rapidly requiring that he change quarters frequently for the first few years, locating initially at three addresses on Cincinnati’s Main Street.  In 1903 Jos. A. Magnus Co. moved to its permanent location at 121-125 East Eighth Street.  Magnus packaged much of his whiskey in glass bottles ranging in size from half pint to quart in both amber and purple shades.  They all carried fancy embossing that was his trademark.  It depicted a lion wearing a crown and carrying a flower on the end of a sword while looking back at six stacked arrows.  Was this a “make love not war theme,” perhaps a memory of what had befallen his father?  The Magnus name appeared twice on each bottle.
Almost 20 different brands, several showing a sense of whimsy, graced those containers.  The labels included:  "Apollo Club Rye,” "Asa Holt,” "Bob Taylor,” "Bonnie Brook", "Golden Rule,” "Lover's Delight,” "Magnus Horseshoe,” "Magnus Private Stock,” "Magnus XXX,” “Maximus,” "Police", "Royal Seal,” "Sand Mountain,” "Seth Wakefield,” "Tom Boone's Old Randolph,” "Uncle Bob,” “Vigilant,” and "Ye Olde Tavern Fine Rye.” Magnus’ flagship was Murray Hill Club, celebrating a New York City saloon.  He trademarked the brand in 1906, along with Royal Seal and Sand Mountain.  A year earlier he had registered Asa Holt and Bonnie Brook.  For the other labels he did not bother.

The number and variety of brands Magnus featured indicates that he was “rectifying,”  that is, blending and compounding whiskeys to achieve a certain taste designed to appeal to the drinking public.  Situated just across the Ohio River from Kentucky,  Cincinnati was an ideal city for this kind of operation.  Supplies of raw liquor could be easily obtained from a proliferation of distilleries in that state.  It also meant that Magnus faced a lot of competition from other dealer/rectifiers.  As a consequence he was generous with giveaway items.  Shown here are three examples of his shot glasses, all bearing an etched representation of elaborate trademark.  One was generic for the Magnus brand.  The others advertised Murray Club and Bob Taylor whiskey.  Whiskey outfits gave away celluloid baseball scorecards as advertising.  Magnus’ example was a catcher’s mitt with a bottle of Murray Club in the pocket.
As he advanced in age, Joseph brought his son Saul into the business.  A 1914 Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce report cites him as an associate in Jos. A. Magnus & Co.  As he aged Magnus took a particular interest in his Jewish heritage.  In the mid-1800s Rabbi Isaac Wise in Cincinnati had led a movement in North America usually called “Reformed Judaism.”   He maintained that Jewish traditions should be modernized and made more compatible with participation in the surrounding culture.  Traditional Jewish law became more loosely interpreted and religious observances had a more “Protestant” look.  For many Jews the Reform Movement was a welcome way of reconnecting with their faith.  For other it was heresy and harsh conflicts arose.
Joseph Magnus appears to have come down solidly on the side of Reform and become something of its apostle.  A Reform publication noted that he had been part of a committee that made it possible for two Reform rabbis to conduct services in Ogden, Michigan.  Moreover, he had held a service at his own home where money was raised for the extension of Reform synagogues and schools.  He also was active in Jewish philanthropic activities including the Educational League for the Higher Education of Orphans, located in Cleveland.  The Tuscaloosa News of January 12, 1912,  announced that he had arrived in town the night before and described him as “the proprietor of a big distillery in Cincinnati, being the manufacturer of the well known brand of whiskey, Murray Hill Club.”   My guess is Magnus principally was in Tuscaloosa to do the business of Reform Judaism.

Although Ohio voted to go “dry” in 1916 and many liquor dealer in Cincinnati and elsewhere in the state folded up, the Jos. A. Magnus Co. continued to operate for two more years, probably as a result of serving customers in states that were still “wet.”  After the advent of National Prohibition Magnus seeming disappeared from public view.  I have been unable to ascertain the date of his death or gravesite.  Suffice to say, however, that in his lifetime he had experienced severe hardships and yet had risen above them to become a wealthy and respected merchant.  In so doing Joseph Magnus had redeemed the supreme sacrifice of his father.











  

















Thursday, September 4, 2014

Paul Jones Yearned for “The Old South”


                                
It should come as no surprise that Paul Jones (Jr.) one of America’s most famous whiskey men,  should be buried in a large mausoleum, pictured above, fashioned after a Southern pre-Civil War mansion in Louisville’s historic Cave Cemetery.  A former Confederate soldier, Jones and the liquor business he founded constantly looked backward with deep nostalgia for “The Old South” of memory.

Born in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1840, into a affluent family, Jones, depicted here in middle age, knew the easy and bucolic life of Southern living as he was growing up, when plantation owners and their families were buffered from back-breaking toil and many tasks of everyday life by the existence of slavery.  Below is an illustration taken from an advertising booklet issued by the liquor firm he founded.  The caption reads “—When Paul Jones was young.”  It shows an elderly black man, certainly a slave, making his way up a road past slave shacks.  The picture creates a tranquil, nostalgic, antebellum mood.
However realistic the image, tranquility would be a thing of the past for Paul Jones at age 21 with the outbreak of the Civil War.  His older brother, Warner, had helped form a Confederate company of infantry from Western Tennessee and was elected a captain in what became the 33rd Tennessee Regiment.  Paul Jones joined a Virginia regiment and received the rank of lieutenant. When General Sherman threatened Atlanta,  both Jones brothers’ units were ordered by General Lee to defend the Georgia city.  In the ensuing battle Warner was killed.

After the Southern surrender,  Paul Jones, according to one account,  “returned home to find his home in ruins and the family destitute.  His family’s wealth which before the war had been considerable had been invested in Confederate bonds and was gone.”  Paul Jr., joined by his father, subsequently relocated to Atlanta.  There the histories differ.  Some say the Joneses began producing whiskey and cigars; others that Paul Jr. went to work as a salesman for Rufus Rose, a Georgia distiller.  (See my post on Rose, September 30, 2011.)

This divergence is part of an ongoing and unresolved controversy about how the famous “Four Roses” brand got its name.  Seagram’s, the current owner of the label, has perpetuated myths by spinning a tale of Deep South romance:   “It began when Paul Jones, Jr., the founder of Four Roses Bourbon, became smitten by the beauty of a Southern belle. It is said that he sent a proposal to her, and she replied that if her answer were ‘Yes,’ she would wear a corsage of roses on her gown to the upcoming grand ball.  Paul Jones waited for her answer excitedly on that night of the grand ball…when she arrived in her beautiful gown, she wore a corsage of four red roses. He later named his Bourbon ‘Four Roses’ as a symbol of his devout passion for the lovely belle….”
This is pure romantic nonsense.  Paul Jones remained a bachelor for all of his days.  What can be documented is that Jones was successful in the liquor trade in Georgia and that when its state legislature passed a law banning alcohol sales, he relocated about 1884 to Louisville, Kentucky.  He quickly was able to obtain a prime location on Louisville’s “Whiskey Row” on Main Street where he began “rectifying” whiskey and selling at wholesale.  With the “Whiskey Trust” controlling the price of whiskey stocks, Jones soon looked for a distillery of his own.  The opportunity came when the J. G. Mattingly distillery ran into financial difficulties. This facility had been built by the Mattingly family in Louisville in 1874, located between High and Rudd Avenues and 39th and 40th Streets, and run successfully by them until 1889.  In September of that year they ceased operation and the distillery went up for auction.  Jones bought it for $125,000 — equivalent to about $3 million today.

For his money, according to insurance records, Jones obtained a mill and fermenting house, a boiler house, a distillery spirits building and a cattle barn.  The property also held five warehouses, all of them brick with slate or metal roofs.  With an assumed supply of whiskey the Paul Jones Company was on its way to becoming one of America’s largest distilling organizations.  It used the brand names, “Paul Jones,” ”Four Roses,” "Jones Four Star,” "Old Cabinet,” "Old Cabinet Rye,” "Small Grain,” "West End,” and “Swastika,”  In those pre-Nazi days the swastika was an Native American good luck sign.   
Jones advertised from coast to coast including a giant lighted sign in New York’s Madison Square.  The Paul Jones brand quickly found a national audience, packaged in glass bottles from quarts down to mini size.  He often merchandised with “Old South” themes, including  images he put on saloon signs and bar trays.  Conjuring up a number of stereotypes about African-Americans, one showed a black mammy with a slice of watermelon and a black man with a bottle of Paul Jones whiskey.  In the center is a boy torn between the two treats.  It is entitled “The Temptation of St. Anthony,”  a reference to a Medieval saint who was tempted by demons in the desert.  Another rural image  used in merchandising Paul Jones whiskey was of a grinning farmer pouring himself a glass. Used on saloon signs, it also graced shot glasses and back-of-the-bar bottles.
Throughout this period Jones was expanding his operations, taking over an adjacent building in which paper labels for bottles were stocked and stored. Curiously,  Sanborn insurance maps show no areas set aside for offices in either structure.  It has been suggested that Jones, living a presumably Spartan bachelor life, conducted all his business in the hotel room in which he resided for years.  It was at the Galt House, shown below, just down the street from the Paul Jones Company.

As his business thrived, Jones made investments in Louisville, becoming a director and vice president of the American National Bank and president of the Louisville Fair and Driving Association.  Throughout the early 1900s Jones suffered from a kidney ailment known as “Bright’s Disease” and died of its complications in 1905.  He left money in his will for the building of the Southern mansion mausoleum shown at the top of this post.

After Paul’s death, Warner Jones’ son with other family members carried on the company.  During National Prohibition in 1922 they bought the Frankfort Distillery, one of the few outfits that had been granted the right to sell “medicinal” whiskey during the dry period.  That purchase kept their brands alive and when Repeal came the family added a third Louisville based distillery to supply them with spirits.  The Joneses continuing fixation with the Old South was evident in a brochure they issued in 1934 that talks lovingly about “…The plunk of the banjo and the melancholy throatiness of some Afric chant drifting from a whitewashed log-cabin across damasked tobacco-patch….”  Accompanying illustrations carried the same theme of black slaves happy to be serving white men.
In 1943, the family sold its liquor interests to Seagrams, a Canadian company that maintained the nostalgic (and sometimes racist) images that had characterized Paul Jones advertising for generations.  Note the ad below with the happy black waiter and his fractured English.  The Paul Jones brand eventually disappeared from liquor store shelves, although Four Roses has survived.  Meanwhile, the original Paul Jones lies alone in his massive mausoleum, possibly dreaming still of his Old South.







  


















Monday, September 1, 2014

William Bergenthal and the Temper of His Times

William Bergenthal was well known for his ferocious temper.  The Milwaukee, Wisconsin, distiller and liquor dealer, it is said, once physically threw a deputy sheriff out of his office who had come to collect a bill because the lawman made a remark impugning his honesty.  Bergenthal would have been well advised to do the same when Federal revenue officers came looking for bribes.  He did not and thus became implicated in the giant 1870s criminal conspiracy known as “The Whiskey Ring.”
Shown here as a young man, Bergenthal was born in 1844 in Westphalia, Germany, the son of Conrad Bergenthal and Elizabeth Robe.  With other family members at the age of 22 he immigrated to the United States in 1866, settling the next year in Milwaukee, a city with a heavily German population.  Two years later with his brother, August, he opened a distillery business, calling it Bergenthal & Brother.  The business prospered and in 1873 the partnership was succeeded by a corporation called The William Bergenthal Company.  William was president and August, secretary. 
Bergenthal constructed his distillery along the Milwaukee River, about five miles north of downtown. There he is reported to have produced bourbon, malt whiskey, gin, rum and cordials.  For his own flagship brands of whiskey the German-born distiller appropriated an Irish symbol, calling them Shamrock Rye and Shamrock Bourbon.  He packaged them in in clear glass bottles both quart and flask size.  Like other whiskey men of his time he also featured giveaway items like shot glasses that were gifted to saloons and restaurant bars.  Stick pins bearing his ads were handed to retail customers willing to wear them.

Bergenthal’s plant also made compressed yeast, producing about 1,000 pounds a day and shipping much of it to St. Louis and Chicago.  The company maintained a retail outlet and offices in a sizable building located at 476-478 Fourth Street in downtown Milwaukee. Likely blending and compounding his own proprietary brands Bergenthal also was retailing some of America’s best known whiskeys, including Old Crow, Overholt, Guckenheimer, Hermitage and W.H. McBrayer.

An enthusiastic contemporary account of Bergenthal’s sales facility described it as:  “…A two-story structure having vaults and sub-cellars thirty feet below.  They are the largest and most complete in the Northwest and are only adapted for the storage of wines, foreign and native, and for preserving them in all seasons at certain required temperatures…On the ground and upper floors are also stored a splendid stock of old bourbon and rye whiskies….On the first floor are the offices and the stock, operating and packing rooms, while the second floor is used for surplus goods….Their trade extends over Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, Utah, Washington, Oregon and the two Dakotas.  Twelve capable assistants are employed in the house and six salesmen are kept constantly on the road.”

Even accounting for hyperbole, it is clear Bergenthal was doing well.  He was, however, facing a major problem.   Whiskey had been cheap in Milwaukee before the Civil War, selling for 15 cents a gallon.  During the conflict the Federal government had put a $1 a barrel tax on beer and a $1 a gallon tax on whiskey.  After the war the whiskey tax was raised to $2 a gallon.  Beer became a bargain and those always thrifty Milwaukee imbibers were changing their drinking habits.  When Milwaukee distillers found that Chicago whiskey was selling in town for $1.15 a gallon, they quickly understood that the Illinois distillers were not paying the tax but paying off the tax collectors.  Some Milwaukee whiskey manufacturers, including William Bergenthal, were enticed by crooked revenue agents to join them.

Those arrangements went well until one day in 1875 when U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Bristow, who had a temper of his own about fraud, used agents from outside his own department to direct a series of raids throughout the country, but mainly in the Midwest.  Milwaukee was among the cities hit hard.  Nationwide 86 Federal revenue agents and 152 distillers were arrested, igniting a national scandal epitomized by the Thomas Nast cartoon shown here.  
Apparently taking the fall for William Bergenthal was his brother August who, with another company employee, spent four months in the Milwaukee County Jail for “misrepresenting the company’s alcohol tax records.”  So popular were the pair in captivity, however, that the sheriff  complained regular business was being affected by “the tramp, tramp, tramp of the friends of the prisoners.”

William Bergenthal was far from being off the hook himself.  In 1876 the U.S. District Attorney brought an indictment into Federal Circuit Court in which the Milwaukee distiller was a material witness.  The government charged that the two defendants had met in Milwaukee with Bergenthal and others two month after the Bristow raid to conspire with them to steal incriminating documents that were believed held by Federal authorities in Chicago.  For this theft the alleged thieves demanded $50,000, the present day equivalent of $12.5 million.  If the government had been able to convict in this case, it was likely only a matter of time until Bergenthal and his colleagues would be in the dock.  The Court, however, ruled that the theft had never gotten beyond the discussion phase and that “some act must actually be done” to constitute a conspiracy.

Bergenthal’s reputation seems to have been unshaken by the scandal.  In 1882 when three Milwaukee entrepreneurs saw a promising opportunity in the whiskey trade, they made up for their lack of knowledge of distilling by hiring William as their expert manager.  Thereafter Bergenthal not only ran his own company but was closely associated with theirs, called the Meadow Springs Distillery.  In fact, the first barrel of whiskey sold under that name in 1883 was distilled at Bergenthal’s distillery.  He also supervised the construction of Meadow Springs plant, shown here, in Milwaukee’s industrial Menomonee Valley.
An 1897 publication entitled “Men of Progress. Wisconsin,”  included the photograph shown here and a brief biography that turned a blind eye to any involvement in “The Great Whiskey Ring,” affirming:  “Mr. Bergenthal has always (my emphasis) enjoyed high standing as a business man and few names of the liquor trade of the west are better known.”  He also was described as a “pillar of the Democratic Party,” someone who had been elected to represent Milwaukee Democrats at the 1896 National Party Convention.

One Milwaukee resident, however, was not singing William’s praises but rather hauling him into court.  It was his brother, August Bergenthal.  Whether it was having to take the rap for the tax cheating or some other cause, the brothers had parted ways, with August working elsewhere in the whiskey trade.  He still had a substantial financial interest in William Bergenthal Co., amounting, he told the Wisconsin courts, to 116 shares of capital stock worth $11,600 and an outstanding loan to the corporation of $7,000.  When August asked to see “the books,” William, in a likely fit of temper, called him a competitor and adamantly refused.

In a deposition, August laid bare elements of his brother’s operation.  He asserted that William — shockingly — owned only one share of stock despite the fact he was treasurer, superintendent, and business manager  of the corporation “and practically conducts the entire business of said company.”  William had appointed his wife, Anna, whom he married in 1874, to the position of corporate secretary replacing his brother.  August insisted she was a mere figurehead and William did all the work of secretary in her name.  When a lower court agreed that August must have access to the books, William appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court which confirmed the earlier decision.  We can imagine the temper William was in when the court order — and August — arrived.

Although Bergenthal’s Milwaukee  River distillery burned in 1882 and was not rebuilt, he continued his work with the Meadow Springs Distillery, receiving a substantial salary there.  He also maintained his downtown liquor business.  The 1900 U.S. Census found him and wife Anna living in one of the large homes on an upper block of Wells Street.  Their only child, Meta Anna, sadly had died in infancy.  The couple was attended by a live-in servant girl.  

Bergenthal continued to be active in civic affairs for most of his life, including the Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce.  He died at age 63 on December 27, 1909, and was buried in Milwaukee’s Catholic Calvary Cemetery next to Meta Anna.  His wife would join him in 1917.
The liquor business to which Bergenthal gave his name survived under new managers until shut by National Prohibition in 1919.  The Meadow Springs Distillery under his direction had specialized additionally in yeast production.  Forced to end making whiskey, the company concentrated on that product and survived to become the nationally famous Red Star Yeast Company.

Thus ended the story of William Bergenthal, a German immigrant youth for whom the period between the end the Civil War and World War I brought brought both prosperity and troubles, the latter because of his tendency to lose his temper — and sometimes his sense of right and wrong.

Note:  Some of the anecdotes used here and the photo of the Meadow Springs Distillery are from a notable book by Martin Hintz called “A Spirited History of Milwaukee Brews and Booze.”  Considerable other material has been mined from court documents related to Bergenthal’s brushes with the American justice system.