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.