Wednesday, October 1, 2014

George Buchanan: Kentucky’ s Once and Future Whiskey King

In 1872 George C. Buchanan was accounted the largest distiller in Kentucky, operating no fewer than three major plants capable of mashing 4,885 bushels of grain and producing 500 barrels of whiskey a day.   Twelve years later, forced to sell at auction a mansion he had just redecorated, Buchanan made headlines as the “Bankrupt Whisky King.” Undaunted, he revived his fortunes and his reputation as whiskey royalty.

According to one author, Buchanan, with his brother, Andrew, began their business careers as wholesale grocers.  They moved into distilling about 1870, with George credited with buying and building three major distilleries in Louisville.  They were known as the Anderson Distillery (RD #97), shown above, the Buchanan Distillery (RD #353), and the Nelson Distillery (DR #4), adjacent to each other in Federal taxing district #4.   As noted earlier, the three plants had the capacity for producing whiskey amounts second to none in Kentucky. 
An advertisement linked the three outfits and provided illustrations of their advertising logos.  The Anderson distillery featured a Maltese or Greek cross on much of its materials.  Shown here, for example, are a paperweight and a shot glass both touting Anderson’s handmade sour mash, copper fire whiskey.  These items would have been produced to give away to saloonkeepers and bartenders featuring Anderson’s brands.  The Anderson distillery produced a small-tub, hand-made whiskey that is said to have been light, rich, smooth and fragrant.  The grain was scalded with spent “beer” in small tubs and was left 24 hours before being mashed.  It was then fermented naturally and some liquid was boiled in a copper still and others in a copper vessel directly over the fire.

The Buchanan marketing approach featured more elegant designs.   Buchanan’s Green Label whiskey displayed an elegant script and a wire-covered top.  Equally interesting was a liquor called “Buchanan’s Electro-Ozonized Bourbon” for the lungs.  Taking advantage of newly discovered interest in electricity, this whiskey was advertised as “in the best shape for use when an alcoholic preparation for the LUNGS is needed.”  Nelson Distillery used barrels to announce its products, including brands known as “Coon Hollow” and “Big Spring.”  These were, it claimed, “whiskies of the people.”
The Buchanan Distillery produced a heavy-bodied, hand-made sour mash whiskey that could be blended but when aged became deeply flavored and had a fragrant bouquet.  The Nelson Distillery produced a mash of 80% rye and 20% malted barley that was labeled as “Nelson’s Pure Rye.”  It also made “Nelson’s Pure Malt,”  composed entirely of barley malt and stored it in both charred and uncharred barrels.  Another featured brand was “U.S. Club,” whiskey that was used for both rye and bourbon blends.  It also marketed what the owners called “a quick maturing whiskey,” aged only three or four months.  A relatively cheap drink, it had a substantial customer base.

The overall company was known initially (1871-1875) as Newcomb, Buchanan & Co.  George Buchanan was president.  In 1876 and 1877, the distillery outfit reorganized with similar management and a slightly altered name.  Along the line the Buchanan built the Greystone Distillery, later known as Elk Run.   

By now a very rich man, Buchanan did as many whiskey royalty and bought a mansion.  It had been designed by Henry Whitestone, one of Louisville’s most noted architects at the time, originally for a man named Tompkins.  In the Italian Renaissance style, as shown here, the structure has a definite institutional look with its flat facade rigidly articulated by a belted look at each floor.  Like many houses in Louisville at the time only the main facade was of limestone, the remainder brick.  It was later used by a school.  However homely the exterior might be,  Buchanan determined to make the interior the height of Victorian extravagance.  A local newspaper contained a description of the still-new decorations at their height:  “Nothing short of the most lavish means could have provided such a bewildering array of blended utility and artistic beauty.”  A photo of the Buchanan parlor and a room beyond attest to the elegance of the place.
By 1884, however, Buchanan was bankrupt and the Louisville Courier-Journal speculated that he might have been “on the lam.”  The paper called him “a sort of Napoleon of the liquor trade.”  It added:  “All his operations were colossal, and his successes or failures were pitched on the most splendid scale.”  When he had promised earlier to pay his enormous debts, people had believed him.  Now he was bankrupt and missing.  It was whispered to be a case of fraud. But Buchanan’s friends knew where he was and he quickly returned.  He had assets. There were at least 67,000 barrels of whiskey in Buchanan’s warehouses.  Some 3,000 were slated for removal subject to $8,000 tax, equivalent to $375,000 today — an amount the distiller could not raise.  In the end, Buchanan was forced to put his distilleries into bankruptcy.  His mansion and its furnishings went too. 

But George was far from finished.  Although his distilleries were reorganized under new ownership, he apparently retained the confidence of whiskey men in Kentucky and throughout America.  He set himself up as a Louisville whiskey broker.  He could, he said, arrange large quantities of whiskey from distillers to wholesalers and retailers, and offered to bottle whiskey for parties under their own labels.  Shown here is an Anderson whiskey issued through a St. Louis outfit that may have been the result of a Buchanan brokering effort.  In his advertising Buchanan said:  “I have close business relations with the owners of a very large percentage of these old whiskies and can execute on the most favorable terms.”  He proved those relationships by issuing a 169-page booklet about Kentucky whiskey that carried ads from many major distillers.  He called it “Fine Whiskey Facts” and gave it a fancy cover. 

This publication also gave Buchanan an opportunity to pontificate on Kentucky whiskey:  “A standard Kentucky Whiskey is the best and safest beverage in the world, and especially suited to the American climate in which a stimulant of its specific character is a necessity.”  He ended this screed with a warning to Kentucky distillers and dealers to be “satisfied with a legitimate profit” so as to encourage the “cheapness at which they can be afforded” and thus increase sales.  He also strongly advocated lowering Federal taxes on whiskey.

By 1905, Buchanan was firmly back in control of the distilleries he had built and nurtured.  He had established a relationship with the New York City-based Paris, Allen Company, who were attempting to make their own “Trust-like” inroads into the Kentucky whiskey trade.  When Paris, Allen bought the Anderson-Buchanan-Nelson Company, they capitalized it at $2 million and incorporated it in New York State.  They named Buchanan as the president and general manager of the new entity.  The King of Kentucky Whiskey had returned.  A trade paper in reporting the deal opined:  “The Bulletin feels that the stockholders of the new company are to be congratulated on securing the services of Mr. Buchanan in the operation and distribution of the products of these plants;  we also congratulate Mr. Buchanan on having returned to his old first love.”

According to Kentucky tax records, the firm subsequently became known as the Allen-Bradley Distillery and operated under that name until about 1914. The property subsequently was known as the Elk Run Distillery before the entire complex was shut down by National Prohibition.  During the “dry” era the warehouses were under Federal supervision and used to store medicinal alcohol. A flood damaged large steel tanks on the property that broke loose and demolished several warehouses.  All but one of the distilleries then were dismantled, most buildings were razed, and the property became a scrap lot.

By that time George Buchanan had largely disappeared from the public record.  He seems to have eluded the census taker throughout his life. He is, however, worthy of a final word.  His mansion, now part of a university campus, still bears the Buchanan name and is listed on the National Register of Historic Properties.  In the official narrative that accompanies such designations, the Whiskey King is described, quoting one of his contemporaries.  The quote makes a fitting conclusion to Buchanan’s story:  “He was a liberal promoter of public improvements and a generous contributor to charities that administer to the helpless…” [but nevertheless] “…retained a very ample supply of this world’s goods.”

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Historic Legacy of Green Bay’s Frank Duchateau


In Green Bay, Wisconsin, a town known for its football team rather than archeology,  Frank John Baptiste Duchateau, who had inherited a thriving liquor dealership from his father, used his riches to amass a collection of Native American and other early artifacts that became the basis of the city’s noted history and science museum.  The local newspaper called Dechateau’s gift “a historic legacy.”

Frank was the son of Abelard (sometimes “Abeillard”) Louis Donat Duchateau, a native of Oud-Heverlee, Vlaams Brabant Province, Belgium, and his wife, Felicite Juliane, also of Belgian origin.  At the age of 20, Abelard had immigrated to the United States arriving at Green Bay as a port of entry in July 1856.  He initially found work as a tailor in Door County, Wisconsin,  moving to Green Bay around 1867, with Felicite, whom he had married in 1861.
About 1870 with his brother, Abelard established a liquor dealership in Green Bay,  calling it Duchateau & Brother.   It was located at the corner of Main and Washington Streets in the heart of the city’s commercial district.  The locale is shown above on a postcard, apparently during a patriotic parade.  The 1880 Census found the family residing on Cedar Street with their five children, ages 18 to 11.  Frank, born in 1868, was 12.  Abelard’s occupation was recorded by the census taker as “liquor dealer - merchant.”
The Duchateaus were not only liquor dealers but also rectifiers, that is, blending and compounding whiskeys to achieve a specific taste.  They packaged their products in glass with an embossed logo on the front.  The company’s flagship brand was “Old Beauford Rye.”  Although the name apparently was never trademarked, it was advertised on saloon signs like the one shown here depicting an affectionate elderly couple at mealtime with a flagon of booze at hand.

But not all the Duchateaus advertising was so benign.  A trade card has a definite suggestive motif.  It shows what appears to be a couple sprawled on the ground under a large red umbrella.  A man, identified by his shoes, pants, and jacket, appears to be atop a woman.  We see only one of her shoes and a bit of stocking.   Most surprising is the figure of a second man with a straw hat and a fishing pole who is calling out, “Hold on, I’m in for some of that too.”   What is this, a group grope?  But no!  When opened it reveals a young foursome sitting by a lake drinking from a full case of “Old Beauford Rye.”  Everyone is enjoying a beer glass full of the liquor, which may indicate that the real action may come later.
Frank Duchateau was educated in the Green Bay public schools but left at the age of 16, working first as an office boy and then as a clerk in a shoe store owned by a relative, entering his father’s liquor business in 1885.  His first job was as bookkeeper, advancing to manager. The company progressed to being Green Bay’s largest import and wholesale liquor operation.  Frank was fully trained and capable of taking over the business when Abelard died in 1889 and was buried in the Green Bay’s Allouez Cemetery.  His gravestone is shown below in winter.  

Frank Duchateau was married in September 1890 to Marie Beaupre. a native of Green Bay and the daughter of a local doctor.  Three years later she died in 1893 leaving him with a daughter, Olive Felicite, to raise.  Frank subsequently married a second time, to Mrs. Julia Lucas O’Leary, a widow whose father had been an early settler of Green Bay.  This marriage produced no children before Julia too died in 1911. Despite these tragedies in his personal life, Frank proved to be undeterred and as acute a businessman as Abelard.  In tribute to his father, about 1900 he changed the name of the firm to simply “A. Duchateau Company.”  

Like many other whiskey men of his time Duchateau branched out with a patent medicine called “Dr. Munros’s Celebrated Stomach Bitters.,” said to be a remedy for all type of intestinal disturbances.  The label carried a picture purported to be the visage of the estimable Dr. Munro, possibly a fictitious personage.  This nostrum eventually would be targeted by the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the Food and Drug officials among purported medicinal preparations with an excess amount of alcohol and reported to be “insufficiently medicated to render them unfit for use as a beverage.”  As a result, Dr. Munro’s Celebrated Stomach Bitters thereafter would be subject to a special Federal tax on sales and were branded by Dr. Wiley, head of the Food and Drug administration, as a useless potion.

Meanwhile, Frank Duchateau was making a name for himself in Green Bay.  His business interests encompassed real estate, banking, the telephone and electric companies.  A Republican, he served five years as a city alderman from 1892 to 1897.  He also was active socially as a trustee of the Benevolent Protective Order of Elks, a member of the Knights of Pythias Lodge, the Green Bay Yacht Club, the Green Bay Driving Club, the Green Bay Turn Verein and the Green Bay Gun Club.  In 1919 the king of Belgium honored Duchateau for his money-raising efforts to aid wartorn Belgium after World War I by awarding him the King Albert Medal.

Important as these activities were, Duchateau’s real passion was for archeology.  For many years he avidly pursued the collecting of relics of early Native American and French trader life.   Described as “one of Wisconsin’s most ambitious collectors,” Frank amassed an assemblage of archeological items as well as early farm tools, ceramics, fire arms, kitchen utensils and foreign currency.  Among the rarest of these was a mortar and pestle used by the Menominee Indians to crush corn, similar to the items pictured here.  The mortar stood about two and a half feet tall and the pestle was six feet long.  Not content with buying them, Duchateau often found rare artifacts on his own.  While exploring at Point Au Sable near Green Bay, he came upon a brass sundial made in Paris centuries earlier.  It carried the longitude and latitude of many of the cities of an earlier age and was considered highly rare.
In 1915, Duchateau help found the Neville Museum of Natural History of Brown County, located in Green Bay.  Over his lifetime he donated some 12,000 items to the museum, a gift termed by the Green Bay Press-Gazette newspaper as “a historic legacy.”  He also donated the first display cases and served as the first vice president of the museum board, a post he held until 1929.   

Although the coming of National Prohibition, shut down his wholesale liquor business, Duchateau was able to throw his abundant energies into his real estate interests, including erecting buildings on six blocks in downtown Green Bay.  He lived to be 87 years old, dying in 1954. He had seen the 1934 Repeal of Prohibition; the 1940 death of his third wife, Mary Laughlin;  World War II, and the Korean War.  Most of all, Duchateau witnessed the growth of a remarkable local museum, the Neville, one that continually garners positive online responses like this:  “Their permanent exhibit about the history of the area is truly remarkable and can be enjoyed by folks of all ages.”  Quite clearly the legacy of Frank Duchateau, Green Bay’s  whiskey man and amateur archeologist, lives on.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Fred Raschen Parlayed $2.75 into a Whiskey Fortune

   Recorded as “prominent for over fifty-two years in the business life of Sacramento,” California, Fred Raschen had arrived in town with $2.75 in his pocket and dreams of starting a career.  After a false start or two, he found the whiskey trade and never looked back. 
Raschen was born in Oldenberg, Germany, in 1845.  Educated in the schools of his homeland, he had a spirit of wanderlust.  As a young man he is reported as having traveled extensively in Europe, Asia and Africa.  A biographical sketch described him as “seeing the world and working at whatever he could do to pay his expenses and in this way gaining the broadening outlook on life which travel alone can give.”   In 1870, via the Isthmus of Panama, he arrived in California.  After a brief sojourn in San Francisco, he settled in Sacramento.  He had $2.75 to his name.

The German immigrant soon found employment, working as a clerk for a grocery store on Second and M Streets.  Within a few months he had moved to a produce and commission house on K Street.   Because grocers almost always sold whiskey,  Raschen probably was exposed to that area of merchandise.  Two years after his arrival in Sacramento he went to work as a clerk for a wholesale liquor dealer located on J Street, a major commercial avenue shown above.  The company founded in 1874 under the name of Weinrich, Lohse & Company.  After two management changes over the years,  H. Weinrich became the sole owner in 1885.  His major brand was “Silver Sheaf.” A shot glass with the brand and Weinrich’s name is shown here.

Recognizing the business talents of his young employee and possibly in bad health, Weinrich made Raschen a partner in the firm.  In February 1899, the owner, according to a legal notice in the Sacramento newspaper, completely disposed of his interests to Raschen.  The latter was declared entitled to collect all outstanding accounts of the firm and would pay all demands against the firm.  While doing business at the same 514 J Street location, the new owner changed the business name to Fred Raschen, Wholesale Liquors. 
Raschen’s  flagship brand continued to be Silver Sheaf, but he also sold “Golden State” and “Tippecanoe.”  The former label had been trademarked by a New York firm in 1876 and the latter by a Cincinnati liquor dealer in 1905.  It is not clear if he was featuring these whiskeys under license from their originators or was poaching the names.  He packaged his whiskey in labeled amber bottles that contained embossing of his initials.  

Like Weinrich,  Raschen was partial to shot glasses as merchandising tools for his whiskey.  Several versions were issued for Silver Sheaf, one with an elaborately etched figure of a sheaf of grain and his name written in script below it.  Interestingly the sheaf is noted as a “trade mark,” yet I can find no evidence that Raschen ever registered his brand with federal authorities. While a second glass is less elaborate it has the name of the liquor written in Gothic letters.  He also issued shots for Golden State and Tippecanoe.   These items were principally meant as gifts to saloonkeepers and bartenders who were carrying Raschen’s brands.

Information about Raschen’s family life are scant.  He fails to show up in any U.S. documents and his biography made no mention of a wife or children.   He worked at the same location for 47 years as both employee and owner until shut down by National Prohibition  His recreational activities during that period, by contrast, were well recorded.  He became one of the best known and successful horsemen of the region, owning a number of thoroughbred trotting and driving horses.  He was a member of the California State Fair Assn. and the Sacramento Driving Club, racing his steeds at the fair grounds with good result, “thoroughly enjoying this gentlemen’s sport.”
Hunting was another Raschen passion.  He was the organizer of the Sacramento Outing Club, an organization that owned large shooting preserves in Sutter County.  An excellent marksman he is said once to have made the his limit of doves with fifteen out of eighteen shots — a record.  He also made targets of other birds, including quail, plover and wild pigeon. 
None of this sporting life detracted from his business interests that also enhanced Raschen’s standing in Sacramento.  It was said that he was “one who could be depended upon to do the his share in promoting the financial and civic life of the city.”   For 47 years, as both employer and owner, Raschen worked at the same location.  In 1918, however, he was forced to shut the doors of his company, now called Fred Raschen Co., Inc., after a 1907 incorporation.

At 73 years old Raschen was far from finished with his career.  He decided to devote himself to the development of land.  With the considerable wealth he had accrued as a liquor dealer he bought 1,100 acres in nearby Yuba County.  Much of it was rich bottom land, covered mostly with cottonwood trees.  He directed the tree removal,  land leveling, and planting of peach trees.  Raschen also installed a concrete pipe irrigation system and other up-to-date equipment.  Given the fertility of the soil the peach trees grew rapidly and his ranch soon became considered a model of “modern” agricultural practices.
I can find no record of Raschen’s death or where he may be buried.  But a fitting memorial to this immigrant who came to town with $2.75 in his pocket and became a multi-millionaire was penned by a biographer while Fred was still living:  “Mr. Raschen is a typical Californian, for he has spent all of the productive years of his life here, has aided materially in developing and upbuilding, and has been a loyal citizen, with the best interests of his community always at heart.”

Note:  Much of the information for this post has been derived from a book authored by G. Walter Reed, entitled History of Sacramento County, California, with Biographical Sketches.  It was published by the Historic Record Company of Los Angeles in 1923.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

John Neff — Genial Proprietor of Austin’s Iron Front Saloon

Austin’s Iron Front Saloon was one of the notable “watering holes” of the Old West.  Like other Texas saloons, it saw its share of violent encounters but was known for its gracious and well-liked owner.  He was John B. Neff, a man who was overshadowed in his own establishment, however, by a man who ran the gambling upstairs, a notoriously dangerous killer.
Information about Neff’s origins are scanty.   He is said to have been born in August 1850 in LaGrange, Texas, a town in Fayette County, about half way between Houston and Austin.  One source suggests that he was a veteran of the Indian Wars, but I have been unable to find any corroboration.  He married a woman named Adela about 1876.  She was Texas born of immigrant parents, father from Norway, mother from Germany.  She may have been her teens when they wed.  Their union produced three children.

Neff came to Austin from LaGrange in 1872.  Shown above is the main street, Congress Avenue, as it looked in the late 1800s, Austin was experiencing important economic and population growth.   The opening of the Houston and Texas Central Railway in 1871 had turned the town into a major trading center with the ability to transport both cotton and cattle.  It was also the terminus of one leg of the famous Chisholm Trail where cattle were driven to the railhead.   Austin also had become the state capitol of Texas.

The booming economy had fostered a number of saloons to serve a thirsty clientele of cowboys, drovers, railroad men and state employees.  First among them all was the Iron Front Saloon.  It was located at 605 Congress, established about 1849 by Philip W. Jobe and run by him alone successfully until the early 1870s.  Then perhaps for reasons of health he took a partner named Robinson and continued until 1877 when the pair sold out.
Enter John Neff who purchased the property with a partner named Harry H. Duff.  There is only one photograph of the exterior of their saloon, taken around 1800, it shows the Iron Front only as a background for wider view.  Moreover a giant billboard for General Arthur Cigars blocks most of the upper story and a horse and buggy the lower half.  Nor are there interior shots of this legendary establishment.  From Sanborn insurance maps an artist has reconstructed what the both the exterior and interior might have looked like. 

The Neff and his partner wasted no time in sprucing up the interior.  They brought in new billiard tables and redecorated the entry parlor, called by the local newspaper “fitted up in superb style…unapproached by anything in the city.”  The walls were embellished with oil paintings, steel engravings, and other ornaments.  Neff particularly liked the offbeat and bizarre to adorn the place.  Upon its reopening to the public the owners assured that in addition customers would find available the “purist of wines, liquors and cigars.”
The partnership was relatively short-lived.  Duff was known as a man with a short temper and a tendency to get into trouble with the law.  Whether that was the cause of the split is unknown but by 1881 Neff was sole proprietor of the Iron Front Saloon. Bar tokens show both management situations.   The Austin Daily Statesman reported in 1883 that Neff was “repairing and rekalsomining [whitewashing] his saloon and is fixing it up in grand style.  The overhead will be frescoed in the most artistic way.”   The newspaper lauded Neff as “a man of great taste” and described the Iron Front as “the chief place of entertainment in the city.”

Neff also was wholesaling and retailing whiskey, probably raw product shipped from the East that he likely was blending and compounding and selling in ceramic jugs.  Two are shown here, one of five gallons likely was meant for saloons but he also was retailing his liquor in smaller containers, some with cobalt blue labels featuring the head of a longhorn steer.  Neff advertised that “Nothing but straight goods sold at the bar,”  but did not mention what might be found inside his jugs. 

The 2004 book, Legendary Watering Holes:  Saloons that Made Texas Famous, points out that saloons came to be known by their owners names:  “The custom extended to the sign over the door, which prominently featured the owner’s name.  Reputation of owner and saloon were thus inseparably intertwined.  And the proprietor infused the saloon’s operations….A saloonkeeper was an entrepreneur of the highest orders.”

A canny publican also was someone active in community affairs.  Neff filled that role admirably as he sought a good image for himself and his establishment.  For example, in 1882 Texas State Fair directors were considering canceling the steer roping contest for lack of steers and prizes.  Neff came to the rescue by offering to provide a fancy saddle to the winning cowboy.  That gesture apparently convinced ranchers to contribute steers and won the saloonkeeper plaudits for his “display of public spirit.”  The Austin newspaper regularly referred to his establishment as “John Neff’s Iron Front Saloon.”
Given his standing in the community, Neff’s selection of an individual to run the second floor gambling concession at the Iron Front is puzzling.  The game room provided card games like faro, monte and poker but also dice and roulette.  The man he chose was Ben Thompson who Texas authors described as “a very dangerous man.”  He was a gunfighter with a number of killings attributed to him, quick to anger and reach for his gun, particularly when he had been drinking.  But Thompson also had a reputation for humor and for running honest games.  Twice he was elected to the post of marshal in Austin.  It is said that the crime rate in town dropped sharply during his tenure.

Shown here are two of the gambling devices actually used by Thompson on the second floor of the Iron Front Saloon.  One is his version of a roulette table, handed down in his family but eventually burned in a home fire.  The second is French-made device featuring a monkey dressed as a magician that mechanically shook dice, assumed to be more honest than human hands.  Thompson’s occupation was lucrative.  As much as $30,000 a month might pass over the tables — equivalent to $750,000 today. 

Thompson, however, could not avoid violence.  In 1881, he had gotten involved in a dispute with a saloon and theater owner in San Antonio, shot and killed him.  Although it cost him his job as marshal, he was tried and acquitted of the murder and returned to Austin to continue running gambling at the Iron Front.  In 1884 he ventured back to San Antonio, was lured into an ambush, and met with a hail of bullets.  Shot in the head, he died immediately. The life of Ben Thompson, the gunman, has earned him lots of attention in later years, including a long Wikipedia entry.  Meanwhile John Neff, the genial saloonkeeper, has gone largely forgotten.

Neff continued to run the Iron Front through the 1880s and into the 1890s, receiving tributes that included the Austin Board of Trade lauding him and his saloon as being entitled to the “prosperity and support” they had received over the years.  In 1894, Neff sold the Iron Front to new owners.  Even after retirement he maintained an office at 605 Congress Avenue, but lived quietly with his family, out of the public eye.  In February 1896 while cleaning a pistol, Neff accidentally shot himself, dying almost immediately.  He was only 46 years old.  He was buried in Austin’s Oakwood Cemetery, shown below, not far from the grave of Ben Thompson.  The 1900 census found his widow, Adele, living in Austin with her two adult sons.
The Iron Front Saloon survived Neff’s death by only 13 years.  In 1909 it and surrounding buildings were torn down to build a “skyscraper” for the American National Bank.  The bank president was a local who had been nine years old when the establishment opened and later had spent many an hour at its bar.  A contemporary observer has opined:  “But sentimentality has no place in business, so when the opportunity came to cash out the old place, Littlefield gave it scarcely a second thought ordering the demolition of the granddaddy of all Austin saloons.”

The destruction of one of the most famous Texas watering holes in order to build a bank building signaled a real “sea change” in Western America.  Men like Ben Thompson were disappearing from the scene as respect grew for law and order.  Moreover, within a decade saloonkeepers, genial or otherwise, would be rendered an extinct species by the passage of prohibitionary laws.  John Neff clearly was the right man, at the right place, at the right time  in Texas history. 

Note:  Much of the material for this post comes from the book, Legendary Watering Holes, cited above, particularly from a chapter by Chuck Parsons, a Texan who has written widely on the Texas Rangers and other Western topics.  The architectural drawings shown here were the work of Bob Smith.  

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.