Friday, May 13, 2011

George Shawhan: A Giant in Distilling










In late July, 1863, Confederate General John Hunt Morgan brought the Civil War north to Indiana and Ohio. Morgan and his men on horseback pillaged and terrorized dozens of hamlets and towns, moving east from Indiana. A contemporary lithograph from Harper’s Magazine depicted the attack by Morgan’s Raiders on Washington Court House, Ohio. With them was a young giant with prodigious strength named George Shawhan.

Born in 1843, Shawhan joined the Confederate army in Kentucky in 1862 at the age of 19. He stood six feet five inches tall and weighed 250 pounds. This was at a time when average American males stood 5 feet, 8 inches, and weighed 150 pounds. With most of Morgan’s troop, Shawhan was captured trying to cross the Ohio River into West Virginia in August 1863. He was sent to Camp Douglas on the outskirts of Chicago, a prison facility known in the South as “Eight Acres of Hell.” Of the 12,000 Confederate soldiers held there, more than 4,500 died. Shawhan was a survivor.

After the war, George returned to Kentucky, got married, tried farming and quickly decided that making whiskey was a better way of life. It was an easy choice since his family had been involved in distilling for three generations. Unlike his forebears, however, George Shawhan moved out of Kentucky. In 1872 he transplanted his family and mother to a town in Missouri called Lone Jack.

It was named for a large black jack tree that stood near the intersection of the Missouri and Osage Rivers. A Shawhan whiskey label later memorialized the tree. The scene of a bloody Civil War battle, Lone Jack was noted for its good water and fertile soil. Shawhan bought a farm and within a year completed his first distillery, shown here in an artist’s rendering. Initially it had a capacity of producing two barrels of whiskey a day, each holding 42 gallons.

In Lone Jack Shawhan’s strength became legendary. He was said to raise a 400 pound barrel of whiskey, hold it by the rim, and drink from the bung hole. On one occasion, the story goes, the tailgate of his wagon holding full whiskey barrels opened, spilling the cargo onto the street. Working alone, Shawhan corralled the big kegs and heaved them back onto the wagon. In the process he dislocated his shoulder and needed the help of two friends to force it back into place. A grandson later said of him: "Grandpa was a person that always watched his temper, but he was a very powerful man.”

The Shawhan enterprises grew steadily. He built three large barns where tobacco grown around Lone Jack was dried, graded and made into plugs, cigars, and loose for rolling into cigarettes. He also opened a saloon in Kansas City. In January 1900 disaster struck. Around midnight, the distillery caught fire and burned to the ground. George’s warehouses were spared. They held 800 barrels of whiskey at the time and provided a valuable financial resource. This time the giant distiller decided against rebuilding.

Instead he moved to Weston, Missouri, and bought a distillery there. It was located near a pure limestone spring and the quality of the water caused Shawhan to enthuse that with his whiskey formula he could “beat those Bourbon County fellows all hollow.” He also was withdrawing whiskey from his Lone Jack warehouses and bottling it under the Shawhan Whiskey label.

About this time he expanded his brands to include "1786 Shawhan Rye", "Double Stamp", "Four Generation", "Lone Jack", "Old Holladay Rye", "Old Stamping Ground", "Selected Stock", "Shawhan", "Shawhan White Corn", and "Stone River." Among Shawhan’s merchandising efforts were a series of shot glasses and other giveaways to important customers.
Throughout the late 1890s and early 1900s as his whiskey business continued to grow, Shawhan built a Victorian mansion in downtown Weston for his family, shown here. It is considered a classic example of “steamboat architecture” and survives today as a bed and breakfast.

In 1908 Shawhan sold his Weston distillery and the brand name to the Singer family who operated the distillery until Prohibition. Shawhan continued to be involved in the whiskey business until his death in 1912 at the age of 69. He is buried near Kansas City in Lee’s Summit Cemetery.
His name was perpetuated by the Singers and their successors on their whiskey labels for years.

19 comments:

  1. I loved your article on Shawhan. I am doing a little gen research and know that Singer Bros. (August, Marcus, and Joe Singer) had a saloon on Genessee (and worked for Rieger & Co. earlier), across from the Livestock exchange building, but I would love to know what if any connection they have to Isadore Singer. Don't guess that you would, by any chance? Thanks,
    Val

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  2. Dear Valorie: Thanks for your kind comments. I have only scant information on the Singers family referenced in your commentary but your inquiry has spurred me to thinking I should do more research on them and possibly post a vignette. If you have information through your research that might be helpful on both Isadore and the Singer saloon brothers, send it to me at jack.sullivan9@verizon.net and I will go to work on the matter. Will have your email to send anything of interest I find.

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  3. I am related to this guy, Shawhan is my middle name! Thanks for the insight into my family tree!

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  4. Unknown: A mighty ancestor, indeed!

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  5. George was my great, great, great grandfather. I will be using this article to start a discussion with my Epistemology class. The question about the Civil War is: To truly understand an important historical event, do we need to use historical empathy even if that means empathizing with a clearly immoral position. George is a legend in my family, despite being on the wrong side of history. I try to understand the war through his eyes.

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  6. Anonymous: I agree heartily with your take on the Civil War. Two years ago I transcribed into a computer the handwritten diary of an Alexandria Va soldier who was in the Confederate army from the outbreak until the surrender. Without agreeing with the cause, it is possible to be sympathetic with the individual. As for Shawhan, he probably deserves a full fledged biography.

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  7. My husband has been doing his geneology, and his grandmother was a Shawhan on his mother's side! He is a big whiskey fan, and wondered if there was ANYWHERE to get an original bottle?

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  8. Renee: My suggestion is that he watch eBay regularly for Shawhan bottles. They come up from time to time. If you live in Midwest he may wish to visit local bottle shows or consult with local dealers.

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  9. I have in my possesion a box of items,( pictures without names, scrap books, year books, etc ) that belonged to Record Shawhan Roland. It appears that his Grandfather was George Henry Shawhan and his Grandmother was Mary Frances Tatham. Record was married to Helen Lucille Hill on May 9, 1922 as there merriage cerrtificate is in this box. I am relectant to distroy these items but they are of no use to me. If you are part of this family and are interested in these items let me know.

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    1. Ken, I hope I am not to late but I would be very happy to have those items and love to hear how are where you found them. please email me. John Shawhan

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  10. Thanks for your offer, Ken. I hope some kinfolk of the Shawhans will take you up on it.

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  11. Hi Ken,
    I've been having trouble getting my comment to go through, so I apologize if it has been and I, in my computer ignorance don't realize it, and just keep sending this.
    My name is Mary Kay R. I came across this blog while doing research on the Shawhan genealogy. George Henry Shawhan was my great-great grandfather. I remember Record Rowland from my early childhood. We called him Rex.
    I am very interested in obtaining the items you have. I live in the Kansas City area.
    Please let me know how to best contact you.
    Thank you!

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  12. Mary Kay R: Thanks for being in touch. Unfortunately my computer crashed in 2014 and took with it all my Shawhan notes and images. All that is left is what you see in my post. Sorry not to be of more help. It was a disaster.

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  13. Thank you for responding Jack. I'm very fortunate that quite a few Shawhan descendants have compiled quite a bit of info (to the tune of three very thick volumes).
    I just started researching on my own and was very excited to see the comment from Ken C.

    Record Shawhan Rowland was my 1st Cousin 2X removed so it would be wonderful to have any items that were his, especially since I do remember him visiting my grandparents in Lone Jack when I was a child.

    I hope Ken C checks in again soon.

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    1. Mary, I got so excited at seeing Kens comments above that I didn't read down to see yours. I hope that Ken has checked back in and that you have received these items as it appears you are closer family than I would be. I would love to be in contact with you as I am trying to research genealogy and ancestry as it pertains to Shawhan Bourbon specifically. John

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    3. Hi John,
      Ken has not responded yet.
      My mother (now 90) is George H. Shawhan's great-granddaughter.
      I'm still learning new facts and I grew up with the story of GHS. I kick my young adult self for not asking more questions of my grandparents while they were still here.
      I'm not sure of the best way to be in contact.
      Mary Kay

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  14. My Father was John Franklin Shawhan, and his father was John Shawhan. Lived in Cincinnati, but came from Shawhan Station in Kentucky, I think. I am Nancy Shawhan Walker, and do like whiskey.

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  15. Nancy: What a great ancestor you can point to. Shawhan is one of my favorite whiskey men. An entire book should be written on his life.

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