Monday, June 20, 2011
Charles C. Clarke and "The Whiskey Trust"
In failing health and only three years from his death, Charles C. (for Corning) Clarke, seen here in his late 30s, was summoned in 1899 from his Peoria, Illinois, home to testify to an elite Washington, D.C. investigating commission about one of America’s most notorious organizations, known popularly as “The Whiskey Trust. That monopoly bore a reputation for ruthlessly shutting down distilleries throughout the Midwest and beyond, reputedly using dynamite when necessary.
Charles’ father was one of Peoria’s pioneer distillers. Born in 1821 in Northhampton, Massachusetts, the elder Clarke had a natural head for business. He started distilling whiskey about 1860 in Peoria, seen here in panorama. His enterprise was assisted by his friendship with Abraham Lincoln and other prominent Republican politicians.
Charles, the eldest son, was born in 1856 and educated in the Peoria, graduating from the local high school. Early on he began working at his father distillery but his health was fragile. As part of his recuperation the young Charles went to Montana for a better climate and went into business raising cattle. Although ranching was physically and financially beneficial to him, his father’s retirement brought the young man back to Peoria in 1880.
Taking up the family distilling business, he formed a partnership with his youngest brother, Chauncey, and called the firm Clarke Bros. & Co. The distillery stood on Grove Street, at the foot of Persimmon in Peoria. It produced a number of brands, including Castle Rock, Checker Board, Elkhorn Gin, Kickapoo Bourbon, Pearl Spirits, and R.D.C. Bourbon. The flagship brand was Clarke’s Pure Rye.
Clarke Bros. operated at a tumultuous time in American distilling history. Anxious to insure high profits, a number of Midwest distillers in 1887 organized a monopoly under the name of the Distillers and Cattle Feeders’ Trust. Headquartered was in Peoria, it quickly became known as “The Whiskey Trust.”
When a distillery joined the Trust its owners received stock but surrendered control of their operations to a board of trustees. Of some 86 distilleries that eventually joined (or were forced into) the Trust, only about a dozen were kept operating. The rest were shut down.
The idea was to corner an overwhelming market share and fix prices to insure ample profits. At the time such business practices were still legal. Criminal activity, however, often was alleged in the strong arm tactics employed by the Trust, including bombings, against distillers who refused to join.
No evidence exists that Charles Clarke was involved in any mayhem, but he knew a lot about the Whiskey Trust. . While not a founding member, Charles early brought his distillery into its fold. When later asked why, he replied: “I went into the first Trust because I was glamoured with the pictures that were painted of fancy profits, and also because of the intimations that, if I did not go in, the Trust would get after my customers and make life a burden to me....I was quite a young man at the time and did not like to go into a combination and lose control of my business, but after some time I agreed to do it. I regretted it from the day I went in, although I secured very good profits for a long time.”
The Trust shut down the Clarke Bros. distillery, gave them $100,000 in stock, and put each of the brothers on the payroll for $5,000 a year, a substantial salary in those days. When the stipend ended as the Trust fell into financial difficulties, Charles broke out of the monopoly in 1885 and began distilling again as independent operator. He continued to be harassed by Trust forces but persisted.
Amidst the tumult he was married in 1892 to a young widow, Alice (Chandler) Ewing. Charles and Alice would have three children: Alice, born in 1893 who died five years later, Charles C., born 1895; and Margaret, born 1897.
Beginning about in 1889 the revived Clarke Bros. dropped the most of its other brands to concentrate on merchandising Clarke’s Pure Rye. It was sold in clear glass bottles with little embossing and paper labels. About 1990 Clarke Bros. built a new facility at the foot of Pecan and South Peoria Streets, illustrated here, boasting that it was the “largest whiskey distillery in the world.” It also incorporated as Clarke Brothers Distillery. Its letterhead and ads stressed its “independent” status -- by inference a jab at the Whiskey Trust.
The most unusual merchandising strategy employed by Clarke Bros. was plastering the face and body of an elderly and sickly looking man on its advertising. This geezer shows up on items from hand mirrors to decorative plates, canvas and wooden bar signs.
As the company prospered it also became known for its giveaway items. On saloons featuring its whiskey it showered shot glasses, tip trays back of the bar bottles, and attractive “nips, ” including is a hollow dog with a pottery and cork stopper at the rear and Clarke’s Pure Rye written across its back.
While Clarke Bros. & Co. were prospering as an independent distillery, Federal authorities were increasingly becoming concerned about the Whiskey Trust. President William McKinley in 1898 had appointed a special Industrial Commission to investigate monopolistic practices in a wide range of industries, It was chaired by a close friend of the President, Andrew L. Harris, a former Ohio governor and Civil War general.
Federal investigators saw Charles Clarke as a key witness who might, under oath, disclose the full inside story of this secretive organization. Being summoned to Washington by a high-powered investigative panel likely held no fears for Charles. His father had been a a well-known figure in the Republic Party both nationally and in Illinois. Clarke himself, running on the GOP ticket, had been elected twice as major of Peoria, the first time when he was only 36. In short, this witness was accustomed to the rough and tumble of politics.
The New York Times of May 14, 1899, headlined his testimony before the Commission. Clarke was cautious. He revealed nothing very new, restating only the obvious. The Trust was, Clarke testified, “bound to fall of its own weight.” He argued against passing new antitrust laws. The Commission, however, did not agree and in concluding its work in 1902 recommended stronger legislation. Teddy Roosevelt, by then President, agreed, ushering in the “Trust Busting Era” in American history.
By then the Whiskey Trust had disintegrated into several organizations and Charles Clarke was dead in 1902, only 46 years of age. He had never been in good health and it is speculated that the strain of the past several years had taken their toll. One obituary said: Few men in Peoria developed a better capacity for business, and no man had a better reputation for integrity and honor than Charles C. Clarke.
After Charles’ death, the company remained under members of the Clarke family. They advertised their rye widely as meant for “family and medicinal use” but eventually were closed down by Prohibition. Ironically, the Whiskey Trust may have had the last laugh on the Clarkes. After Repeal one of its Peoria-based remnants called U.S. Industrial Alcohol, Inc., bought their facility and sold the Clarke Bros. brand name to another local distiller.