Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sherwood Distillery and the Family Feud

On January 16, 1902, seven jurists of the Maryland Court of Appeals in Annapolis heard a case that pitted quarreling members of a wealthy family and their high powered attorneys disputing over the operation and future direction of the Sherwood Distillery. The Wight family feud had been the “talk” of local society for months.

The story begins in Cockeysville, Maryland, about 17 miles north of Baltimore on the road to York, Pennsylvania. The town was named after the Cockey family who built a hotel around the time of the Civil War and convinced the Baltimore and Susquehanna Railroad to locate a station there. The presence of a rail line drew businesses, among them a distillery operated by partners John J. Wight and a partner. They called their liquor Sherwood Pure Rye, named after the nearby Sherwood Episcopal Church.

In 1868 the distillery was bought by a pair of New York City whiskey distributors. One of them was Edward Hyatt, the son of a Baltimore grocer. The new ownership greatly expanded the facilities, increased production, and marketed its whiskey aggressively. By 1878 the Army Medical Purveying Depot in New York was stockpiling Sherwood Rye for its hospitals.

With his partner’s departure in 1882 Hyatt incorporated the firm, with assets of $30,000, as the Sherwood Distilling Company. He became president. Despite selling majority ownership, John J. Wight had married Hyatt’s sister and remained active in the distillery. His son, John Hyatt Wight, from youth also was involved in the business. All three men were principal stockholders in the privately held company.

The distillery sold its Maryland rye in a range of bottles, including flasks, pints and quarts, as shown here. Sherwood Distilling adopted as its logo a recumbent barrel and used the image frequently in its advertising, such as an 1891 ad. Throughout the 1800’s the business continued to prosper. A sales office was opened in Baltimore. By 1897 the Maryland Department of Revenue estimated the taxable value of Sherwood whiskey at $308,920, several millions in today’s dollar.

The Wights were a leading Maryland family. John J. and his wife were rose fanciers whose garden gained national attention. An article in the New York Times featured the headline:
"A Great Collection of Roses, Three Hundred and Eighty Varieties Growing in the Open Air.” The story began: “Twelve hundred rose bushes shed their fragrance and beauty on the lawn in front of Mr. John J. Wight's house at Cockeysville. Red roses and white, pink roses and yellow, in every variety, shade, and size, meet the eye.”

The rosy prospects began to wane when John J. Wight died. His estate transferred most of his stock to his son, John Hyatt Wight, who became secretary and treasurer of Sherwood Distilling, with his uncle remaining as the president. In 1894, Edward Hyatt died. John Hyatt Wight was made trustee over his uncle’s estate and became president of the company. His Aunt Charlotte, Hyatt’s widow within a couple of years married a man named William Dailey. In 1899 she filed a lawsuit against her nephew, accusing him of fraud.

Dailey vs. Wight was a notorious case in the Maryland courts. Because considerable amounts of money were at stake, both sides hired high profile lawyers. Aunt Charlotte was represented by Charles J. Bonaparte, a grandnephew of Napoleon Bonaparte and a Teddy Roosevelt’ appointee as U.S. Attorney General. Wight’s chief attorney was W. H. deCourcey Wright, a well known and well placed lawyer in Maryland. His father had been a Maryland Supreme Court judge and his mother the daughter of a prominent Confederate general and congressman who had settled in Baltimore after the war.

As Maryland’s social set looked on with intense interest, Bonaparte, Wright, and their respective clients did fierce battle before Judge Albert Richie in the Circuit Court of Baltimore. Aunt Charlotte made a range of scurrilous charges against Wight, accusing him of “cooking the books” of the corporation, concealing distillery profits, and lining his own pockets at her expense. When Judge Richie disagreed and threw out her petition, she appealed. In 1902 The Maryland Appeals Court agreed with Judge Richie and affirmed his decision. In its opinion, the Appeals Court totally dismissed Aunt Charlotte’s charges, commenting that “trifles as light as air” had become for her “confirmation as strong as proofs of holy writ.”

John Hyatt Wight continued to run Sherwood Distillery successfully until Prohibition. Maryland tax records show a steady increase in the value of the whiskey produced to almost $400,000 by 1909. One merchandising method Wight particularly favored was giving away a variety of “back of the bar” bottles to saloons and other favored customers. All prominently advertised Sherwood’s whiskey.

Prohibition closed the original Sherwood distillery in Cockeysville and the buildings were demolished as early as 1926. A Wight family member and the brand name both survived Prohibition and remained in the whiskey trade -- but on separate tracks. Frank L. Wight, most probably John Hyatt Wight’s son, after Repeal organized the Cockeysville Distilling Company and in 1946 built a facility right down the street from where the original distillery had stood. It operated until Frank’s death in 1958.

Meanwhile the Sherwood brand name had been bought by Louis Mann during the 1930s. He re-created the Sherwood Distilling Company in Westminster, Maryland, about 25 miles north of Cockeysville. This outfit appears to have been blenders rather than distillers with much of its product coming from other whiskey-makers, such as the Foust Distillery of Glen Rock, Pennsylvania, ref. June 2011 post. Shown here is a post-Pro Sherwood flask. Mann’s operation apparently closed during the 1950s and the brand disappeared.

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