Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Ben Holladay: "King of Wheels" (and Western Whiskey)

During the mid-1800s when Ben Holladay was accounted the largest the largest
employer in America and one of its wealthiest and most famous citizens, it probably never occurred to him that his name and legacy might live on largely through the distillery he founded as a sideline. But that is how things have turned out.

Holladay was born in 1824 in a log cabin in the Kentucky hills near the town of Blue Lick Springs. Early on he was exposed to the ways of managing a wagon train, accompanying his father in leading settlers westward through the Cumberland Gap. Soon the young hostler relocated to Weston, Missouri, already a “jumping off point” for thousands of pioneer settlers. It was from Weston by dint of hard work and an acute business sense he created a transport empire that eventually included the outfitting of wagon trains, a stagecoach monopoly, steamship lines and eventually the Oregon Central Railroad. By 1864 Ben Holladay was accounted the largest individual employer in the entire United States.

One of his biographers calls Holladay the “America’s King of Wheels” because his far flung transportation system bound half a world together. To Will Ermine who wrote a novel about him, Ben was the “Boss of the Plains.” To author Erle Stanley Gardner, he was “a truly red-blooded hero.” Yet to many of his contemporaries Holladay was a tough and ruthless businessman who did not hesitate to trample anything or anyone who got in his way. His enemies considered him unscrupulous and devoid of any moral sense. Nevertheless, American elites of the day, including President Lincoln during the Civil War, sought his company and advice, and the common folk sang his praises in popular tunes:

“You ask me for our leader, I soon inform you then;
“It’s Holladay they call him, and often only Ben;
“If you can read the papers, its easy work to scan;
“He beats the world in staging now, or any other man.”

Ben Holladay was a man of large appetites, and one of them was for whiskey. In one account, his brother Joe ran a saloon at the corner of Clifford and Burr Streets in Weston. Its window bore a sign announcing that “Monongahela Whiskey” could be found inside. But that liquor was made in Pennsylvania, a thousand miles away, and was expensive to transport all the way to Missouri.

Holladay had a better idea. At Weston, the explorers Lewis and Clark in 1804 had found some excellent limestone springs that later generations used to full their water barrels on the way West. The young entrepreneur understood that the same tasty limestone-based water would be an ideal ingredient to make very good whiskey. So it was, as a sideline to his transportation empire, that in 1856 he founded a distillery on the outskirts of Weston and put his brother Donald in charge.

Whiskey proved to be a highly lucrative product. As the liquor began to flow from his stills, it found a ready market in frontier America. Ben’s whiskey sold for five dollars a gallon but he charged his Indian customers a beaver pelt for just two swigs. Legend has it that he personally measured his drinks in half-pint cups coated inside with tallow and stuck his fingers in to aid his measure. Biographer Ellis Lucia says that “between tallow and fingers, the whiskey stretched a long way.” As with most of his business enterprises, Holladay’s distillery flourished. Barrels of liquor were stored in cools limestone caves near Weston until Ben’s hostlers could load them on wagons for the thirsty folks out West.

As time went by, Holladay himself was developing a taste for more exotic libations, like champagne and scotch. As one of America’s wealthiest men -- and abetted by a social-climbing wife -- he became renowned for his fancy parties. At a time when 25 cents would buy dinner, some of the couple’s extravaganzas reputedly cost $10,000. Holladay, a large man with a spreading beard, eventually owned several mansions on each coast, including one in Portland, Oregon, shown here. Another was located in what is now downtown Washington, D.C. The D.C. mansion was used mainly as a place for Holladay to entertain Members of Congress to influence them to increase his subsidies for carrying the mail. At one point his company was being paid $1 million annually by the U.S. Post Office.

In the 1860s Holladay bought two large bronze lions to grace the spacious entrance to his D.C. home, one shown here. They are not originals but excellent copies of lions cast by the famous Italian sculptor Antonio Canova for the tomb of Pope Clement XIII in Rome. It was common in those days for the American super-rich to covet such statues. They suggested a heritage of culture and classical interest that was otherwise lacking in free-booting multi-millionaires like Ben Holladay.

Everything seemed to be going right for this self-made man until railroads began to make stagecoaches obsolete. That was followed by the Black Friday stock exchange panic of 1873. Ben Holladay was ruined. He lost his businesses to creditors and was forced to sell off many of his holdings. Perhaps because of strong personal attachments, he held on to his D.C. mansion with its lions and to the Weston distillery. During ensuing years Holladay struggled hard to make a financial recovery but he died in 1887, in Portland, Oregon, without having succeeded in regaining his lost wealth. His gravestone is a relatively simple one.

Despite Ben’s financial reverses the distillery stayed in the Holladay family for a number of years. In 1895, eight years after Ben’s death, the family sold out to another “larger-than-life” character, George W. Shawhan. He dumped the Holladay name and gave the company his own as the Shawhan Distillery Company. (See my post of May 2011.)

During his lifetime Ben Holladay was as celebrated a figure as Bill Gates is in our own era. Newspapers and magazines regularly profiled him and reported his escapades. Songs were written about him. Denver named one of its major streets after him in the 1850s. Ironically, Denver’s Holladay Street later became the site of that city’s “red light” district and synonymous with wanton women and debauchery. In the late 1800s Ben’s relatives petitioned the city fathers to change its name. Today the avenue is known as Market Street.

Nor did ownership of Canova’s famous lions bring Holladay immortality. One year later after his death the K Street mansion and the lions were sold at auction. For $1,900 -- -- a considerable sum in those days -- Washington’s Corcoran Gallery bought the resting felines. In 1897 they were moved to the present museum site where they are identified with Corcoran -- not Holladay. Today Ben Holladay truly is a forgotten giant figure of the Old West. As Biographer Lucia puts it: “...Nowhere in all this broad land is there a monument, a marker, a statue to the King of Wheels.”

Today the principal reminder of this fabulous American figure may be a whiskey from the McCormick Distillery of Weston, successor to Holladay’s original. The brand is called “B.J. Holladay Private Keep Sour Mash Straight Bourbon Whiskey.” The distinctive black and gold label shows a striking figure with a black beard and a ox-drawn conestoga wagon in the background. It is an image of Ben, idealized and perpetuated. Some celebrities might not be happy with their only memorial being a whiskey bottle, but his history suggests that Ben Holladay might not mind at all.

Label: Ben Holladay, Weston, Missouri, Holladay Mail and Overland Express Co.

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