Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Charles Rebstock: Gifted in Business and Philathropy










Charles Rebstock was one of the Midwest’s most successful whiskey merchants, with customers in a multitude of states. During his career he successfully merchandised several brands with interesting trade cards and ads, while pursuing philanthropic causes that aided a many worthy causes.

When Rebstock was born in Cincinnati in 1846 his father was engaged in the beer business. About 1859 the elder Rebstock took over the Park Brewing Company of Cincinnati. For reasons unknown two years later he sold out and moved the family to St. Louis. There Charles completed his education and began his working career.

Intervening years are lost in time until 1870 when Rebstock, now 24, founded a whiskey wholesale organization and began to sell his products in both in bulk and in bottles. As was characteristic with his mode of operating, he collaborated with a Kentuckian named D. L. Moore to build a distillery on the Shawnee River near Burgin KY. Eventually they formed a company called Moore and Rebstock Distillers. The products of this facility gave Charles an assured supply of whiskey for his several brands.

Rebstock’s flagship label was “Stonewall,” which he registered with the federal government in 1874. His ads said of this whiskey: “It makes people happy and wealthy.” It was also touted as “America’s Finest Whiskey” and “Perfection.” Other Rebstock brands were “Golden Horn” and “Deer Lane,” both registered in 1879, and “Snow Hill” and “Old Chancellor Rye,” left unregistered.

Rebstock’s first location was 207-209 S. Second St. in St. Louis. In 1879 he moved to 200 S. Main where he continued in business through 1913. In addition to his Kentucky investments, he joined with a San Franciscan named Jacob Endres to establish a wholesale liquor and beer business at 322-326 Sansom St. in that California city. An ad from that organization cites Stonewall Whiskey and St. Louis Beer.

He merchandised his whiskey through a series of trade cards -- three of them shown here -- that are both amusing and puzzling. One shows a trainload of Stonewall Whiskey coming to town; another, a small girl handing a flower to a puzzled owl. Particularly opaque is one showing two young women examining the head of a man holding a fishing net and contemplating a beached and presumably wrecked fishing boat.

That image may seem less strange when we understand that Rebstock in 1880 had commissioned a Mississippi steamboat be built in St. Louis with his name attached. This packet was to carry his goods and salesmen to the lower Mississippi and its tributaries.
The venture apparently proved unprofitable and three years later he sold the boat. It later burned and was junked. My guess is the figure represented is Rebstock himself, having his head examined about his venture into steamships.

As Rebstock prospered, apparently a lifelong bachelor, he took the opportunity to travel. By 1903, he is accounted to have made two prolonged voyages around the world, spending long periods in several countries and taking the opportunity to hawk his whiskey in Europe, Asia, and Africa, including South Africa. A contemporary biographer described him as: “Urbane and affable in his ways and manners, upright and honest in all his dealings and without any prejudices...”

In 1914, after 24 profitable years on Main St. in St. Louis, Rebstock moved to 200 S. First Street and eventually shut down as Prohibition approached. Now 74 years old and apparently without immediate heirs, this wealthy whiskey man began to look for likely place to practice philanthropy. The Journal of the American Medication Assn. reported in 1922 that Rebstock had purchased the Wintersteiner Collection of 13,000 microscopic preparations of pathologic changes of the eye and contributed them to the St. Louis (Medical) University. The collection was said to be the most complete in Europe and was to be used for graduate instruction in opthamology.

Four years later Rebstock, with no appointment, presented himself in the office of the Chancellor of Washington University of St. Louis, asking for an interview. Reluctantly ushered in by a secretary, he announced that his name was Charles Rebstock, distiller, and that he had one million dollars he wished to give the university for the construction of a new building with no specification of purpose other than it have his name on it. In 1926 a million was a huge sum of money.

During a walk through the campus with the Chancellor, Charles saw that the zoology and botany departments were poorly housed and decided that they deserved a new building that he would fund. Front entrance shown here, the Charles Rebstock Building still is home to these scientific departments and a professorship also is maintained in his name. After his death in 1928, a dozen charities, including three hospitals and several organizations that serve the blind, received bequests from his estate.

In life Charles Rebstock had an extraordinary gift for business and merchandising his several brands of whiskey. In death, as in life, he proved to be a generous benefactor of humanitarian and educational causes. His name and legacy will be preserved in St. Louis for a long, long time.

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