Thursday, September 22, 2011

George Benz: Realizing the American Dream










George Benz, shown here, and the liquor empire he built are an American success story of epic proportions. Born in Osthofen Germany in 1838, he emigrated to the United States in 1853 at the age of 15. After working for three years in Chicago he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, which would be his home for the remainder of his life.

In St. Paul he found a wife, Rosa Voehringer. Married in 1861, the couple would have eight children. About the same time Benz established a sports eatery in St. Paul. Indicating his devotion to his new country, he called it the “United States Billiard Hall and Restaurant.” By 1865, he had branched out into a liquor wholesale business with Major C.J. Becht. They also imported wines and other spirits.

With Becht’ s death in 1878, Benz became the sole owner in the business and lost no time in expanding it not only in the Twin Cities but into the distilling business across the country. He apparently was seeking a guaranteed supply of good whiskey for his business of blending and bottling liquor.

Benz’s letterhead claims -- and I have not found contrary information -- that he was a part owner of the Spring Gardens and Federal Distillery in Baltimore, a city famous for its rye whiskey, the Meadville Distillery in Meadville Pennsylvania, also famous for its rye liquor, and the Merchant Distillery in Terre Haute, Indiana. But Benz’s pride was outright ownership of the Eminence Distillery, located at a town in Kentucky with the same name. There he produced his flagship brand, “Old Blue Ribbon,” which he advertised nationally.

He marketed Old Blue Ribbon in both quart and flask-sized bottles and issued a earthenware jug with a remarkable glaze to be used back-of-the-bar. I consider it to be among the top five whiskey jugs ever produced in America. He also issued an attractive jug for his “Oldays Pure Rye.”

The company used myriad brand names: "Aurora Rock & Rye", "Dellwood", "Doctor's Special", "Hiawatha", "Jack Silver", "Maltese Gin", "Minnehaha", "N. P.",, "Pickwick", "Pickwick Club", "Royal Scot", "Sundown Gin",, and "Wenonah." Emblematic of his devotion to his adopted country Benz featured an “Uncle Sam’s Monogram” whiskey. He also produced “Geo. Benz and Sons Appeltine Bitters” in a fancy bottle that made no medicinal claims.

His building, shown here, was four stories at 81 E. 6th Street in St. Paul. Photos shows several aspects of his operation, from mixing laboratory to motor fleet. He rented the basements of nearby buildings for storage space for whiskey, wine, mineral water, and soft drinks -- all marketed under the Benz name.

In time, as his five sons achieved maturity, he brought them into the business and changed the firm name to Geo. Benz & Sons. His oldest boy, George G., went to Europe and earned a doctorate in chemistry before joining the firm. Son Herman opened a Benz branch in Duluth, Minnesota. Son Paul worked along side his father.

In addition to his business acumen, Benz had a sense of public service to the country that had given him so much. He was elected and served three terms in the Minnesota Legislature and was a member of the St. Paul School Board, as well as participating in many local philanthropic organizations. He lived in a mansion, shown here, that was one of St. Paul’s most notable.

Benz died in 1908 at the age of 69 and is buried in St. Paul’s Oakland Cemetery along with other members of his family. His sons kept the business going after his demise. Then, possibly seeing Prohibition on the horizon, the family abandoned the liquor trade, sold the business, and went into real estate, where they also prospered.

In a very real sense George Benz realized the American Dream. Arriving in this country with little more than the clothes on his back he used intelligence and creativity to grow into one of the largest liquor operations in the Upper Midwest. In the process he “gave back” by a record of public service and private philanthropy.

Note: This post was recast from an article in my book, “The American Whiskey Jug.” It in turn was indebted to Ron Feldhaus, whose book “The Bottles, Breweriana and Advertising Jugs of Minnesota, 1850-1920, is an excellent source of information on Minnesota pre-pro whiskey men.

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