Saturday, January 7, 2012

Harry Bayer Climbed Ohio's "Golden Hill"

More than a half century before Starbucks was conceived, an enterprising Columbus, Ohio, whiskey merchant devised a franchise scheme to market his products throughout the Buckeye State by establishing retail outlets in multiple cities. The merchant was Harry Bayer. The network he created was linked by a single name -- “The Golden Hill.”

Bayer began as a partner in Bayer, Schwartz & Co., a whiskey distributor first listed in Columbus business directories in 1903, located at the northwest corner of Town and Fourth Streets. The firm, probably whiskey rectifiers, advertised several brands, including “Genesta,” “Grover Rye,” and “Red Lion.” Its flagship was “The Golden Hill Rye.” Shown here is a highly decorated etched shot glass from those early days, advertising the brand by showing a radiant sun rising over five hills.

Bayer was eager to expand his market, both in Columbus and throughout Ohio. At the time many breweries were buying up saloons or securing exclusive rights to provide beer to selected drinking establishments. Bayer saw an opportunity to do something similar for his whiskey trade. In 1905 he applied to the Federal Government to register “The Golden Hill” as a whiskey brand. This move was an attempt to discourage anyone else from appropriating the name.

The same year he opened two more liquor outlets named “The Golden Hill,” in Columbus, one at 76 W. Broad Street and a second at 1020 Mt. Vernon Avenue. Then Bayer went statewide. He soon made arrangements with saloon owners in Cleveland, Toledo, Akron and Youngstown to change the name of their establishments to the Golden Hill and to provide his whiskey on an exclusive basis. A corkscrew advertising the brand issued during this period stated: “For sale wherever good whiskey is sold.”

How Bayer operated was suggested in evidence from an early 1900s lawsuit. An Ohio court decision described how the Columbus entrepreneur had loaned a Cleveland saloonkeeper named Hornstein a sum of money. In return Bayer controlled a chattel mortgage that covered all of Hornstein tangible assets and held an unsecured note for an additional $1,200. When Hornstein went bankrupt Bayer seized the property and caused the sheriff to sell the saloonkeeper’s liquor license. From the proceeds Bayer collected the amount of the note. Although the settlement was challenged in court by Hornstein’s wife, Bayer’s actions were upheld. A Golden Hill Liquor Co. outlet subsequently opened in Cleveland.

Most of Harry Bayer’s business moves, however, do not appear to have been adversarial. In Toledo Harry H. Klein operated a saloon and liquor store, doing business as Klein Bros. Company. About 1905 he joined up with Bayer and changed the name of his establishment to The Golden Hill Liquor. Described in business directories as a distributor of “wines & brandies & fine whiskies,” the company initially occupied a building in downtown Toledo at the corner of Monroe and Adams Streets, then moved next door to 519-520 Adams Street. Klein also opened an outlet at 520 Monroe St. Klein gave away Golden Hill mini-jugs and a wooden tip tray, shown here.

Two other Golden Hill franchises opened in 1905, one in Akron at 13 Market Street and the other in Youngstown. Business directories provide information about the Youngstown outlet. Under the name Golden Hill Liquor Company, saloons (or stores) were located at 308 W. Federal St. and 277 E. Federal St. In 1908, the latter outlet moved to 282 W. Federal.

In 1907 Bayer incorporated his firm under a new name, now calling it The Golden Hill Distilling Company, as shown on a shot glass. It was common for such firms to claim to be distillers when, in fact, they bought their stock by the barrel from Kentucky distilleries, mixed it in the back room, filled bottles, and slapped their label on it. Court documents indicate that at Golden Hill Distilling the hard-charging Bayer held the positions of president, treasurer, chairman of the board and manager. The newly-christened firm also added two new whiskey brands, “American Beauty” and “Rob’s Rye.” Bayer registered both with the government in 1907.

About the same time N. Trotstein opened a Golden Hill outlet in Lima, Ohio, likely as an adjunct to his saloon. It was located at 34 Public Square, a prime location in downtown Lima, shown here in a period postcard. Trotstein advertised widely in local media. His shotglass advertising Golden Hill Rye is virtually identical to the Columbus-issued versions. The similarity solidifies the notion that the two organizations were closely linked. Also shown here is a Golden Hill flask from Lima No artifacts have surfaced from the Golden Hill location in Fostoria, Ohio. It was housed in the downtown Foster Block building, identified as both a saloon and a liquor store. City records show that the owner/operator was L. J. Schild.

Whatever dynamic was catapulting Harry Bayer and The Golden Hill into prominence in the whiskey trade was short-lived and appears to have waned by 1908. That year the Akron Golden Hill disappeared from directories. By 1910 the franchise was in a severe decline. A Golden Hill outlet opened that year in Cincinnati and closed within months. The Toledo Golden Hill disappeared from directories as did one of the two locations in Youngstown.

At the parent organization in Columbus, the Broad St. and Mt. Vernon Av. units closed and the company moved to two High St. addresses. Bayer hired a new manager for his Columbus operations named Samuel Weinfeld. Weinfeld stayed two years, then left to found his own wholesale and retail liquor business. The Cleveland Golden Hill apparently closed in 1913 and the remaining Youngstown outlet in 1914 -- both gone from local business directories.

Court records from 1914 may provide the best clue to Bayer’s decline. That year he was hailed into court by a man named Bump for sending whiskey by express mail to Mayville, Ohio, a completely “dry” town. Bump was a undercover agent for Prohibition forces and had conducted a sting on Bayer. After a trial in Mayville, the whiskey dealer was found guilty and fined. Bayer appealed on the grounds that he should have been tried in Columbus where the shipment originated. The Ohio Supreme Court agreed and threw out the earlier conviction.

Bayer’s victory was hollow as town after town under local option in Ohio voted to ban alcohol. The Columbus Golden Hill Distilling Co. -- the linchpin of Bayer’s empire -- disappeared from business directories in 1915, although it continued to be listed in a national directory of shippers as late as 1916. Like all his Ohio outlets, Bayer personally disappeared from public record by 1917, as Ohio voted to go completely dry.

The Golden Hill proved to be a early experiment in franchising that fell far short of Starbucks. Today its legacy is represented by a few bottles, jugs, shot glasses, cork screws and a wooden tray -- not much to document Harry Bayer’s grand vision. He rapidly climbed The Golden Hill and then even more rapidly descended.


  1. Would like to be in contact about Harry Bayer and Golden Hill. How can I contact you?
    Toby Brief, Columbus Jewish Historical Society

  2. Mr. Brief: I would be delighted to talk to you about Bayer. My post on him took me a long time to research and I know of no other good source. Even then some of the history is sketchy. You can email me at If you would rather talk on the telephone, email me and I will give you my phone number.