Monday, January 23, 2012

Herman’s Whiskey Started the Hulman Engines

Each year when the Indianapolis 500 about to begin, a voice calls out “Gentlemen, start your engines!” That voice, male or female, belongs to a member of the wealthy Hulman-George clan who own the Indianapolis Raceway. They owe much of their success to their ancestor, shown here, whose name was Herman Hulman.

Hulman’s life has been recounted in a number of publications as an entrepreneur of far-flung interests, a philanthropist, a loving husband, a doting father and grandfather, and a major force in the development of Terre Haute, Indiana. This post, however, concentrates on the man whose whiskey trade in important ways made possible the Hulman dynasty.

Herman was born in 1831 in Lingen, Lower Saxony, a city of about 50,000 in Germany. Given the subsequent movement of Hulman children into the grocery business, his father almost assuredly was a storekeeper. Herman was preceded as an immigrant into the U.S. by his brother, Francis, who set up a grocery in Terre Haute in 1851. Francis’ ad in a local newspaper that year featured his spiritous beverages. It bragged of the store’s assortment of domestic and foreign wines and liquors, including French brandies, Holland gin and port, Madeira and sweet Malaga wines. The ad also touted ”smooth as a sip” a Cincinnati-style blended whiskey.

In 1854, Herman was importuned by his brother to leave Germany and his sweetheart, Antonia Riefenstal, to come to America and help in the grocery store. He arrived at age 23 and for three years served as a clerk for his brother. Four years later Francis, his wife and daughter were killed in a fire at sea in a ship returning from a trip to Germany. At age 28 Herman was left in charge of the grocery. Liquor was a major commodity.

As the Civil War loomed, Herman faced personal and business problems. Personally he feared that Antonia could not make the voyage to the U.S. He also worried about obtaining sufficient goods for his grocery business, including receiving an adequate supply of whiskey from secessionist Kentucky. In 1862 Antonia finally arrived at the age of 29. He met her in New York and they were immediately married. It is said they enjoyed the sights of Manhattan from a borrowed buggy. They would have three children, a girl who died in infancy and two sons, Anton, born 1865, and Herman, born 1867.

Not long after Herman Junior’s birth, the family moved to 657 Ohio Street on Terra Haute’s “Mansion Row.” The Hulman home, shown here, had 16 rooms, including four bathrooms, and boasted mulltiple fireplaces with marble mantles. As the boys grew, Anton, with straight, pale brown hair, was depicted as studious and reserved, happy to putter for hours building a playhouse or a boat. Herman Junior, with wavy dark hair and a ready grin, was gregarious and very handsome.

The postwar period continued to be highly favorable to Herman’s business interests. About 1869 he purchased the Alexander McGregor Distillery, the largest whiskey-making operation in Terre Haute and probably in Indiana. He hired a professional manager and with his help significantly enlarged its production capacity. Although Hulman briefly sold the distillery, in 1876 very soon he bought back a half-interest. In 1880 Terre Haute, by virtue of the distillery, was counted as the Nation’s fifth largest producer of distilled spirits. Over the years Hulman would be involved in five different enterprises involving the production and merchandising of alcohol.

A principal enterprise was called Hulman and Beggs. With a partner, John Beggs, Herman launched a liquor wholesale house, erecting a building at Ninth and Cherry Streets in 1884. The structure also was illustrated on a etched shot glass issued for the company. Hulman and Beggs featured at least four brands, “Axtell,” “Low Land Spring,” “Traveler’s Joy,” and its flagship, “White Seal.” The only label Hulman registered with the government for a trademark was White Seal, in 1906. He also commissioned artist Herm Michalairski to provide an attractive and somewhat erotic sign for saloons advertising White Seal Rye. The image was replicated on trade cards. A metal token also advertised the whiskey.

Herman was ever the entrepreneur. He bought train car loads of cigars, thousands of barrels of coal oil, installed telephones connecting the distillery and the wholesale business, was an original stockholder in the Terre Haute Telephone Exchange and invested in railroads, the telegraph, water and sewage systems and gas and electric companies. In 1886 he joined his son Anton and another local as the managing partner of a large mercantile establishment known as Hulman and Company. He almost immediately determined to build a new building for it.

A local historian says: ”Herman began looking for a site in 1888, and he found it at 9th and Wabash in 1892. `It was easy enough to plan the exterior, but to plan the interior and arrange the machinery and different departments from cellar to dome was a mental tax with which I never again want to be burdened,' Herman recalled. Finally after settling on plans, the building was opened in 1893. More than 5,000 people came out to see the Romanesque Revival-style building.” It is shown here. In addition to selling “White Seal Rye,” this firm also featured “Richelieu Club Whiskey.” Hulman employed more than 150 people in Terra Haute, including a large cohort of traveling salesmen.

By this time Herman was a widower. His beloved Antonia had died in 1882 at the age of 49. A devout Catholic, in her memory he bought a building in Terre Haute and turned it into a hospital run by nuns. It was named “St. Anthony’s” in her honor. As Herman aged, he occasionally took brief timeouts from business to hunt and fish, along with riding his horses. His sons were also on his mind.

Herman Junior became a well known sportsman and a race driver. He once made a record-breaking run from Chicago to Terre Haute in 14 hours, driving a four cylinder Peerless automobile. Anton worked with his father and produced a son, Anton Jr., shown here with Grandfather Herman. The grandson, known as Tony, not only would further the business interests of the Hulman family, but in 1945 purchased the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from Eddie Rickenbacker for $750,000. The Hulman name would be forever linked with racing and today the track is still a family property.

The man who started it all, Herman Hulman, died in 1912 and is buried next to Antonia and other family members in Woodlawn Cemetery. When he died, as one observer put it, he represented “wealth, incredible wealth.” Although his business empire was a large and diverse one, in many important and seminal ways it had been fueled by whiskey.


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