Friday, February 17, 2012

Why Did Leopold Franc Sue That Nice Old Lady?

It this were one of those supermarket tabloids the headline might read, “Whiskey Baron Sues Elderly Woman Repeatedly, Dies.” Below would be a picture of the benign old lady being sued. Her name was Augusta Nirdlinger of Toledo, Ohio, shown here at the age of 80.

The true story, however, is considerably less dramatic, as is usually the case with the tabloids. The whiskey man was Leopold Franc, an immigrant from Hanover, Germany. Born in 1834, he was the son of Herz Franc and Carolyn Heyn Franc. When he emigrated to the United
States is not clear. In 1869, however, he formed a liquor wholesale house with his cousin Julius Heyn in Toledo, Ohio, only a few years after the Civil War. Called L. Franc and Company, the firm’s first location was on Summit Street, shown here.

Soon after 1873 the company moved to 123 St. Clair Street and as business grew it moved again to larger quarters at 130-132 Huron Street. L. Franc & Co. had no distillery but bought its whiskey, blending and bottling it under its own labels. A major early source of its product was the Pleasure Ridge Park Distillery. It had been founded by F. G. Paine and Co. near Mill Creek in southwestern Jefferson County, Kentucky.

About 1900 the Toledo firm changed its name to Franc, Heyn & Co. and blossomed with a number of house brands. Many of them were advertised by highly attractive shot glasses, as shown here. Under its own name it issued an etched glass featuring a shield, shafts of grain, a monogram of its initials, and its name in fancy calligraphy -- a elegant giveaway item.

In 1905 the company registered with the federal government the names “Little More” and “Maple Dew.” Maple Dew featured three different shot glasses. Two bore the company monogram, one advertising a “pure,” that is, straight rye and the other a blended whiskey. The third, providing no clue to the type of liquor, has an elaborate etched picture of a man and woman walking through the woods.

The company in 1908 registered its “Idalia” brand and again issued a shot glass, this one based on the design of the earlier shot. Although no record exists of its having registered its “Old Reserve” brand with the government, shot glasses exist with this name. Both have the FH monogram and shield. Through these giveaways and other kinds of aggressive marketing tactics Franc, Heyn & Co. built a large customer base in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and West Virginia.

Moving from shot glasses to hot gossip, we remember the lawsuit filed by Leopold Franc against Mrs. Nirdlinger. As research discloses, she was none other than his cousin/partner’s mother-in-law. A well known and beloved figure in Toledo, Augusta was the wife of Jacob Nirdlinger, the owner of a clothing factory. Their daughter, Jenny Lind Nirdlinger was married to Julius Heyn. The Franc and Heyn families had appeared to get along very well. On one occasion Leopold’s wife accompanied the Heyns and their daughters on a trip to Germany and return.

The trouble began when Nirdlinger’s company got into financial hot water in the mid 1870s. Leopold Franc agreed to help Jacob out by paying down some of the debts and adjudicating others. In return, Nirdlinger gave Franc a security owned by his wife, worth $1,079. In 1878 Augusta sued Franc claiming that she did not provide her husband with the security in the knowledge that it would be turned over to Franc for his use. The Toledo Court of Common Pleas agreed and awarded her $1,265, including interest.

That was then that Franc decided to sue the nice old lady hoping to get the decision reversed. When the District Court in Toledo also came down on her side, he took the case to the place of last resort, the Ohio Supreme Court in Columbus. During the trial Leopold admitted that when he went to the Nirdlinger home to pick up the security in dispute, he greeted Augusta with “Good morning!,” but she did not speak to him. Moreover, evidence was she had never signed over the document. The Supreme Court, taking in all the facts, refused to overturn the earlier decision, thus ruling a third time in Augusta’s favor.

Oh, yes, our tabloid headline above indicated that the plaintiff, Leopold Franc, died. He did -- sixteen years later, in 1899. The firm, subsequently run by Heyn and others, itself disappeared from Toledo business directories after 1910. Only its shot glasses are left for us to remember it. Oh yes, that nice old lady, Augusta Nirdlinger, outlived both Franc and the liquor company, dying in 1913. By that time she was very, very old.

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