Thursday, March 8, 2012
Everett W. Wilson: Spirits of an American in Pekin, Illinois
When Everett Woodruff Wilson was born in Peoria in 1861 during the first year of the Civil War, patriotism for the United States was in the Midwest air. Born in England, his grandfather, Henry Wilson, had emigrated to the America early in the history of the Republic settling initially in Poughkeepsie, New York. In the 1830s, perhaps following the national push Westward, he took his family and headed to Peoria, Illinois.
That is where Everett’s father, John, was educated, grew up, married a local Peoria girl named Emily Woodruff and became a highly successful Peoria businessman. Eventually he occupied the presidency of the Cave Valley Land & Cattle Company, a large and wealthy organization doing business in southern Illinois, was the president of the Elk Grove Land & Cattle Company of Kansas, and the chief stockholder in the street railway company of Topeka, Kansas.
John Wilson also had an interest in making whiskey. A man named C.J.D. Rupert in 1861 had founded an early distillery in nearby Pekin, Illinois, and called it the Hamburg Distillery. Sometime during the 1870s, John bought out the owner and became president of the company. At the age of 18, apparently at his father’s behest, Everett left Peoria for Pekin to work in the Hamburg Distillery. The 1880 census found him there, listing his occupation as “bookkeeper.” A year later, he was managing the whole operation.
About 1885, John Wilson decided to take his distillery into an early attempt at a Midwest “Whiskey Trust,” an attempt to diminish competition and increase whiskey prices. The scheme failed in 1886 when some liquor producers balked at the restrictions. The New York Times headlined: “Whiskey Pool Gone to Smash.” The following year, John Wilson joined the somewhat more successful Distillery and Cattle Feeders Trust. He shut down the Hamburg Distillery in return for shares in the Trust.
Temporarily out of a job, Everett kept busy. No doubt with the financial backing of his father, in 1887 he became a co-founder of the German American Bank of Peoria, organized with capital of $100,00. He also was sent briefly to Topeka to look after his father’s investment in the street railway company. Everett also found time to marry. His bride in 1885 was Anna C. Wanschneider of Peoria. They would have three sons: John, born in 1886; Rowland, 1892, and Douglas, 1898.
At the same time Everett Wilson was immersing himself in local politics. In 1886, at the age of 26, he was elected as alderman of the First Ward of Pekin on the Republican ticket. He served until 1893 when he was elected mayor, a post he held for two years. A popular leader, he was elected again for the 1899-1900 mayoralty term. Wilson continued to be active in politics out of office and 1916 was a delegate to the Republican National Convention from Illinois. He also was a co-founder of the business organization that became the Pekin Chamber of Commerce.
Meanwhile, in 1891 the derelict Hamburg Distillery was destroyed by fire. One year later the plant of a new distillery was erected on the site. Everett Wilson was one of the incorporators of the new liquor company, one that boasted capitalization of $100,000. The plant covered six acres and the distillery had a capacity of four thousand bushels of grain per day. It was chartered as the American Distilling Company and Everett Wilson became its first president. Shown here is the company logo and a drawing of the early facility.
The new distillery used a wide range of brand names, including "American Pride", "Cologne Springs", "English Dry Gin", "Hopedale Rye", "Juniper Berry Gin", "Longwood", "Meadwood", "Old American Rye", "Old Colony Gin", "Pekinil Gin", "Silver Run Bourbon", "Silver Run Gin", and "Three Star Spirits." American Pride was its flagship brand, with a picture of a comely woman on the label that also showed up on a tip tray. As shown here on a 1906 ad and a giveaway paperweight, Wilson also advertised his other brands vigorously. In 1908, American Distilling absorbed a conglomerate of three other distilleries and continued to add whiskey-making capacity.
The pink flyer shown here indicates that American Distilling now had a daily grain capacity of 6,000 bushels. The same flyer also emphasizes “free from all trusts and other combinations,” ignoring the Wilsons' earlier alignment with the by-now-failed Distillery and Cattle Feeders Trust. A post card from about 1910 shows the expansion that had occurred at American Distilling under Everett’s leadership. That prosperity also allowed him to move his growing family into a newly constructed mansion on South Fifth Street in Pekin, described by a contemporary as “one of the most beautiful in the city.” Shown here, it may also depict his wife Anna with one of their sons.
As Prohibition loomed, the firm made a lunge at being considered a medicinal product. It advertised: "If You Use Whiskey at all - American Pride IS WHAT YOU WANT! For Medicinal or Potable Purposes of Any Kind.” To an extent the ploy worked. During Prohibition, unlike most others, Wilson’s distillery changed its name to the American Commercial Alcohol Corporation and stayed open by producing industrial alcohol.
Before the end of Prohibition, Wilson and his associates sold the distillery. With Repeal came a new era in whiskey production. The emphasis now was on a New York sales office and marketing agents to bring the American Distilling’s revitalized and some new brands into the market. Among the new offerings was "Sharkey Whiskey," celebrating the famous heavyweight fighter of the 1920s and 1930s.
Now in his ‘70s, Wilson watched from the sidelines as new management also was adding imported liquors to the rye and bourbon produced in Pekin. In 1938 Everett Wilson, the man who built American Distilling, died, age 77. During his lifetime he had been called by a contemporary publication: “One of the most popular and highly esteemed men of the county.”
American Distilling’s plant survived a disastrous fire and explosion in 1954, one that killed three workers and injured a number of others. Through the years under multiple owners and name changes the Pekin distillery continued to produce alcohol for beverage, industrial and fuel applications. After closing briefly in 2009, it reopened in 2010 under ownership by the Illinois Corn Processing Co. The distillery that Everett Wilson built, the home of American Pride Bourbon, now was making ethanol.
Note: The label from the "Sharkey" brand whiskey for American Distilling likely was issued in the mid-to-late 1930s. The illustration is of Tom Sharkey, a heavy-weight boxer of an earlier era. The image graciously was provided to me in 2016 by Karen Ehrman who found this interesting piece of whiskey history in her father's antique store, the label possibly used as a book mark.