Earl Lee of Sydney, Ohio, had a dual approach to selling spirits. On one account he claimed to make the “world’s best” liquor to provide drinks of cheer. On another account, he produced highly alcoholic proprietary medicines as drinks to cure all manner of ailments. He also issued beverage glasses to deliver both.
Lee was a self-made man in the American tradition. He was born in 1879 in Wiley Station, Darke County, Ohio. His father was a timber merchant who moved his family frequently from place to place throughout the Buckeye State, limiting educational
opportunities for his children. The town's main street is shown below.
In 1891 the elder Lee retired to Sidney in Shelby County, shown here in the late 1800s. The town was named after Sir Philip Sidney, a well-known poet and member of British Parliament, and formed from a parcel of land located along the west side of the Great Miami River. The construction of the Miami and Erie Canal between 1825 and 1837 had connected Sidney in a north/south direction with major trade centers in Ohio. In addition to opening the first significant "outside" trade for Sidney, the construction of the canal also attracted an influx of settlers to the area.
In Sidney Earl was able to get just a bit of public schooling. Recognized early as a smart youngster, Lee was only 19 years old when he started a liquor business in Wapakoneta, Ohio, up the road in Auglaize County Three years later, without closing this outlet, he returned to Sidney. There at age 22 he joined with an older brother, Valentine, to establish the Earl Lee Company.
That business not only sold whiskey, it made and merchandised a line of patent medicines. Despite having no medical education of any kind, Earl Lee turned out a series of nostrums under the intriguing brand name “Lee-Cur-U.” Highly alcoholic, they proved very popular. A contemporary account asserted about the Lee-Cur-U remedies: “They have a wide sale and are considered specifics for many diseases.”
When the Tax Act of 1898 was passed to help finance the Spanish American War, the revenue burden fell, in part, on proprietary medicines. Until 1902, each bottle of a remedy had to bear a stamp attesting that a tax had been paid to the Federal government. Lee was very careful to keep on the right side of the law and all his potions bore the necessary U.S. Government tax stamps, like several shown here. Unfortunately my research has not turned up any pictures of Lee-Cur-U bottles or labels.
By contrast several varieties of Lee’s beverage containers are known. Shown here are examples of three of his shot glasses. Some declared that Lee’s products were “America’s best.” Others raised the ante, claiming his were the “world’s best” liquors. Others make no claims but list both his Sydney and Wapakoneta outlets. In addion to his shots, Lee also issued larger drinking glasses, an example shown here. Another giveaway to saloons carrying his liquor were corkscrews bearing his name.
The presence of the Miami-Erie Canal meant that Lee could send his products from Sydney to a wider market on a canal boat, like the one shown here. They transported his liquor and proprietary medicines north to Toledo and the Great Lakes area, and south to Cincinnati, the Ohio River and eventually to markets down the Mississippi River. Every indication is that he took full advantage of this good transport system to expand his customer base for both whiskey and cures.
Lee married a local girl named Flora Heil, the daughter of Henry and Minnie Heil of Sydney. They had two children, Forest and Esther. He housed his family in a mansion on South Main Avenue. From his liquor and Lee-Cur-U sales he had grown wealthy and had invested heavily in buying and selling properties in Sydney and the surrounding area. It was recorded that: “In handling real estate, Mr. Lee makes auction and private lot sales a specialty and offers reliable realty, home owning and business investment propositions.”
He also was active as an elected Democratic politician, representing the First Ward in Sydney. His adherence as a Democrat probably had a lot to do with his profession, as that party generally was considered “wet,” that is, opposed to prohibition. Many Republicans, on the other hand, were in league with anti-drinking forces.
The Sydney Daily News of March 17, 1910, recorded that Lee and two colleagues serving on the town council made a study of the feasibility of a municipally-owned light plant in Sydney. The team had visited two nearby towns with such an arrangement but apparently were not impressed. Lee and the others returned to recommend that bids be sought from private corporations. He was re-elected in 1912, serving a total of three terms.
When a “History of Shelby County” was published in Sydney in 1913, Earl Lee was one of the local businessmen the author featured. The book called Lee a “leading citizen” and commended him for “his intense public spirit and the business acumen which is needful in public matters as well as personal enterprises.” That same year Lee shut down his liquor enterprise, perhaps as the result of the “local option” prohibition that was then sweeping the State of Ohio. The fate of his alcohol-heavy medicines is not recorded.
With the demise of his liquor business, Earl -- shown here in later life -- with wife Flora moved to Southern California where he died and was buried. His life had epitomized the ability of young Americans of his time with sparse education to rise in the world through their inventiveness, hard work and sense of civic obligation. As the History of Shelby County indicated, Earl Lee's life epitomized one of success "in public matters as well as personal enterprise."