Friday, April 6, 2012

Oscar Good and the Wizard of Booze

About 1879 Oscar W. Good permitted an itinerant artist named William Wallace Denslow to draw his distillery for a book entitled, "Historical Sketch of Franklin County, Pennsylvania." At the time Good undoubtedly was not aware that Denslow, the man with the walrus mustache shown here, not long after would become world famous as the illustrator of the "Wonderful Wizard of Oz" and the subsequent Oz books. Nor could he have known the unfortunate ends of both his distillery and the artist.

According to an 1887 local history, Good descended from immigrants originally from North Switzerland near the German border who were early settlers in Pennsylvania. Their name was Guth, to be changed to Good by subsequent generations. Most family members were farmers. Oscar’s father was Jacob S. Good, whose portrait appears here. His mother was Maria Funk, whose parents were of German origin. Jacob was a prosperous farmer owning 350 acres of well improved land. Oscar was the oldest of two sons, born in 1848 at his father’s farm in Midvale, Washington Township, Franklin County.

Jacob Good was elected County Commissioner in 1859 and served three years during the most crucial time of the Civil War. It particularly was exciting in Franklin County for 15 days in 1863 when the area was controlled by Confederate troops under the command of General Jubal Early as they headed to, and later away from, Gettysburg. As a well-known Republican and Unionist , Jacob, as well as his young son, must have had some anxious moments as Early’s Johnny Rebs, shown here in a contemporary magazine sketch, looted the county’s stores and farmsteads.

During and after the war Oscar received his education at local schools and assisted his father in farming during much of his youth. At the age of 28, likely with Jacob’s financial assistance, he purchased a distillery that had been founded by John Downin, a self-made man described in his obituary as, “...a poor boy when he started out in life, but through hard work, industry and thrift, became a man of substance.” Downin died in the mid 1870s which opened the distillery to purchase by Good in 1876. By 1879 the new owner had rebuilt parts that had deteriorated during Downin’s declining health.

Denslow’s picture shows an active whiskey-making operation. Good’s facility included a three-story stone distillery building with a water tank on an attached frame shed at the side and a tall active smoke stack. At the left is a building that bears the name “O.W. Good, Wholesale and Retail Liquor Dealer.” That building is also labeled “Bonded Warehouse.” Horse-drawn carriages and a wagon are depicted coming and going as a worker rolls barrels toward the warehouse.

Behind the distillery can be seen the slope of the Blue Mountains, a beautiful low Appalachian range that extends for more than 100 miles through the southern Pennsylvania countryside, an bucolic area that attracted a modest tourist trade. Good’s distillery was only several miles from the Blue Mountain House, a large hotel and spa from which could be viewed the lush countryside of Franklin County. We can assume that Good’s whiskey was purchased and consumed there.

Oscar’s flagship label was “Blue Mountain Rye.” The brand was featured on a colorful trade card of a winsome boy carrying a flowering branch and a basket. The reverse side declared: “These whiskies are pure, distilled from clean grain, and soft mountain water, which seems to be the secret of making fine whiskies. I will give one hundred dollars if any person finds adulterations of any kind in my whiskies from the time I commence mashing the grain until I dispose of them.” Good also asserted that his whisky had no unpleasant aftertaste.

In addition to his distillery in the shadow of the Blue Mountain range, Good maintained a retail outlet on Main Street, shown here in the 1880s, at nearby Waynesboro, the seat of Franklin County and its largest town. His Blue Mountain Rye proved very popular and by 1887 he had acquired sufficient capital to build a three-story brick hotel, also on Main Street, a building described by contemporaries as “handsome.”

Oscar also had been getting on with his personal life. In 1879 he married Anna B. Martin, a local girl, daughter of Steven G. and Anna Martin. Late that same year their first child was born, Robert. Their second child was a girl, Gail, born 11 years later in 1890. In the meantime Good had followed in his father’s footsteps and been active in Republican politics in Franklin County. He was nominated by the GOP for the Pennsylvania State Legislature about 1886 but was defeated in the general election.

As so many times destroyed the hopes and dreams of distillers, in November 1897 the Good Distillery was utterly destroyed by fire. Oscar seems to have made no effort to rebuild and less than three years later in 1900 he was dead of undisclosed causes. His passing was particularly heartrending since it occurred just three weeks before the birth of his daughter. Good was only 52 years old. He is buried in the family plot in Franklin County’s Green Hill Cemetery.

Earlier I referred to Denslow as the “Wizard of Booze,” because the artist was notorious for his heavy drinking. His revenues from the Oz books were sufficient to allow him to purchase an island off the coast of Bermuda. He moved there and crowned himself King Denslow the First. It was an unhappy head that wore the crown. Denslow ultimately drank his money away and died in obscurity of pneumonia in 1915. His delightful 1877 drawings for the "Historical Sketch of Franklin County," including the picture O.W. Good’s distillery, may be found for sale online.

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