Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Was the Barbee of Kentucky a "Dirty Old Man?"

Shown here is a saloon sign for that depicts a scene outside a wooden shed with a sign “Old Barbee distillery, No. 32, 7th District, Woodford Co., Ky. An elderly bearded man is pouring from a bottle into a glass and offering it to two, clearly tempted, maidens fresh from working the fields. The sign was from John T. Barbee & Co. of Louisville. At least one observer has insinuated, likely in jest, that the old gent is a caricature of John Barbee himself and has less than pure motives for offering a slug of whiskey to the pretty girls.

That impression is re-enforced by the multiple appearances of this scene on the labels for “Old Barbee” bottles and flasks. It also provided the motif for a giveaway art plate made for the distillery by the Vienna Pottery, dated 1905. But are we jumping to conclusions?

The 1880 census found a John Barbee, age 27, living in Louisville, employed as a “drummer,” that is, salesman. He presumably was working for John G. Roach & Co. of Louisville, a whiskey distiller and wholesaler business that had been established in 1876. After learning the whiskey trade and saving his money Barbee in 1892 bought the J & F Laval Distillery, located four and one-half miles west of Versailles, Kentucky, in Woodford County.

That distillery had been established around 1834 on the site of a large spring by a Kentuckian named Johnson Miller. The still produced whiskey merchandised as the "Old Johnson Miller" brand. During the 1840s, when Miller got “gold fever” and joined thousands of others in the rush to California, he sold out to brothers Jacob & Ferdinand Laval. They produced about 500 barrels of spirits annually and continued the Miller brand name.

Insurance underwriter records compiled in 1892 indicate that Barbee’s newly purchased distillery from the Lavals was of frame construction. The property included a tobacco barn located 15 ft east of the still, and a cattle barn 100 ft west. There were three warehouses: Warehouse A -- an old stone warehouse serving as a cistern room; Warehouse B -- ironclad with a metal or slate roof, located 330 ft NE of the still;Warehouse C -- ironclad with a metal or slate roof, located 200 ft NE of the still. An artist drawing of the facility is shown here.

Barbee discontinued the Old Johnson Miller brand and sold the output of the still as "Old Barbee", a product of Jno. T Barbee & Co. A key concern for Barbee seems to have been receiving adequate supply of coal for his operation. In one 1898 letter to his supplier he complains that the distillery will run out of fuel in four days unless a delivery occurs.

Although “Old Barbee” was John’s flagship, and advertised heavily through giveaways to bars and saloon such as etched shot glasses and colorfully lithographed tip trays, his firm also featured a range of other brands, including "Forest Rose", "Jeff Clark", "Kentucky Knight", "Major Hughes", "Old Mask Lee Rye", "Paul Barbee Rye", "Tip Tyler", and "True Hand,” the last shown here on a labeled flask.

John Barbee died in 1900, a relatively young man, leaving behind a thriving whiskey trade. Hermann Volkerding became president and introduced the “Waterson Club” brand. The company moved, first to 317 W. Main and later to 313 W. Main. It also opened a branch office in Indianapolis in 1901 that apparently proved unsuccessful and closed just a year later.

In 1912 Volkerding died. This led to a reorganization that saw Barbee’s firm merging with the John C. Weller Co. of Louisville. Weller became president and Ed. M. Babbitt was Vice President. The firm, while keeping Barbee’s name, moved a final time to impressive offices at 726-730 W. Main, shown here. The coming of National Prohibition put the firm permanently out of business.

The facts belie the idea that John Barbee is the old man offering the drink to the pretty girls. Presuming he was the same person that was picked up in the 1880 census, John was only 37 years old when he died, scarcely the man with the long white beard. Although the whiskey bore the Barbee name, the image doubtless was an advertising ploy and bore no resemblance to the distillery owner. The answer seems clear: John Barbee was a successful whiskey man, not a "dirty old man."

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