Thursday, May 10, 2012

Peter Iler: "The Restless Mind of a Capitalist"

Led by Warren Buffett,  Omaha, Nebraska, boasts that it has more millionaires per capita than any other city in America.   Peter E. Iler, an Omaha whiskey man, was an exemplar for the local money men to follow, a multimillionaire who built the Nation’s third largest pre-Prohibition distillery as well as financing other major business enterprises. Shown above in maturity, Iler had,  people said, “the restless mind of a capitalist.”

Iler was born in Wooster, Ohio, in 1840.  As a youth he and his brother, Joseph, moved to Tiffin, Ohio.   At the age of sixteen he left school to go to work.  Then accounts differ.  One version has him leaving Tiffin in the employ of an Indianapolis banker and soon being given management of several farms and a princely salary of $75 a month.  After becoming ill, he quit and returned to Tiffin to recuperate.  The other account has him never leaving Tiffin, employed in a bank, working with a cigar manufacturer and as a warehouse operator.

The stories converge about 1860 in Tiffin when Iler became a wagon peddler selling a bitters nostrum that he advertised "as a cure for dyspepsia and all diseases of the stomach and bowels." It cost a pricey one dollar a bottle.  With the success of his bitters,  Iler was on his way to being a capitalist and entrepreneur.  As one account says:  “Peter met with success and soon drove a splendid four-in-hand team and a beautiful wagon. He also took orders for all the wholesale merchants in Tiffin, doing in this way a large commission business. Mr. Iler branched out and established a general supply store, engaged in the manufacture of cigars, and ran a distillery and a general liquor store, all of these enterprises proving successful.”

In 1863 Peter married Miss Mary A. Denzer,  a local girl.  The nuptials were held in Tiffin, where they lived and began their family.   The couple had four children,  William, May, Edith and Bessie.   In the matters of home and hearth, a contemporary biography said of him:  “Mr. Iler is a home man, taking great delight in his interesting family, and doing everything in his power to make home happy for them.”

Every capitalist needs capital and Iler achieved a bundle, apparently some of it through a fluke.  In the spring of 1865, he and his brother bought and prepaid for a shipment of bourbon from Kentucky. Through an unexplained stroke of luck, the federal tax on alcohol changed while the bourbon was in transit, which  increased the value of the shipment by a whopping $36,000, instantly making Iler a wealthy man.

Evincing his restless mind, Iler had decided that his fortune lay by going West.  About 1866 He moved to Omaha, Nebraska, which would be his home for at least the next 40 years.  About the same time, the small Willow Springs Distillery on the Council Bluffs side of the Missouri River was closed by the Federal Government for nonpayment of taxes.  Sensing an opportunity,  Iler with local partners bought the distillery and moved it across the river to Omaha, relocating the facility at 209 Hickory Street.  It was the first (legal) distillery in Nebraska.

With brother Joseph as his principal partner,  Iler subsequently set up sales offices, shown above, at 233 Farnam Street in Omaha, an address that first shows up in city directories in 1870.  He also began a steady expansion of the relocated Willow Springs Distillery.  By 1874 the firm, which advertised itself as "importers, compounders and wholesale dealers in wines, liquors and cigars,” was making shipments to both coasts. The same year the Ilers also became the Omaha representatives for Anheuser-Busch, which they continued for five years until the brewer moved into its own facility.

In the early 1880s a fire forced Iler to build new office quarters at 1112 Harney Street.  About the same time,  the firm moved the distillery operation from Hickory Street to a new location at Fourth and Pierce Streets.  By 1882, when the steel engraving shown above was done,  the company had expanded to roughly 10 acres with multiple buildings.  Iler was turning out 6,000 to 7,000 gallons of alcohol a day or 1,250,000  gallons a year. It also was consuming 300,000 bushels of local grain amounting to $120,000 annually. About 225,000 bushels was corn, and the balance of 75,000 bushels was made up of other grains.  The distillery was estimated to produce 90 percent of Nebraska’s tax revenues.  When the labor riots of 1882 broke out in Omaha, the Governor dispatched the National Guard to protect Iler’s “cash cow” distillery.

The 1880s were a period of continuing expansion for Iler’s enterprise.  Sales of the Willow Springs Distillery and Iler & Co., continued to increase, reaching nearly $3,000,000. The cost of material used in the distillery during 1886 was $250,000, representing 510,000 bushels of grain. Over 10,000 tons of coal were consumed. Employment was given to 125 men, with an annual payroll of over $80,000.  Willow Springs had become the third largest distillery in the United States and paid Government taxes of more than $2,000,000 annually.

Iler used several brand names for his liquor, among them “Willow Springs,” shown here in an embossed quart, as well as “Golden Sheaf,”  “Winchester,” “Buck Bourbon Blend,” and “Iler’s Golden Gin.”  He issued giveaway shot glasses for these brands,  as well as watch fobs.  At the Trans-Mississippi Exposition of 1898, a successful World’s Fair held in Omaha,  Iler’s whiskeys and other spirits took two gold medals and four silver medals. He himself was awarded a gold medal,  similar to the one shown here, for his invention of an “apparatus for aging and purifying liquors.”

Ever restless for new investments,  Iler began fattening one thousand and six hundred head of cattle with the used mash from the distillery.  With partners he also was buying up farm land in the vicinity of Omaha,  totaling 1,875 acres.  This area became the nucleus for the creation of stockyards, packing houses and the town of South Omaha. Many of the same investors in 1886 formed and became directors of the Union Stockyards Bank.

Iler constantly was looking for cheaper sources of energy and invested in coal mining and exploration for natural gas in the vicinity of Omaha. He also one of the organizers of the Omaha Brick & Tile Company, of which he became the first and long-term president,  He built and owned the Iler Grand Hotel, shown here, at one time a leading hostelry of Omaha.  He was a prominent member of the Omaha Board of Trade.

After a time Iler apparently began to feel he was outgrowing Nebraska and once again looked Westward.  In 1889-1990 he  obtained options on 3,500 acres fronting on San Francisco Bay at San Bruno Point and incorporated the South San Francisco Land and Improvement Company.  He took on the job of being general manager for the project.  This move may have indicated a declining interest in distilling or perhaps a premonition of Prohibition.  Whatever the cause, in 1898 Iler sold the Willow Springs Distillery to a combine called the Standard Distilling and Distributing Company.  He may have had an initial financial interest in that outfit, continuing to be listed as president of Willow Springs until 1902.

In 1904, Mary,  his wife of 41 years,  died.  Peter lived on, active in business until about 1912 when he retired.  He was still living in Omaha in 1917, age 77.  The date and place of his death is something of a mystery.  His grave marker, shown here, is located in Omaha’s Prospect Hill Cemetery and holds two zinc plaques. His wife’s is inscribed, his is blank.  Was Peter not buried with her?  Or was it simply an oversight that his plaque was not engraved?   With Prohibition, the distillery he built stopped producing whiskey.  The company changed its manufacturing to near beer, soda pop and malt for use in home brewing, but subsequently went out of business.

Peter Iler was a capitalist fully worthy of the name.  His restless mind constantly was taking him into new enterprises and endeavors.  From Ohio to Nebraska to California he invested his money,  much of it gained from the whiskey trade,  to make more money.  Truly, he was a worthy predecessor of Warren Buffet and other Omaha millionaires.


    Just discovered your most interesting blogs.
    Please contact me at as soon as possible.
    i would like to use your Iler Grand Hotel postcard from May 10, 2012 in my book "Welcome to Omaha." You of course would be given credit for the source.
    Oliver B. Pollak
    (spouse Karen google account)

  2. Dear Mr. Pollak: To repeat what I said to your earlier note on the Keller vignette, please use the postcard and no need for credit to me.

  3. Mr. Sullivan, I am a descendant of Peter Iler and would be interested in reviewing your source material. Can you help? Thanks much for this well-written and interesting summary!

  4. Meredith: I am happy to help. Just checked and I still have some reasonably good references. My computer crashed in 2014 and much was lost but Iler spared. Send me an email at