Sunday, May 27, 2012

Thomas Moore Put Possum Hollow on the Map

You won’t find Possum Hollow, Pennsylvania, in your Rand-McNally Atlas or listed in Wikipedia,  but it once was the name of a tiny cluster of buildings located in Allegheny County southwest of the town of Wampum near the Beaver County line.   It was there that Thomas Moore built his first distillery and produced a whiskey known as “Possum Hollow.”  The brand eventually found regionwide sales and memorialized the place after which it was named.

Born in 1818 in Mount Joy, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania,  Moore apparently had little formal education.  It is reported he began his working career at the age of eight, being employed in a local distillery as a go-fer.  He continued in the liquor trade until he was 17 learning the techniques of making and selling whiskey.  His interests then took him into coal mining, a major Pennsylvania industry.

With what seems like a characteristic restlessness,  Moore would alternate between whiskey and coal much of the rest of his life.  He also found time to marry.  His wife was Jane Wilson of Westmoreland County. They would go on to have seven children.   After a decade,  Moore sold his mining interests and bought a flour mill from his father in law.  It was located in Possum Hollow.  When the mill was destroyed by fire,  he built a distillery on the same grounds and from 1852 to 1860 produced Possum Hollow brand whiskey.  The firm later issued a highly fanciful saloon sign of a small distilling operation in the mountains beside a babbling
brook and labeled the site Possum Hollow.

In 1859 Moore built a second distillery on First Avenue in Pittsburgh.  He operated it for several years and then turned over the operation to a son-in-law.  Eventually the building became a pickle factory for a start up company named Heinz.  About the same time, inexplicab ly, Moore sold the Possum Hollow facility.  By 1864, Moore, now very rich likely from his whiskey-related sales, was back in the coal business.  He bought two Pennsylvania anthracite mines and organized the Youghiogheny Hollow Coal Company,  capitalized at $500,000.  It became one of the largest mining operations in the country, producing on an average 100,000 tons of coal annually, valued at more than $600,000.

In 1866, once more interested in making whiskey, Moore bought back the Possum Hollow distillery, according to a Pennsylvania history.  He operated it until 1871, then tore it down and built an entirely new facility at Scotthaven, Westmoreland County.  He also looked north to Buffalo and about 1870 bought another distillery and attendant stock yards in Erie County that had been started about 1854.   One or more of his grown sons appears to have been in charge of that operation.

Suffering financial reverses as the the coal market tanked in 1877,  Moore once more engaged vigorously in the liquor trade.  In 1878 he settled in McKeesport,  purchased land and erected by far his largest distillery.   Shown here at a distance, it had a capacity of 40-50 barrels a day.  His warehouses had the capacity to store 40,000 to 50,000 barrels.  About the same time Moore sold the Buffalo distillery which apparently had become increasingly unpopular with its neighbors in rapidly-growing Buffalo.

The McKeesport distillery produced a number of brands, including "Banner", "Mountain State", "Possum Hollow", and "Thos. Moore Possum Hollow Pure Rye Whiskey."  The last was the flagship brand, whose label bore the visage of Moore himself.  The firm also employed a distinctive pinch bottle,  shown here on a playing card, with the slogan, “Friends Everywhere.”  The pinched shape was replicated in giveaway salt and pepper shakers to saloons and restaurants.  Moore also feature giveaway shot glasses, including at least one version with his face illustrated. 
Moore was a staunch member of the Democratic Party and twice was elected to the Pennsylvania State Legislature.   He was a Mason and an Episcopalian,  remembered as an active member of St. Stephen's Church in McKeesport.  In 1889, Jane, his wife of 50 years, died.   Four years later,  at age 75 Moore remarried.  His new bride was Miss Elizabeth Heath,  a woman who was considerably younger since she outlived him by almost 50 years.

Moore himself died in 1898,  just short of 80 years old, recorded as the result of “inflammation of the bowels.”  He was buried in the family plot at the Versailles Cemetery in McKeesport,  Section E, Lot 124.   One of his obituaries noted that he had “hewed his way to fortune and died one of the wealthiest men of McKeesport.”  It noted particularly his work in both the coal and whiskey industries, noting that “as a distiller gained a reputation that extends through the length and breadth of the land.”

After his death Moores heirs, with C.P. Moore as president,
continued to operate the liquor business for a time. Within five years, however, they sold it to the Ruffdale-Dillinger distilling interests whose brands included “Hiram Green,” and “Tom Keene.”  Thos. Moore’s Possum Hollow brand was registered for trademark protection with the federal government in 1907.  My guess is that the tip tray with the nude and the slogan, “Take a Little Moore,” dates from after the founder’s death.  In October, 1910, the press recorded a major bankruptcy sale in which the land, buildings and equipment of the Moore McKeesport facility were sold off. The Possum Hollow brand, however, continued to be sold until the advent of National Prohibition.

Note:  Much of the factual material for this vignette and the picture of Thomas Moore are from a book entitled “Progressive Men of the Commonwealth.”  Published in 1900, it provided biographies of important Pennsylvania figures, most of them living at the time.   Moore was an exception, probably included because of his extraordinary career, going from child laborer to multimillionaire over a lifetime of almost 80 years.

1 comment:

  1. What would the salt and pepper shakers sale for thank you