Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Lang, Schenck and Co.: Swimming in the Olentangy

Few stories about the effects of Prohibition on the whiskey industry are as dramatic as its impact on the highly successful Columbus, Ohio,  whiskey dealers,  Lang, Schenck & Company and their flagship brand, Olentangy Club Rye.

Founded in 1879 by George Lang and brothers William and Charles Schenck,  by 1904 their company had prospered mightily.  It operated from an imposing three-story building at 404 S. High Street, immediately adjacent to the Franklin County Courthouse, shown here.  Emblazoned on the facade in foot high letters was the proud designation:  “Liquor Merchants.”   Moreover that year Charles Schenck was elected an officer of the Wholesale Liquor Association at the national organization’s convention in New York City.

The firm’s flagship whiskey,  Olentangy Club Rye, was a best-selling brand,  not just in the vicinity of Columbus but throughout Ohio and in neighboring states.  Named after the Olentangy River that flows through the city, shown here in a painting by Susan Astleford,  the partners registered this brand with the federal government in 1906. It was packaged in quart bottles and pint flasks , each bearing a distinctive label with a distinctive triangle trade mark.

Faced with strong competition by other Ohio origin whiskey brands,  chiefly from Cincinnati,  Lang, Schenck strove for customer loyalty through generous giveaways.  Chief among them were advertising shot glasses . Despite being etched, these were relatively cheap to make. They could be given by the dozens without great expense to bartenders, distributors, and even directly to retail customers.

Pricier giveaways were “back-of-the-bar” bottles.  At least two examples exist from Olentangy Club Rye.  The first is a fluted bottle with a tall neck that probably held a fancy closure. The other is a bulbous  container that, like the other,  has applied white lettering.  Both were made to display in a saloon, filled with Lang, Schenck’s whiskey and ready to pour.

An even more expensive giveaway to saloons was an Olentangy Club pewter tea kettle, with the legend incised into the metal. While a number of distillers used pewter or silver plated jugs as back of the bar giveaways,  this item is very unusual and speaks to the innovative merchandising of the company.

In addition to its flagship Olentangy Club Rye,  the Columbus liquor distributor featured a number of other house brands,  including Ageno, Deer Creek, Eastern Star Rye, Fern Dell, Jackson Country, Old Dominion,  Old Mill Bourbon and Rye, Old Virginia Dominion,  Three Bunnie, and Windsor Town. The Deer Creek label displayed  the head and antlers of a large stag on its label. Ageno may have been a whiskey meant for using in mixed drinks.  It was advertised on a giveaway “highball” glasses.

On the personal side,  the Schenck brothers were born in Ohio, the sons of immigrant parents,  the father from Germany, the mother from France.  Charles was the elder, born in 1860;  William came along three years later, in 1863.  At the time of the 1900 census Charles was living in Columbus with his wife Mary and four children, Frank, Stanley, Lida and May.  Their ages ranged from 11 to 16.   Vital statistics on George Lang are scanty.  He was born in 1860, married and had at least one son.

As they prospered, the Lang, Schenck partners would have been painfully aware of the struggle going on in Ohio over liquor sales. In a very real sense the “Dry” movement had been founded in the state.  At the same time, efforts to induce Ohio voters to initiate statewide prohibition had failed repeatedly.  With the onset of World War One the tide turned.   Liquor was depicted as hurting the war effort in addition to causing other social ills. In 1918 Ohio narrowly passed statewide prohibition. It went into effect a year before the entire U.S. went dry.

The impact on the Lang, Schenck & Co. was immediate.  A report from the Ohio Secretary of State recorded that in 1919 the assets of the company dropped from $60,000 to $6,500.  The liquor firm quickly disappeared from Columbus business directories.  Olentangy Club Rye and other company brands disappeared, never to be seen again.  Death also overtook the partners.  William Schenck died in 1917, age 54, and George Lang in 1919, age 61.

Out of the wreckage caused by Prohibition was born a new business, called the Lang, Schenck Reality Co.  It was incorporated in 1919 with assets of $20,000.  Its principals included Charles Schenck and Lang’s son, George Junior.  Schenck would live to be 71, dying in 1931 and thus never seeing the end of Prohibition.  All three original partners are interred in Green Lawn Cemetery, Columbus.




  1. My church recently bought a 200 year old building and we were doing some demo work in preparation for some remodeling. I tore up some floor boards in the balcony of the original sanctuary and found an empty bottle of Olentangy Club Rye (just like the one pictured above, but in rougher shape, of course). So I Googled it, and of course, landed here. Thanks for the information! Any ideas of what I could do with the bottle?

  2. Matt: Your bottle is more than 100 years old. You can keep it as a souvenir of another time or take it to a bottle show -- of which Ohio has many -- and see if you can find a buyer. The going price for an item like that is not spectacular, however.

    1. Thanks - I think I will keep it. The story is worth more than the $50 I would get by trying to sell it.