Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Peppers Went from a Coal Mine to a Gold Mine

In Schuykill Country, Pennsylvania, the son of a coal miner who began his own career at the mines, subsequently moved into selling whiskey and founded a liquor business that his boys expanded into one of Pennsylvania’s most notable -- and lucrative.  It bore the founder’s name:  Thomas Pepper’s Sons Company.

Thomas was the son of Patrick and Marcella (Reilly) Pepper, who immigrated to the United States from Longford, Ireland in the early 1830s.   They were married in New York City in 1836 where Patrick was employed in an iron foundry.   About 1839 or 1840 the couple moved to Schuykill County, Pennsylvania,  at the center of the anthracite coal region.  There Patrick found employment at a place called Mine Hill Gap and toiled there mining coal for the remainder of his working life.

Patrick and Marcella produced a family of twelve children,  ten of whom lived to maturity.  Thomas was the third Pepper among the youngsters, born in 1842.  He was raised at Mine Hill Gap, went to elementary school there, and at an early age went work with with his father in the mines.  Thomas started as a slate picker, subsequently becoming a driver and later a full fledged miner.

In 1863,  while still working in the mines,  Thomas married Elizabeth McDonald, a local girl whose parents like his were immigrants.  Her father, Patrick, was from Ireland; her mother,  Hannah, was from England.  Thomas and Elizabeth would raise a family of eight children, all of whom lived to maturity,  six boys and two girls.   As Roman Catholics, the parents were assiduous in raising the children in the Church.

About 1865, at the end of the Civil War,  Thomas moved to nearby Ashland,  a  Schuykill County town of about 4,000 population, located north of Harrisburg.  The main street is shown here about 1810.  Clearly having saved some money from his mining toil, Pepper opened a shop where he bottled and sold non-alcoholic  drinks.   After meeting limited success in this trade for the next seven years, in 1872 Pepper entered into the liquor business.

He was much more successful selling whiskey, building a regional reputation for his liquor in Central Pennsylvania.   Like many Irish of his time, Pepper had a strong interest in politics.  A lifelong Democrat,  he ran for the post of Schuykill Country treasurer twice and won.  He also served as a member of the Ashland Borough Council for two terms.   As a indication of his business acumen, by 1907 he also was a director of the Citizen’s National Bank of Ashland.

Throughout the latter part of the 19th Century Thomas Pepper was grooming several of his sons to follow him in the liquor trade.  He sent the eldest, Frank, through the public schools of Ashland and then on to the Bryant & Stratton Business School of Philadelphia in an effort to equip him for a career in commerce.   When Frank was 21, Thomas took him into the business.  A similar path was carved out for two younger sons,  Thomas R. and John W.  

About 1899 Thomas,  perhaps for reason of health since he was only 57 years old,  retired from running his business and disposed of his interests to his three sons.  They quickly renamed it.   Under their management Thomas Pepper’s Sons Co. flourished. As their letterhead shown above indicates, they featured a number of their own brands,  including “Valley Brook Rye,” “Old Knighthood Rye,”  “Cumberland Rye,”  “Ashland Club Whiskey,” “Anthracite Rye,”  and their flagship brand, “Old Rap Whiskey.”  They also acted as distiller’s agents for a long string of Pennsylvania distilleries whose products they merchandised. 

Working out of their small town the Peppers created a giant wholesale house and issued a series of stoneware jugs bearing their name.   They also marketed “Old Rap” vigorously,  retailing it in ceramic jugs and in bottles.  Its label was adorned with a gavel, possibly a reference to Thomas’s political interests, and proclaims the contents as “a mellow blend.”  The brothers also were generous in giveaways to saloons and taverns featuring their brands. Old Rap is represented here by a bar sign and a tip tray offered to favored customers.  Old Rap and and a second brand, Valley Brook, were trademarked in 1905 by the Peppers.

Frank seems to have been the most prominent of the Pepper brothers. His was a full  biography in the 1907 book “History of Schuykill County, Pennsylvania,”  although his brothers  Thomas Jr. and John are mentioned.  He, like his father, was an active Democrat and strong Roman Catholic adherent.   Frank was listed as a member of the Holy Name Society, the Knights of St. Joseph and the Elks Club.  Married, he had five children.

Despite Thomas Pepper having given up control of his company,  the indication is that he continued throughout the rest of his life to take an interest in the profitable business he had founded and built.  There is a curious entry in the 1890 U.S. census, just after he had yielded control to his sons.  When the census taker asked his occupation,  someone -- perhaps Thomas -- said “liquor merchant.”  That, however, is crossed out and “none” (no occupation) was substituted. In the 1910 census, however, Thomas, now a widower, was recorded as a liquor merchant.

Thomas Pepper’s Sons appears to have flourished during first two decades of the 20th Century, further enriching the family.  The 1920 census found the sons still engaged in the liquor trade.  Thomas R.’s occupation is listed as “distiller”  and John W. as “liquor merchant.”
Frank, on the other hand, was accounted as selling “cigars, etc.”  This was just at the time that National Prohibition was being enforced and Pepper’s Sons was soon out of business.   Thus ended a 48 year business success founded by Thomas Pepper, a coal miner and a coal miner’s son.

Note:  Much of the material for this article was derived from a vignette in “History of Schuykill County, Pennsylvania.”   That volume contains biographies of both Thomas Pepper and son Frank.


  1. My grandfather, James B McDonald, told me he remembered vividly, on the last day before prohibition, there was a line people all the way around the Pepper factory, all day. Buying whiskey on the last legal day. John W Pepper built a grand house right next to all the other well situated men in town, all of whom were German-Americans not delighted an Irishman would move up into their section. After the liquor business closed down John moved to Philadelphia an went into real estate.

    The Pepper's Ginger Ale was also quite famous locally and continued well into the 1950's.

    1. This is so very interesting to me. I am a Pepper in the line of Thomas Pepper and of the Pepper's Ginger Ale era. My father was Charles Pepper, son of Charles and Loretta Pepper, grandson of William and Ellen Pepper.