When John Withers, shown here in maturity, was growing up in a distilling family, he may have thought there were better ways to make a living and so he became a jeweler. After working about 23 years at that trade he apparently decided that the real “gold ring” was captured by making whiskey. And so he did.
Our subject was born in 1873 to J. M. and Ellen E. (Moore) Withers in Alexandria County, Illinois. His ancestors were North Carolinians and, according to a biographer, “all of his forefathers” were whiskey men. These included his father, a distiller, who had moved North to the southern most part of Illinois. The boy Withers was educated in the local public schools and, eschewing the liquor trade, served an apprenticeship with a jeweler and there learned the craft. In 1892, at age 19 and still single, he moved across the Mississippi, to Allenville, Missouri, a small village in Cape Girardeau County.
Initially Withers worked as a jeweler in that Allenville. That town was experiencing a small economic boom. It had several things going its way: It was on high ground on the banks of Whitewater Creek; it was on a major highway to the Southwest United States; it was about a day’s run for covered wagons coming from Cape Girardeau and the Mississippi River, and it was on a mainline railroad that ran from St. Louis and ended on a year around port on the Mississippi. A railroad tycoon named Allen thought the site would someday be a “metropolis” and invested in land there. The inhabitants accordingly named the town after him. At the time Withers came to town, Allenville boasted a population of about 450 and had a number of businesses, including a newspaper, bank, milling company, eight stores and three saloons.
Withers’ early years were spent working in Allenville as a jeweler. There in 1903, he found a wife, Helen E. (sometimes given as Ellen) Adams, like himself born in Illinois. The couple would go on to have six children, four sons and two daughters. Although he appears to have been successful as a jeweler, the sparse population of his town and region meant a limited customer base. Withers began to look around for other opportunities. One presented itself in 1906 that was right under his nose in Allenville. A man named J. D. Dameron, whose name appears on a scratch jug here, had established the only distillery in town about 1892. After 14 years in business Dameron was interested in selling and Withers bought him out. He renamed it the J.A. Withers Company.
After purchasing the property, he determined to expand the facility and called upon his father to help him construct the distillery building seen here. Withers bought new equipment and enlarged the still. He employed a a crew of locals, seen here, to man the facility. The revamped distillery had the capacity to convert four to five thousand bushels of corn and rye into whiskey annually and averaged an output of two barrels a day. One can imagine the workers rolling out barrels of whiskey with the Withers brand, shown here, one that noted registration with the Federal Government as Distillery No. 2 in the First District of Missouri. Withers also used jug containers to hold his product, most of which was only moderately aged (3 years) corn whiskey. He called it “Withers.”
John proved to be an energetic merchandiser. He took full advantage of the availability of a railway express office in Allenville to solicit mail orders from up and down the line and, as his whiskey gained popularity, beyond. Like many of his big city competitors, he had an eye for giving items away to favored customers. They included a celluloid covered match case that had his ad on one side, his picture on the other. Withers also gave away celluloid pocket mirrors that claimed his whiskey was “double distilled.” While many distillers only gifted shot glasses, he also provided two larger glasses, one that seems meant for medicine, the other for highballs. Both items claim the company to be a “Manufacturer of High Grade Whiskey.”
Withers found a good customer base locally and, as Southern and Western states increasingly were going dry, a vigorous and growing mail order business. According to a contemporary account: “A large percentage of his output is disposed of through the mail order route. Nearly every train that pulls out of Allenville carries with it some of the liquor manufactured by J. A. Withers, in jugs or barrels.”
By 1914 when a local newspaper featured Withers in an article, his was the remaining distillery of out of eight originally in the county. He was described as a manager with a strong and sober hand. The account said: “While Mr. Withers makes whiskey and sells it, he himself uses the same very sparingly. He has never permitted any rough house tactics around his place, and there are never any fights or disturbances near his establishment. No accidents nor mishaps, resulting from the use of liquor, have ever happened in this distillery.”
With a profitable business and a comfortable life, Withers was able to branch out in his interests. He bought a 160 acre farm in Arkansas, perhaps to insure a secure supply of corn for his still. In 1911 he joined with other Allenville businessmen to found a bank on the outskirts of Allenville near the Iron Mountain Railroad, apparently believing that the existing banks were inadequate to community needs. In a short time the stock was all taken and within a year a substantial brick building was erected. As a founder and major investor, Withers was made a vice president. He also served as president of the Allenville Village Board for two years and as a member of the local Board of Education. Like many whiskey men, he was a Democrat in politics and a Mason in his fraternal socializing. He was said to have liked hunting and fishing but apparently only occasionally could find the time.
With the coming of the motor car, Withers discovered a new passion. He bought an expensive convertible machine, one in which he could seat his entire family of eight. According to one account, the family “takes delight in taking a spin in the high-powered car that Mr. Withers owns and operates.” There is a marvelous 1913 photograph of the Withers clan in their car. Sitting proudly in the front seat is Distiller John, his wife and baby Opal. In the back seat, seemingly somewhat crowded are Roy, Adam, Eddie, Myrtle and Waldo. Note that the steering wheel is on the right side. Likely a British import.
Missouri was a good state for making and selling whiskey. During the height of the Temperance movement in the late-19th century and early-20th century, Missouri failed to implement statewide prohibition. The voters of the state rejected going “dry” in three separate initiative elections in 1910, 1912, and 1918. When temperance crusader Carrie A. Nation entered a bar in Kansas City in 1901 and began to smash liquor bottles with her hatchet, she was promptly arrested and fined $500 (more than $13,000 in 2013 dollars) The judge stayed the penalty as long as she agreed to leave Missouri and never return. She never came back. The Missouri General Assembly did ratify the 18th Amendment in 1919, but only after it already had been ratified by sufficient states to become part of the Constitution.
Nevertheless, Withers would feel Prohibition pressures. In 1916 Congress passed the Webb-Kenyon Act that forbid mail order sales into dry areas. His trade in neighboring states like Kansas and Oklahoma came to a screeching halt. In 1919 he was forced to shut down all distilling operations with the advent of National Prohibition. But his interest in the motor car and his ample financial means furnished him with a second career. He became a co-owner of the Chevrolet dealership in Cape Girardeau County. Withers was engaged in that business in 1925 when he died at the fairly young age of 52. While some of his children had grown to adulthood, he left a grieving widow at home to care for the younger ones.
My research has not discovered an obituary. Withers clearly was a highly successful distiller and by his conversion from handling jewels to making whiskey truly caught himself the proverbial “gold ring.” As a final encomium, a line from his 1914 newspaper biography may suffice. It stated that John Withers “... is regarded as a good fellow by his friends and acquaintances.”
Note: This article is highly dependent upon information provided on a website maintained by Mr. Charles Hoots, who has devoted it to the history of Allenville and provides a highly informative post about Withers. He also includes the 1914 article in an anniversary edition of the Cape Girardeau Republican that featured the distiller. The black and white photos are from that story and other images of artifacts are from Mr. Hoots and others collections.