Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Tallcotts: No Blues from “Little Town” Booze

Who can forget when Frank Sinatra sang, “New York, New York,”  pledging that by going to the Big Apple he would get rid of his “little town blues.”  The Tallcotts, father and sons, were whiskey men living in a small New York State village called Parish but never seemed to mind being in a little town and prospered greatly from their liquor dealership.

Parish is a village in mid-state, named for David Parish (1778-1826). Parish, shown here, was a English land speculator and financier who in 1808 acquired 200,000 acres in the St. Lawrence River Valley to sell to settlers in farmland parcels.  Among his holdings was the village site,  later named for Parish by the state legislature.  Over the years its population never exceeded 2,000;  the 2010 census put the modern day number at 450.  A 1900 postcard view revealed a sleepy little community.

The Tallcotts did not arrive in Parish until near the end of the Civil War.  The father, Cyrus Sayles Tallcott,  was born in Rensselaer County, New York, in 1839.  His father was Jabez H. Tallcott and mother was Melinda Goodling, both native New Yorkers.  Soon after Cyrus’ birth his parents moved to Vermont where they stayed for fifteen years,  moving back to the Empire State in 1854 and settling in Constantia,  Oswego County.  When Cyrus  grew to manhood there he managed a hotel in Constantia,  a position that  apparently afforded him the wealth to marry.  His bride was Catherine Warn, the daughter of John C. Warn of Oswego County.

In 1864,  Cyrus Tallcott moved to nearby Parish where his early occupation was as proprietor of a hotel and saloon called The Martin Place.  According to a local biography, he also served for four years as a traveling salesman for an unnamed Syracuse business.   My  hunch is that he was selling for a liquor dealership.  Apparently having acquired sufficient knowledge of the trade and a cash reserve, Tallcott in 1877 established his own wholesale liquor business in Parish.   The local customer base was not large and the town boasted only two small hotels and two saloons.

Undaunted,  Tallcott traveled extensively through Central New York merchandising his whiskey. A contemporary biography said of him:   “Mr. Tallcott is one of the prominent merchants of Oswego County, whose trade is not confined to that but extends over half a dozen adjoining counties.”  As his two sons matured,  Cyrus took them into the firm.  They were Frank  N.,  born in 1862, and his younger brother, Claude F., born in 1871. The Tallcott boys were said to have started as clerks but worked themselves up to partner levels “through their own industrious and intelligent efforts.” Eventually the name of the firm would be changed to C. S.  Tallcott & Sons.

Like many liquor dealers of the time,  the Tallcotts claimed a direct line to a distillery, especially marking the Eagle Distillery of Stanley, Kentucky, as a source of their whiskey.   The connection was a bit more complicated.  A 1906 billhead from the T.E. O’Keefe Company revealed that the family was buying its stock from O’Keefe, an Oswego whiskey man who was, in fact, a co-owner of the Eagle Distillery. (See my May 2013 post on O’Keefe.)  The invoice indicates that the Tallcotts bought 43.67 gallons of “Ontario Whiskey,” paying $65.51.  They apparently bottled it under their own brand names, a strategy that proved very lucrative.

With the success of his business,  Cyrus Tallcott became active in the political affairs of New York State.   In July 1906, the nearby town of Pulaski hosted what the press called “two of the largest conventions in the history of the Republican Party.”   The second and larger convention which covered the entire Congressional District was reported to have attracted “a tremendous crowd” to Belt’s Opera House.  When the meeting was called to order, it was Cyrus Tallcott who wielded the gavel.   According to a contemporary biographer, “his efforts are greatly appreciated by his party, in whose highest counsels he is a trusted confidant.”  Cyrus also was prominent in Masonic circles, cited as a member of the York Scottish Rite, the Egyptian Rite and the Order of the Mystic Shrine.

Some time about 1908 or 1909,  in his early 70s,  Cyrus Tallcott died.  It had been said of him:  “Mr. Tallcott is a man of large and comprehensive ideas, who impresses his individuality on those with whom he comes in contact.  His successful mercantile career has afforded him an ample fortune.”   His two son, already schooled in the liquor trade, took the reins of management.   They changed the firm’s name once again, calling it “C. S. Tallcott’s Sons.”   By this time  Frank had married and was the father of two girls.   Claude was a bachelor living with his widowed mother.  It is from this period that we can identify an amber strap-sided flask with a label advertising “C.S.T. Pure Old Rye Whiskey.”

By 1914 Frank Tallcott had departed the whiskey business.  A letterhead from that year identified his younger brother, C. F. (Claude),  as the proprietor.   The name of the company had been changed once again.  It was now just C. S. Tallcott’s Son.  The same letterhead identified the Parish business with the Imperial Distillery, a new name for the old Eagle Distillery.  The Tallcott firm also was self-identified as “rectifier,” that is, blender of whiskeys to be marketed under a proprietary label.   Among the Tallcott brands were “Highland Mary,” and “Aero Club.”   Both were openly advertised as blends. 

The label on  “Aero Club,”  shown here on an amber quart and in a detail,  is particularly interesting in its design.   In an era when the development of the airplane had gripped public attention the name and central illustration were a striking combination.  It appeared to show a winged semi-nude woman,  laurel wreath in one hand,  whiskey bottle in the other, swooping down on the viewer.   A kind of prototype of Wonder Woman.

No amount of merchandising prowess on the part of the Tallcotts could fend off the ultimate demise of their liquor business.  Although New York never enacted statewide Prohibition,  the passage by Congress of the Volstead Act in 1919 doomed the business and it terminated.  Over a period of more than four decades, the Tallcotts had thrived in their  village and produced liquor containers that are still avidly collected.   They clearly had no “little town blues.”  In fact, to paraphrase the same Sinatra song:  “If they could make it there, they could make it anywhere.”

Note:   The Aero Club bottle shown here currently resides with Peter Samuelson, a noted collector of labeled whiskeys. His recent comment about its label was:  “What nice wings!”  See the June 2013 issue of the “Antique Bottle & Glass Collector” magazine for Peter’s full  article on his labeled whiskeys.


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