Saturday, June 22, 2013

Wiley Searcy: Kentucky Distiller in War and Peace

Battle of Perryville
As he looked back on his life, Kentucky whiskey man Wiley Searcy probably fixed on the  years of his service in the Union Army during the Civil War as perhaps the most memorable times of his life.   Few soldiers on either side saw as much action as Searcy did, in the process rising from a lowly private to the rank of captain.

The Searcys were a large and well-known clan in Anderson County, Kentucky.  Wiley was born in 1843, the son of Madison Searcy and Susan Mountjoy.  The 1850 census found him, age seven, living with his parents, a brother and two sisters. His father’s occupation was given as “tavern keeper.”   As Wiley was growing up, his mother died, leaving Madison Searcy a widower.

Wiley reached maturity just as the Civil War was beginning.  Kentucky citizens were torn between North and South in their loyalties.  For unrecorded reasons, the Searcys chose the Union side and rosters of Kentucky federal regiments included many with that name. Wiley, age 19,  joined Company  E of the 21st Kentucky Infantry, serving as a private in the ranks.  This company was recruited from parts of southern Anderson and the adjacent Mercer County and mustered at Green River Bridge on January 2, 1862.   With the 21st, Searcy saw action in several battles, including Perryville in October 1862,  shown here.  During that period he advanced to sergeant.

Early the following year he was discharged from his infantry unit and accepted an officer’s commission and became a 2nd lieutenant in Company L of the 9th Kentucky Cavalry,  commanded by a relative, Captain William M. Searcy.   With this unit Wiley rode in pursuit of Col. John Hunt Morgan and his cavalry raiders as the Confederates slashed and burned through Kentucky and on into Indiana and Ohio.  There were battles at Marrowbone, Burkesville, Buffington Island, and, at last, the capture of Morgan at New Lisbon, Ohio,  on July 26, 1863.  Several months later,  his enlistment period apparently over, Searcy was discharged and went home.
Saltville Battlefield

Still restless for action, in March 1864 he enlisted again and helped to raise a troop designated as Company G of the 30th Kentucky Mounted Infantry.  This time he was elected by the men and served as the company commander with the rank of captain.  Searcy would carry the title “captain” for the rest of his life.  The company saw action in central Kentucky,  southwestern Virginia and eastern Tennessee, fighting many pitched battles.   According to an obituary,  Searcy had two horses shot from under him in one afternoon.   In October 1864 during the second battle of Saltville, Virginia,  the 9th Kentucky lost two officers killed and several others “severely wounded.”   Among the latter was Wiley Searcy.

When he had sufficiently recovered,  he rejoined his unit and as an officer saw action against guerrillas (called “bushwhackers”) in Central Kentucky until the regiment was mustered out at the close of the war and discharged from service in April 1865.   Even then Searcy sought to serve.  He was recorded as an officer of the Kentucky militia that was enrolled to maintain a military presence and keep the peace in the immediate aftermath of the conflict, a reserve unit that served until 1869.

In 1867 Wiley was married in Anderson County to Susan Linney. They would have one child but not long after childbirth Susan died.  The 1870 U.S. census found Searcy a widower with a young son named Frank.  Searcy was working as a “U.S. storekeeper,” a job that apparently entailed his being responsible for government supplies and also possibly for the mail.  In 1871 Searcy married again.  This time his wife was Mary Agnes Mountjoy, likely a relative of his late mother.  The couple would have another son,  Matthew.

What brought Searcy into the whiskey trade is unclear.  Obviously as the son of a tavern keeper, he had been around liquor much of his life.  In 1886 he is recorded as having purchased a distillery that had been established in Anderson County in 1818 by Joe Peyton, widely known as “Old Joe.”  It is said that Peyton pitched his tent near the mouth of Gilbert’s Creek and commenced to build a distillery.   After a succession of owners, it looked as shown here.   When Searcy bought it, according to insurance records,  the distillery was of frame construction with a metal or slate roof. The property included two bonded warehouses, also of frame construction with metal or slate roofs. Warehouse "A" or No. 1, was located 600 ft south of the still. Warehouse "B" (No. 2) stood 10 ft from No. 1.The facility was known as Distillery No. 45,  8th District of Kentucky.

The Captain wasted no time in advertising his “Old Joe” brand of whiskey, as shown here.   His product contained “no jug yeast,” he claimed and was “The best whisky that can be made.”  At a time when Eastern money men were contemplating “whiskey trusts” in Kentucky, Searcy emphasized that he was an independent distiller. He packaged “Old Joe” in ceramic jugs, making sure that his name was prominent.

Under Searcy’s leadership, the distillery flourished. He added structures and boasted two bonded warehouses and a third “free” (not under the Bottled-in-Bond Act) warehouse. Federal revenue records indicate his very active insertions of raw whiskey into the bonded warehouses and subsequent withdrawal of aged liquor.   At one point he called the facility the Zeno Distillery Company but after 1898 dropped that name in favor of The Wiley Searcy Distillery.
Wiley Searcy Distillery

In 1909, as occurred many times for distilleries, fire ravaged the complex, destroying all three warehouses.   The loss of whiskey was considerable. Searcy, by now 66 years old and perhaps feeling the effects of his wartime wounds, declined to rebuild and instead sold the property to the local Ripy Brothers in 1911.  They rebuilt the distillery and operated until shut down by Prohibition.  The Ripys also changed the name to the “Old Joe” Distillery The mini jug shown here is likely is from the post-1911 period, as is an “Old Joe” label with the picture of a Kentucky “colonel.”

Wiley Searcy died in January 1917. The local newspaper gave the cause as “la grippe (influenza) and other complications.”  He was 74 years old. Surviving him were his widow,  both sons and two young granddaughters. After a service in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, he was buried  at the Old Lawrenceburg Cemetery, Section #9. The  graves of Wiley and Mary Searcy are said to be marked only with a large boulder for a headstone with a small bronze plaque with names, but no dates or mention of the Captain’s extraordinary military service.  One of his labeled jugs might serve as a monument:

Note:  Although Searcy was not honored with the kind of monument that many Civil War soldiers have been given,  his story was recounted in a large tome, featuring several authors, entitled “Anderson County History and Families.”  Information here was derived from that and other sources.


  1. Hello! Wonderful information. My husband is in the process of launching an exhibit featuring Old Joe Whiskey and Distillery at the old T.B. Ripy house in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky where he owns a gift shop and visitors' center for the Ripy house. I was hoping that I could ask you about some of the images and information featured on your blog post. Please contact me at your convenience. Thank you.

    1. Ms. Ripy: Good to hear from you. Have been made aware of the rebirth of the Ripy house -- obviously a famous name in US whiskey history -- from a lawyer friend here in Alexandria Virginia named Tom Parry. I think he is assisting the family on intellectual property rights. For myself, you can use both info and pictures on Searcy as you see fit. One of these days I will do a piece on the Ripy family and be in touch with you for information. Hope your husband's visitor's center is a great success. Jack

  2. Fun to run across stories of my family while doing genealogy research. Thank you Mr. Sullivan for a great read! The Searcy's also had ties to Old Nick's Whiskey.
    Scott Searcy

  3. Scott: Glad you have been in touch. I just did a reprise on Searcy as a Northern soldier and hero. He is a fascinating character. Appreciate the information that the Searcys had ties with Old Nick Williams, aka N. Glenn Williams of Yadkin Valley North Carolina. For those interested in following up, my post on Williams appeared on October 4, 2013.

    1. It's also interesting that Madison Searcy also had children with slaves. My great, great grandmother was Melvina who would have been Wiley's half-sister. She's listed as a daughter and slave of Madison Searcy. Any additional information that you have on Madison and the Searcy's would be awesome. Thanks!

    2. It's also interesting that Madison Searcy also had children with slaves. My great, great grandmother was Melvina who would have been Wiley's half-sister. She's listed as a daughter and slave of Madison Searcy. Any additional information that you have on Madison and the Searcy's would be awesome. Thanks!