To reach Arkansas, the Looney and Rice families were forced to endure a trek through much of Tennessee, bringing with them their young children and
|Randolph County, Arkansas|
Both men early on began farming and growing fruit trees. Their intent from the outset appears to have been distilling. With an extensive apple orchard, Looney specialized in making apple brandy, although he may have distilled whiskey from grain from time to time. He is credited with producing 1,500 gallons of brandy a year. At his death, according to probate records, he left behind two stills, 27 still tubs, and some 21 gallons of apple brandy. After his slaves the stills were considered his most valuable property.
Rice’s distilling appears to have been largely whiskey. He was growing and selling both wheat and corn, both necessary ingredients for that liquor. The probate record of Reuben’s son who inherited his father’s distillery indicates that he had two stills, 20 tubs, and two cooling tubs through which the copper coil “worm” ran. The distilling scene shown here provides an idea of what Looney and Rice’s operation might have looked like. Both men probably sold their liquor in stoneware jugs with brown Albany slip glaze, as the one shown here. A similar jug has been handed down in the Rice family, believed to have been produced by a local pottery.
One historian estimates that between 1800 and 1830 annual per capita consumption of alcoholic beverages in the U.S. exceeded five gallons, about triple that of consumption today. As a result of such demand, both Looney and Rice prospered. When he died in 1846 at about the age of 61, Looney was one of the richest men in Randolph County, with extensive land holdings, 13 slaves and livestock. Moreover, he was sought out for public office. During a period from about 1816 to 1825, he served as justice of the peace and magistrate in two local townships. Moreover, when a territorial legislature had been elected for Arkansas, Looney was named to an administrative post that would allow him to manage affairs in cases where the legislature could not meet. In 1820 he was commissioned as a captain in the Third Regiment of the Arkansas Militia.
|Randolph County Courthouse|
|The Rice House|
By the 1840s, Reuben, who had been born with the Republic in 1776, had retired from farming and distilling, leaving the operation to his son. Both he and his wife, Lydia., died around 1850, when Reuben would have been 74. At least five generations of the Rice family subsequently lived in the house. As a result it was kept in excellent condition when, in 2004, descendants of the original Rices donated the structure and a small amount of land to the local college in Pocahontas. That same year the house was put on the National Register of Historical Places and attested to be the oldest extant home place in Arkansas.
Similar good fortunate acceded to William Looney’s tavern. After his death his widow, Catherine, remained on the farmstead and converted the building into a dwelling. Four generations later relatives in 2006 donated that building to the college. Restoring it to its original look as a tavern was funded through the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council. Shown here completed, the tavern too is now on the National Register. The Looney Tavern and the Rice House have become important tourist destinations in Arkansas. Both are testimony to the distillery trade as a source of wealth and commerce.
|The Restored Looney Tavern|
If Looney and Rice had lived longer, they likely would have been appalled at the fate of the distilling industry in Arkansas. Today there are more than 200 archeological sites of abandoned and ruined distilleries in Arkansas. Most were victims of the organized temperance movement in the state that began in Little Rock in 1831. For the next 90 years Prohibitionists worked diligently to make Arkansas “dry.”
An 1855 law gave municipalities the power to ban alcohol, mandating that prospective taverns be approved by a local majority. That law established a precedent that allowed counties to hold referendums on whether or not to allow alcohol to be sold within their borders. By 1914, only nine Arkansas counties had managed to keep their saloons and distilleries open. In 1915, the General Assembly passed the Newberry Act, effectively banning the manufacture and sale of alcohol in the entire state, anticipating National Prohibition by five years. Even after Repeal many local jurisdictions to this day ban the sale of alcohol. Ironically, Randolph County, the venue where William Looney and Reuben Rice found liquor to be so lucrative, is one of them.