Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Looney and Rice: Early Arkansas Distillers

In the first decade after Arkansas was bought from France by Thomas Jefferson as part of the Louisiana Purchase,  cousins who earlier had lived as neighbors in Northeastern Tennessee pulled up stakes and moved with their families to Randolph County, Arkansas.  They were William Looney and Reuben Rice.  Both would prosper economically and socially by becoming distillers.  Looney’s liquor warehouse and tavern, shown here in the process of restoration, is accounted the oldest commercial building in the state.

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
a few slaves.   Perhaps tired by the journey they stopped in the far northeast of the state on the Eleven Point River near the rural towns of Dalton and Pocahontas, shown here on a local map.  Looney settled on the west bank of the river;  Rice on the east bank about a mile distant.  In contrast to owners of the large plantations in southern Arkansas, these early yeoman farmers with their few slaves established small farmsteads under the governmental jurisdiction of the Missouri Territory and were documented on the 1815 and 1816 Missouri territorial tax lists.

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 above with a slave provides an idea of what Looney and Rice’s operations 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
Reuben Rice, like Looney, became wealthy and expanded his land holdings.  Although believed to be illiterate,  he served family and friends as administrator and security for estates in probate and in 1835,  he was elected as one of three commissioners to establish the first courthouse in Randolph County,  located in Pocahontas, which became the county seat.   As shown here, it still serves that purpose.  Another notable structure Rice built, and this time with his own hands, was an impressive house.  The log structure had a one large room on the first floor and a gable-end fireplace.
The Rice House
Adjoining the large room was a small side room.  It is conjectured that the room had shelving for items that were being sold from the front  room, including jugs of whiskey.

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.


  1. The county has had a history of being wet. In the 1950s the county was voted dry because of the terror and commotion caused by intoxicated folks on the weekends to the county seat of Pocahontas. Interestingly enough, in the 2018 elections, the voters of Randolph County voted the county wet again.

  2. Thanks, Anonymous, for this additional information.