Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Whiskey Man Who Loved Chickens

Ernest Kellerstrass and His Chickens
As hard as it may be to believe, the young man with the cigar shown here talking to a rooster and surrounded by newly hatched chicks had a earlier, highly successful career as a distiller and liquor dealer.  His name was Ernest Kellerstrass and he made his mark in both whiskey and chickens in Kansas City, Missouri.

Ernest was born “Ernst” circa 1866 in Peoria, Illinois, the son of Fredrich Robert Kellerstrass, a German immigrant who ran a candy store.  His mother was Margaretha Augustine.    Their son appears to have been a “go-getter” from an early age.  In the 1880 census, when Ernest was but 14 years old, his occupation was given as “baker.”  Moreover, he is on record claiming he began his interest in chickens about the age of eight.

Kellerstrass appears to have grown up in Illinois and, according to information in, was twice married there.   His first wife was a woman named “Daisy” --no last name given and fate unknown.  He subsequently married Emily Guesewelle, born in 1861 in Atchison, Kansas.  They would have three children,  Grace, Robert and Karl,  all born in Illlinois.   What brought Ernest to Kansas City and the liquor trade is unclear but his success appears to have been very rapid.

Kellerstrass, still in his 30s, showed extraordinary initiative.  About 1899 he established his company as the successor to the Columbia Supply Co. and located his main office in Kansas City, selling stock in the Kellerstrass Distilling Company  at $10 a share.  When he
Label with Distillery Picture
listed the officers of the firm, he named himself,  his children and other Kellerstrass relatives. He also bought a distillery in Paradise, Clay County, Missouri, that had been founded about a decade earlier.  Kellerstrass illustrated the facility on his labels. Through his distillery he was able to insure a secure supply of raw whiskey for his brands.  With success he created a separate sales depot across Missouri in St. Louis.  As shown below on his letterhead,  Kellerstrass emphasized his access to railway express to send his goods West from Kansas City and East from St. Louis.
The St. Louis Depot
He packaged his whiskey in embossed glass bottles, often covered by a colorful label,  including, as shown here, a picture of his St. Louis depot.  Like many liquor dealers of his time Kellerstrass featured giveaway items to favored customers, among them gold rimmed shot glasses. He also issued  the "Kellerstrass' Dream Book", a 32-page booklet that purported to explain the meaning of images seen in dreams. Despite its intriquing cover, the publication, issued about 1903, was a thinly-veiled advertising vehicle for Kellerstrass Rye and Whiskey.

Primarily operating a mail order liquor house, Kellerstrass offered premiums to retail customers.  He issued one certificate for each gallon of whiskey ordered.  Nine certificates earned a pen knife,  38 a revolver,  80 a double gauged shotgun and 300 a buggy.  Short a certificate or two?  Kellerstrass would would give you additional chits at a cost of 25 cents each.  By 1903, Ernest had gained notice from the Missouri business community and media for his success.   Bearing the headline “The Kellerstrass Christmas,” The Kansas City Journal in its Dec. 25, 1903, edition ran the following story:

Probably the most generous Christmas giver in Kansas City yesterday was Ernest Kellerstrass, the big distiller, whose presents to those who serve him, all given in gold, amounted to just $2,710. Every man and woman in his employ, or who has been of service to him in the last year, received gifts ranging from $5 to, in one case, $1,000 in gold. The telephone girls at the Central office, the express wagon drivers, the postman and everyone else who came in touch with his enormous business, was remembered.

The princely generosity of Mr. Kellerstrass had been well known in the past, but this year he fairly outdid himself. "But the Kellerstrass Distilling Company never did such a business in its life as in this year," said he, when speaking modestly of his munificence, and I wanted all those who had helped its success to share in its good fortune."

The employees of the company did not forget Mr. Kellerstrass either. The women "chipped in" and bought him two magnificent imported tankards, while the men combined in a smoking set of horn and ivory, mounted in gold, with his monogram on the ivory. Two handsomer gifts were not given yesterday.

Leavening this local celebrity status, Ernest suffered a personal tragedy.  His wife, Emily, age 41, died, leaving him with three small children.  He married again within a relatively short time.  This time his wife was Clara Krull.  According to the record in, she was the daughter of John Henry and Emma Krull and hailed from Steubenville, Ohio.  Clara was 12 years younger than Ernest.  The couple would have four more children, all girls.

Inexplicably, in 1904 and at the height of his success, Kellerstrass, still short of 40 years old, sold out his distillery and mail order  liquor empire to a syndicate from St. Louis.  The new managers operated the business under the Kellerstrass name until 1916 when they were forced to shut down.  The Webb-Kenyon Act of Congress in 1913 had forbidden mail order sales of liquor into “dry” areas of the country, killing off their freight express trade.  After that it was only a matter of time.

Meanwhile, Kellerstrass with wife and family had retired to his chicken ranch.  There he tackled farming chores with typical enthusiasm, energy and intelligence.  He built new chicken houses according to his own design and began to breed a superior kind of poultry.  The eggs from the Kellerstrass Farm became known regionwide for their freshness and quality.  Show here is truckload of his eggs on their way to consumers.   Note the antique vehicle hauling them to market.

Soon many in America would know about Kellerstrass and his chickens. In 1910, after only a few years in business,  he self-published a book called “The Kellerstrass Way of Raising Poultry” and charged $1 for it.  The picture that began this article, showing the author talking to a rooster, was on the cover.   Clearly very proud of the progress he had made with his chickens, the book is full of advice to poultry raisers.  Kellerstrass introduced the volume by saying:  “It has been constant aim in writing this book to use common sense, and to give the public as much good practical advice as I possibly could,  and remember, that this book was written by a man who is out working with his chickens ever day.”

In the 1920 census,  Kellerstrass gave his occupation as “farmer. He does not show up in the 1930 census but in 1940 he was listed as “retired.”  Shown here are Ernest and Clara in later life.  Both look like vigorous elderly folks.  In 1942, Ernest died,  age 80. His wife, Clara, outlived him by 17 years,  passing at the age of 85.

A nagging question remains:  Why did Ernest Kellerstrass leave his highly successful whiskey business for chicken farming?  Did the St. Louis syndicate make an offer too good to turn down?  Or did Kellerstrass foresee that the mail order whiskey business eventually would be doomed by Prohibition forces?  Or is it possible his third wife did not like the whiskey trade?  All are plausible explanations.  But I recall Kellerstrass’ declaration that he had been interested in poultry from an early age.  Perhaps, just perhaps, he made the change because he was a man who truly and passionately loved chickens.



  1. That's so cool to learn about my great great great grandfather!

  2. Dear KatMack: You are the first Kellerstrass relative I have heard from and I am glad you found the piece interesting. He is among my favorite "whiskey men" because of his real humanity and love of chickens. (I come from farming people.) I am hoping to adapt what I have written about him for a magazine article. But that will be some time off. All the best.

    1. Very good article. I've been seeking information on an unopened bottle of old velvet 79 I have obtained.whiskey inside is in excellent condition for the age. I plan to open it soon.

  3. Dear Brandon: Thanks for your kind comments on my article on Kellerstrass. He is a particular favorite of mine. As for your bottle of Old Velvet 79, I will soon have a post on the battle among three companies for the trademark rights to "Old Velvet." It will be part of a piece on the Bigbie Bros. of Lynchburg VA. Depending on how tightly the bottle has been closed, the whiskey after these many years should be drinkable, and perhaps very good.

    1. I just did a quick search of said subject, and I'm curious to read your future article. I'm also now very curious why the kellerstrass distilling company wasn't in that legal battle? Very interesting stuff.

  4. Dear Brandon: Am not sure why K. was not involved in the fight over "Old Velvet" but the Bigbie Bros. of Lynchburg VA won the trademark. My schedule calls for that post to go up on June 28.

  5. Jack, in your research on Earnest Kellerstrass, did you ever find that he took a world cruise sometime between 1903 and 1912?

  6. Jon: I did not find anything in my research about that cruise but suppose it could have occurred. Did not find a passport application on Ancestry which would have given some detail. Certainly the Kellerstrasses had the money for such a trip.

  7. Thanks, Jack. I didn't expect such a prompt reply! Many years ago, I purchased some old (early 1900s) photographs in a Kansas City flea market that had Earnest Kellerstrass on the back. The photographs were of quite exotic foreign scenes, and purportedly came from Sally America Long's personal effects from a world cruise she took, so I wondered if Kellerstrass might be an acquaintance of the Long family. If you're not familiar with the Longs, they were a very wealthy and philanthropic family in Kansas City in the early 1900s and so would have been contemporary with Kellerstrass in both wealth and time period.