|Ernest Kellerstrass and His Chickens|
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 Ancestry.com, 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|
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 Ancestry.com, 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.