Saturday, August 10, 2013

Elijah R. Betterton: The Confederate Who Came Out a Winner

The Battle of Five Forks
The Battle of Five Forks, fought on April 1, 1965, was the last major clash of North and South in the Civil War.  Nine days later Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House.
But for Elijah Betterman,  whose subsequent career as a Tennessee whiskey man brought wealth and prominence,  the war was far from over.  Captured at Five Forks he would spend months in a notorious Yankee prison camp.

Betterton was a native Virginian, born Campbell County not far from Lynchburg,  to parents Thomas and Charlotte Betterton, both native born Virginians.  His father ran a grist mill and a small still on Hat Creek.  The 1860 census found Elijah, 14, living with his parents, an older sister and brother, and a younger sister at Naruna, an un-incorporated community located along a rail line.  At the age of 17 in 1962 Betterton enlisted in the Lynchburg Home Guard, a unit that already had seen hard fighting at First Manassas and Antietam.  It can be assumed that Elijah was engaged at Gettysburg with the Home Guard, which sustained heavy losses there.  In 1864, accord to military records, he joined the 11th Virginia Volunteer Infantry,  part of a Corps composed of one infantry and three cavalry divisions and commanded by Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett.

Recognizing the importance of the intersection of four major roads represented by Five Forks in central Virginia,  Lee ordered Pickett to hold it “at all hazards.”  Union Maj. Gen Phillip H. Sheridan’s attack overwhelmed the Confederate forces,  as shown here,  forcing Pickett to retreat.  Some have called the battle, “The Waterloo of the Confederacy.” The 11th Infantry lost heavily in men killed and captured.  Betterton was among the latter,  sent to Point Lookout, a prison camp on a narrow strip of land between the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay.   It had a notorious reputation.   Thousands had died there of hunger and disease, guarded by hostile African-American troops.

Although the war officially ended in April, 1865,  Betterton was not released until late that year or early the next, spending months as a prisoner of war.  Upon his release he returned to Naruna and resumed the family business.  A descendant described the operation:  “A portion of the corn brought in by farmers was taken as a fee by the grist mill. There was no money. The corn was distilled in a pot still; no licenses were required; little whiskey was sold for cash but exchanged for food, meat, linsey woolen, etc. The whiskey was made faster than it sold or could be drunk.”

Elijah also quickly married upon his return home.  His bride was Delilah, called “Lila.,” like her husband a native born Virginian.  He was 21, she was 20.  Before long they were joined by a boy child they named Thomas after Betterton’s father. With them was a 12-year-old domestic servant, a mulatto girl whose name was given to the census taker as Martha Betterton.  Too old to have been a child of Elijah’s, the relationship remains unexplained. Within several years Elijah had saved enough money to move his small family by train to Chattanooga, Tennessee.  There he opened a bar and a small wholesale liquor business.  A grandson has a copper barrel stencil dated 1870 that shows “E. R. Betterton & Co. Hand Made Sour Mash Polk County Corn Whiskey.”

According to family lore,  after 1880 Betterton decided to “become respectable,” getting  out of the liquor trade and going into the wholesale drug business in Dallas, Texas. He sold everything in Chattanooga except one small rental house and sent his trusted bookkeeper to Dallas to rent a building and lay in a stock of drugs. The bookkeeper carried the checkbook and was empowered to write checks for purchases. When Betterton, his wife and five children arrived the warehouse was filled with stock, no bills had been paid and the bookkeeper and $500,000 were gone. He was last heard of in Mexico.

His money gone,  Betterton, with his family in tow,  limped back into Chattanooga,  moved into the rental house and opened a small bar at 435 Market Street.  Within a year, he had found a partner in J. C. Martin, a local Tennessee resident, and opened up a new wholesale liquor business under the name E.R. Betterton & Co., as shown on the company letterhead and on two varieties of amber flasks.

As a result of initial success, about 1885 the partners had the resources to construct their own building  at 100 West Seventh Street.  During this period, although calling themselves distillers, they were buying whiskey from small local distilleries,  “rectifying” it and selling it as their own.  As with other outfits involved in the blending process,  Betterton and his partner found it difficult to assure a steady supply of product.   About 1895 they decided to open their own distillery, locating it on Signal Mountain Road near Valdeau, Tennessee.  They called it White Oak Distillery.  They hired a young but experienced distiller named Bill Tolley   to run the operation.

Unfortunately their first distillery, although it prospered, had no easy transportation access.  It was away from the Tennessee River and five miles from the nearest railroad.  As a result about 1899 Betterton and his partner built a second distillery on the south bank of the river just east of the Market Street bridge.  An illustration of this facility emphasizes its nearness to river and rail transport.

E. R. Betterton & Co.’s flagship brand became White Oak Distillery Tennessee Whiskey.   It was sold in quart bottles and flasks with an elaborate label showing a pot still and bearing the Betterton company name.  The same design was also replicated on company giveaway items to favored customers, including shot glasses and highball glasses.  In time the firm also opened a outlet in Cincinnati,  shown here on another Betterton shot glass.   Betterton also took his son, Elijah (called “Lige”) Junior, into the firm  as his son rose to maturity.

In addition to selling his own whiskey brands, Betterton became an outlet for some of the best-selling brands in America, including “Duffy Pure Malt,”  “Cascade Whiskey,”  “Old Overholt,”  “Gibsons XXXX.” and  “Tannhaeuser Export Beer.”  If you were looking for a “sole agent,” the merchandising genius of Betterton’s firm would have strong appeal as would its access to markets in the Nation’s mid-South.

The Betterton family suffered a major loss when in 1910 Elijah’s wife, Delilah,  at the age of 63, died after a long illness at the family home, surrounded by her grieving family.  That personal loss was followed for Betterton several years later when in 1913 Tennessee voted statewide Prohibition.  Distilleries were still allowed but could only sell out of state.
In effect Tennessee was try to eat its cake and have it too.  Elijah and his collaborators were too canny to comply.  That year they decided to close out the distillery and the wholesale liquor operation. 

Lige Betterton and a partner then opened a wholesale house under the name “E. R. Betterton”  in Rossville, Georgia,  just over the Tennessee state line.  Liquor could still be sent by freight from Chattanooga to Georgia. For a time, it was legal for the Betterton’s to ship whiskey back to thirsty Tennessee customers by express freight and even parcel post.  As a result, by 1917 most of the family’s stock in the Tennessee warehouses and at the distillery had been exhausted.  A few years later, this kind of transaction was rendered illegal by the U.S. Congress.

Betterton did not let the collapse of his liquor interests deter him.  In 1914 he formed the Betterton & England Shoe Company.  The firm claimed to be footwear wholesalers.  Ever the entrepreneur, about 1917 at  the age of 71, Elijah bought out his partner and re-incorporated.  His shoe company was closed out in the economic
Forest Hill Cemetery
downturn of 1921-1922.  Another cause may have been Elijah’s own death.  He passed away in May of 1922 and was buried next to Delilah at the Forest Hill Cemetery near Chattanooga.  In the future his son and namesake,  Elijah Junior, would be selected as mayor (1947) of Chattanooga, the town Elijah Senior had adopted as his own.  This Confederate prisoner of war and his family had come a long way.

Notes:  On an Internet site,  George Wallace, the grandson of Elijah R. Betterton,  has provided insights into the life and activities of his grandfather.  Material in this post has relied in part on the information Wallace provided in a short article written about his family.























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