Friday, August 2, 2013

For Simon Binswanger Fame Came with “Famo”

Although Binswanger is an unusual name,  it also is a famous name.  Otto Ludwig Binswanger was a psychiatrist and neurologist who came from a noted family of European  physicians and has a mental disease named for him.  While it is uncertain where Simon  Binswanger, right, comes in that distinguished family tree, he clearly made his fame, albeit more modest,  from “Famo,” the name of his flagship Kentucky bourbon.

Although Binswanger family roots were in Germany, from whence both his father, Henry, and mother, Lena, had emigrated, Simon was born in 1857 in Richmond, Missouri, where Henry was employed as a traveling salesman.   After attending local schools and achieving the rudiments of a business education, Simon went to work as a bookkeeper for a local firm, likely a liquor dealership.   The 1880 census found him, age 23, living at home in St. Joseph, Missouri, with his parents and four younger siblings,  among them a brother,  Samuel,  age 21.

Three years later Binswanger moved north 140 miles to Omaha, Nebraska, where he partnered with a man named Solomon Ehrman to open a liquor dealership at 1109 Farnham Street.  They called their establishment  “Ehrman and Binswanger.”  Evidently business in Omaha was not what they expected and three years later they closed shop there and moved the considerable distance back to St. Joseph, a town that called itself “The City Worthwhile.” There they opened a liquor store at 208 Edmond Street, a main commercial avenue, shown here on a 1905 postcard.

The partners appeared to have fared well in St. Joseph for the next six years,  but split up in 1892 or 1893, with Binswanger staying at the Edmond Street address and Ehrman moving on to quarters on North Third Street.   The cause of the breakup is unclear but for the next 19 years the former partners were competitors for the drinking public of St. Joseph until Ehrman died in 1913,  reportedly as the result of “cirrhosis of the liver." His business closed abruptly.

Binswanger never looked back and moved briskly to create his own series of brands.  How and why he selected the name “Famo” for his flagship label is undisclosed.  He merchandised it as “hand made, sour mash, Kentucky bourbon” and gave it a fancy label, shown most dramatically on the shot glass that opened this article.  The flaming red color and scrolls and curlicues on the Famo lettering are particularly notable.

The source of Binswanger’s whiskey was a distillery,  known as #18 in the 20th District of Kentucky and operated by Silas Rosenfeld.  This plant, also known as the Rock Springs Distillery, had been built about 1870 two miles west of the Daviess County Courthouse on the banks of the Ohio River.  It had a mashing capacity of 1,500 bushels a day when Rosenfeld took over the operation and was well situated to provide Binswanger’s whiskey.

About 1900 Simon took his brother, Samuel, into the business as a partner and changed the company name to Simon Binswanger & Bro.  He advertised his firm as a “wholesale liquor company.”  With their business expanding, in 1904 Binswangers moved their operation to larger quarters, locating the business at 109-111 South Second Street.

In addition to his Famo Whiskey,  Binswanger featured a range of other brands, including “Blue Valley,”  “Hambeltonian,” “Imperial Club,” Kentucky Run,” “Melvin Pure Malt,” “Paradise Club Rye,”  “Rockford,” “Uncle Abe,” “Village Belle,” and “Suburban Rye.”  He trademarked Famo and Blue Valley in 1905 and Melvin Pure Malt and Suburban Rye in 1906.  He never bothered to register the other whiskeys with the federal government, suggesting that they were less important brands. With labels bearing the distinctive Famo design, the company bottled that whiskey in both clear  glass quarts and pint flasks,  some of the latter with a fancy ribbing on the container.  Another featured brand, Suburban Rye, could be obtained in both clear quarts and in amber flasks.  A detail of the later, shown here, highlights the company embossing.

As he established himself in business,  Simon found time to marry.  In 1885, at the age of 28, he wed Yetta Westheimer,  seven years his junior.  Yetta was a native-born Missourian, whose parents both had been born in the state.  The 1990 census found them living with two young sons,  Melvin and Lester, on Sylvanie Street in St. Joseph.  His mother Lena was living next door with two of his brothers.  The census listed him as “merchant - liquor.” As his sons grew to maturity Binswanger took them into the business to learn the whiskey trade.   The 1920 census found both Melvin and Lester listed as working with their father whose occupation was given as “liquor merchant.” Both sons were still at home, apparently bachelors.

By 1920, however, Binswanger and his liquor business effectively had been shut down by National Prohibition.  At that point Simon was of retirement age and there is no record to show he subsequently entered on a new occupation.   In 1928, six years before Repeal,  Simon Binswanger died in St. Joseph mourned by his sons and widow, Yetta.  Surrounded by his small family, he was buried in the Jewish Adath Joseph Cemetery in Buchanan County, near St. Joseph.  Throughout his life he had been interested in Jewish religious and charitable causes. The family plinth and his adjacent gravestone are shown here.   After the end of Prohibition, the family did not revive the business or any of the brands Simon Binswanger had featured.  Nonetheless, he is remembered today for the Famo whiskey he made famous.

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