Sunday, September 1, 2013

Patrick Bowlin: A Half-Century in Saint Paul Whiskey

For 50 of his 76 years of life,  Patrick Bowlin was engaged in keeping the thirsty people of St. Paul and greater Minnesota well supplied with highly palatable liquor.  That he did so with panache and style made this Irish immigrant stand out among his peers and hailed at his death for ranking among the city’s best businessmen.

Bowlin was born in County Tipperary, Ireland, in 1847.  His birth occurred just before his parents,  Jeremiah and Anne (Chasen) Bowlin, headed for America in 1849.  Patrick’s early years were spent in Boston, the landing spot for many Irish.  In 1857, the family moved to St. Paul when Jeremiah got a job as a contractor for the railroad.  Patrick attended the city’s Cathedral School and took night
Bowlin's Jackson St. Hdqrs
courses in business.   While still in his teens he found employment as a bookkeeper with Grigg’s Brothers, wholesale grocers. They also were   blenders and compounders of liquor and featured their own house whiskey brands.

Bowlin’s years with Grigg’s Brothers apparently convinced him that future prosperity lay in whiskey, not groceries.  After the Griggs firm terminated in September, 1869,  at the age of 22 Patrick struck out on his own.   With another Irishman as a partner, he became the senior member of Bowlin & Flanagan, advertised as wholesale liquor dealers. The U.S. census found him, age 23, in 1870, listing his occupation as a “liquor merchant.”  At the time Bowlin was living with his mother, father and three sisters, ages from 4 to 20 years.  Two years later he would leave home,  marrying a woman named Josephine Bevan in April 1872.  They soon began a family and had four children:  William, born 1874; Anna (Nannie), 1877;  Frank, 1878, and Josephine, 1884.

After a run of 14 years Flanagan left the firm in 1883 and was replaced by another local Irishman.  Located 314 Sibley, the business became Bowlin & McGeehan.   That arrangement lasted another 21 years, indicating continued business success. That period, however, was one of personal heartache for Bowlin.  In 1884, possibly in childbirth,  Josephine died,  34 years old, leaving him with four children to raise.  Her gravestone reads “Beloved Wife of P. J. Bowlin.”  Patrick never remarried.   More sadness awaited.  Father Jeremiah died in 1888 followed by Mother Anna.  A crowning blow came in 1886 when son William, whom Bowlin probably hoped would be his inheritor,  died at the age of 22.

But Patrick persevered.   After McGeehan’s exit about 1904 he continued on alone and the liquor business became P. J. Bowlin & Co.  The change seemed to unloose all Patrick’s creativity.  He featured a variety of brands, including "Anchor Rock & Rye,” "Camp Nelson,” "Capitol Club,” "Friars,” "Gopher Gin," Hazel Grove,” "Humbolt Rye,” "Simpson,” "Stronghold,” and "White Rose."  He also featured a bitters nostrum he called “Digestine. ”Shown below is a embossed glass bottle of that beverage.

Unlike many other whiskey purveyors,  Bowlin was quick to trademark his brands, two in 1905 and six in 1906. That would prove to be important later.  Bowlin believed in attractive packaging for his products. He reached out to the New York State pottery known as Whites-Utica for a highly decorated jug, shown above, that is now avidly collected.  More usually he contained his liquor in glass bottles with attractive labels.  He also issued back of he bar bottles for several of his brands, including three for Hazel Grove Bourbon.

By this time,  in addition to his customer base in Minnesota, Bowlin was conducting a vigorous mail order business.  Some of these express orders were going to areas that were “dry” as a result of state or locals laws.  Those sales would prove problematic.  In 1906 he brought suit against a Iowa customer named Brandenburg who had been shipped liquor and refused to pay on the rather unusual grounds that he (Brandenburg) had intended the liquor he received to be for resale, but such resales were against the law in Iowa and thus his contract with Bowlin was void.  The court not surprisingly found against Brandenburg.  Shortly thereafter a client in North Dakota attempted to “stiff” the Bowlin firm by refusing to pay for liquor delivered,  claiming the paperwork was faulty.  Again the courts found for the St. Paul business.

With his growing wealth from the whiskey trade in 1892,  Bowlin commissioned a well known Minnesota architect, Clarence H. Johnson, Sr., to construct a mansion for him on St. Paul’s Summit Avenue,  already the site of millionaire housing. The following year Patrick moved his three living children there along with his sister, Annie Smith, her young son, Harold,  and servants.  The Bowlin house was a majestic building with a commodious porch,  turret roof and spacious grounds.
Bowlin's Summit Street Home

Bowlin also was branching out into real estate, about 1912 forming a company called  Bowlin Realty.  By his death he would own extensive business properties in St. Paul.  As he aged, he also took son Frank into the wholesale liquor trade and in 1914 reincorporated as P. J. Bowlin & Son.  Three years later, however, the curbing of mail order whiskey by Congress and the tightening noose of Prohibition caused Bowlin, now 70 years old, to sell to the Kelly-Steinmetz Liquor Company, a Minneapolis competitor, his liquor business and goodwill, including his trademarked liquor brands. The value of his trademarks was proved when another firm’s subsequent claim to the “Camp Nelson” brand name was denied by authorities.

Despite his age,  Bowlin did not retire.  A 1920 St. Paul city directory indicated that Patrick remained as president of the Bowlin Realty Company.  Living with him on Summit Avenue was his unmarried daughter, Nannie.  In addition to caring for her father, she was the secretary of the real estate firm.   The housekeeper, Annie Smith, was still part of the household as was her now-grown son, Harold, a salesman.   Living down the street on Summit was son Frank, an executive in Bowlin Realty.

In February 1923 death came to Patrick Bowlin at age 76.  He was buried in Calvary Cemetery,  St. Paul’s Catholic burial site.  He was laid next to his beloved Josephine.  Interred near them are other family members including Bowlin’s mother, father, and son William.  Bowlin Realty survived in ensuing years with Frank as president.   The family would live in the Summit Avenue home until the 1930s.  The mansion was torn down in 1938. 

A St. Paul newspaper declared in his Bowlin’s obituary:  “He usually was successful in whatever he was associated with, and he long ranked among the substantial and enterprising businessmen of the city."  The author might have added that Patrick had spent a half century selling good liquor to the residents of St. Paul, the state of Minnesota, and locales beyond.

Note:   The idea for featuring Patrick Bowlin on this blog came from my reading a short biography contained in the book, Bottles, Breweriana and Advertising Jugs of Minnesota 1850-1920 by Ron Feldhaus, a 1987 bottle publication that has become a classic.  Some of the information contained here was from that source.


  1. As one of Partick Bowlin's great great grandsons I want to thank you for this wonderfully written and insightful piece. The images you've posted with the article are very much appreciated. I wasn't aware of his bottle design. branding, or enterprising marketing and distribution...fascinating for us! Note - my cousin researched and did find confirmation that Annie L. Smith & her son Harold really were P.J. Bowlin's sister & nephew. Would love to see more images related to Patrick. I met knew Harold when I was very young when He was living with Aggie my great Aunt.

  2. Dear Tim: Thank you for your kind comments on the Bowlin piece. It was a pleasure to get acquainted with him and the family during my research. I was not sure who Annie L. Smith and Harold were but, on your information, will make a quick correction. I also am adding to the post a very nice image of a Digestive bottle with embossing that you may find interesting. All the best. Jack

  3. Hi Jack, Do you know of a Digestine Bitters that was labeled only? I have a bottle, identical to the embossed bottle, but not embossed. Thanks! Greg

  4. Dear 4Utubedude: I am sure that your labeled bottle is legit. Often when firms had a paper label they put it on a plain bottle -- those were a lot cheaper. But collectors love the paper labels, they have not survived over the years as many embossed bottles have. Check in with Ferd Meyer, the head of the FOHBC. He is a bitters collector and may be able to say more. His email address is Good find! Jack

  5. I my name is Sarah have a very old picture and it has p.j bowling liquor co. Written on it could anyone give me a contact or email that way I could get some insight about it? It would be greatly appreciated thank you

  6. Sarah: I would be delighted to see what you have. If it is the picture of his building, I may ask, with credit to you, that I be able to post it. Send it to me at All the best.

  7. I have a piece of wood from what looks like a whiskey crate with "8 year old camp nelson bourbon whiskey. Bottled and guaranteed by P.J. Bowlin & Son" I would be more than happy to send a pic of it if you would like. Please let me know. Thanks Jason Leinen