Thursday, February 13, 2014

Charles Gove Went From Pops and Hops to Schnapps

The road taken by Charles S. Gove of Boston to become a whiskey man began as a manufacturer of soda pop,  proceeded through the beer trade, and then progressed to blending and compounding strong liquors,  “schnapps,” as they are sometimes called.  Gove’s success can be measured in part by the number of artifacts he left behind for collectors. 

Gove was born in Hampton Fall, Rockingham County, New Hampshire into a Yankee farming family.  The 1850 census found him, age 19, living on a farm there with his father, Ezekiel, and his mother, Mary.  Rounding out the household was a sister, Mary, age 16.  Ten years later a Charles S. Gove was recorded working as a teamster in Boston.  He was married to a woman named Olive and had an infant daughter.  Five years later, however, Charles is recorded as a partner in Comstock, Gove & Company and living in a Boston boarding house.

Charles had teamed with Hiram M. Comstock, another New England Yankee, who was about the same age.  Together they formed a company to manufacture soda water.  Shown here is a colorful trade card from the firm that depicts the tanks for making their soda and mineral waters.  The partners also were selling porter, ale & cider at their 30 Canal Street address.   By 1872 the partners had opened a second location at 27 Merrimac Street.  Among the containers in which they sold their “pop,” as shown here, were both stoneware and embossed glass bottles.   In the 1880 census, Gove’s occupation was given as “soda dealer.”

After Comstock’s early death in 1883,  Gove took over the firm and changed the name to the Charles S. Gove & Co.  His advertising featured a fancy monogram of his name.   His containers of this period included codd patent bottles for his soda water production and beer bottles embossed with his name.   Gove had moved  into the beer business,  but strictly as a bottler not a brewer.  He was buying beer from other sources and labeling as his own.  The bottle shown here is a clear champagne-style pint that advertises Gove’s sparkling lager.  

The next step for Gove, taken early in the 1900s, was to become a whiskey “rectifier.”  Although he called himself a distiller, he actually was blending and compounding whiskey obtained from other sources.   As shown on a two gallon jug here, the Charles S. Gove Company was now a wholesale liquor house.  The Boston address was 78 and 80 Merrimac Street, at the corner of Pitt Street.  Among Gove’s proprietary brands were “Fernbrook Rye,”  “Hendrick’s Club,” “Forrest Club,” and “$1,000 Pure Straight.”   Apparently not fearing competition over the names, he bothered to trademark only “$1,000 Pure Straight.”  In 1903 he incorporated his company for the first time.

Like many whiskey wholesalers,  Gove featured a number of give away items.  One of the shot glasses he provided to bartenders at saloons featuring his liquor is particularly striking in its fancy etching.   On it are three barrels, each of them bearing the name of one of his brands.  Today Gove is most noted for the mini-jugs he gave away to retail customers.  Each held several swallows of liquid or as one jug was labeled, “samples of our fine whiskey.”   Several examples of Gove’s mini-jugs, which numbered as many as a dozen varieties, are featured here.

While Gove’s move from soft drinks to beer and on to whiskey was proceeding,  his personal life was turning somewhat mysterious.  In the 1880 U.S. census, age 49, he was  living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and listed as a “widower.”  In his household was a daughter, Gertrude, age 11, and Mary Hazeltine, 51,  who was listed as both the housekeeper and Gove’s sister-in-law.   By the 1900 census Gove had been remarried for  more than a decade.  His wife’s name was Julia A. Gove.  She was younger than he by some 23 years, born in Vermont, and apparently a widow with a daughter by a prior marriage. The couple lived on fashionable Warland Street in Cambridge.  A local newspaper in May 1913 noted that the Goves had left Cambridge for their summer home at Lake Mascoma in New Hampshire and would be there until the fall.

At this point Gove would have been 82 years old and clearly had turned over the reins of management of his firm to younger hands.  But he could not escape labor troubles.  In 1911 The Gove Company was among Boston brewers and bottlers who refused to sign a new contract for their workers with the International Union, United Brewery Workers, and their locals.  The union fomented a strike that included picketing and some violence again workers crossing the picket line.  Seemingly most galling to Gove and others was a union publicity campaign to drive away their customers.  In a complaint filed under his name with the Massachusetts State Department of Labor, Gove alleged a conspiracy by the union:   “...By displaying on wagons, to be driven through the streets, certain false, malicious, and libelous cards, unless said company signed a new contract with increased rates of wages....”    He asked for and was granted an injunction against those tactics.

Gove died in March 1916 at the advanced age of 86.  The firm that he founded and bore his name disappeared from Boston business directories the very next year.  His wife Julia, after several years of bad health died in Gainesville, Florida in 1920.  My research has failed to disclose their final resting place.

Among whiskey men,  Charles Gove is not an particularly extraordinary figure.  He was not a pioneer. He was not an immigrant who made it in America by dint of relentless effort.  He did not establish a whiskey empire or even a brand name that survived National Prohibition.   What sets Gove apart is his path to the liquor trade, beginning with the fizz of soda pop, progressing to the hops and barley of beer, and finally arriving at the corn and rye of schnapps whiskey.   Just as impressive, he seemingly was a success at each step.

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