Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Rufus Webb Was Master of Louisiana ‘Gators and Whiskey

 Riding down Ouachita River in mid-state Louisiana on a riverboat about 1900, a group of friends stood in the bow, as illustrated here,  drinking whiskey and shooting alligators as they went.  Among them was Rufus Pinkney Webb, a man who knew a lot about both liquor and alligators.

He was born in 1865, the second son of Robert and Elizabeth Webb, both from Alabama,  in Union Parish near Farmerville, Louisiana.  Raised on a farm at some point he gravitated the thirty or so miles to Monroe,  Louisiana, the seat of Ouachita County.

Shown left in a 1919 passport photo, Webb engaged in business in Monroe, becoming a wholesale liquor dealer at 105 DeSiard Street.  It apparently was a successful activity with a sizable regional customer base.

Webb was known of packaging his goods in crock jugs with a considerable variety in their sizes, shapes and labels.   Shown here are just five from a larger array.  They range from shouldered jugs in a single yellow glaze to those with brown Albany slip tops.  They also included a bailed stoneware container with a black underglazes label.   I find one label particularly interesting in which Webb identified his firm as "limit," a term more commonly used in Britain to describe corporate liability.

Webb also packaged his whiskey in glass bottles.  Shown here is a flask and detail of a logo embossed “R.P. Webb, Wholesale Liquors, Monroe, La.”   Interestingly, the base of the bottle is embossed, “design patented, Pat. Aug. 9,  1898."  Webb’s flagship brand was “Red Bud Whiskey,” as shown here on a giveaway shot glass.  He does not seem to have bothered to trademark the name.

Another of Webb’s brands was “Post Office,” a label that incurred the special wrath of prohibitionist forces.  About 1910 he issued an advertising circular featuring a large picture of a whiskey bottle that read “Post Office.”  At one side was a picture of a post office with Uncle Sam smiling and pointing toward the whiskey.  The circular read:  “We all have confidence in our great government.  We honor Old Glory, the flag of our country, and when we find Uncle Sam’s O.K. and stamp on everything we  have confidence in it.”  
The circular went on to imply that the government green tax stamp on the bottle was a guarantee of its quality.

A temperance journal, in a critique of whiskey advertising, roundly condemned Webb’s ad as the very worst it had seen in all of the United States.  The anti-alcohol publication objected to the patriotic message Webb had sent, the implication of government approval, the misleading reference to the tax stamp as a guarantee of quality, and the official sounding brand name.  Webb countered when he asserted:  “We have been permitted to use this name 'Post Office,' and the brand is fully protected by law.”

Webb clearly was making full use of the Monroe Post Office and Southern Railway Express to bring his liquor to customers throughout Louisiana.  Although the state generally was hostile to any prohibition of alcohol, some central and northern parishes (counties) and towns had voted “dry” through local option.  Among them was Shreveport.   One pro-liquor publication, asserting the futility of such local bans, pointed out that any individual in such a place could have a gallon of whiskey a week shipped to him:  “Such a farce is the law in this State that Monroe, La., alone, shipped 3,000,000 drinks into Shreveport last Christmas, according to L. I. Kahn, Commissioner of Public Utilities of Shreveport.”  Many of those drinks came through the courtesy of Rufus Webb.

Shipping into “dry” areas, however, could be tricky,.  In 1902 Webb sent his "drummer,” a salesman named George L. Shields, into the Louisiana parish of Winn where a local alcohol ban prevailed. While Shields was taking orders for liquor in the town of Winnfield, he was arrested for violating local ordinances.  Webb also was named as a defendant.  Both men were convicted but as Webb never showed up for the trial, only the salesman faced a penalty.  With the obvious backing of his boss, Shields appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court.  By a decision to which one judge dissented, the Court determined that because:  1) Webb was a lawful liquor dealer in a “wet” county, 2) the transaction had taken place through the mail,  and 3) no money had changed hands in Winn County,  the law had not been broken.  Shields was declared “not guilty” and let go.

In his personal life Webb at the age of 25 in 1890 had married the 23-year old Effie Jean Rabun, a Louisiana native.   In 1894 local papers carried the story that his wife was lying “dangerously ill” from pneumonia at the Webb home.  “Though the best medical skill and nursing is employed yet her relatives and friends entertain grave doubts as to her recovery.”  Several weeks later the same newspaper was “glad to state” Mrs. Webb had recovered.  The couple would go on to raise a family of five children, three girls and two boys.  Considered one of the best known men in Louisiana, somewhere along the line, he became known as "Captain" Webb.

The story about Webb’s fondness for shooting alligators from a riverboat came from the descendant of one of his companions.  A great-grandson told of how his ancestor would join Capt. R. P. Webb on a Sunday afternoon excursion on a riverboat moving from the town of Sterlington down the Ouachita River to Monroe.  They would stand in the bow of the boat and shoot the ‘gators,  then tether them to the craft, and take them along home.  He added: “Trouble was they stunk up the town of Monroe downstream a  few days later with dead alligator carcasses.”  Asked to quit bringing in dead 'gators, Webb and his companions obliged.

With the coming of National Prohibition and nationwide federal control of alcohol sales, R. P. Webb Co. Ltd. was forced to shut down.   That business setback did not send the now elderly Rufus into retirement.  A 1922 publication noted that Capt. R. P. Webb was now working for the Louisiana State Conservation Department in Monroe, monitoring natural gas wells.   Still, it must have been relatively dull employment for a man who had been forced during his lifetime to give up both shooting alligators and selling whiskey.

Although in failing health during the last months of his life, Webb continued to maintain his employment dealing with the natural gas fields.  He died in August 1936 at the age of 71 following an operation.  His funeral drew many Louisiana "movers and shakers," including a future governor, Earl Long, and the sitting congressman.  Services were held in the Webb home presided over by a Methodist minister and, as his four surviving children looked on, he was buried in Monroe's Old City Cemetery.   He was laid beside his late wife Effie who had preceded him in death by 21 years.

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