Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Sprinkles of Whiskey: Distilling Their Story

Living on his farm in Liberty Township, Yadkin County, North Carolina,  the elderly Hugh Sprinkle must have thought frequently about how distilling whiskey had impacted his life, the lives of his sons, and even the lives of his grandsons.  It had been a bumpy, three generation ride but the Sprinkles had persevered.

Shown here with his wife, Hugh Sprinkle was born in 1883 into a family with deep roots in Yadkin County located in the northwestern Piedmont Region of the state.  The county was rife with legal distilleries, most of them small operations on farms that used homegrown corn and rye to make small quantities of whiskey for local sales.  It is possible but not documented that Hugh’s father had such an operation.

Hugh himself first appears in the public record during the Civil War.  By the end of March, 1862, the Confederacy was running short of soldiers.  President Jefferson Davis proposed that all men between the ages of 18 and 35 should be enrolled in Confederate service and 19 days later the Confederate Congress passed the first conscription law in U.S. history.   Sprinkle was 29, married, with two small children at home and like many Southern hill farmers without slaves, not passionate for Dixie’s cause.

In 1863 a group of Yadkin men, among them Hugh Sprinkle,  resisted being conscripted against their will and precipitated what came to be known as the “Bond School House Affair.”   In February a group of resisters, numbers differ, gathered in a one-room log school building near a Quaker Meeting House.  With the help of Quakers,  they planned to hike over the mountains to Union territory.  Alerted to this gathering, the local North Carolina militia rode up to arrest the resisters and gunfire broke out.   Two members of the militia were killed, including a captain, as well as two of the resisters.   Many escaped but a number were arrested and charged with murder, among them Hugh. 

Friendly local officials wrested them from military control and a firing squad, putting the prosecution into civil justice hands where bail was set at  $250 and a future trial date set.  It appears that that the judicial procedure held Sprinkle basically innocent of the shootings and may have agreed to drop charges if he would join the Confederate Army.  The record shows that in November 1863, Sprinkle enlisted as a private in the 31st North Carolina Infantry at Camp Holmes, N.C.  Subsequent to his joining the 31st fought at White Hall, then moved to the Charleston area where it was engaged in various conflicts including the fight at Battery Wagner. Ordered to Virginia the regiment took an active part in the battles at Drewry's Bluff and Cold Harbor, and later endured the hardships of the Petersburg siege north and south of the James River. In 1865 the 31st fought its last battle at Bentonville, North Carolina.  The history of his unit would indicate that Hugh Sprinkle saw plenty of combat but managed to survive.

After  the war, he returned to Yadkin County and resumed farming.  The 1870 U.S. Census recorded him there, living with his wife, Martha, and four children, including an eldest son, named Benjamin Franklin (known as “B.F.”) Sprinkle.  During ensuing years Hugh was running a distillery in connection with his agricultural pursuits.  A North Carolina directory listed the following:  “Distillery (whiskey), Yadkinville, Hugh Sprinkle.”  Moreover, in the 1880 census B.F. Sprinkle, age 21, gave his occupation as “working in distillery.”    

The Sprinkles continued making whiskey without important intrusions until 1903.  That year the North Carolina legislature, in an attempt to appease Prohibitionist forces, passed a law that required all distilleries to operate in incorporated towns.  Some whiskey makers were forced out of business, others took the expedient of incorporating.  It appears that the Hugh and his sons took that step.  An U.S. internal revenue document for that year records a town of Sprinkle, N.C., where several distilleries were registered.  Sprinkle was recorded as having a post office.  If it was like the other distillery incorporations, the town elected a mayor and aldermen, wrote bylaws and ordinances, often with tongue-in-cheek.

By this time, the distilling torch had been passed to Hugh’s sons,  Benjamin and Hugh Clinton.  Although evidence is scant, they appear to have expanded production and sales to some degree, while still farming.   In 1880 B. F. Sprinkle had married a woman named Harriet Steelman of Davie, North Carolina, and they raised a family in Rockingham County.  Shown here is a photo of the the couple surrounded by six of their children.  The three standing boys -- Benjamin Jr., James T., and Henry L. -- all would follow in the family tradition of whiskey-making.

Whatever distilling operations the Sprinkles engaged in after 1903 were disrupted and terminated in 1909  when North Carolina dealt its whiskey-making industry a final blow by passing a statewide ban on all alcohol production.   Soon after the state legislature revoked the incorporations of some “whiskey towns.” Displaced distillers moved to Virginia where liquor was still legal.  Others headed to Florida.   The whereabouts of the Sprinkles immediately after 1909 is absent from the public record.

The first evidence I can find of the H.L. Sprinkle Distilling Company -- named for Henry L. “Hence” Sprinkle, the son of B.F. -- was its 1912 incorporation in the town of Girard (now Phoenix City),  located in Russell County, Alabama.  The purpose of the business, as recorded with the state was the: “manufacture, purchase & sale of whiskey.” During this period the Sprinkles also appear to have operated a distillery in or near Pensacola, Florida.  It was incorporated in 1914 with a capitalization of $15,000.    Unfortunately Florida documents do not record the individual incorporators. The Sprinkle company letterhead claimed that this facility was the only distillery in Florida “operating both dryer and compressor, saving all the byproduct of the grain for feed.” 

Although the Sprinkles almost certainly had relocated to Jacksonville several years earlier, their company first shows up in a 1916 local directory. That likely is the result of a gap from 1905 to 1916 in extant Jacksonville directories.  When the company did appear it was listed as located at 34 East Bay Street. Hence Sprinkle, Hugh’s grandson, was recorded as the president and his brother, James T.,  as the secretary-treasurer.  

By the following year a major change had taken place in the management.  Now James T. Sprinkle was named as President,  Hugh Clinton was vice president and B.F. was secretary and treasurer.   B.F.’s third son, Benjamin Franklin Jr., was working as a clerk. According to the directory James was residing in Pensacola where I surmise that  he was in charge of the distilling operations and that the other three Sprinkles were managing sales operations at the liquor store in Jacksonville.  The three were recorded as living in Jacksonville.  The following year saw further changes in the directory entry. James was still the president but now B. F. was vice president, Hugh Clinton was secretary-treasurer,  and Benjamin Jr. was the manager of the H. L. Sprinkle Distilling Co.  James was still living in Pensacola and B.F. was recorded as living in Reidsville, North Carolina.

Because of its proximity to rail lines up and down the East Coast,  Jacksonville had become a hub of whiskey  dealers, many of them dealing in mail order sales.  Some 77 were listed in the 1916 directory.  Among them were I.C. Shore who arrived from North Carolina via Virginia.  Another was John Casper, originally from North Carolina, who changed the name of his firm from the Casper Co. to Atlantic Distilling in Jacksonville.  One Sprinkle ad seemed pointed at Casper, who was something of a rascal, in emphasizing that their company always advertised under the Sprinkle name:  “Our reputation is so well known that we never have to change our name.” In a 1915 ad, the firm “This is the original NORTH CAROLINA STYLE CORN, shipped to you just as it comes from the Distillery.

As shown here, much of Sprinkle’s whiskey was sold in glass gallon jugs with the embossed motto, “Sprinkle Whiskey Wants Your Business.” Three cities appeared on each bottle.  Early jugs bear the Girard, Alabama, address.  After Alabama went dry,  the Sprinkles moved that retail outlet to Monroe, Louisiana. That city also was embossed on gallon jugs.   In addition, the Sprinkles also became known for issuing a variety of small ceramic mini-jugs, many of them bearing the name of the family’s flagship brand, “Ridgeway Straight Corn Whiskey.”  Another brand,  shown here on a company giveaway celluloid and metal pocket mirror, was “Private Stock Corn.”

Despite their exile from their old home place in North Carolina the Sprinkles seem to have found success in a short time with their Florida base.  Not only did the company provide its customers with whiskey, it also bottled and sold its own brand of beer,  Sprinkle’s “Dixie Delight.”  As shown on an ad here, it emphasized that its brew was “The Good Wholesome Brand” and suggested that “All people should drink good wholesome beer daily with their meals.”   This merchandising mix of liquor and beer is itself enough to set the Sprinkles apart.  At this time a feud was raging between distillers and brewers, with some of the latter blaming the Prohibition movement on the liquor industry, apparently in the hope, fruitless as it turned out, that beer would escape a national alcohol ban.  

The Sprinkle’s advertising throughout the South, both for whiskey and beer,  emphasized mail order sales,  suggesting orders by the case.   Although this was a lucrative trade, it was not without its problems.   Although Georgia had voted itself “dry,” the law allowed residents to have limited amounts of alcohol shipped to them monthly from out of state.  Frequently, however, local authorities would seize such shipments and arrest the express agents. As a result express outfits often refused to carry “wet” good into dry states.  In 1913 the Sprinkles took a proceeding to the Georgia Supreme Court to force the Southern Express Company to carry their liquor to its destination.  In a 1916 letter B.F. Sprinkle Jr. attempted to rectify a situation in which a liquor shipment had been sent to an individual identified as a minor.  He promised to reimburse the 70 cents in express charges if the whiskey could be returned for reshipment to an adult.  Such were the travails of the mail order liquor trade.

Because of their struggles with prohibition forces in North Carolina, the Sprinkles must have been keenly aware of the tightening noose of National Prohibition around the liquor industry.  With the passage of the Volstead Act in 1919,  the H. L. Sprinkle Distilling Company shut down its distillery and sales offices.  According to Sprinkle descendants, the family had a stock of liquor when America went dry but were allowed to book passage on ships and take their wares abroad to sell.   After their supplies were gone,  B.F. and Hugh Clinton began investing in gas stations in North Carolina.   In  the 1920 U.S. Census the occupation of James T. Sprinkle was listed as “green grocer” in Pensacola.

The man who had launched the family into distilling, Hugh Sprinkle, died in 1914.   B.F. Sprinkle died in 1936,  living long enough to see Prohibition repealed.  Shown here is a Sprinkle family burial plot with its identifying marker.  B.F. ‘s grave is in the foreground.  Around him are buried other family members including Hence and James.  Thus ended a whiskey dynasty that fought the good fight against Prohibition forces and although losing in the end, prospered for a time and left us many artifacts through which we can remember the Sprinkles of whiskey.

Note:  My great gratitude goes to two individuals who have kinship with the Sprinkle family.  One descendant, Margaret Sopp, keeps a website devoted to the Sprinkles.  The other, Wanda Sprinkle is related through her husband.  Both have provided crucial information and photos for this profile.  The photos include the family pictures, the color illustration of the distillery and the ad for Dixie Delight beer.   Any errors of fact or interpretation, however, are my own.   My thanks also to Erik Lunsford  who found the Sprinkle pocket mirror with the Girard and Jacksonville addresses and got in touch with me about it.  The find is an extraordinary one and I am delighted to show it here.






                                                                                                                   








 














8 comments:

  1. I have a "Sprinkle" gallon jug, but mine does not have Whiskey embossed on it. Any ideas?

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  2. Dear Juju: Is there other text on the jug that would indicate it is a whiskey container? Even if "whiskey" is not noted, it likely was a liquor jug. Sprinkle dealt with lots of potteries. Not unusual to have things missing, misspelled, otherwise garbled on jugs. While collectors usually like to have "whiskey" noted, not a "killer."

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    1. There is no mention of whiskey anywhere, bottle is in great shape and has the 3 places listed including Girard Al. Any idea the worth of it? Not really interested in selling.

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  3. Dear Juju: Definitely a Sprinkle whiskey. Not particularly up on prices. Their jugs are not rare, but certainly in the $100-200 range. Jack

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  4. Very interesting read and I appreciate the information. I recently acquired a vintage button advertising "Ridgeway Straight Whiskey" It has an image of a well dressed gentleman standing behind a factory building pointing to a bottle of corn whiskey. The inscription reads "The reason Sprinkle Sells Better Whiskey Cheaper...One Profit...Direct from Distillery to You." Very vivid colors and great graphics. Any idea of where I can find others or have an idea on rarity or value?

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  5. Dear Dawg Collector: I have never seen the button you described. My guess is that it is fairly rare. Certainly pre-Prohibition. Genuine vintage celluloid buttons can fetch good prices if sold at the right place. Ebay might work or Worthpoint. I would like to see the item. If you care to show it to me, email image to me at jack.sullivan9@verizon.net. Thanks.

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  6. Dear Dawg Collector: Thanks for being in touch. I have never seen this button. It seems to be fairly rare and is certainly pre-prohibition. As for value, you might want to check to see if eBay or Worthpoint has a value. These sometimes do fetch good prices depending on condition - but there can be reproductions on celluloid buttons. If you care to send it to me to see, my email is jack.sullivan9@verizon.net.

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