Saturday, May 10, 2014

From Revolution to Renziehausen: A Large Whiskey Saga

The family name was Large, immigrants from a French Huguenot (Protestant) background who came to America when it was still a British colony.  Among them were Samuel Large and his wife, Amy, who settled in New Jersey.  Their son, John Large, served as a soldier in the Revolutionary War.  After the end of the conflict in the early 1790s John moved to Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, bought a farm and built a distillery.  This launched the Large family into three generations of making quality whiskey.  They were followed by a non-family member who built on what the Larges had accomplished and made their name known throughout the United States.

Western Pennsylvania at the time when John Large arrived was a hotbed of rebellion against the taxation imposed on whiskey by the newly created national government.  Things boiled over in 1794 when President George Washington, in his role as Commander in Chief, rode out with troops to quell the rioting.  Large does not seem to have been among the rebels, paid his whiskey taxes and, with wife, Nancy, raised a family of seven children.  Among them was Jonathan Large. He married Easter Finney, bought a farm and, like his father, operated a distillery.  Jonathan subsequently sold that property and bought a bigger farm in Jefferson Township of Allegheny County. It was located on Peters Creek, shown here.  Jonathan established his second distillery there, using the wheat and corn from his fields to make his whiskey.

When Jonathan died, the property ultimately devolved on his youngest son, Henry Large, who called himself “Junior” after an uncle.  Born on the Fourth of July 1836,  Henry was raised on the farm and apparently from his youth was involved in the distilling operation.  An observer later described the setting:  “There were fine springs of pure soft water on the property, which nestled cozily against the mountain, and fronted on the old country road for a long distance, until it crosses Peter’s Creek, a tributary of the Monongahela River.”

Although picturesque, Henry Large’s distillery suffered from severe disadvantages.  To get his products to market required teams of horses or oxen to haul them five miles over rough mountain roads to the railhead.  Nonetheless, Large was able to sell his whiskey to a regional market.  A “History of Allegheny County” published in 1889 said of Large:  “He is engaged in the manufacture of Monongahela rye whiskey, the brand having been established by his grandfather, and has a national reputation for excellence.”

While the national reach of Large whiskey may have been exaggerated, it clearly was a superior product.  In his 1928 book, “The Case for Whiskey,”  George Coes Howell, a whiskey man himself, recounted how in 1891 he first tasted Large rye and found it extraordinarily good.  He was told that the whiskey was made back in the mountains and that the output was purchased mainly by neighbors and people in and about Pittsburgh. Intrigued, Howell made further inquiries about the Large’s whiskey:  “I learned that though it had the highest reputation for quality in the homes and clubs of the old families, it was not much handled by the trade, as it was not a “blending” whiskey.  It had a fine flavor and aroma, but it was too light-bodied for blending purposes, so the trade was not especially interested in that period when practically all commercial whiskey was blended whiskey.”

Even if “the trade” was not interested, a whiskey man in Pittsburgh was.  His name was Frederick C. Renziehausen, a partner in a wholesale liquor company founded about 1880 that eventually occupied an eight-story building on 427 Liberty Street, shown here. Renziehausen in 1884 purchased an interest in Henry Large’s distillery. During the lifetime of the owner, the liquor dealer is said never to have interfered in any way in the making of the whiskey or the manner of its merchandising.   When Henry died in 1895, however, he purchased from his estate the farm, distillery, old family formula for the whiskey, and the rights to use the name “Large.”  Howell described the property at that time:  "The old farmhouse was in fairly good condition but the distillery buildings were old and dilapidated."

Now the sole owner, Renziehausen in 1897 set about vigorously to modernize and expand the facilities.  A new distillery was built and up-to-date warehouses added.  He also began a campaign to make his product known wherever rye whiskey was being exhibited.  After a small showing by the Large Distilling Co. at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 brought considerable attention, Renziehausen seldom missed an opportunity to show his wares.  His whiskey won Grand Prizes with their attendant gold medals at Paris in 1900;  St. Louis, 1904; Liege, 1905;  Milan, 1906; Jamestown, 1907; Brussels, 1910; Ghent, 1913; London, 1914, and San Francisco, 1915.  Renziehausen regularly trumpeted those honors on his ads, bottles and even crates of Large Monongahela Rye.

The Large Distilling Co.was now fully in the forefront of the American whiskey trade.  It boasted four fireproof warehouses, ranging from 10,000 to 16,000 barrels capacity, racked and steam-heated to maintain the same temperature, winter and summer.  The bottling facility was described as containing the latest machinery for labeling, capping and casing the whiskey, each operation carried on in assembly line fashion by a conveyor system.  Just as important,  the arduous trip over mountain roads to the railhead was no long necessary.  The Wabash Railroad’s eastern connection had been built along Peters Creek with a siding leading right to the distillery.  This made it possible to unload grain directly from freight cars to the distillery and for cases of whiskey to be conveyed to a shipping platform and into freight cars.  Further attesting to the modernity of the Large distillery was a laboratory with a graduate biologist in charge to propagate the yeast scientifically and supervise fermentation. 

When fire destroyed the distillery building in 1907,  Renziehausen immediately replaced it with a larger one.  By 1910, according to Howell, “The Large distillery had become one of the most modern and efficient distillery plants in the United States, with freight facilities second to none.”   The facility is shown here in a company ad.  Note the train entering right.  As the Larges, from John to Jonathan to Henry, slumbered together in the Lebanon Church Cemetery nearby, they surely would have been astonished at the changes wrought in the whiskey manufactory they had founded.

The coming of National Prohibition obviously changed everything.   Renziehausen, however, was allowed ship his products overseas.  In 1923 he received U.S. Government permission to ship Large Monongahela Rye to the World’s Fair in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  It was seen as a bitter irony that, while illegal in the U.S., Large rye won another Gold Medal there, beating out the best whiskeys made in other parts of the world. Going out with that blaze of glory, the distillery was shut down.  Its termination closed out a 127 year distillery history, one lasting from the aftermath of the American Revolution to the onset of Prohibition, a record to be envied and one seldom equaled.

Note:  Much of the information about the Large Distillery is from the 1928 book by George Coes Howell.  Howell, who had worked extensively in the whiskey industry, sought to show how Prohibition actually had resulted in more drinking of inferior and even injurious liquor.  He featured the Large saga to emphasize the quality of pre-Prohibition distilling.













23 comments:

  1. The Large distillery reopened upon Repeal and ran at least through World War II in conjunction with the nearby Overholt distillery. The mother of a friend of mine worked in the bottling hall of the Large facility in the forties.

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  2. Sam: I could not find any information about the Large distillery re-opening after Repeal. Nor have I seen mention of the Large label being used in the post-Pro era. If you have further material on the post 1934 history, I would be delighted to have it and make a correction. Jack

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  3. Thanks for your research. Henry Large was my great-great grandfather.

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    1. Evie: You have a very distinguished lineage. Henry Large was one of the great exemplars of the farmer-distiller. They were located largely in Pennsylvania and Maryland. I would love to have been able to taste Henry's whiskey! Jack

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    2. would you like a b/w photo of the Large homestead, built by Johnathan and Esther, later owned by Henry and his family?

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    3. Evie: Indeed I would. Assuming you can provide it electronically please send it to me at jack.sullivan9(at)verizon.net. If I decide to add it to the post, I will also give you credit for the photo. Thanks. Jack

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    4. Evie, I would love any pics also, as it seems you and I are related. Henry was my 3rd great-grandfather! Please email me at ultimatecin73@yahoo.com. Thanks! Cindy Large

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    5. Cindy, I have sent a jpg of the Large homestead to your email address.

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    6. Evie and Cindy: It is particularly delightful to me when my posts bring people together who are related as it has now several times. Particularly with the Large family being so distinguished for quality in the world of whiskey. Jack

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  4. Jack, great article. I am constantly in search of information about my ancestors.

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  5. Jack, what a great article. Lots of information that I did not know. My name is Jon Meert, my grandfather was Harold Large from Dravosburg PA. He comes from the family line you have listed above. Over the years I have been scouring over Ebay for Large bottles. I have been able to purchase 5 so far and consider a Large crate my Holy Grail. I have been working on creating some high res photos of some of my bottles to use for art. I will be happy to share with you once completed.

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  6. Dear Jon: Thanks for your very kind comments. The Large family are among the most interesting distilling folks I have profiled. Yes, I would be interested in your photos. Will store them with the other images and if I do another piece on the family and use them give you credit for them. In the meantime feel free to use any of the images in my post. All the best. Jack

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  7. This is amazing info. Jonathan Large was my 4th great-grandfather and Henry my 3rd great-grandfather and I had no idea this was in our family history. Kind of funny because my father and I both ended up working for Libbey Glass so indirectly we stayed in the industry! I'd love any photos or further information of the Large Distilling Company, or of the family members, if anybody has any.

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    1. My name is Cindy Large- it would not let me post my name on my above post...

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    2. Dear Cindy: I am at a loss to know why the blog would not accept your name but delighted to hear from you -- an that you liked the post about the Large distillery. What you see in the post re information and pictures is about all I have but since I have your email will check my files to see if there is anything else that I might send you re illustrations. Another coincidence is you and your father working for Libby Glass. I was an intern at Owens-Illinois in 1956 and spent a week at Libby Glass in Toledo, my home town. That experience gave me some background in bottles and glass. All the best for a Happy Thanksgiving, 2015. Jack

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  8. I'm doing a Project in the city of Pittsburgh and want to name a hiking trail "Renziehausen Trail" in homage to Henry Renziehausen. He appreantly donated land to the South Side Park, city of Pittsburgh.

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  9. Dear "Unknown": Thanks for this information. Several whiskey men have had natural areas named for them, including the Bernheims, so it is not a precedent to do so. I hope you are successful. So often the "whiskey men" -- many of whom did a lot for their communities -- were ignored when names were being given out. Sad.

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  10. Awesome article. I reside in the original Large homestead built in 1796. It sits by century III mall. We also have a lot of history on the house and family if it would do anyone service. Feel free to contact us

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    1. Dear Craig: Thanks for your kind offer. A photo of the house would be very nice to have for this post, if you have one.

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  11. Is this the John Large house? The first Large to settle in PA?

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    1. Dear Evie: I have no idea about to which house Craig refers. Perhaps he will respond to your inquiry.

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  12. I just purchased a Large prohibition era crate last night. In doing research this morning, I came upon this interesting article. I was going to sell the crate to a local antique store but I would rather a family member have a chance to purchase the crate.

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  13. Dear Hoppy: Your interest in selling your crate to a family member is admirable. Relatives of the whiskey men I have featured frequently write me looking for items. I assume your crate advertises "Large." You may be able to find a family genealogical site on line that you could contact about your artifact. Thanks for being in touch.

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