When promoters put together an illustrated history of the Kentucky’s distilling interests for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, they had this to say about one country where distilling was common: “There is no portion of Kentucky more beautiful or more suited to manufacture fine Kentucky whiskey than Marion County. A rolling country, beautifully drained, with many clear streams of water. beautiful forests, fine horses and cattle, and magnificent men and women.” Of the last mentioned, one woman stands out: Mary Jane Blair.
From 1907 to 1919, in a industry almost entirely dominated by men, the Mary Jane Blair Distillery Company was a major whiskey-making facility in Marion County. Mrs. Blair was born there in 1844 near a hamlet that was known at the time as “Chicago.” That locality bore little resemblance to the Illinois metropolis after which it had been named. Situated 12 miles west of Lebanon, the county seat, it was settled in the early 19th Century and soon after a post office opened. With a population of about 150 Chicago’s greatest asset was being a station on the Louisville & Nashville (L & N) Railroad. It also boasted a steam sawmill and, more important, distilleries. The “skyline” of Chicago was dominated by a Catholic church, St. Francis of Assisi; a parochial school and cemetery.
Mary Jane was raised on a farm near Chicago and lived in the area throughout her life. Her parents were Harry and Annie Peterson, described as “among the highly respected residents of the community.” Given the predominance of distilling in the vicinity, it is likely that early on she was made aware of the workings of the trade. That familiarity obviously intensified when she met and married Thomas C. Blair. He was a native of Marion County and a local distiller who was born in 1833 and was 11 years her senior. Mary Jane and Thomas would have eleven children, of whom seven would live to maturity.
Shown below, the Blair distillery was originally built and operated by J.R. and J. P. Smith sometime around the mid-1800s. The initial plant produced about 100 to 200 barrels of whiskey a year. Distribution was handled by the Temple & Washburn Company of Louisville under the brand name of “Smith & Smith.” In 1855 the distillery was purchased by John Procter Gant. With distiller Theodore Gant, he operated the facility until 1879. At that point Thomas Blair, a local merchant, became involved in running the distillery. He partnered with a local named Ballard, probably W. T. Ballard, a local with a reputation as a skilled distiller. The Ballard family was a well established one in Marion County. One Ballard was the postmaster and railroad express agent in Chicago. Another Ballard was married to one of Mary Jane and Tom’s daughters.
Under Blair and Ballard’s management the firm prospered and expanded, despite a fire in 1894 in which more than 1,000 barrels of whiskey were destroyed, earning headlines coast to coast. The distillery quickly was rebuilt and resumed making whiskey. Proximity to a railhead was crucial to company success because its products could be sent in all directions to customers via the railroad. A 1900s publication listed whiskey as the “chief export” of the Chicago of Kentucky.
Subsequently a third partner was added and the name became Blair, Osborn & Ballard. Under the Bottled in Bonding Act, the plant became known as Registered Distillery #11 in Tax District #5 of Kentucky. The partners also opened a outlet in Kansas City, Missouri, at 1304 West Ninth Street. That venture was short-lived, listed only a single year, 1885, in local directories. The Louisville whiskey brokerage firm of David Sachs acquired a financial interest in the distillery and claimed ownership in its ads. (See my post on Sachs, October 2011.) More likely, through a contractual relationship with the proprietors, Sachs for a time was buying up the entire output of the facility.
The picture changed radically in 1907 when Thomas at age 65 died. Shown here is his gravestone in the cemetery of St. Francis Church. There followed a revamping of the management structure of the firm. According to the “History of Kentucky and Kentuckians” (1912), Mary Jane Blair inherited her husband’s share of the distillery and bought out his partners. The name was changed to the “Mary Jane Blair Distillery.” Although the greater part of her life had been spent in the Blair home as housewife and mother, evidence is that she took an active role as president of the company, which distilled about five months in the year. Limited production was not unusual in the Kentucky whiskey industry, some distillers believing that fermentation was done best only in certain months. As the distiller Mrs. Blair hired W. P. Norris, another well known Marion County whiskey man.
The day to day management of her distillery was left to her son, Nicolas. Born in 1867, from an early age he had shown a particular flair for the business. Nicolas was educated in the local schools of Marion County and then was sent to the nearby Gethsemene College for three years. Upon his return he had worked with his father at the general merchandise and distilling trades. In 1898 he married Mary Ellen Norris of Chicago, whose mother was a Ballard. The couple had two children. Nicolas was considered a leading citizen of Marion County and was said to take an active interest in local affairs and Democratic politics, although not as an office-seeker.
Nicholas Blair expanded the capacity of the distillery that now bore his mother’s name. By 1912 the plant had the mashing capacity of 118 bushels per day and four warehouses able to hold a total of 9,000 barrels. The Blairs were producing whiskey sold under several labels, some their own brands, some merchandised by others. Chief among them was “Old Saxon,” Mary Jane Blair’s product, but apparently sold through the Sachs outfit. Shown here are a shot glass and a back of the bar bottle, for Saxon and Old Saxon.
At this point the ownership of the distillery gets murky. Mary Jane Blair continued to be the name under which the distillery was known until 1919 and the onset of National Prohibition. Federal records show her making transactions at her bonded warehouses up until 1914, under her own name and sometimes as Old Saxon Distillery Company. About the same year, according to some sources, the distillery was purchased by Thixton-Millett & Company of Jefferson County, Kentucky.(See my post of February 2014.) They operated it until Prohibition and then it closed.
Mary Jane Blair never saw Repeal. In 1922 at the age of 76, she died and was buried in St. Francis Cemetery near her husband as her children and grandchildren grieved at her grave site. Her marker is shown here. The Blair family subsequently sponsored a window in St. Francis Church to pay tribute to their parents. Shown here, the dedication at the bottom reads: “Pray for the Family of T. C. and Mary Jane Blair.”
It appears, however, that the Blair progeny were not finished with the distillery their parents had fostered. With Repeal, Nicolas, now in his mid-fifties, organized a new corporation called The Blair Distilling Company and bought out Thixton-Millett and its brand names. He also featured a number of labels of his own, including “Colonel Blair,” “Nick Blair,” “Marion County,” “Blair’s Old Club.” Nicholas himself was the distiller. The new company expanded the facility once again. As a result, the distillery by 1936 was mashing more than 500 bushels of grain per day. Four warehouses had been enlarged in order to store for aging some 38,000 barrels of whiskey.
By late in the 1930s, probably because of economic pressures linked to the Great Depression, the Blair Distilling Company was sold by the family, then re-sold, and later used as a facility to bottle and store wine. Leased to Seagrams during World War II, the plant produced high-proof spirits but production ended in the 1950s and the distillery was closed for good about 1965. For a time the warehouses continued to be used by other distillers to age their products but that ended in 1977 and the warehouses eventually were dismantled. Even from the grave, Mary Jane Blair might have shed a tear.
Note: Do not go looking on a map of Kentucky for a place called Chicago. Possibly because of confusion with the Illinois city on Lake Michigan, the townsfolk changed the name, calling it after their church. Since 1938 the community has been known as St. Francis, Kentucky.