Monday, July 7, 2014

John Gibson Built It -- They Came and Kept Coming

More than a century before the movie “Field of Dreams,” popularized the phrase, “Build it and they will come,”  John Gibson built his distillery on the banks of the Monogahela River south of Pittsburgh and made “Gibson” a whiskey name that prevailed long after he had died and even into the era of Prohibition.  Customers kept coming for seventy years.

Born in 1794 in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Gibson emigrated to the United States at an early age, settling in Philadelphia and apparently working in the whiskey trade. According to company materials, in 1837 he struck out on his own, running a successful liquor business in Philadelphia.  Local histories suggest he was also distilling, possibly on a limited basis for local consumption.  That changed in 1856 when the now prosperous Ulsterman purchased 40 acres of land on the east side of the Monongahela River, not far from Pittsburgh, and erected the Gibsonton Mills Distillery.  Also known as the Monongahela Distillery, it was designated RD#14 in the 23rd District of Pennsylvania.  Reports of the time note that it was solidly built of limestone blocks from  a nearby quarry.

As Gibson was moving toward business prominence in Philadelphia,  he found a wife. She was Rebecca, a native-born Pennsylvanian who was 11 years his junior. The 1860 U.S. census found the couple living in the 12th Ward of Philadelphia with three of their female children, ranging in age from 17 to 30.  Not at home was their son, Henry Clay Gibson, a twenty year old who was working with his father in the liquor business.  John Gibson died, age 68, and was buried in Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery while his grieving wife and children stood by the grave.

With John Gibson’s death, the business passed to Henry, just  22 years old.  Whether it was his youth and relative inexperience or other motivations,  Henry soon formed an association with two local businessmen, Andrew M. Moore and Joseph F. Sinnott.  Sinnott like John Gibson had emigrated from Ireland.  The company now became John Gibson’s Son & Co.  Shown here in maturity, Henry Gibson with his partners continued to expand the sales of their whiskey to national proportions and with it expanded the Gibsonton Distillery. 

The drawing of the distillery above was one of a series done by Ernest Hexamer, an insurance surveyor based on Philadelphia. He conducted his first survey of the facility in 1870, mapping the buildings and noting details of its operation.  Initially Hexamer found that the distillery was constructed of cut stone, measuring 2-1/2 ft wide. It housed three stills - one large wooden still and two smaller copper stills. All three were heated by steam. Hexamer recorded three bonded warehouses with a fourth under construction.  All were built of stone about four stories high with basements and slate roofs. John Gibson clearly had built for the ages.  When Hexamer returned ten years later two more stone warehouses had been added. The surveyor's 1880 drawing leads off this post. At that point the Gibson facility employed 55 men and three boys. 

By 1880, John Gibson’s Son & Co. was booming.  It featured a blizzard of brands: "Gibson's Rip Van Winkle," "Choice Old Cabinet,”  "Choice Old Monongahela,”  "Deer Creek No. 4,” "Gibson,” "Gibson's,” "Gibson's Bourbon.” "Gibson's Gilt Edge,” "Gibson's High Proof,” "Gibson's Monogram Rye,”  "Gibson's Old Cabinet,”  "Gibson's Old Nectar 1840,"Gibsonton Mills” "John Gibson's Rye,” "Pure Monongahela Rye,” and "Record Gibson's Rye."  Part of the company success may have been its willingness to let retail customers claim a share in the prestige of Gibson whiskeys by including their names on whiskey labels.  Shown here is the label for Pure Old Gibson Rye Whiskey with space for a retail outlet to add its own name and often “bottled by” same.  Customers could also put out their own saloon signs showing a Gibson product.  As shown here, Al Voiland Co. of Kansas City issued one showing at least six nude women swirling around a bottle of Gibson’s.

Despite the study stone construction, the Gibsonton distillery suffered the same plague as many other distillers of the time -- fire.  In December 1882 a blaze in warehouse No. 1 destroyed 3,000 barrels of whiskey.   Only six months later in June 1883 a barrel of Gibson’s aging whiskey blew out its bung and sprayed whiskey over a lamp with an open flame being carried by a distillery worker.  The resulting conflagration quickly engulfed one warehouse and then spread to a second.  The loss to John Gibson’s Son & Company was 10,000 barrels of whiskey up in flames, according to the New York Times.  The value was set at $500,000 or, the equivalent of $12.5 million today.

Whether it was discouragement over the fires or a desire for a change of pace,  Henry Clay Gibson, now considered one of the wealthiest men in Philadelphia, retired from the firm his father had established and turned his attention to assembling one of America’s greatest private art collections.  Although Henry was not sufficiently avant garde  to fancy the Impressionists,  preferring realistic European paintings of the official Salon, he did have a fair representation of such well respected artists as Corot and Courbet.

Moore and Sinnott were now in charge of the whiskey business.   As shown on the letterhead above, they promptly changed the company name to their own.  They continued, however, to use the Gibson name on their products, such as the bottle of Gibson XXXX shown here, adding their own names in smaller print.  They did, however, initiate a Moore and Sinnott brand whiskey.   Henry Gibson apparently had never registered his most famous brands with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, possibly doubting, as many whiskey men did, that it would be worth the trouble and money.  With the strengthening  of the law by Congress in 1904, however,  the new owners trademarked Gibsonton Mills, John Gibson’s Rye and Record Gibson’s Rye.

As with past management's, Moore & Sinnott  continued to expand the Gibsonton facility.  The final Hexamer survey in 1885 showed that the plant now had a daily mashing capacity of 1,250 bushels and was employing 100 men and six boys.  Three new warehouses had been built and roofed with asbestos, as a precaution against fire.  Moreover,  most of the warehouses had been surrounded by ditches in order to direct burning whiskey away from the distillery buildings and toward a railroad opening.

What happened to Andrew Moore is uncertain, but Joseph Sinnott,  who eventually appeared to own the entire Gibson “empire,” died at age 69 in 1906 and was buried in St. Patrick’s Cemetery, Philadelphia.  At that point his family members appear to have taken management control of the company and for several years the ownership reference was to “the estate of Joseph F. Sinnott,” as seen here on a reverse glass saloon sign.  

In 1908 or 1909,  the company was reorganized once again, this time as the Gibson Distilling Co., Inc.  A labeled flask shown here bears that name. The president was listed as “J Sinnott,” certainly one of Joseph’s sons.   There were three Sinnott sons whose names began with “J,”  Joseph F., James F., and John.  Since the last did not use a middle initial, my guess is that he had inherited the ownership mantle.  The company continued to advertise widely, exemplified by a 1910 trade card with a stereotypical African-American waiter.

The Gibsonton Distillery was shut down in 1919 by the coming of National Prohibition but its whiskey was one of those chosen to be sold under government auspices by prescription for “medicinal use.”  As a result the Gibson Distilling Company continued to be listed in Philadelphia business directories into the 1920s as the contents of its bonded warehouses were sold off.  The distillery site later was acquired by the Pittsburgh Steel Corporation.  It eventually dismantled the buildings and is said to have sold the limestone blocks for $1 a load.   Despite this ignominious demise, the distillery John Gibson established had survived for some seventy years -- through the Civil War,  multiple management changes, World War One and, for a time, even Prohibition.   Gibson had built it and they had come.

Note:  Henry Clay Gibson died in December 1891 after a brief sickness described as “grip,”  a term for influenza.  He was buried near his father, John, in Section W of the Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.  By this time his art collection of European paintings and American sculpture was considered second to none in the United States, according to press accounts.  Henry willed it to the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts where some of his collection can still be seen.














2 comments:

  1. Do you know what happened to the Gibson company after prohibition? I just found a bottle of Gibson's XXXX Rye in my basement. The label indicates it was from after 1936 and that the company was in Alladin PA or Lawrenceberg IND.

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  2. Dear Dave. Wish I could be of more help. Some of the large firms bought up a slew of names during or right after National Prohibition was repealed. One of those likely was behind the Gibson label, since the pre-Pro whiskey had a good reputation. Today there is a Gibson whiskey produced in Canada by the Grant company and sold some places in the U.S. Jack

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