Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Bachtold & Achermann: Swiss on Watch in Walla Walla

Both Alfred Bachtold and Charles Achermann hailed originally from the German-speaking part of Switzerland.  Emigrating as youths to the United States, both found occupations in other states until joining forces in Walla Walla, Washington, in 1897 to create a major West Coast wholesale liquor firm. These Swiss watched their sales grow yearly and also were on the watch for conflagrations as volunteers on the Walla Walla Fire Department. 

Alfred Bachtold came first.  Born in 1870, when twelve years old he accompanied his older brother, John, to America.  The brothers located initially in South Dakota where they found employment as farm workers.   After a number of years in the fields the brothers went their separate ways. John traveled west to the State of Washington where he clerked in a hotel, managed another, and in 1890 came to Walla Walla where he opened a saloon.  Meanwhile Alfred went to Wisconsin where he was a plumber until 1891 when he too headed west, stopping in the Dakotas and Portland, Oregon, before rejoining John in Walla Walla in 1892.

That is where Charles Achermann found them.  Born in 1870, he had left Switzerland for France where he lived for 11 years.  He likely learned the wine trade there before leaving for America in 1893.  After brief sojourn in Alabama, he went to the Napa Valley of California where for three and a half years he was engaged in the manufacture of wines.  About 1897 Achermann relocated to Walla Walla, his first lodging there being with John Bachtold.
Shortly after arriving, he and Alfred Bachtold teamed up to open a wholesale wine and liquor business.  My conclusion is that Achermann was the partner knowledgeable in the trade.  Up to that time Alfred had been engaged in manufacturing wire fencing.  It may have been Bachtold financing, however, that fueled the enterprise.  An early ad from the firm indicates a modest beginning with the company having offices and its cellars in the basement of the Dusenbery Building, located between 2nd and 3rd Streets in Walla Walla.
Over the next three years the Bachtold & Achermann firm clearly prospered. Their business had moved from the basement and they now had a ground level office and cellars, shown here, at 15 West Main, a major Walla Walla commercial street, shown above as it looked in 1901. The company was an agent for Sutter Home Wines,  Olympia Beer, Jesse Moore Whiskey and Lash’s Bitters.  Beyond that the partners were blending and compounding their own whiskeys.  Among their house brands were “Kentucky Blue Stem Whiskey,” sporting a label that pictured a farmhand, perhaps harking back to Bachtold’s agricultural beginnings in America.  Other house brands were “White Cloud,” and “B & A,”  the latter seen here advertised on an elaborately etched and decorative shot glass.  In 1906 Bachtold & Achermann trademarked both the Blue Stem and White Cloud brands.

The partners expanded sales rapidly to other cities of the West Coast, including Seattle, Astoria and smaller Washington towns, as well as Portland, Oregon.  Up-to-the-Times Magazine of December 1912 said of Bachtold & Achermann that they “are practically the only wholesale liquor dealers doing business in the Inland Empire country between Portland and Spokane.

Meanwhile the partners were having personal lives. Albert Bachtold was married in Walla Walla in 1897 to Mary Ganswig.  They had two children, one of whom died in childhood.  In 1902, Charles Achermann wed a German-born woman named Carrie,  I can find no record of children from this marriage.  Additionally the partners participated actively in the city’s social life.  They both were members of the Fraternal Order of Eagles and theRed Men, Alfred a former “sachem” (chief). Other activities had an ethnic slant.  They were members of the Sons of Herman, an organization formed in 1840 as a mutual protection society for German immigrants and to promote the preservation of German language and traditions.  In addition,  Charles was a member of Maennerchor, literally translated into English as “men’s chorus.”  Founded in the 1850s, this organization was a German social club with an emphasis on music and singing.   

But their major passion appears to have been their service on the Walla Walla fire department.  John Bachtold was the the fire chief and both Alfred Bachtold and Charles Achermann were volunteer members of the force.  They must have been husky men:  The department did not have horse drawn pumpers until somewhat later and fire fighters rolled out hoses by hand, as shown here in a Walla Walla photo from 1901.   Horses could be dangerous, as the Swiss partners found out in 1905 when their horse-drawn delivery wagon struck a nine year old boy who was crossing the street in a small wagon, fracturing his skull and badly bruising his body.  He later died.

This tragedy may have been on their mind when Bachtold and Achermann were among the first businessmen in Walla Walla to convert to motorized transport.  The local press carried a picture of their primitive looking vehicle, boasting thirty horse power, and characterized by the local newspaper as a “rapid truck.”  The news article marveled that it could do the work of three horse teams:  “It has a capacity of a ton and a half and a top speed of twenty miles an hour.  The firm does all its draying and delivering about the city with it….right in advance of the times.”
However ahead of the times Bachtold & Achermann might have been, they could not out pace the prohibitionary forces that rapidly were gaining strength in the State of Washington.  On November 3, 1914, after an all-out Anti-Saloon League lobbying effort, Washington voters approved an initiative by some 18,000 votes to prohibit the manufacture and sale — but not consumption — of liquor.  Cities in Washington, including Walla Walla, voted against the measure but small town and rural folks carried the day.  After 17 successful years in business Bachtold-Achermann were forced to shut their doors.

Before Washington went dry,  Alfred Bachtold had expanded his interests to real estate development, engaging in construction projects in Walla Walla.  In 1909, for example, he was recorded obtaining a building permit to erect a two story brick building downtown at the corner of Sixth and Main Streets.  Even with income from his whiskey trade ended, he had his investments for income generation.  Unfortunately, Alfred did not have long to live, dying in October 1919 at the age of 49.  With his grieving widow, Mary, and only surviving child at the graveside, Alfred was buried in Walla Walla’s Mountain View Cemetery.  His gravestone is shown below.  Mary subsequently moved to Los Angeles where she died.  Her body was returned to Walla Walla where she lies beside Alfred.
Meanwhile, Charles Achermann had moved back to Napa Valley, California, which was still “wet.”  With his continuing connections to the wine industry there, my guess is that Charles found work in the vintner trade until  the imposition of National Prohibition in 1920.  He also made California his permanent home.  The 1940 census found him, age 70, with wife, Carrie, living in St. Helena in the heart of the Napa Valley.  He died in March 1954 at the advanced age of 84 and is buried in St. Helena.

Please excuse the “Swiss watch” pun that opens this vignette.  It is clear that Bachtold and Achermann are worthy of notice on several counts.  Not only were they among the very few immigrants from Switzerland to engage in the American liquor trade, they were important in the economic, social, and public safety development of their chosen city.  As the 1901 History of Walla Walla County expressed it, the both men in their careers were “energetic and progressive.”    Well-deserved praise for these immigrant, pioneering whiskey men.

Note:  The History of Walla Walla County cited above contains short biographies of both Charles Achermann and Alfred Bachtold, as well as one of John Bachtold.  Much of the information in this post came from that source as well as census data and newspaper articles.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Great article I am the great grandson of John Bachtold. Please contact me I would love to find out where you got the pictures of those labels and shot glass. It would make a great gift for my dad also named Jon Bachtold for some reason they dropped the h.

  3. Mike: Great to hear from you and glad you liked the article. As for finding items for your Dad, I got most of the images off the internet and do not own any B&A item. Suggest you go on eBay and register the name. When things come up at auction, you should be notified and can bid. All the best. Jack