During his formative years Barth’s prospects for a long life during were not promising. He was born in 1839 in Hesse-Darmstadt, Germany, the son of John and Frederica Barth, the sixth of nine children. While he was still a youngster in 1847 his father uprooted the family and headed to Wisconsin, taking them on what often was a perilous sea voyage, subject to disastrous storms and disease. The Barths made it safely and settled onto a farm in Lake Township, an agricultural area just south of Milwaukee.
From the safety of the farm, on a 1962 visit to Minnesota, Peter, now 23, took a step that put his life in frequent danger. He enlisted in the Minnesota Fifth Voluntary Infantry serving as a private in Company E, donning the feathered hat sported by its men, shown above. His regiment was involved in more than 25 scenes of combat, including such bloody battles as those in Iuka, Mississippi, and the Siege of Corinth, Mississippi.
Perhaps the most serious battle in which he was engaged was the May 22, 1862, attack on the Confederate works at Vicksburg. Fortunately for him the Fifth Minnesota was in the rear of the attacking column; his regiment did not suffer the high casualties of the leading units. A monument, as shown here, stands at Vicksburg in tribute to his unit. By the time Barth was mustered out in September 1865, his regiment had suffered four officers and 86 enlisted me killed in action or who later died of wounds. Another 179 had died of disease.
Spared in that bloody war, Barth returned to Milwaukee and almost immediately opened a liquor dealership. Characterized as “a small beginning,” the former infantryman soon demonstrated a knack for the trade. His first address was 137 Reed, the choice of a location indicating his business sense. His store was adjacent to one of Milwaukee’s busiest places, the Reed Street Railroad Station, then the city’s railway center, with a depot for all incoming and outgoing trains. Barth watched as Civil War heroes like Generals Grant and Sherman arrived for the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) National Encampment in 1880. Barth himself served for a time as the Commander of a Milwaukee G.A.R. post.
By 1897 his business had grown large that he needed larger quarters and moved down Reed Street to No. 251, his address for the rest of the existence of the Peter Barth Company. Above is a photo of the store. That may be Peter with the long beard on the steps. The building was three stories with full basement and covered an area 26 by 112 feet.
The facility allowed Barth not only to sell liquor but to “refine and blend” his own proprietary whiskey. Among his house labels were “Barth,” “Beaver,” “Patrick Henry Whiskey,” “Waldron,” and the unusually named, “Bung Hole.” He does not appear to have trademarked any of his brands. Barth has endeared himself to collectors, however, by the fine colors of his embossed bottles. From his half pints to quarts, some shown here, Barth put his name on glass that ranged from yellow amber to dark red. Many of those containers bore the mark of the Chase Valley Glass Company, a Milwaukee glass plant founded in 1880. Like many other Milwaukee liquor dealers Barth also issued a number of advertising shot glasses and an attractive decanter-like back-of-the-bar bottle.
In 1967, not long after Peter had returned from the Civil War, he married a woman named Emma, 17, who like him had emigrated from Germany. We are fortunate that the couple and their family were recorded in the U.S. censuses of 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, and 1930. At the time of the 1870 census the Barths had only one child, Robert, a baby of nine months. During the ensuing decade, the family added five other siblings, two boys and three girls, ages 8 to 3. As he matured, Robert was taken into the liquor firm as a clerk about 1901 and eventually made a partner.
In 1985, Barth incorporated his firm under Wisconsin laws with a paid up capital of $100,000 (equivalent to $2.5 million today). Robert, described by a contemporary as “a young man of unimpeachable probity,” became secretary and treasurer. By this time the sales of the Peter Barth Company had placed it among Milwaukee’s largest liquor wholesalers. It covered not only all of Wisconsin but also Minnesota and Michigan. Including its sales force, it employed eight people.
Nor was Barth neglecting his service to the community. He was an active member on the Board of Trade and the Milwaukee Merchant Trader’s Association where he was said by a biographer to be “always…among the first in promoting the city’s best interests.” His interests extended to the political field. A Republican in a largely Democratic city, he was elected as an alderman from Milwaukee then Fifth Ward, serving from 1878 to 1882 until being defeated by a Democrat.
He was a member of the Knights of Pythias, the Ancient Order of United Workmen, and the Oddfellows, all of them fraternal and service organizations, devoted to philanthropic work. The Oddfellows seemed closest to Peter Barth’s heart, which he joined in 1883. It was British-founded and known particularly for its charitable work, conducting fundraisers for both local and national charities. At the age of 91, Barth was still attending meetings of the Milwaukee Oddfellows, recorded in press accounts as its oldest active member.
As his father aged, Robert increasing took over the management of the firm. In 1910 at age 71, however, Peter was still listed by the census as “liquor dealer.” He was living at 302 19th Street, then a mansion-filled fashionable area of Milwaukee. With him was his wife, Emma, and a grown bachelor son, George, who was a well-known Milwaukee physician. Although the Barths had amassed their fortunes by 1919, it must have been a blow to them when National Prohibition was enacted. The business that Peter had founded and fostered for 53 years was forced to shut its doors.
During the ensuing years Barth continued to be active in Milwaukee’s civic and social life. For the last six months of life he was invalided, living just long enough to see Prohibition being repealed in 1934. When he died at the age of 94, he was buried in Milwaukee County’s Forest Lawn, a cemetery not far from where he had been born. Two years later Emma joined him. Buried nearby are other members of the family, including both Robert and George Barth.
Note: A chief source of information for this article and the picture of the Barth Company building are from the 1896 book, “Milwaukee— A Half Century’s Progress.” Census data also was particularly useful. The bottle pictures are from the “mrbottles.com” website which has many excellent photos of Wisconsin vintage whiskeys.