Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The M. Wollstein Liquor Tree — How It Grew and Fell

  
Before the concepts were common in American business, the M. Wollstein Company was a multifaceted conglomerate liquor dealership, as suggested above in an illustration that listed its various entities.  The management structure was presented in tree form, perhaps to resemble a sturdy oak.  Behind this multi-limbed enterprise appears to have been a man named Theodore Wollstein, who remains a mysterious figure.

Throughout his life, Theodore seemed to have avoided the U.S. Census taker.  He first surfaced in the public record operating a short-lived liquor dealership in Chicago (1877-1878).  About 1880, M. Wollstein Company, a whiskey wholesaler and retailer, was established in Kansas City, Missouri.  While I can find no M. Wollstein involved with this firm,  T. Wollstein was listed as proprietor on a company catalog, along with a partner,  J. G. Seligsohn.
M. Wollstein & Co. was established at 1070 Union Avenue, a location shown right that the firm variously called “Main House” or “Station A.”  There would be many other houses and stations in the Wollstein liquor empire, spread over four states.  Among them were:

*M. Wollstein & Co., West Main Street, Sedalia, Missouri
*M. Wollstein & Co.  1420 East 18th Street, Kansas City
*H  Brann & Co., 304 Main Street, Kansas City
*M. Glass & Co, 1625 W. Ninth Street, Kansas City
*M. Wollstein & Co., 222 North 16th Streets, Omaha
*Chicago Liquor House, 222 16th Street, Omaha
*M. Wollstein & Co., 522 South 13th, South Omaha
*M. Glass & Co., 224 North 10th Street, Lincoln, Nebraska
*H. Brann & Co., 311 Larimer Street, Denver, Colorado
*M. Wollstein & Co., 535 Broadway,  Council Bluffs, Iowa

The corporate structure of these 10 entities is not clear.  Each appears to have had an individual manager.  Several managers were identified, none of them named Wollstein.  According to the company advertising M.Wollstein & Co. sold a blizzard of brands, many of them nationally known.  To those the company added a number of proprietary labels, probably blended and compounded at their Main House address.  Those were  such whiskeys as “Cedar Point,” “Ambassador,” Wollstein’s Pure Rye,” “Wollstein’s Select,” “Wollstein’s Sour Mash,” and “Wollstein’s Special Reserve.”  Records indicate that of these, M. Wollstein & Co. trademarked only Ambassador Whiskey, registering the brand in 1915.

The company presented its whiskey in wholesale quantities using ceramic jugs.  Two shown here have the Union Street “Main House” address.  Those containers would have held a gallon or more of Wollstein’s whiskey to be served out at saloons and hotel bars.  Another jug shown here was issued for the Wollstein’s Omaha area outlets, listing each location on the label.  The company also issued a number of giveaway items to favored customers, in particular shot sizes, both in glass and in metal.  The tin cup shown below contained the names of the Omaha, South Omaha and Council Bluffs M. Wollstein stores.
Although his activities are far from clear, Theodore Wollstein continued to be present in the Wollstein liquor empire.  In 1892, he established a Kansas City establishment under his own name.  From 1892 to 1907 the T. Wollstein & Co. liquor dealership was listed in city directories. In December 1895, Theodore was granted a liquor license renewal for the M. Wollstein & Co. store at 522 South 13th Street.  A newspaper account later had him visiting Kansas City from his Chicago home, accompanied by his wife and two daughters, “Hermie and Gertie.”  Theodore was said to be looking after the Kansas City business block owned by M. Wollstein & Company and visiting the local manager, Sigmund Landsburg.  This was another indication that Theodore  was the chief executive officer running the Wollstein enterprises.
About 1905 a major corporate change occurred in the liquor dealership.  While maintaining the Union Street address, the company altered its name to the M. Wollstein Mercantile Company, as shown by the logo below.  The change may have resulted from increasing recognition that prohibitionary forces, through local (dry) option laws that allowed municipalities and counties to ban alcohol, were gradually squeezing the Wollstein retail outlets.  Wollstein Mercantile seems to have emphasized mail order sales.  Until 1913 it was still legal to send liquor by mail into dry areas.

As the Anti-Saloon League and its allies marched forward, however, one by one individual states were making alcohol sales totally illegal.  At the stroke of midnight on January 1, 1916, Colorado enforced statewide prohibition through what were known as “Bone Dry” laws.  The Wollstein’s H. Brann store on Larimer Street in Denver shut its doors.  That same day Iowa followed suit.  The Wollstein’s liquor dealership in Council Bluffs was closed.  Nebraska as early as 1891 had passed a local option law that allowed municipalities to vote dry.  In 1915 the state legislature banned liquor sales altogether. On New Years Day 1916 the Wollstein empire also lost its outlets in Omaha and South Omaha.  Four stores shut on a single date.

Ever resilient, however, Wollstein’s Nebraska operations moved to St. Joseph, Missouri, locating at Fourth and Felix Street.   For its opening day on May 19, 1917, a newspaper advertisement promised a souvenir to every visitor.  The Missouri based dealer also was pricing quarts of nationally name brand whiskey for as low as 95 cents.  Although Missouri remained friendly to liquor until National Prohibition in 1920, other states continued to battle against mail order sales.  In November 1917, according to newspaper accounts, George W. Ringo who lived in a secluded spot near the Platte River outside Springfield, Nebraska, was arrested by state agents after “a large amount of liquor was found about the place.”  The packages bore the name of M. Wollstein Mercantile of St. Joseph, Missouri. 
The heavy pressure of prohibitionist forces apparently caused Theodore Wollstein to sell out about this time.  The Union Street address disappeared from Kansas City directories in 1914 to be followed by a new one at 23-25 East 24th Street.  In 1919 M. Wollstein Mercantile listed another new address at 1414 Grand Avenue in Kansas City.  Its directors were listed as H. T. Kemper, a Kansas City banker, and H. F. Helm, owner of a local commission house. 
This Wollstein Merchantile Co. found itself under investigation by the U.S. Attorney General and the Department of Justice. The cause was alleged German “enemy interest” in the firm during World War I.  At the same time Wollstein Merchantile came under scrutiny by a congressional committee investigating undesirable German influences in wartime America. Those "Hun" interests were set at 36 percent of Wollstein’s authorized capital, a foreign investment of roughly $135,000 in today’s dollar.   By 1820, Kemper and Helm had resigned their posts, possibly under political pressure.  With the advent of National Prohibition that same year, M. Wollstein Mercantile Co., as the Germans would say, was kaput. 

The Wollstein “tree” that looked so firm and healthy, as illustrated to open this post, had suffered considerable damage over the years.  The company’s mail order sales had been severely curtailed by Congressional action in 1913.  Five retail “limbs” had been sawed off in 1916 as Colorado, Iowa and Nebraska all went “dry.”  During World War One and after, U.S. government forces had began hacking at the company’s sturdy trunk with accusations of enemy influence.  National Prohibition provided the final blow of the axe. The Wollstein tree toppled to the ground.  With its demise went all further traces of Theodore Wollstein, back into the mists of history.

Note:  Deducing the timing and places of the various entities involved with the M. Wollstein interests was a difficult research effort.  Although this post is based on available records, my instinct is that there are corrections to be made. Particularly frustrating was ferreting out the ownership, including the role played by Theodore Wollstein.  My hope is that a Wollstein descendant will see this piece and help fill in the gaps.    













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