George David Ludwick Clemmer was born in Western Pennsylvania in 1770 and early in life turned to distilling for his livelihood. He became caught up in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791-1794 and seemingly concluded that Virginia offered a healthier climate for his pursuits. As a result three generations of Clemmers gave their name to a whiskey that commanded a national audience, according to family lore, while the Clemmers survived through the tumult of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
The Whiskey Rebellion was an insurrection that began in 1791 when a tax was placed on all distilled spirits, popularly known as a “whiskey tax.” Farmers on the western frontier of America, for whom distilling was a profitable way of disposing of surplus grain and corn, resisted and in 1794 attacked the home of a tax collector. When President George Washington, shown below, rode out at the head of an army of 13,000 militiamen, the rebellion collapsed.
Apparently believing that Western Virginia and Kentucky offered distillers a better opportunity, a number of those farmer/distillers left Pennsylvania and migrated South. George Clemmer was among them. The trip was a fairly easy one. The migrants followed the Great Wagon Road, that wound from Lancaster, through Gettysburg, down the Shenandoah Valley and through the Blue Ridge Mountains to Rockingham County, Virginia, and on south.
Arriving in Rockingham County in the late 1790s, Clemmer decided to stay. In 1799, in St. John’s Lutheran Church there, he married Mary Elizabeth “Betsy” Kinzer, the daughter of Christian Kinzer. George may have known Betsy back in Pennsylvania where she was born and arranged for her to come to Virginia. Their marriage would produce 10 children, the foundation of a Clemmer clan that today can claim thousands of descendants.
About 1800, finding an available piece of land to his liking, George Clemmer moved to adjoining Augusta County, locating just off the Great Wagon Road, also known as the Valley Turnpike, just south of the village of Middlebrook, Virginia. His choice was a good one. The county, the scene above, was a good early transportation center, along with the wagon road, the Parkersburg Turnpike linked the area to the Ohio River. By 1854 the Virginia Central Railroad reached Staunton, the county seat, providing access to Richmond, the capital, for goods and passengers.
George immediately again began distilling. An 1885 account, calling him a pioneer in the business, described the activity: “He began in a very limited way, the distilling being done in the house in which he lived.” Eventually Clemmer would be among sixteen known distillers operating in Augusta county. He showed up in both the 1810 and the 1820 censuses when only the head of a household was enumerated.
About the age of 65, George apparently gave up farming and distilling, in 1835 turning his property over to his son, David Fishburne (or Fishborn) Clemmer. Born in 1821, D. F., as he was known, was the youngest of the Clemmer children. Why the estate of the founding father would be bestowed on the last of five sons is not clear. It may be that he had showed the most interest in the distilling trade. About 1841, D. F. married Mildred Jane Kinzer, likely a blood relative of his mother. They would raise a family of seven children. The first generation of Clemmers, however, was dying out. Betsy died in 1845. George lived on another sixteen years, living with another son and his family until 1861 when he too passed and was buried beside her in the cemetery at St. John’s Church, the place where they had married. His weathered gravestone is shown here.
The Clemmer Distillery flourished under D.F.’s direction. According to family tradition, the whiskey became a top seller in the miners’ camps of California during the great “Gold Rush” of the 1850s. By the following decade, the Clemmers once again were to know rebellion and war. In May 1861 Augusta County residents overwhelmingly voted in favor of secession. Five youths named Clemmer from the county, cousins all, would be engaged in the Civil War, most of them enlisting in April 1861 in Company D of the 5th Virginia Regiment. Among them was George L. Clemmer, the son of D.F. Clemmer. The boy seems never to have seen battle, however, being furloughed for illness and missing the Battle of First Manassas in July of that year. After a brief return to duty he was discharged in January 1862, apparently for persistent illness, and died several years later. The 5th Virginia experienced heavy combat during the Civil War and other Clemmers are recorded as having been wounded or made captive.
Moreover, the war raged heavily in Augusta County and environs as the Confederate and Union forces moved up and down the Shenandoah Valley in constant pitched battles. Staunton was frequent target, changing hands several times. Augusta County farms were ravaged, stripped of livestock and grain by both sides. In March 1865 Union General Philip H. Sheridan, shown above, captured Staunton and destroyed both Confederate government and civilian property. The next month the South surrendered and peace returned to a devastated land.
Out of the chaos and destruction D. F. Clemmer was able to resurrect the whiskey brand that bore his family name. In 1879, for example, he ran an ad in the Rockingham Register, recommending that the public could procure Clemmer whiskey, both retail and wholesale, from John Wallace, a saloonkeeper and liquor dealer in Harrisonburg. Said the ad: “If you want the genuine Clemmer, go to him, as he gets his whiskey direct from our warehouse.” Wallace returned the favor, advertising on his trade cards for his “The Boss Saloon and Whiskey Store” that Clemmer Whiskey was a specialty. Known as “Windy John” — apparently because of his loquacious nature — Wallace also had a taste for the risqué. The flip side of his trade card was a “mechanical” scene of bathing beauties in states of undress.
D. F. Clemmer operated the distillery and farm up until his death in February 1882. His wife, Mildred, had passed a year earlier. They were buried together in the Mount Herman Lutheran Church Cemetery in Newport, Augusta County. His monument, an obelisk is shown here. Once again the youngest son inherited the property. He was Jacob Frank Clemmer, born in 1852, too young to have been enlisted by the Confederacy. Moreover, by 1882 both his elder brothers had died. A year after receiving his inheritance, J. Frank, as he was known, married a local girl 13 years his junior. She was Mary Preston Hogshead. Their union would produce five children, four boys and a girl.
Shown below is an artist’s view in 1884 of the Clemmer residence and distillery that J. Frank inherited . It was an extensive operation and the whiskey produced there had merited a national reputation for quality. Aged three years, “Clemmer’s Fine Old Rye” was advertised as “thick and drinks like nectar.” A quart could be obtained for 40 cents. It was particularly prized in Virginia where it was frequently on the menu of festive occasions. An account of a fraternity banquet at Lexington, Virginia, in 1896 mentions it prominently — the only whiskey served that night. At a later epicurean feast being hosted by a prominent Virginia gentleman, Colonel Adams, “…drinks were made of fine old Clemmer whiskey, five years old, oily and fragrant.” When one guest seemed too long in telling a story, the Colonel admonished him to cut it short “so as to proceed with the drinking.”
Although J. Frank Clemmer proved to be as able as his father and grandfather in the liquor trade, prohibition was closing in on the distilling industry. In 1917 Virginia voted to ban sales of alcohol. That was followed by National Prohibition in 1920. The Clemmers were forced to shut down their distillery. In June 1920, J. Frank, the last of the Clemmer distillers, died at the age of 68 and was buried in Thornrose Cemetery in Staunton. His gravestone is shown here. His wife, Mary, joined him there the same year.
With their founding father a refugee from the Whiskey Rebellion, the Clemmers had kept their distillery operating for 117 years amidst the strife of the Civil War and its aftermath, bringing it into the 20th Century with a reputation for quality and an appreciative customer base in Virginia and beyond. The Clemmers, as things turned out, could survive rebellion and war but not the forces of “Dry.”