John McDougal Atherton was a native-born Kentuckian with two obvious passions in his life, making good whiskey and promoting quality education for the people of Kentucky. He is remembered well in the state for the latter but, sadly, his whiskey history — the occupation that fueled his philanthropy — has been forgotten or ignored.
Atherton, shown here as a young man, was born in LaRue County in 1841, the son of Peter and Elizabeth Atherton. His father had been born in Fauquier County, Virginia, and received a land grant for a thousand acres in Kentucky (then part of Virginia). It is said that Peter swan the Ohio River at Louisville pushing all his earthly possessions before him in a sugar trough. His land was along the banks of the Rolling Fork River at the confluence with Knob Creek, about 50 miles south of Louisville, not far from the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln.
From 1800 to 1830 Peter built and operated a log distillery on the west bank of Knob Creek. When John Atherton was only three years old, his father died, willing him the larger part of the land conveyed in the original grant. John’s inheritance included a large plantation house that his father had constructed on the property. The widowed Elizabeth subsequently married a man named Marshall Key who seems to have provided John with a loving and supportive stepfather.
The young man attended elementary school in Bardstown, Kentucky, and then Georgetown College. This was a small, private Christian liberal arts school, the first Baptist college west of the Allegheny Mountains. Although Atherton is said to have been forced to withdraw from Georgetown because of bad health, the experience helped shape his life. He met a professor there named Johnathan E. Farnam with whom he reputedly developed a close friendship. More important Atherton met Farnam’s daughter, Maria, who would become his wife.
In 1861 John’s health returned sufficiently for him to enter the Louisville School of Law and to read for the law. The same year, age 21, he married Maria, age 20. They would have one son, Peter Lee, born in 1862. The next five years are not recorded but the assumption can be made that Atherton was tending to his bequest and perhaps learning the business of making whiskey. There is no indication he was actively engaged with either side in the Civil War, which was roiling Kentucky during those years.
After the conclusion of the war, in 1867 with financial help from Marshal Key Atherton, 26 years old, built a new distillery on the bank of Knob Creek and gave it his own name. Shown above, this plant was capable of mashing one hundred bushels a day to make about seven barrels of what was known as “sweet mash” whiskey. It was just young man’s first move. In 1869 he purchased an interest in a small distillery owned by a man named Thompson and the next year bought him out entirely. Atherton moved this facility to the east bank of Knob Creek, across from his first distillery. He put a cousin, Alexander Mayfield, in charge of this plant, calling it the Mayfield Distillery. It distilled what is known as “sour mash” whiskey. As a harbinger of the philanthropic efforts in his future, the distiller created a village to house his workers for both plants, calling it “Athertonville.”
Blest with water from Knob Creek that was said to be“about as nearly perfect as could be found for the manufacture of fine beverage whiskey,” the sales of both Atherton and Mayfield whiskey grew rapidly. Shown here are bottles of each. Atherton reinvested the profits to build three miles of tracks to the rail head at New Haven, Kentucky, both to bring in needed raw materials and to ship out the finished product in barrels and wooden cases of bottles to all parts of the United States. Success also allowed the J. M. Atherton Company from 1880 to 1882 to build two other distilleries at Athertonville, known as the “Windsor” and the “Clifton.” The addition of their capacity permitted Atherton to increase the number of brands from the original two to some ten, including “Old Indian River Rye” and “Carter Whiskey.” According to reports, at the end of 1881 the company had on its books orders for 55,000 barrels of its several brands and made and delivered more than 47,000 barrels between July 1, 1881 and June 30, 1882. The sesquicentennial History of Kentucky observed: “Thus the quality of the product caused the site, the enterprise and the brands to take on a national scope, becoming the largest single plant in the country for the manufacturing, warehousing and distribution of fine beverage whiskey for which Kentucky became so famous.”
With the success of his whiskey enterprise came indications that John Atherton was seeking new horizons. From an early age he had been interested in politics, serving in the Kentucky General Assembly from 1869 to 1871 and subsequently elected for several years to the post of Democratic State Central Committee Chairman. In 1873 he was a presidential elector from Kentucky where the electoral votes had gone to Horace Greeley, who lost and then died before the counting. Atherton also was a founding director of the Kentucky Distillers Association and an officer of the National Protective Association, an organization that opposed constitutional Prohibition.
About 1882 this enterprising whiskey man made major changes in his operation. He moved the J. M. Atherton Co. business offices to Louisville, at 125 Main Street. For himself and his wife, he also built a home, shown below, at 2542 Ransdell in the fashionable Cherokee Triangle area of Louisville. He moved his son, Peter Lee, into the direct operation of the distilleries as a vice president and general manager. Atherton himself began to devote more and more time to his real estate and financial investments. He owned significant property in downtown Louisville and because of his holdings, described by one observer as “vast,” he was a board member of the National Bank of Kentucky and the Lincoln Bank & Trust Company as well as of the Louisville Gas Company and the Louisville & Nashville Railroad (L&N).
In February 1899, Atherton sold his four distilleries and his brand names to the Kentucky Distillers and Warehouse Company, popularly known as “The Whiskey Trust.” By this time the properties had a total production capacity of about 350 barrels of whiskey per eight-hour day and warehouses that could hold approximately 200,000 barrels. The reasons for Atherton selling out are unclear: Other interests may have been taking the bulk of his time; his son may have wanted to move on from running the distilleries; the specter of Prohibition was looming ever larger, or perhaps the Trust made him an offer he just could not refuse.
By shucking off the distilleries, Atherton also had more time for his other passion: Education. Even as a young man planning Athertonville he had built a schoolhouse at the top of a hill near the town. It appears to be the three-story building behind the distillery in the illustration above. The children of his employees received instruction there during the week and on weekends the building was used for Sunday School and prayer meetings. In 1884 Atherton was appointed as a member of a largely ineffectual Louisville school committee. There he fought for reforms that ended an antiquated system of school trustees in favor of a unified system that put management under a non-political Board of Education. Later he served as chairman of the the Board of Trade committee that helped vet candidates for the revamped Board.
Nor did Atherton forget the academic institution that had given him a mentor and a wife. In 1893 he donated $30,000 ($750,000 equivalent today) to Georgetown College. The money created the Atherton-Farnam chair of natural science, done in tribute to his father-in-law, Dr. J.D. Farnam who had taught him science and for his wife, Maria.
In 1921, setting aside a rule forbidding the naming of a school after a living person, the Louisville Board of Education decided to give Atherton’s name to a proposed new girl’s high school on Morton Avenue at Rubel. The Board then sent the octogenarian the following message: "The Board of Education honored itself as well as you in naming the girls' high school about to be built 'Atherton High School for Girls.' In wishing you a happy New Year it desires to record itself appreciative of the years of hard and successful work which you have given to public school education in Louisville and the State of Kentucky."
Shown here in old age with his grandson, the son of Peter Lee, John Atherton enjoyed a long life, filled with civic honors. Less enjoyable was observing the fate of his distilleries and Athertonville. Although the Trust continued to operate the plants and distribute Atherton brands, when Prohibition arrived,150,000 barrels aging in the warehouses he had built were removed to the government’s “concentration” warehouses in Louisville. Then the property was sold and all the machinery and equipment were dismantled. Athertonville disappeared and the distillery buildings were allowed to run down and were put to other uses, as shown left. Those developments obviously brought heartache to their founder.
Atherton lived to be 91 years old, dying in 1932. His wife, Maria, had died 14 years earlier. The couple are buried together in Section 13, Lot 110, of Louisville’s Cave Cemetery, where many prominent Kentucky whiskey men are interred. His grave marker is shown above. Other reminders of Atherton’s legacy remain. His home still stands in Louisville as does the school that bears his name. Now coed and simply Atherton High School, its website contains his picture and a biography. That write-up elucidates in some detail his business and civic accomplishments. Unfortunately the article ignores completely that John Atherton for a time ran the largest whiskey-making operation in Kentucky.