Sunday, March 29, 2015

James Bumgardner MADE Virginia Whiskey

On land that the Bumgardner family had owned and occupied almost since the American Revolution,  Capt. James Bumgardner came home from the Civil War to Augusta County, Virginia, to make whiskey as his forefathers had done.  In the process, he put the Bumgardner name in the forefront of American distillers and established Virginia-made whiskey nationally as a quality liquor.
Shown here in his elder years,  James Bumgardner was born in 1835,  the son of Jacob Bumgardner, who had inherited the land and started a small distillery.   When James was only in his early teens, in 1847 Jacob died and as the eldest son, he inherited his father’s entire interest in land, slaves and other property. Apparently because he was a minor, the transfer of the estate was not completed until 1855, when he reached 21.

By that time Bumgardner was already married, recorded as having wed a woman named Mary in Virginia in 1853.  By their birthrates on their tombstone, that would have made James 18 at their wedding and Mary only 11, possibly an error.   As his children came along — there would be 14 in all — Bumgardner saw the need to build a new and more substantial home for his family on his property .  To that purpose in 1857 he engaged Jonathan Brown, a Richmond carpenter and contractor who moved to Augusta County to oversee the construction.

Brown fashion a home known as Bethel Green, shown below, that still stands in and is on the National Historical Register.   Although the house was built according to the eclectic fashion of the times with Gothic style porches, fancy chimney stacks, scrolled lattice work, and Italianate bracketed cornices, the interior was Victorian from its wallpaper and carpeting to its furnishings, all of them preserved.  An historian has speculated that:  “Bumgardner apparently was determined to decorate and furnish his house in the latest fashion and the excellently preserved interior survives as an important example upper-middle-class taste of the period.”

However much Bumgardner might have enjoyed his new home, however, he had only a few years to enjoy it until the Civil War broke out.  Leaving Bethel Green and his family, at the age of 27 he enlisted in the 52nd Virginia Voluntary Infantry Regiment, organized in August 1861 in nearby Staunton, Virginia.  Many of its members were from Augusta County.  Whatever rank James Bumgardner might have entered with, he left as a captain, a title he kept for the rest of his life.  

The 52nd Virginia fought mostly with the Army of Northern Virginia.  It was active in the Seven Days Battles and the Confederate victories at Second Manassas, shown left, and Fredericksburg, but lost considerable men at Gettysburg,  Chancellorsville and Cold Harbor.   After retreating with Early from the Shenandoah Valley, Bumgardner’s unit surrendered at Appomattox in April, 1865. The Confederate captain was allowed to keep his horse and ride back to Bethel Green.  There he found that while his house was still standing, his farm and distillery were in ruins, many of his slaves had departed and the entire countryside around lay in ruins.

Undeterred, he determined to rebuild his fortunes by making “Bumgardner Pure Old Rye Whiskey” a well-known, well-respected national brand.  He rebuilt and expanded the distillery, calling his product “J. Bumgardner’s Pure Old Rye Whiskey.”  His unembossed bottles contained labels that depicted an artist’s view of his operation. Bumgardner's distilling company also trademarked its brand name and a logo, shown here.  His motto for his whiskey was:  “Wherever it goes, it goes to stay.”   Before long it was being sold coast to coast.

Like other distillers of his time, he was quick to elicit testimonials to the quality of his product.  From Prof. J. L. Campbell of Washington & Lee University at nearby Lexington, Virginia, he got the following testimonial:  “The sample of Whiskey sent here by you for analysis has been subjected to careful Chemical examination and found to be free from all drugs or substances foreign to Pure Rye Whiskey.  Its mildness and purity adapt it very well to Medicinal purposes for which PURE WHISKEY is wanted.”    Prof. R.S. McCulloch was singularly complimentary and added:  “Our people little know or imagine what villainous fabrications are sold to them, sometimes even poisonous by dealers in cheap Wines and Liquors.”

Captain James also was quick to protect his brand, even from a family member.  His son, Randolph, recounted this anecdote:   James, was a man of big heart, but positive in language and convictions. “[His brother, Lewis] after coming back to Augusta, decided to start a distillery and adopted as his brand, "Old L. Bumgardner Whiskey". [Capt. James] was far from pleased at the opposition business, and much more displeased at the similarity of trade names, with the consequent likelihood of confusion in the mind of the trade:  The following interview is said to have transpired:  "Lewis, I understand you are going to start a distillery?"
"Yes, James".
"They tell me you are going to call it 'Old L. Bumgardner Whiskey."
"Yes, James."
"Well, Lewis, all I have to say to you is, that you want to make that 'L' most damned plain.''

By dint of Bumgardner’s energetic merchandising, he was able to engage the H. B. Kirk Company of New York, an organization that marketed “Old Crow” Kentucky-made whiskey for a group of New York investors.   Kirk also began featuring the Bumgardner rye in its advertising calling the brands:  “The Two Best Whiskeys in the U.S.”   Given the national advertising of this group,  this Virginia whiskey was put firmly on the map of America.  Note that the two Kirk trade card have distinct “Old South” themes.  At right, the familiar “darkies are singing in the fields” is reprised.  At left an African-American lad is sitting on a rail fence, pointing at a mountain.  In reality, some of James’ freed slaves stayed around Bethel Green after the Civil War.  

Other family stories tell more about the Captain: “The old gentleman would never argue a proposition. He was firm in his convictions, and, if he thought, he was right, would invariably back his judgment with his money. If anyone challenged his opinion, his answer was, "I'll bet you ten dollars", and it was put up or shut up.”   As he aged, he turned his distillery interests over to two sons, William and J. Alexander, and enjoyed the comforts of his home.  As a descendent told it:  In his lifetime Bethel was a cheerful place with its large gathering around the blazing hickory-wood fire in the living room. Grandfather occupied the big horsehair chair in the center, his tall, gold-headed staff in his hand or in easy reach, and his favorite dog old "Tige" slumbering peacefully at his side.”
While both of the Captain’s sons are identified in various ways with the Bumgardner whiskey reputation, William and J. Alexander seem to have been less gifted businessmen than their father.  A family narrative blames them for another financial setback for the Bumgardner fortunes because of bad investments they made during an 1890s economic turndown.  They continued to pursue making whiskey at Bethel Green, however, until statewide prohibition was voted in Virginia in 1916.   After a history stretching almost back to the American Revolution the family’s distilling enterprise was forced to come to an abrupt halt.

Shown above in a newspaper photo, Capt. James Bumgardner died in 1925 at the age of 90.  He was buried in Bethel Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Augusta County, next to his wife Mary, who had preceded him in 1909.  The obelisk that marks their joint tomb is inscribed:  “Soldier for the Southern Confederacy.”   For my money it might have added:  “The man who made Virginia whiskey.”

Note:  Some of the personal items related here about the Captain came from a letter document written in 1923 by James Bumgardner’s son, Randolph, relating anecdotes about his father for the edification of his daughter.  The information is on the Internet and describes the life of the family patriarch in an affectionate, if episodic, fashion.  


  1. Hello, Thank you for posting this information. My great, great, great grandfather worked at this distillery. I've posted the link on our family blog.

  2. Thanks, Mr. Lewis. I am alway happy to hear from people who are doing genealogy and find something on this blog that is of interest and helpful.