Friday, May 1, 2015

The Thomas Hall Story Almost Ended Before It Began

In his 1905 book, “A History of the New California:  Its Resources and Its People,” author Leigh Hadley Irvine devoted two and one half pages to Thomas B. Hall, a highly successful Sacramento grocer and whiskey dealer, whose accomplishments included forming a state military unit and serving as its commander, helping frame the Sacramento city charter, and playing a key role in settling large tracts of California land with colonist farmers.   Hall’s accomplished life, however, came close to ending before it began. 
The same year that Hall was born, 1853, his father, an immigrant from Ireland of English descent, was drawn westward by the idea of California riches.  He pulled up stakes in Illinois and bringing his family, including baby Thomas, headed to Sacramento.  There he went to work for the Folsom and Placerville Railroad.  When the owners neglected to pay him, Richard Hall decided to return East, taking a steamer via the Panama route.   The ship was the ill-fated Yankee Blade, which wrecked at Point Conception off the coast of Santa Barbara in 1854, costing an estimated 30 to 40 lives.
The Hall family, carrying baby Thomas, struggled to reach the coast five miles away but survived.  There they were picked up by another steamer that took them to Los Angeles.  After remaining there a week, they took another ship to San Francisco.  Deciding that the fates had decreed that the Halls should stay in California, the father bought a farm near Sacramento and for the rest of his life tilled the soil.

After spending his early days on the farm and receiving his education in the public schools of Sacramento and some training at a San Francisco business college, Thomas Hall, now sixteen, decided it was more profitable to sell food than to raise it.  He began as a porter at a Sacramento wholesale grocery firm.   As his biographer Irvine tells it:  “Seven years from that time he succeeded his employers in the business.”  With a partner named Luhrs, Hall established a grocery firm that would operate for decades.

As shown here on a trade card, the firm specialized in ham and rye — not rye bread, but rye whiskey.  Although Hall and his partner sold whiskey in their grocery, in 1882 they bought out a existing  liquor dealership and made whiskey a major element in their business.   They used the brand names, “Derby Brand,”  Double Stamp,” Old Log Cabin,” “Pride of the West.”  
Their flagship was “Snow Flake Whiskey, advertised as Kentucky Bourbon with the claim:  “Unrivaled for purity, mellowness and bouquet.”  

Bottle collectors know Hall, Luhrs & Co. as a prolific distributor of whiskey, with at least five embossed round quart bottles, several mini-cylinders and at least one pumpkinseed flask.  As many wholesale liquor dealers did, Hall, Luhrs also issued advertising shot glasses as giveaway items to saloons and other establishments carrying their brands of liquor

Meanwhile Thomas Hall was having a personal life.  In March 1876 he was married in Sacramento to Selina A. Govan, a native of Pennsylvania and the daughter of James and Elizabeth Govan, from a family descended from a line of Scotch/English stonemasons, marble-cutters and builders.   Thomas and Selina would have two children, a boy,  Ward, and a girl, Ethel.  The 1880 census found the family living in Sacramento with their two small children and two boys, likely relatives of Selina, whom Hall was sending to school.  His occupation was given as “wholesale liquor.”  Son Ward would join the firm upon maturity, initially working as a cashier.  Daughter Ethel would benefit from her father’s prosperity by being sent to Stanford University.  
Hall, Luhrs first location was at the corner of Third and K Streets in Sacramento, but by 1883 the increased business volume had required that larger quarters be obtained.  As a result the following year the company moved into a more spacious building on Second Street, specifically erected for the partners and obtained under a longterm lease.  The Sacramento Daily Union described the facilities in glowing terms under the headline A Splendid New Structure for the Firm of Hall, Luhrs & Co.”   The building was drawn to plans of Hall’s own devising, rising three stories.  The main floor front was constructed wholly of iron and glass and the upper stories were also made of iron and glass.  The Daily Union reporter marveled over the sample room for its “…artistic design, composed wholly of wooden framework and glass.  It rises to the height of the eighteen-foot ceiling and over it is a large opening with the upper skylight above, throwing a strong but softened light through the glass roof.”
On either side of the office and sample room were railway tracks traversing the entire length of the building.  Goods could be delivered at the front door, placed on cars, and transported to any part of the main floor or sent below or above by a three-story hydraulic elevator.  After having served other purposes over the years including as a hotel,  the Hall, Luhrs & Co. building now is part of the Sacramento Historical District and has been restored to its original glory, as shown below.  
Established in its new quarters and the acknowledged largest wholesale grocery and liquor business in the city,  Thomas Hall turned his attention to other interests.  He was one of the organizers of the Mount Shasta Mineral Springs Company of Siskiyou County and a founder of the Orangevale Colonization Project, a venture that settled large tracts of California agricultural land with farm families.   He also maintained his own farm near Sacramento.   Active in the Republican Party,  Hall frequently was tapped for public service,  serving as a framer of the city charter and on Sacramento committees dealing with public works and business development.  When an auditing board for the state Commissioner of Public Works was created, the Republican governor chose Hall as a member.  Hall also promoted local sports.  In 1889 Hall, Luhrs sponsored Snowflake Park in Sacramento, obviously named after the firm’s flagship whiskey brand.  The park was the city’s primary baseball venue for at least a decade.

Hall’s military career deserves special attention.  In 1885, age 32 and still building his business, he joined an artillery regiment as a private, part of the California militia, equivalent today to the National Guard.  Shortly after his enlistment, his leadership qualities were recognized and he quickly was advanced to corporal.  When a new unit, Company G, later was being organized, Hall was elected its captain, a post he held for ten years before retiring.  He carried the “captain” title with him throughout the rest of his life. 

With the coming of National Prohibition the Hall, Luhrs Company was forced to shut down its liquor sales.  Snowflake Whiskey as a brand disappeared, not to be revived after Repeal.  The grocery company is reported to have survived until 1928.   I have been unable to find the date of death for Thomas Hall or his resting place.

A fitting epitaph for this extraordinary whiskey man was written about him in 1905:   “From porter to proprietor would aptly characterize the business career of Mr. Hall, and every successive step of progress has been earned by his earnest and diligent efforts.”  The author did not dwell on how close this successful whiskey man had come to death in the Yankee Blade disaster — how the extraordinary life of Thomas Hall had almost ended before it began.

Note: The 1905 book, “A History of the New California:  Its Resources and Its People,” by Leigh Hadley Irvine provided a wealth of information about Thomas Hall as did newspaper articles and other sources.  

  

























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