Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Miller, Mooney, and the Rise and Fall of Wheatland Distillery

Whiskey men involved in distilling in the years before National Prohibition generally can be divided into two categories.  The first and most recognized are those with a family history of making whiskey that developed brands that achieved national or regional notice.  The second group were wholesale liquor dealers, many of them “rectifiers,” who bought total or partial interest in existing distilleries in order to insure a steady and reliable source of product.  Cornelius J. Miller and James Mooney of Philadelphia are examples of the latter.
James Mooney first appeared in Philadelphia business directories in 1876 as proprietor of a wholesale liquor firm, a venture that appears to have been short-lived.  In 1882 Mooney, with Miller, showed up in city directories as partners in a liquor firm called Middleton, Miller & Mooney.  Middleton was George W. Middleton who had established a liquor dealership as early as 1845.   Through the years Middleton had several partners and addresses before moving his business to 228-230 South Front Street.  It was at that location that Miller and Mooney joined him as partners.  A letterhead in fancy script identifies this firm as “Importers of Wines & Liquors, Importers of Wines & Liquors, Dealers in Whiskies in bond and free, also Rectifier and Manufacturers of Cologne & French Spirits.”
The partnership seems destined to be short-lived.  By 1884, G.W. Middleton Co. was doing solo business at the 228-230 Front Street address and Miller and Mooney had opened a completing liquor business down the street at 206-208 Front.  As the 1886 letterhead above reveals, they also were claiming to make the whiskey they sold.   As self-admitted “rectifiers,”  blending and mixing raw whiskeys to achieve desirable color and taste, they likely experienced the frustrating vagaries of getting adequate supplies and had bought their own distillery in nearby Berks County, Pennsylvania.
It was the Wheatland Distillery, located near the little town of Womelsdorf.  It operated under the “bottled in bonding” legislation and was known in Federal annals as Registered Distillery #75 in the 1st District of Pennsylvania.  Miller and Mooney rapidly began to enlarge and modernize the facility.  In 1894, Wheatland was surveyed for insurance purposes by Ernest Hexamer.  He reported that the distillery was manufacturing rye whiskey solely and employed only four men.  Completely remodeled by Miller and Mooney,  by 1893, they had erected an additional warehouse that measured 32 feet by 40 feet, was iron clad and had a tin roof.  It could hold 4,000 barrels for aging in 12 racks.   Two stills were on the premises, one for grain was constructed of wood and had a capacity of 800 gallons; a second was a copper kettle that held 500 gallons.  Both were heated by steam.  Hexamer’s drawing of the distillery above shows the plant and the plant’s proximity to the Pennsylvania Railroad.
Miller & Moony made a great deal of their Wheatland distillery, featuring it prominently in the company advertising. They called it “one of the most complete in the state, having all of the latest improvements known to the trade.”  They also extolled the water supply:  “The water used in connection with this distillery is from a spring under a slope of the South Mountain, celebrated for its purity….”   Their on-site distiller, L. H. Keiper, was celebrated as having had “many years of experience, possibly more than any other person in this business in the state. Between 1873 and 1888 he was engaged in making the widely-known Mt. Vernon Whiskey.”  Heavily involved in mail order sales of whiskey, the partners were able to get their own post office designation and named their Berks County complex “Ryeland,”  possibly an allusion to their policy of making only rye whiskey.
A flyer issued by the partners included the illustration above showing the distillery from the railroad line, including an engine that appeared to be headed toward the bonded warehouse from a spur track.  The flyer emphasized direct shipping from the warehouse:  “We give particular attention to storage and keep our warehouse faultlessly clean and thoroughly whitewashed, with the temperature as near 80 degrees as possible.”

Unlike others in their trade, Miller & Mooney featured only a  limited number of brands.  “Wheatland Pure Rye”  was described as “an absolutely pure article for medicinal purposes.”  It was bargain whiskey even for those days, selling for $1.60 per case of twelve bottles or roughly thirteen cents each.  A full case of 24 pints was slightly more expensive at $1.85 and 48 half-pints sold for $2.45 a case.  The company assured customers that all bottles were exact measure to insure there were three gallons of whiskey to each case.  Other Miller & Mooney brands were “Philadelphia Club,” shown here on a labeled bottle with an elaborate coat of arms.  Another was “Old Bell,” advertised on an enameled label, a bottle probably meant for “back of the bar.”  

For a time at least the Miller & Mooney flagship label appears to have been “Rod and Gun Club Rye.”  This whiskey was represented by an elaborate trade card and other advertising whose major figure was a hunter with two dogs that apparently had caught the scent of a covey of quail on the lower right of the drawing, ignoring two snipe at the lower left.   In the background was a fly fisherman with several of his catch laying next to him.  Although the card indicates that the trade mark was adopted in September 1882, I cannot find evidence that Miller & Mooney ever registered any of their brands with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Details about the personal lives of Cornelius Miller and James Mooney are scant.  They seemed to avoid the federal census takers.  Before 1902, Mooney had died and his interests devolved upon his heirs.  In 1902 they agreed to incorporate the Wheatland Distillery under a new name, calling it the Miller Pure Rye Distilling Company.  Stock in the company was divided between Miller and Mooney’s estate.  The new management arrangement turned out to be short-lived.  From March to May of 1903, the distillery produced a final 669 barrels of whiskey and stored them in the bonded warehouse.  The corporation sold an interest to a third party, who later turned out to be a crook, and he was, to quote court records, “ejected from the premises” by Miller and the Mooney heirs.  The result was a series of legal battles and in 1909 a declaration of bankruptcy by the Miller Pure Rye Company.
Two years later, according to state records, Miller passed away at the age of 78.  The cause of death was given as ten years of chronic bronchitis and advanced age.  Both sets of heirs subsequently were embroiled in bankruptcy proceedings that dragged on and on as multiple claimants tried to get their hands on the 669 barrels of whiskey, worth in today’s dollar a cool $1,000,000.  When a bankruptcy court dismissed the claim to the whiskey of the Miller-Mooney heirs, they took the case to the U.S. District Court.  When a federal judge there upheld the earlier verdict, they appealed to the U.S. Circuit Court.  In May 1914, that panel made the final judgment, upholding the prior verdicts and charging court costs to the Miller-Mooneys.  Wheatland Distillery, once a pride of Pennsylvania, had ended ignominiously in a court decision.

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