John H. Garnhart was a whiskey man and an inventor. His most intense and enduring activity, however, may have been re-inventing himself, changing occupations and locations frequently, and known under at least three names during a foreshortened lifetime of only fifty years.
Likely as John “Garnhard,” our man was born in 1924 and raised in the part of Virginia that broke away to become West Virginia at the time of the Civil War. As recorded in the book “Recollections of a ‘49er,” by Edward McIIheny, Garnhart was one of a company of men recruited in Jefferson County in 1849 who paid $300 for merchandise to sell to gold miners flocking to California. Upon arrival after a difficult trek westward he was able to sell off his goods at premium prices. His obituary suggested that Garnhart “laid the foundation for a fortune” in California.
Nearly a decade passed until gold seekers panned a creek near what is now the city of Denver. Rich gold deposits were discovered and word quickly spread. As with most of the gold rushes across the West, thousands of men uprooted themselves and headed to Colorado, the number estimated at around 100,000. Garnhart (by this time it likely was the way he spelled his name) seemingly was in the vanguard.
Records shown him doing business in Denver during the mid to late 1850s. A 1859 legal document indicated that Garnhart had been operating several enterprises in that city, including selling liquor and groceries, making vinegar, and engaging in banking and exchange activities. By that year he had moved further east to St. Louis, Missouri, and had given over management responsibilities for his enterprises and power of attorney in Denver to a colleague.
In St. Louis Garnhart appeared to concentrate his efforts on the whiskey trade. An 1854 city directory listed a firm called John H. Garnhard, located at 188 North Second Street. In 1860, the listing for that address was Garnhart & Conner. With the subsequent departure of his partner the firm became John H. Garnhart Co., but upon occasion later rendered again as “Garnhard.” Not only was John H. selling whiskey, he was operating as a “rectifier,” blending whiskeys to achieve a particular look and taste. Later he would be accused of adding coloring and water to raw alcohol and selling it as whiskey, but I can find no collaboration for that charge.
The year 1862 saw Garnhart’s first invention, shown above. It was for a bottle of highly alcoholic bitters, sold as a patent medicine. The nostrum had been invented by a New York whiskey merchant named James B. Kelly. How Kelly found Garnhart across a wide expanse of America is not clear, but they clearly “clicked” as partners. My surmise is that Garnhart was concocting the bitters in his rectifying operation and assisting Kelly with their sales. The bottle with its log cabin shape was embossed with the legend “Kelly’s Old Cabin Bitters.” Those bottles, examples shown throughout this post, have become highly desirable among collectors.
Whiskey men like Garnhart and Kelly had moved away from selling liquor to making bitters because of the high taxes levied by the Lincoln Administration against whiskey. Bitters, when sold as medicine, were not so taxed. Shown here, the label from a Kelly’s Log Cabin Bitters “modestly” touts it as “The Greatest Discovery of the Age” and a remedy for almost any ailment, large or small. Advertised widely, Garnhart and Kelly’s bitters seemingly were an instant success and their bottles have been found in many locations, especially in the West.
By this time Garnhart had found a wife. She was Roberta Cecelia Noe, a woman about thirteen years younger than he and, like him, born in Virginia. The couple had seven children between1859 and 1873, one boy and six girls. Two daughters died in infancy. In her obituary, Roberta was described thus: “She was a lady of great amiability, full of life, cheerful in spirits, gentle in manner, sweet in disposition, the charm of social circles, faithful in all her domestic relations, a devoted and affectionate wife and mother.”
Faced with the financial responsibilities of supporting a wife and growing family, Garnhart also found ways to benefit from the Civil War that raged over the Nation from 1861 to 1865. No major battles were fought in or near St. Louis but the Mississippi River at his doorstep was a vital waterway during the conflict and he could supply his products via the river to other cities and towns. Moreover, the Union soldiers who occupied and garrisoned St. Louis provided a lively market for strong drink.
A Virginian by birth, it is not clear where Garnhart’s sentiments lay in the war. He came under suspicion, however, as a possible Southern sympathizer in 1863. In a letter of April that year Brigadier General Jeremiah C. Sullivan, who commanded troops garrisoning parts of Tennessee wrote a letter to the provost marshal in St. Louis about suspicious cargo off-loaded in his territory from the steamship “Belle of Memphis,” shown above. The shipment contained 80 barrels of whiskey, a box of drugs, and ten ounces of quinine — all bearing the name of Garnhart and Kelly. Sullivan suggested the officer keep an eye on the firm.
As the war had progressed, the high taxes on liquor began to be applied to bitters. The law was ambiguous. Those selling bitters and other alcoholic compounds put up and sold as medicine were not required to pay the special tax. Persons selling bitters or other alcoholic compounds “put up and stamped as rectified spirits” were taxed. Garnhart and Kelly apparently were considered in the latter category and in 1864 began to affix their own government-approved stamp, one carrying a portrait of Kelly, shown here. One writer has suggested that their stamps were fraudulent, but Federal records showed tax receipts of $5,800 from Garnhart & Kelly.
After the end of the Civil War Garnhart decided to “re-invent” himself once again. In 1866 he pulled up stakes in St. Louis and moved with his family to Madison, a modest-sized city and the capital of Wisconsin. Now he became an industrialist with an invention for a new kind of grain reaper, incorporating a binder that he had been successful in patenting. Garnhart’s original drawing is shown right. He also impressed the locals by immediately purchasing a mansion in Madison for his family, seen below in an artist’s version.
Madison was keen to rival Milwaukee as an industrial center. In 1871 momentum for making agricultural equipment seemed to be occurring when Garnhart (now sometimes known as “Garnhardt") agreed to locate a large factory for his reaper in Madison. A canny businessman, he had a price to ask of the locals. At his bidding, investors donated an entire city block to him for his factory and additionally threw in $5,000 (equivalent to $200,000 today) to kick-start the company.
Garnhart made good on his promise and in 1872 began to produce his patented reaper. He employed about fifty men most of the time and told the press he intended soon to increase the size of the works. Then disaster. As one writer tells it: “…The 1873 depression swept across the country, leaving a rich harvest of new enterprises in its wake. The once promising Garnhart Reaper Works was one such casualty.”
In the meantime, John H. still had a hand in St. Louis liquor. As evidence of this continued interest, in 1868, more than a year after moving to Madison, he trademarked a label for a brand of whiskey bearing his name. Shown here, the anchor design almost certainly was his handiwork. As Garnhart had done with his Denver liquor interests, he brought in two partners to run his company and seemingly gave them full responsibility for its management and finances. They were Robert P. Hall and Henry Ruggles. During this period the firm featured a number of whisky brands, including "Chrystal Springs Bourbon,” "Clear Creek Bourbon” "Glendale Bourbon,” "Gold Spring Bourbon,” "I. N. Miller Bourbon,” and "Miller Rye.” Business as usual, however, was about to end.
Beginning in 1871 the notorious “Whiskey Ring” was taking shape in St. Louis to defraud the U.S. Government. The scam worked this way: Crooked officials would attest that distillers and rectifiers had paid all their taxes when they actually had paid about 60% of what they owed, much of the money going as bribes. The residual 40% owed stayed home. The partners in J. H. Garnhart & Co. became part of the cabal. Why? It may have been a matter of “everybody was doing it” not only in St. Louis but also in Chicago, Milwaukee and other Midwest cities. Non-joiners were being undersold on their whiskey and often faced financial hard times.
Activities of the Ring began to draw suspicion by 1872 as federal revenues from liquor sales in the region were observed to dwindle sharply. When Washington asked for an investigation, it was a corrupt official named Brasher who conducted the inquiry. His report, filed in January 1873 was drafted, a later investigation found, “such as suited the distillers and rectifiers.” Brasher’s report purported to compare the books of the liquor firms, including Garnhart & Co., with the records of the Collector and Assessor of Internal Revenue (himself the ringleader) and not surprisingly found no discrepancies. Brasher concluded that his investigation “has failed to disclose that condition of affairs, which was presumed to exist, from that condition of affairs made to me by persons claiming to possess most direct and positive information about the fraudulent distillation of spirits….” The whistle-blowers, he declared, were flat wrong.
Nevertheless, rumors continued to fly, rumors that Garnhart in Madison must have been aware of. Moreover, the collapse of his reaper factory was imminent. Yet he apparently gave no hint of these concerns. His obituary in the Wisconsin State Journal (giving his name as “Garnhardt”) reported that he had seemed “robust” with a strong hold on life. His last hours, it recorded, were in the city attending to business in excellent heath and good spirits. He spent his last evening on the porch of Madison’s Park Hotel in “animated conversation with his friends.” The next morning, May 10, 1874, he died suddenly at the age of 50. Cause of death was listed as “syncope,” a medical term of that day that could indicate a heart attack or stroke.
Garnhart’s death may have saved him from a prison term or at least profound embarrassment. A month after his passing, a new Secretary of Treasury, Benjamin Bristow, took office, described as an honest man “with a passionate conviction that others in the public service should be honest, too.” He set a trap for the St. Louis racketeers and sprung it in May, 1875. Garnhart’s company was among those where barrels of illicit whiskey and office ledgers were seized. Criminal indictments followed for 175 people involved. Many were convicted and went to jail.
Whether Henry Ruggles was among them (Hall had died earlier) is not clear. Even before the raid Garnhart’s company may to have gone out of business. It was replaced by a liquor firm named Adler, Furst & Co., that advertised itself as “Successors to J. H. Garnhard & Co.” Located at the 19-21 South Second Street, the company was listed in St. Louis business directories only for 1875. The reason seems evident. According to press accounts, Simon Adler and Abraham Furst were among those arrested in the Bristow raid. Convicted, they were slapped with a large fine and a prison term of one year in the Cole County, Missouri, jail.
Meanwhile, back in Madison, Roberta Noe Garnhart was coping as well as she could, with two teenaged daughters and three younger children to bring up on her own. Five years after John’s death, she married again, to the Chief Judge of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Orasmus Cole. Her obituary indicated that it had been a successful union: “…No happier family has lived than that over which she presided with charming propriety and graceful dignity.”
John Garnhart’s body had been returned to St. Louis in 1874 where he was interred in Bellefontaine Cemetery in what has been described as a “family tomb.” Roberta joined him there following her death in 1884 after a long illness. Shown below, the mausoleum-like structure later had to be dismantled because of water damage and the bodies removed. As a result the Garnharts currently lie in unmarked graves at the cemetery.
Over his foreshortened lifetime, John Garnhart packed enough entrepreneurial activity for five men, prospering in California; owning companies in Denver, St. Louis and Madison; designing bottles that today can fetch as much as $75,000; merchandising a patent medicine that swept the country; inventing and producing an improved grain harvester; and engaging in real estate and banking activities along the way.
While his early death may have spared him being caught in the web of the Whiskey Ring, by virtue of his continual reinvention he made his mark among the whiskey men of America.
Note: For a number of years I had wanted to do a vignette on John Garnhart but lacked sufficient information. To my rescue came Jean E. DeLauche, an indefatigable researcher and genealogist who is a distant relative of Roberta Noe Garnhart. She was able to supply me with an immense amount of useful information on Garnhart, from his youthful trek to California to his current place of interment. She also was the source of two illustrations. I am deeply indebted to Ms. DeLauche for being able to tell this story.