Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Commanding Kortlander Liquor Clan of Grand Rapids

Henry Kortlander got the whole thing started.  He had arrived in Grand Rapids, the second largest city in Michigan, as a barrel maker and father of five sons.  All of Henry’s boys entered the whiskey trade, creating over time at least five liquor dealerships bearing the Kortlander name and dominating that business in Grand Rapids for almost fifty years.

Father Kortlander, accounted an “old settler” in his newspaper obituary, was born in Germany and learned the cooper’s trade there.  In 1825, he married a local girl, Cecilia Walpole, and they began a family that eventually would number five boys and a girl.   Exactly when the Kortlanders arrived in the United States is unclear.  Moreover, one source says the family settled first in New York State, another says in Maumee, Indiana.  It is agreed by all that around 1865, the Kortlanders had arrived in Grand Rapids where Henry began manufacturing barrels.
Why all five of his sons decided on careers as whiskey men is somewhat of a mystery.  The first in the trade was William Kortlander who was born in Germany and had accompanied his parents to America as a youngster.  By the time the family arrived in Grand Rapid, William was 18, likely finding employment with one of the local liquor dealers.  Only four years later, in 1869, he founded his own wholesale liquor establishment at with a partner, H. B. Grady.  Sometime later Grady departed the scene but until 1884 the company name remained the same.
The firm initially was located at 69 Canal Street, moving to 105 Monroe St. when William was able to finance the purchase of a larger brick building in 1873.  The structure was three stories and allowed the him to function as a “rectifier,” that is, buying raw whiskey and blending it for taste and color in the upper floors of his establishment.  Among William’s proprietary brands were “Valley City,” “New Hope,”  “Gold Metal,” and “K & G’s Hand Made.”  I can find no evidence of his having trademarked any of the names.  William also featured well-known Kentucky brands like “Old Crow,” “Hermitage,” and “H.W. Clay.”  The firm was reputed to hold in its storage bays about $40,000 (equivalent to $1 million today)  in aging bonded Kentucky whiskey.  By 1880  William had hired two of his younger brothers, Adolph and George.

There can be no doubt about William Kortlander’s rapidly growing wealth.  In 1872 he had married a local girl named Mary Nagle, and began a family that quickly grew to four children under six years old.   In 1879 he built them a mansion at 113 Sheldon Street where the census taker found the family in 1880, along with two servant girls.  With something of an artistic bent himself, William also was buying paintings and his home featured a art gallery, including several pictures by the popular marine artist William Torgerson.  An 1881 biography of William offered:  “This gallery of paintings is the finest in the city and Mr. Kortlander is constantly adding to their number.”   

Kortlander & Grady’s final move was to 34-36 North Ionia, the building shown at right. It was a general purpose, four-story commercial building, constructed around 1890 to house William’s growing wine and liquor business.  By 1884, however, the firm had disappeared from Grand Rapids business directories and William, as will be seen, had moved on to another liquor enterprise.  
Meanwhile, in 1881, Henry Kortlander’s eldest son, Theodore, was establishing his own liquor distributorship.  Adolph, leaving his employment with Kortlander & Grady, joined his brother in the enterprise. They called the company “Kortlander Brothers.”   As their logo above indicates, their firm was a wholesale dealer in Kentucky bourbon and rye as well as Pennsylvania and other Eastern rye whiskeys.  Among them were "Brighton Club,” “Guckenheimer,” "Kentucky Club,”M V Monarch", “Mellwood,” "Old Crow,” and “Sovereign.”  Others, shown here, were “Hermitage” and “Ridgewood Whiskeys,” the latter distilled in New York State.  As indicated on two giveaway shot glasses, Kortlander Bros. had two locations over its thirty-five years in business, at 112-114 Canal from 1882 to 1911, and 332-334 Monroe, until 1917.  
Also striking out on their own were two younger Kortlander brothers, Joseph and George, the latter who earlier had been working for Kortlander & Grady.  Circa 1882 these two attempted to set up their own liquor firm.  Called J & G Kortlander, the company was listed for a single year in Grand Rapids business directories, located at 68 Canal Street, and then disappeared.  The following year the names of both Joseph and George appeared on the letterhead of Kortlander Bros.

In a 1891 history of Grand Rapids, the author commented that by 1874, the number of wholesale liquor dealers in the city had increased to “upward of a dozen.” That number subsequently had been cut in half, however, by a stringent new tax law.   Of the few dealerships remaining, three were named Kortlander:   Kortlander Bros., Kortlander & Grady, and he noted, a newly established wholesale liquor house called Kortlander and Murphy, located in the Livingston Block at 174-176 Fulton Street. 
This enterprise was William Kortlander embarking on a new venture with William H. Murphy.  It is represented here by a bail jug that gives the company address as Paris, Kentucky.   That Bourbon County town was the center of several distilleries, none of them identified as belonging to Kortlander or Murphy.  It is likely that the partners had financial interests, but not outright ownership, in one or more of Paris whiskey makers in order to insure supplies for their rectifying operation. 
The fifth Kortlander-named liquor outfit to show up in Grand Rapids directories appeared in 1900, called The Kortlander Company. A wholesale house like the others, it apparently was in business for the next 17 years at four different addresses on Fulton Street.  In a notice shown here it advertised as direct importers of Kentucky whiskey and claimed that it could provide “California wines in car lots.”  So far I have been unable to determine who among the Kortlander clan was responsible for its management.

The coming of statewide Prohibition in Michigan in 1918 shut down all the Kortlander liquor outlets. Founding father Henry Kortlander had died in 1901 at 88, hailed as “one of Grand Rapids’ oldest residents.”  Theodore passed in 1929, the victim of heart disease, and was buried with a large monument in St. Andrews Catholic Cemetery, shown here.  I have been unable to find the date of William’s death or the place of his interment.
For almost 50 years the Kortlander clan had been a commanding force in liquor sales in Grand Rapid, lower Michigan, and by mail order sales in the wider United States.   The five brothers, working through different companies over time, had set a standard for family success in the liquor trade.















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