Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Baugh Brothers: “Victorious in Vincennes”

 Born in Tennessee to a hard scrabble farmer and Confederate veteran, the Baugh brothers — John, Richard and Murphy — had little or no formal education and likely went to work as pre-teens.   None of this mattered when the trio fetched up in Vincennes, Indiana, and went on to own a half dozen thriving businesses there, including several in the whiskey trade.
Their father was John M. Baugh, born in Rutherford County, Tennessee, of transplanted parents, his father from North Carolina and mother from Virginia.   Many Carolinians had settled in central Tennessee, following the example of Griffith Rutherford, an American Revolutionary War general from North Carolina, an early settler who gave the county its name.

Rutherford County strongly supported the Confederacy during the Civil War and records indicate that John M. joined Tennessee’s 11th Confederate Cavalry organized at Murfreesboro, the county seat.  That unit fought in a half dozen battles, including Chicamauga, illustrated right, Resaca, and the defense of Atlanta.  Although the regiment lost 160 men before the 1865 surrender, John Baugh lived to return to Rutherford County and resume farming.

When he left for the war, John M. was married and the father of a son.  His wife was Miriah, born in Tennessee as were her parents.  Upon his return, the couple would produce at least six more children.  Among them were John B., born in 1870;  Richard , 1875; and Murphy G., 1877 — the trio that would become known as the Baugh Brothers.   Census records indicate that their education may have been truncated.  One brother was listed as a “farm worker” at age 11; another told a census taker that although he could read and write he had never been to school.
Just when when the brothers arrived in Vincennes — and, just as important, why — is not clear.  The brothers moved 235 miles almost directly north from Tennessee to a modest-sized Indiana town on the lower Wabash River.  Founded in 1732 by the French as a fort against Indian raids, although far from the centers of American power, Vincennes could boast itself as “America’s First Main Street,” a community that existed before the American Revolution.   The postcard view shown above from about 1900 shows it to have evolved a typical Midwest downtown. 

The Baughs established themselves there initially as druggists.  John gave his occupation in the census as “merchant - retail drugs.”  For a time Richard likely joined him in that pursuit.  Both men quickly became aware that liquor sales through the drugstore were a financial bonanza.  As a result, the brothers, with Richard taking the lead, moved into the whiskey trade.  The Baughs first venture was the Wabash Bank Saloon, a popular local drinking spot.  By 1902, the Baughs, now including their younger brother, Murphy, were selling liquor and beer, first at 19 North First Street.  Later they moved to 10 North First in a building that bore their name, shown left as it looked in later years.

The brothers described their company as a “distillery.”  In reality they were rectifying whiskey, that is, buying spirits from Pennsylvania or perhaps Kentucky distillers and blending it on their own premises to achieve particular taste and color.  They called their flagship brand, “Stoneheart Rye,”  advertising it as “rich and mellow” and “ripe with age.”  A second label was “Fort Harrison Pure Rye” after an Indiana U.S. Army post established in 1903 and named after Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd President who hailed from Indiana.  Shown here are shot glasses advertising both brands that would have been given away to favored customers running saloons and restaurants that featured Baugh liquor. 

In the meantime, the brothers were having personal lives.   John appears to have married late; his wife Esther was born in Indiana and was 17 years his junior  The 1920 census found the couple in the Third Ward of Vincennes with two children, a girl three years old and an infant male.   Richard, running the saloon at age 26, initially lived in a Vincennes boarding house but in 1903 married  a woman named Myrtle and set up housekeeping with her.  They would have two children.  The youngest Baugh, Murphy, married about 1911.  His wife, a native of Illinois, was Katherine, called “Kate.”  They would have one daughter.

With the success of their liquor interests, the Baugh Brother expanded their fields of enterprise.  About 1908 Richard moved to Terre Haute, Indiana, 65 miles from Vincennes, to start another liquor store there.  Located first at 329 Ohio Street, by 1910 Richard had moved the business to 313 Wabash Avenue.  Back in Vincennes, the brothers opened a haberdasher shop at 231 Main Street, advertising themselves as dealers in hats and furnishing goods. In 1915 the Baughs announced to the public that they were  “arranging to install a modern and up-to-date drug store” at the corner of Main Street and the plaza for Vincennes City Hall.

Perhaps the Baughs’ most important announcement involved  the three-story Gimbel’s Building on Main Street,  shown here as it looked in later years.  The very first Gimbel's dry goods store was founded in Vincennes in 1842 by Adam Gimbel, a Jewish Bavarian immigrant who started out as a pack-peddler.  In 1887 Gimbel moved on to a larger market in Milwaukee.   In the 1890s his store expanded to Philadelphia and in the early 1900s to its famous location in New York City.  Concerned about the empty building in the center of town, the Baughs closed a deal to buy it and return the productivity of the space.  With their multiple enterprises, these Tennessee implants clearly had risen to the top of the business community of Central Indiana.

The Baughs were not fated to create a dynasty.  Following the lead of other Midwestern states, Indiana in 1918 voted a complete ban on sales of alcohol.   The Wabash Bank Saloon shut its swinging doors and the liquor outlets in Vincennes closed.  Their Terra Haute outlet had terminated by 1916.  Unlike other whiskey men, however, the brothers had their non-alcoholic enterprises to fall back on.  According to 1920 census data,  John continued to operate the family drug store.  Richard was recorded as operating a farm on his land near Terre Haute.  My guess is that Murphy, who gave his occupation as “merchant,” was running the haberdashery.
All the Baugh brothers lived long enough to see the repeal of Prohibition in 1934, but no evidence exists that they attempted to re-enter the liquor business.  Murphy was the first to die, passing in 1955 at 78, and John followed two years later, age 87.  Both men were buried in the Vincennes City Cemetery.   Richard, diagnosed with arteriosclerosis, died last in 1958 at age 83.  Buried in Highland Lawn Cemetery in Terre Haute, his gravestone is shown below.
During their extended lifetimes, the three Baugh brothers had overcome their disadvantaged origins and lack of formal schooling to shine as businessmen in one of America’s oldest cities.   In other words, they had emerged “victorious in Vincennes.”


  1. When the brothers opened in Terre Haute they sold their Rye Whiskey under the name of Brookhaven IN BOTTLES FROM THE 1890 - 1910 ERA. 3 PIECE MOLD WITH EMBOSSING ON THE SHOULDER VOLUME 1 QT. There is also a Paper label that shows a Heart with BB inside and the label reads: BROOKHAVEN FINE RYE WHISKEY CONTENTS 1 QUART / BAUGH BROS. SOLE PROPRIETORS / TERRE HAUTE, VINCENNES, INDIANA.
    I just purchased a bottle from a collector in Terre Haute, Indiana and this bottle has a tooled finish with some minor small air bubbles and what appears to be a stretch mark in the glass. This is perhaps the first sample of the paper label used in Terre Haute by the Brothers. As a collector this is a very rare find.

  2. Bottled in Indiana: Thanks for your valuable addition to this vignette about the Baugh Brothers. The information relative to "Brookhaven" is particularly interesting. If you care to send me via email the image of the bottle with the paper label, I would add it giving you credit for the information and image. My email is Thanks again for being in touch.