Friday, August 7, 2015

The Heller Brothers Played “Hide and Seek” with Prohibition

Heller Brothers sold liquor in Bristol, a city that straddles the state line dividing Virginia and Tennessee.  As prohibitionary forces intermittently were successful on each side of the line, the brothers played an elaborate game of “hide and seek,” changing locations to avoid enforcers of the “dry” laws.  They succeeded until 1916 when they ran out of options.

Although personal data about the brothers, Maurice A. and Adolph B., are scanty, their efforts to operate their whiskey enterprise in the face of growing anti-alcohol sentiments among the public read like a epic saga.  The brothers likely originated in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and just when they arrived in Bristol is not certain.  They likely set up their liquor enterprise initially on the Tennessee side of State Street, the avenue that marks the dividing line downtown.  From June 1886 to June 1888, it was illegal to sell whiskey in Bristol, Virginia, but perfectly fine across the street in Bristol, Tennessee.
The Temperance crowd under “local option” laws had carried the day on the Virginia side of town by a vote of 364 to 216 while the Tennessee side remained “wet.”  A tacit understanding among the prohibitionists on both sides was that Bristol, Tenn., would vote out saloons at a referendum taken the following year.   When the election occurred, whiskey was voted out of Bristol by a substantial majority but the proposed ban lost statewide in Tennessee and could not be imposed.

Subsequently in 1888 a second election was held in Bristol, Va., on the liquor question and by a vote of 184 to 115 the electorate decided to go “wet” again, although surrounding communities had voted to keep the ban on alcohol.  Faced with license applications from the whiskey trade, likely including the Hellers, a friendly judge ruled that under the prevailing law he was compelled to grant saloons and liquor dealers the right to do business once again on the Virginia portion of Bristol.

Thus for a time, liquor was sold on both sides of State Street.  On their large whiskey jugs, rendered both in ceramics and glass,  Heller Bros. referenced both states on their labels.  Shot glasses advertising their brands and given to saloon customers also listed both.  The Hellers established their headquarters on the Virginia side of State Street, located in the 500 block, the front window looking out at Tennessee.  Shown above right is an illustration of the building, three stories tall, with a giant bottle ornamenting the sidewalk in front of the entrance.  The horse-drawn wagon in front bears the inscription “Southern Express.”  
That railroad express company was the largest in the South and the principal means for liquor dealers to receive whiskey from producers and to send it out to customers.  Heller Bros. claimed to be the “Largest and Oldest Mail Order Liquor House in the Entire South” and was transporting its whiskey via Southern Express into both states and perhaps beyond.  They included local areas that had voted “dry,” since interstate liquor shipments were still legal under federal statutes.  The Hellers also ran a well-stocked local retail business, featuring house brands like “Duke of Bourbon” and “King Kotton Corn” in labeled quart bottles with underlying embossing.  They issued advertising shot glasses, shown below, to favored customers.

With the success of their business, the Heller brothers expanded their operations.  In 1905, they opened a liquor store in Knoxville, Tenn., located about 115 miles from Bristol.  Knoxville directories indicate that Maurice was manager of the facility,. About this same time the brothers also opened an outlet in Middlesboro, Kentucky, probably to help them access whiskey supplies coming out of that region.  In January 1907, Heller Bros. made a third move.  They purchased the wholesale whiskey business of The James Co.,Inc., in Macon, Georgia, and changed its name to theirs.  This move likely was a error in judgment because in October of that same year, Georgia voted a statewide ban on alcohol sales. 

Another blow fell in when Bristol, Tenn., under local option voted to outlaw liquor and close saloons.  After a court battle the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the abolition and the ban took effect on November 1, 1907. The Heller brothers were undaunted.  If they could not do business on the west side of Bristol, they could move to another Tennessee town still open for the liquor trade.  Adolph Heller told the Bristol News in October 1907 that he had gone to Chattanooga and while there leased a building near the Central Depot on Market Street.  Heller Bros., he said, would occupy it and be ready for business by the November 1 deadline.

Prohibitionist successes were requiring a major reshuffling of the company’s locations.   Heller Bros. merged their Tennessee outlets in Bristol and Knoxville to open in Chattanooga.  They moved their Macon liquor business to Jacksonville, Florida.  Their headquarters continued to be in Bristol, Virginia.  Now they had outlets in four states — Tennessee, Kentucky, Florida and Virginia.

The Hellers were, however, only a two year jump ahead of Temperance forces.  In 1909 the Tennessee legislature passed Senate Bill No. 1, making it illegal to sell or consume alcoholic beverages within a four-mile radius of any public or private school — whether it was in session or not.  While it was not an all-out statewide ban, the effect of the four mile exclusionary zone was just that.  The Heller operation in Chattanooga was forced to close.  As shown here, the Hellers subsequently eliminated any mention of Tennessee on their bottles, as on the jug shown left.

Now down to three locations, the embattled Maurice and Adolph faced new challenges to their operations. In 1913 the U.S. Congress passed the Webb-Kenyon Act that banned interstate transmittal of liquor products into dry areas.  The mail order business that had been so lucrative for the Hellers — and other mail order liquor companies — came to a screeching halt.  Now they largely were limited to selling liquor in Bristol, Virginia, and in other parts of that state that were still wet.  Additionally, of course, Bristol’s thirsty Tennessee population could walk across State Street and pick up whiskey.  

The cost of business, however, had risen steeply.  Annually the Hellers were forced to renew their licenses with the state and city.  Virginia charged $500 for a retail license, $1,250 for wholesale, and if the company was “manufacturing,” a term that often included “rectifying” whiskey, i.e. blending and mixing it, the state charged another $700.  To these license costs the City of Bristol added a $2000 charge for retail, $500 for wholesale, and $3000 for manufacturing.  This means that the Hellers likely were paying just short of $8,000 annually (equivalent to almost $200,000 in current dollars).

Through these exorbitant license charges, from twelve liquor dealers (including the Hellers), Bristol in 1914 raked in $340,000 (equiv. $8.5 million).  The same twelve dealers sent the state $141,500 (equiv. $3.54 million).  Despite these windfall license fees being lost, Virginia in October 1916 voted to go completely “dry.”  In Bristol it meant the termination of four retail dealers, nine retailers and shippers (including the Hellers), one wholesale dealer, two distilleries, two beer wholesalers and one “social club.”  

Although Florida did not go dry until late 1918 and Kentucky not until National Prohibition, having been ousted from Virginia, the Heller operations in those states would have been severely hampered.  My guess is that the brothers shut them down at the same time as the Bristol headquarters, took their liquor profits, and went on with their lives.  Because both Maurice and Adolph seemingly avoided census takers, they fade into the mists of time.  Not before playing, however, an elaborate “hide-and-seek” game with Prohibition — a game that unfortunately they could not win.  
Note:  My research has thus far found little about the personal lives of the Heller brothers and I am hopeful that a relative doing genealogy will find this post and help me fill in the details about these two resourceful brothers.

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