Sunday, September 6, 2015

Lacy Holt’s “Out of Time” North Carolina Whiskey

“Private Wightman passed on taking a drink…but he dlid read the writing on the vessels as he passed them on.  ‘Lacey Holt Distillery, Graham, N.C.,’ and he looked at me, ‘Yeah, looks like the Lieutenant got a gift from home just for us.

“A couple of times around our squad and that old jug of Mr. Holt’s was as dry as a creek bed in the middle of a summer drought…”I…remember John Henry getting Mr. Booger to let us have a taste of Lacy Holt’s finest,”  I said.  Joseph reached up, scratched his head and said, “Little Brother, Mr. Booger may have given you and John Henry a taste but that corn whiskey never touched my lips.”  — a passage from the 2007 Civil War novel, “The Underground Brotherhood,” by Franklin Martin Kimball. 

If Albert Lacy Holt had been alive in 2007, he might have been proud to have his whiskey mentioned so prominently and praised in print.  But he also would have been considerably puzzled. Lacy Holt was born in 1867, two years after the end of the Civil War.  His whiskey in a variety of jugs did not appear until several decades later.

This Holt was from a long lineage of North Carolinians.  He could trace his ancestry there back to the 1700s.  His father, Sidney Brower Holt had been born in 1834 in Orange County, moving to Alamance County and Graham as a young man.  There in 1866 he married Lacy’s mother, Mary Ann  Roney, the daughter of Benjamin and Delilah M. Roney.  She also had been born in Orange County.  A year later Lacy was born, the first of four children.
Sidney Holt was a farmer and like many farmers at the time it is likely that he ran a small distillery on his homestead.  Growing corn as his principal crop, he recognized the “value added” of making some of it into whiskey.  Most of this product would have been sold locally to neighbors or people stopping off at the Holt farm near Graham, shown above.  Lacy may well have been learning distilling, as well as agricultural skills, from his father as a child.
The 1900 U.S. Census found Lacy Holt farming on land that, as the eldest son, he likely inherited from his father, who died in 1895.  This farm was located near Great Alamance Creek, adjacent to the covered bridge that is now a historical landmark along Highway 87.  By 1900 Holt had created a larger distillery, one that was engaged in creating a considerable number of barrels annually and selling whiskey to a wide customer base in Alamance County and beyond.  Holt was noted for having kept barrels sitting on shelves of his distillery with tags stating the age of the whiskey.

Most of all, however, Holt became known for being the first whiskey-maker in the region to have jugs made with a label advertising his distillery.  Shown throughout this vignette are the variety of ceramic containers that he commissioned from the some of the area potteries.  His jugs range in size from several gallons to half gallons and Bristol glazed with cobalt blue labels to those with brown Albany slip tops.

By 1900 Holt also had been married four years.  His wife was Ora Wood, a woman nine years his junior and a North Carolinian by birth.  They married in Alamance County.  Their first child, a girl, was born in 1901, followed by two boys and a girl, born over the next dozen years.
As another indication of Holt’s expanded facility was his registering his operation with Federal authorities and accepting government regulation.  His plant was designated Registered Distillery #2092, located in North Carolinia’s Tax District No. 4.  Incomplete records show Holt making a number of transactions from 1898 to 1904 — storing and subsequently removing whiskey for sale. The clear implication is that he was carrying on an active liquor business.
As the 20th Century moved on, however, North Carolina increasingly was putting strictures on sales of alcohol.  After a number of counties and communities had gone “dry” under local option laws, a statewide prohibition was imposed in 1909.  If Holt had not shut down his distillery earlier in anticipation of the ban, he would have been forced to before its imposition.  

The 1920 census found Lacy and Ora off the farm and living in Graham on Melville Street.  Holt was running a store with a partner named C.L. Howard that they called the Graham Grocery. It was located on Main Street near the Alamance Court House, shown below.  Holt appears to have operated this business for a number of years until a chronic heart condition caused his retirement.  He died in 1930, the cause given as  “heart failure,” and was buried in Graham’s Linwood Cemetery.  His gravestone is shown here.  Ora, his widow, would join him there 37 years later.  
Meanwhile the excellence of Lacy Holt’s whiskey may have taken on  mythic significance in Alamance County and perhaps even elsewhere in North Carolina.  His liquor was sufficiently iconic to have merited attention in Kimball’s Civil War novel.  The author’s introduction  warns that:  “Certain characters in this work are historical figures and certain events did take place.  However, this is a work of fiction.”   

My guess is that Mr. Kimball thought Holt and his whiskey were among the historical elements.  Unfortunately, Holt was unable to oblige — being born two years after the Civil War ended. In this instance his distillery literally was cited “out of time.”  But Lacy Holt likely would have greeted this obviously erroneous reference with a grateful but wry smile.


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