Saturday, September 26, 2015

Tom Megibben Was a Man of Many Distilleries

An American distillery owner most usually was engaged in just one such whiskey-making operation, although occasionally a proprietor might have two plants under management at one time.  An exception was Thomas Jefferson (T.J. or “Tom”) Megibben who controlled multiple Kentucky distilleries and at his death was said to have “an interest” in at least six.  Shown right,  Megibben is a whiskey man whose story can be told through a list of distilleries.
Findley & Foley Distillery.   Megibben was born in 1831 in the Ohio river town of Neville, Clermont County, Ohio, the son of William and Emily (Galvin) Megibben.  Educated in the Neville schools until the age of 16, he left school to make his own living, finding employment as an employee in a local distillery.   He quickly learned the whiskey-making trade and after two year, relocated to Cynthiana, Kentucky, a town in the north central part of the state and the seat of Harrison County,  located about half way between Cincinnati and Lexington.  There in January 1849 Megibben took a job with Findley & Foley Distillery.

These partners had established a distillery near Broadwell, Kentucky, several years earlier.  They hired Megibben initially as their assistant chief distiller.   After spending a year working in that capacity he so impressed the proprietors that they made him the chief distiller.   He stayed in that job until about 1854 when a severe drought hit that region of Kentucky and the corn failure halted any distilling.  One biography says Megibben then “engaged in [unnnamed] agricultural pursuits.”

Megibben had strong incentives to keep working.  In June 1853 he had married Elizabeth J. David, the daughter of Simon and Nancy (Brown) David of Harrison County.  Elizabeth has been  described as “a lady of most exemplary character, pleasing address, and good judgment, and well worthy to be the life companion…”  The Megibben’s first child, Mary Loraine, was born a year later.  In time there would seven other children, a total of four sons and four daughters.

Megilbben & Bramble “Excelsior” Distillery.  In the early 1850s with a partner, C. Bramble, Megibben struck out on is own, building a distillery near his home in Cynthiana at a place called Lair’s Station.  The flagship brand was “Excelsior Whiskey” and the distillery became known by that name.  Tom took his brother, James, into the business with him at this facility.  By the early 1800s, Megibben’s plant had a mashing capacity of 700 bushels and three warehouses with a capacity of 17,500 barrels.  A on-premises cooperage shop could turn out fifty barrels a day and at peak the distillery employed forty hands.  Annual production of Excelsior and other company brands was 8,000 barrels while an additional 11,000 barrels were aging in bond.  In 1868 this extensive operation was turned over to a Megibben nephew.
The Edgewater Distillery.  Not content with running only a single distillery Megibben during the 1850s purchased an existing plant that had been established in 1836, owned and operated Benjamin Brandon as part of a a grist mill and whiskey-making complex.  After passing through several proprietorships, about 1855 it was leased for three years to Megibben and two partners.  The lease included twenty-five acres of farm land on which cattle could be kept to feed spent mash.  The venture proved very profitable and before the end of the three years, Megibben, after buying out his partners, purchased the entire property.  It included the distillery, “all the appurtenances thereto belonging,” and a 200 acre farm.
As sole owner, Megibben lost no time in improving and expanding the distillery.   As shown above, it was expanded over time into a large complex, featuring five warehouses with the capacity to hold 25,000 barrels of aging whiskey.  According to insurance records, the distillery itself was of frame construction with a metal or slate roof.  The warehouses included three adjoining bonded buildings constructed of brick with metal roofs, a separated iron-clad bonded stone warehouse located 250 feet southwest of the still, and a “free” (non-bonded) stone warehouse with a shingle roof, located 120 feet east of the still.

According to an 1893 report on Megibben’s Edgewater distillery:   “The warehouses…are constructed after the most approved plans for the maturing of the product and are lighted by immense skylights which give a perfect flood of light and safe so arranged that the reflected rays of the sun are thrown upon the entire space.  The whiskey is still further matured by the use of steam-heat which is forced by steel blowers to all parts of the houses.”

His flagship brands became “Edgewater Sour Mash Whiskey” and “Edgewater Rye.”  Megibben put his own portrait on the labels, perhaps as an indication in his pride in the product. He merchandised these whiskeys vigorously throughout the country, finding a ready customer base because of their quality.  It was one of the Kentucky brands specially featured at the 1893 Columbian World’s Fair in Chicago.  A Kentucky publication boasted that Edgewater Whiskey “is to be found in nearly every first-class hotel and bar in this country.

Over time Megibben continued to add parcels to his holdings until he had accrued some 3,000 acres.  Shown below is a line drawing of the estate he created for himself and his large family not far from the distillery complex.  These holdings allowed him during the 1860s to become known as a breeder of fine cattle. Willing to pay big money for prize bulls, Megibben assembled a herd that was said to be one of the finest in the United States.  He also was breeding high-grade sheep.
The Ashland Distillery.  His lust to own distilleries not yet satisfied, Megibben early in the 1870s became a partner in the Ashland Distillery, located on Manchester Street (Frankfort Pike) immediately in Lexington, Kentucky.  Shown below, this plant on eleven acres had been established in 1865, produced the “Ashland Whiskey,” brand, and had gone through several ownerships before closing.  Dates differ, but about 1871 Megibben, with well-known whiskey entrepreneur, William Tarr, acquired the distillery and restarted production.  [See my post on William Tarr, February 2015.]  The partners continued to produce the Ashland brand and introduced “Wm. Tarr Whiskey.”   Both brands came in bourbon and rye versions.
In May 1879, a fire destroyed the distillery, one that largely had been constructed of wood.  This disaster forced the city fathers of Lexington to establish a waterworks to provide a year around supply of water to fight fires and thereby lower insurance rates.  With this safeguard the distillery was reorganized during which Megibben became a director, owning 40%, and his son-in-law, Joseph M.  Kimbrough the plant manager.  Shown here, the plant was rebuilt at a cost of $75,000 (almost $2 million today).  By 1882 the output was approximately 45 barrels a day with 18,000 barrels in bonded storage in two warehouses, both adjacent to a railroad spur.

The Van Hook Distillery.  Not long after acquiring the Ashland Distillery, Megibben struck again, purchasing the Van Hook Distillery in Harrison County, shown below.  Although scholars disagree on the origins of this facility, they agree that it was destroyed by fire in 1869 and rebuilt the same year.  At the time of McGibben’s purchase, during the early 1880s, the distillery had a mashing capacity of 300 bushels per day and produced 3,000 barrels of whiskey annually, with 6,000 barrels held in bond. The size of the distillery was 35 x 55 feet and rose three floors. Three brick warehouses with a capacity of 7,500 barrels could be found on the grounds, containing L. Van Hook Pure Bourbon.  A cooper’s shop attached to the still turned out 4,000 barrels.  Waste from the mash fed 150 cattle and 400 hogs. Shipments from the warehouses were made via the Kentucky Central Railroad from Cynthiana.

After operating the Van Hook Distillery for a few years with continuing success, Megibben sold the property to another son-in-law, Felix S. Ashbrook.  By this time he had become the largest landowner in Harrison County.  His abundant energies included horse racing.  In 1872 he bought his first thoroughbred horse and eventually ran a stable of fifty thoroughbreds and a hundred trotters and pacers.  His horses competed in the Kentucky Derby in 1882 and again in 1884.  Neither won.
The Paris Distillery.  Shown above, this whiskey manufactory had been built in 1860, located about half mile from Paris, Kentucky, on the Kentucky Central Railroad. It had been operated under at least two ownerships by the 1880s when Megibben got involved.  This facility produced a whiskey called “Paris Distillery Hand Made Sour Mash.”   The daily mashing capacity was 412 barrels per day and boasted a warehouse storage capacity of 15,000 barrels.  The warehouses were five, four bonded of brick construction and one free, iron clad.  The distillery was frame and the property included a frame cattle shed 225 feet west of the still.  By 1884 Megibben also was in charge of managing this distillery.
While just keeping track of these many business activities might have been too much for an ordinary man,  Megibben also found time for politics.  He first was elected to the Kentucky State House of Representatives from Harrison County in 1871.  According to a biographer:  “By being always vigilant and watchful, regarding the best interests his constituency and singularly prompt in devising measures best adapted to their wants…,” he was elected to a second term.  In 1879 he was elected to the State Senate, serving one term.  A delegate to a Democratic convention that nominated Grover Cleveland, Megibben was a familiar figure in Kentucky Democratic circles and his mansion home, shown here, a frequent political gathering place. 

Megibben also fulfilled the old adage, “If you want something done, give it to a busy person.”  In addition to his many business and political interests, he often was tapped for other leadership roles.   He founded the Latonia Track and Jockey Club, was president of the Shorthorn Cattle Breeders Association of Chicago, and president of the Kentucky Trotting Horse Breeders Association from 1873 until 1882. McGibben was elected the first president of the Kentucky Distillers Association at its 1880 initial meeting in Louisville.  He continued to be active in the organization until his death.  

At the End.  When T. J. McGibben died in January 1890 at the age of 59, his obituaries noted, seemingly in awe, that he continued to have an interest in six Kentucky distilleries.  Extra trains were run to Cynthiana from both Cincinnati and Lexington to bring some 300 mourners to his funeral services.  A lengthy procession led from the church to the Battle Grove Cemetery where he was laid to rest in Section G, Lot 4.  A tall stone pillar marks the place.

McGibben was the object of many tributes after his death.  Among them, is one from the Frankfort Capitol that captured the man rather than the titan of Kentucky whiskey.  In part it read:  “Modest as a woman, gentle as a child, ‘Tom’ McGibben, as those who loved him loved best to call him, never betrayed a trust, never faltered in his devotion to a friend or forgot to keep his plighted faith to any man.”

Note:  T.J. McGibben was given considerable biographical attention after his death, the information on which much of this post is drawn.  Most important was the 1882 volume, History of Bourbon, Scott, Harrison and Nicholas Counties, by William H. Perrin. 


  1. I am a relative of T.J. Megibben. I believe he would be my great great great uncle. I would love to learn more about him if you have anything.

  2. Dear Justin Shirley: You are privileged in having such a distinguished ancestor. I had not looked at the Megibben post in some time but just re-read it as a prelude to writing you. It was a bigger task than usual trying to capture his activities. I really threw a lot into the vignette and have nothing more to enlighten you. One suggestion: You should be able to find the Perrin book, referenced above, online. Its biography of Megibben may have material I did not cover. You may find additional material by researching his political career in more depth than I did.

  3. I have an old Van Hook back bottle with white enamel letters no label. Would you have any idea when this would be? Would you know exactly where in Cynthiana The distillery was located? I live in Cynthiana and my dad found the bottle in an old railroad house behind the fertilize plant.

  4. Stacey: Sounds as if you have a very interesting bottle. No label is not a problem. It likely never had one except the white enamel. Dating this back of the bar bottle is difficult. After a fire the plant got going on a larger scale in the 1880s and did not close until 1920 -- a long time frame and the bottle could have been issued any time during that period. As for the Van Hook exact location in Hamilton County, I have no information. Sorry.