Who is the aesthete in this photo, half in shadows, so refined in dress and features and resembling Leslie Howard as Ashley in “Gone with the Wind? Is it a Southern poet? Or perhaps an artist? No, it is a Montgomery, Alabama, liquor dealer named Benjamin Sidney Griel, unusual among whiskey men as a college graduate, his school the University of Alabama.
“Bennie” Griel as he was known to family and friends, was born in Montgomery in 1872 to Jacob and Mena Lobman Griel. His father was a native of Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) who emigrated to the United States early in life, settling in Alabama. Jacob Griel was 21 when the Civil War broke out and enlisted in the 14th Alabama Infantry Regiment, assigned to F Company as a sergeant. As a result the father was part of many fierce battles, including at Williamsburg, Frazer’s Farm, Second Manassas, Antietam, and The Wilderness. The 14th Alabama surrendered at Appomattox, having lost virtually half of its original muster in combat or to disease, and almost all of its original officers.
After the war, Jacob Griel returned to Montgomery. About 1871 he met and married Mena Lobman, a woman 13 years his junior and only 18 at the time of their wedding. She had been born in Brooklyn Heights, New York. The couple would have nine children during their married life, four boys and five girls. Benjamin was their second born. The 1880 census found the family living in Montgomery; Jacob’s occupation was given as “grocer.”
As with many grocers of the era, Jacob’s principal profit center likely was selling liquor. As a result, by the time Benjamin was in his teen years, the family was wealthy enough not to have to send him off to work upon finishing secondary school. Instead, recognizing his aptitude for higher education, they sent him to the University of Alabama. Established in 1831 as an all-male military school, the university had become one of the premier colleges of the South by 1891 when Benjamin entered. During his years there, the famed Alabama “Crimson Tide” football team was established and women were admitted for the first time. Shown here is a photo of the campus as it looked in the 1890s.
Although there is no evidence that Benjamin was a football standout, he clearly was making a name for himself as a figure on campus. In his sophomore year in 1892 for example, he was chosen as a “declaimer” at a student exhibition. This honor meant that he was able to give an oratorical presentation that was judged for his speaking ability and the pertinence of the topic. He was the only sophomore declaimer from Montgomery. University records indicate Griel was graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1893.
Griel’s brief biography in a Rotary Club publication does not record his employment early in his career, but notes that subsequently he was associated in a firm called Griel Brothers. He likely was working with his older brother Naham (aka Nathan) Griel. Following in the footsteps of their father, the brothers advertised themselves as grocers but also as liquor dealers — and sometimes as druggists.
Sometime in the early 1900s, Griel Bros. disappeared from Montgomery business directories to be replaced by Benjamin S. Griel & Co., Wholesale Liquor Dealers. The educated son was on his own. Once again stoneware jugs of several designs were Griel’s containers of choice. The two shown below are said to be commonly found in Alabama. The jug below, its label with a label of cobalt shown in detail, however, recently sold at auction for $363, despite its damaged condition. Another salt-glazed stoneware featured Griel’s label in three straight lines.
Alabama pre-dated National Prohibition by five years, going dry statewide in 1915. Bennie Griel’s liquor dealership was out of business. In 1920 he almost certainly was engaging in some sardonic humor when, in response to a census-takers’s inquiry, he listed himself as the “proprietor” of an “industry” that included reading the mail and looking after children. In 1898 he had married Marian Forcheimer (aka “Forceheimer), a woman who had been born in 1877 in Mobile, Alabama, the daughter of Ferdinand and Bertha Forcheimer. The Griels had only one child, Antoinette “Toni,” born in 1902.
In actuality Griel did not stay idle long after closing his liquor business. In 1916 he became associated with the Lippmann Manufacturing Company, a Montgomery firm that made ready-to-wear clothing, specializing in overalls, skirts and blouses. Working with the Lippman brothers, he became a member of the firm and its general manager. His prominence in Montgomery business circles was evidenced by his membership in the Rotary Club, Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, and the Woodley Country Club.
Griel’s business and social responsibilities apparently did not hamper his interest in pursuing a hobby. The mood photo of Benjamin that opens this post was, believe it or not, a passport photo, taken at a time when the government obviously was less fussy about the images. It accompanied his application to take a trip aboard a banana boat out of New Orleans to three sites in Honduras.
The purpose of the trip, he said, was “collecting.” This blog has featured whiskey men who became important collectors of art and one who was a leading expert on butterflies and moths, but what was Griel collecting? The three destinations indicated on the passport application were all on the Pacific Ocean or Caribbean Sea. Thus my guess is that Griel was a big time collector of seashells.
Benjamin Griel became a widower in 1923 when his wife, Miriam, died at the early age of 47. He did not remarry. Eight years later, age 57, he followed her to the grave. Even though his seashell collection does not seem to have entered a museum, the whiskey jugs he engendered during his lifetime live on in collections in Alabama and elsewhere.
Note: Most of the Griel jugs shown here are taken from the 2009 book, “Alabama Advertising Jugs,” compiled by Bill Garland. The numbers that appear on some are from his catalogue, as are the letters that designate an item as “common” or “rare.” Many thanks to Bill for permission to use his images for this post.