Born in Germany about 1864, Keller moved to the United States as a young man and settled in Burlington, a Mississippi River town immediately across from Illinois. A panoramic scene shows it nestled below the river bluffs with the Mississippi at its doorstep. Keller would live there for the rest of his life. There in 1890 he would wed Katherine Spitzmueller, sometimes given as “Kate” or “Kittie.” She was four years his junior and, like him, an immigrant from Germany. The couple apparently were childless.
When Keller first established his liquor trade is not clear. A 1907 Burlington directory records him running a saloon at 213-215-217 S. Main Street, a major commercial avenue in Burlington. He and Katherine were living above the business. That was the address on a trade card he issued for “Gus Keller’s Liquor Emporium.” He advertised his stock of imported and domestic liquors, German wines, and cigars. His face appeared on the card, shown here, but has been overprinted by a bread company ad and blurred.
Keller’s advertising also made a great deal about his proximity to the railroad line — “One-half block North of Union Station.” The station is shown above. He clearly was pointing up his ability to ship liquor and beer to other parts of Iowa and even points further away, using both rail and water transport. This capability undoubtedly gained him a contract to be the agent for the Louis Obert Brewing Company in St. Louis, Missouri. A serving tray, shown right, illustrated the brewery and its owner. This was a relatively short-lived enterprise, opening in 1900 and closing with National Prohibition.
Gus Keller was a generous publican. In addition to the usual giveaway items featured in his trade, Keller gifted favored customers with the paperweight featured here. Measuring three and one-half inches in diameter and weighing just under two pounds, this is a formidable piece of glass. Near the base is a layer of colored lamp work half cones in a circle. The top, in another layer read: “Compliments of Gus Keller…Burlington, Iowa.” Although the glasshouse maker of this extraordinary piece is unknown, it must have been a relatively expensive item.
Keller would have been outraged by efforts of Iowa prohibitionists to outlaw the idea of a bartender or a fellow imbiber from “treating” someone to a free drink. The Dry forces were strong in Iowa. It had been one of the first states to outlaw selling alcohol. In 1882 the state constitution was amended to read that: “No person shall manufacture for sale, or sell, or keep for sale, as a beverage any intoxicating liquor whatever, including ale, wine and beer.”
Although the amendment was repealed in 1894, making possible Keller’s saloon, Iowa’s prohibitionists never stopped trying to narrow the scope of alcohol sales. A state legislator named Nye proposed a bill under which a saloonkeeper who furnished drinks to any person other than the one buying would be subject to a fine of up to $100 (equivalent to $2,500 today) and an automatic revocation of his business license. Such “no treat laws” were the darling of the Dry crowd nationally as one sly trick to reduce the consumption of alcohol and put pressure on saloons. Similar laws already had been adopted in the states of Washington and Montana and in a number of local communities around the U.S.
Not only did the “no treat” law mean that Gus Keller could no longer pour out a drink “on the house” to a good customer, he could no longer allow a patron to buy someone else a drink. To an open-handed man like Keller, this “no treat” must have seemed like a dirty trick indeed. He was, however, spared the full flow of the prohibition tide in Iowa when he died in 1914, at the untimely age of 51. His funeral services were held at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church and he was buried at Sacred Heart Cemetery in Burlington.
The volume of Keller’s business can be gauged by the number of whiskey, wine and beer suppliers that made claims against his estate, roughly equivalent to $75,000 today. Among them were bills from distilleries in Pennsylvania and Kentucky. They included the Hamburger Co. of Pittsburgh and J.T.S. Brown Co. of Louisville. [See my posts on Hamburger, February 2012; J.T.S. Brown, May 2012.]
The “no treat” and other prohibitionist tricks in Iowa were followed in 1916 by legislation statewide banning alcohol sales — a full four years before National Prohibition. Gus Keller was spared that most vicious trick by passing away earlier. His “treat” of an expensive giveaway paperweight remains to remind us of this generous Iowa whiskey man.