As shown here left, the Common Raven (corvus corax) is larger than the American Crow (corvus brachyrhynchos). When Charles A. Knecht of Cleveland, Ohio, was forced to defend his “Raven Valley” brand of whiskey against a suit by W.A. Gaines, Kentucky maker of “Old Crow,” however, the crow clearly was the biggest bird in the room. There ensued a high stakes tussle that ended in the U.S. Court of Appeals with a result that may have come as a surprise to both parties.
Charles Knecht was an immigrant from Germany, born in October 1836 in Baden, the son of Martin and Catherine Knecht. At the age of 16 in 1852, he left his homeland for America, ultimately settling in Cleveland. While still in his early 20s, Charles married a women named Charlotte who also had been born in Germany and was just out of her teens when they wed. The newlyweds lived in Cleveland’s Sixth Ward where they began their family. Their firstborn was Louis, born in 1861; followed by John in 1864, Augusta in 1867, and Cora Rose in 1875.
During those early years Knecht apparently was learning the whiskey trade working for one of the many Cleveland retail and wholesale liquor dealers. He first surfaced in the city directories in 1882 as a partner in Knecht & Canfeld, a liquor wholesaler. Their business was located at 95 Bank Street, an address that earlier had been a depot for the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a location not far from the Cleveland Armory.
By 1886, Knecht had broken away from Canfield and begun a liquor business on his own, taking with him his son, Louis, now 25 years old. They called the company “C.A. Knecht & Son” and were located initially at 123 Water Street. By 1888 the Knechts, likely needing more space for their business, moved to Champlain Street (later Avenue), shown here in 1909.
Like many wholesale liquor dealers, the Knechts were purchasing whiskey from distilleries and “rectifying” it, that is, mixing and blending it to achieve a certain taste and color, then bottling it under their own label and proprietary name. The father and son combo concentrated on only a single brand, one they called “Raven Valley Whiskey.” Shown here on an advertising paperweight, the illustration was of three stylized birds, presumably ravens, sitting on a leafy branch.
C. A. Knecht & Son had been selling this brand for more than a dozen years without trademarking it. Early on the laws for such were not very effective and many liquor dealers avoided the costly and sometimes lengthy process. In 1905, however, Congress amended the law to enhance trademark protection. That development likely spurred the Knechts to apply for registration to the Patent and Trademark Office in April 1905. As shown below, their application described the mark as “The words ‘Raven Valley,’ beneath which is a representation of three ravens perched upon the branches of tree.” Although all of this seems straightforward and innocent enough, it would bring down on the Knechts the fury of one of the most powerful distillers in Kentucky, W. A. Gaines of Frankfort.
Owned by a cartel of high powered Eastern investors led by Edson Bradley [see my post on Bradley, Sept. 2011], the Gaines company had trademarked “Old Crow” as early as 1882, and again in 1898 and a third time in 1904. The Kentucky distiller constantly was facing trademark challenges from distillers and whiskey wholesalers, appropriating or approximating the label, hoping to profit on the national popularity of the brand. Often offenders argued that the name referred not to the bird but to Elijah Crow, the man often given credit for inventing bourbon whiskey, and since no one knew his exact recipe, it was “open season” on the name. Gaines was featuring the image of a crow on its advertising. Some representations, as shown here, were crude but recognizable as a crow.
The several ownerships of the Old Crow brand through the years constantly have been in litigation of some kind. The image above, labeled “The Court Rules Again in Favor of Old Crow,” was part of an 1949 ad that ran major magazines. It also informed the public: “During the first century of its distinguished history, some 1,800 writs, summons, desists were circulated to prevent the imitation of the Old Crow name and label.”
Even though Gaines had not reached 1,800 legal actions by 1905, it almost always had been successful in court. When word of the trademark application for “Raven Valley” reached Gaines executives, they took immediate legal action alleging that the name and image violated their trademark. When the Commissioner of Patents ignored their protest and approved the application, the Old Crow crew appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia.
The Gaines legal challenges must have caused a great deal of concern on the part of the Knechts. Not only did they have the expense of defending Raven Valley Whiskey against a “deep pockets” foe, but if they lost it would only be a matter of time before they would be served a desist order and their flagship brand would have to be terminated under pain of law. While this was uncharted territory for the Cleveland company, the Gaines outfit by contrast could count on highly-paid, well-practiced attorneys to handle the case. Brimming with confidence, its attorneys contended that the ravens would “naturally lead to a confusion and enable the applicants [Knechts] to perpetrate a fraud.”
In the end, however, the appeals court disagreed and judges’ opinion stated, in part, “when the words ‘Raven Valley’ are considered they are so different from the words ‘Old Crow’ that any confusion or deception would be very improbable.” While noting that ravens and crows were both birds, the Court also found no similarity in their depiction on the whiskeys. When Gaines owners sought to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, the high court denied them a hearing. Almost improbably, the Knechts had won. The Ohio raven had triumphed over the Kentucky crow.
Sadly, Charles Knecht did not live long enough to see the favorable outcome of the trial, dying in May 1905 at the age of 69. With his widow, Catherine, and his four children grieving by his graveside he was interred in Cleveland’s Woodland Cemetery. His gravestone is shown here. The company that bore his name continued to do brisk business under the leadership of his son, Louis. In 1911 at the age of 50 Louis suddenly died, however, and with his death the Knecht wholesale liquor company and “Raven Valley Whiskey” shortly after were terminated as well.
Afterword: Some further comments seem appropriate on the image of the Old Crow, as it changed over time. As shown here, in the 1940s the crow became a dandified gent with top hat, bow tie, vest and spats. A cartoon of that era was headlined “How to distinguish a Raven from a Crow.” It declares the raven is bigger and takes a swipe at Old Crow and its anthropomorphized corvid.