Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Starks of Missouri: Success in Wine and Whiskey

 When George Stark (sometimes “Starck), first viewed the shores of America in 1866 at age twenty-three, he could hardly have imagined that he would create a family empire responsible for making Missouri the largest producer of wine in the Nation before moving on to distilling and selling whiskey.  

Shown here in maturity, Stark was born in Rhine-Hessen, Germany, in October, 1845, and may have had some experience in the Rhenish wine industry as a youth.  A later passport application gave a description of the youthful Starks.  He measured five feet, ten inches tall, and was recorded having an oval face marked by a “florid” complexion, brown hair and a brown beard.  After arriving in the U.S., Starks lived in New York City for about six months, before moving to Hermann, Missouri.  As shown below, the lands surrounding this city in the Missouri River valley had characteristics similar to the German wine lands and German immigrants established vineyards and wineries on both sides of the river.

When Stark arrived in Missouri he found an already robust wine industry at Hermann and went to work for a local wine company located on a hill at the southern end of the town.  He worked his way up in the firm over time and by the late 1870s had become a manager. In 1883, Stark and a partner bought the winery and re-named it the Stone Hill Wine Company.  After working ten years under this arrangement, the partner left and George became the sole proprietor.

Under Stark’s leadership, Stone Hill became the second largest winery in America and reputed to be the third largest in the world, producing an estimated million gallons of wine annually, with a total capacity of 1.5 million gallons.  In addition to wine, the company distilled brandy and operated a bottling plant in St. Louis.  By virtue of Stark’s efforts Missouri in the mid-1880 was producing more wine by volume than any other state.

Meanwhile George was having a personal life.  In 1872 he married Laura Feldmann, the daughter of Dr. John Feldmann, a Hermann physician.  At the time of their nuptials, he was 27 and Laura was 18.  Their marriage resulted in the birth of four children:  Ottmar George, Laura, Olinda and Louis John.   In 1885, their father had achieved sufficient wealth to build a large brick mansion on an estate at the outskirts of Hermann.  Two stories with a French mansard roof, the house, accounted the most expensive in the county, was heated by steam and lighted by gas manufactured on the premises.

Stark’s wealth also allowed him to provide his children with advanced educations.  After attending local Hermann public schools, Ottmar was sent to the Toenfeldt Educational Institute in St. Louis and then to the Bryant & Stratton Business College there;  Louis was sent to the Christian Brothers College in St. Louis and then to the same business school.  Both sons were being groomed to take management roles in the Stone Hill Wine Company.  When Stark incorporated his company in 1898, Ottmar and Louis became officers and directors.
Apparently seeking another outlet for his wine Starks about 1894 established a new company, locating it at 14 North Fourth Street in St. Louis, initially calling it the "Great Western Wine Company." George was the president and Ottmar was a vice president.  This company was a wine wholesaler.  Not long after the end of the Spanish American war that firm issued a serving tray honoring the hero of Manila Bay, Admiral Dewey.

About 1900 — perhaps under the impetus of the sons — the name became the Great Western Wine and Liquor Company and the company moved to the southwest corner of Fourth and Market Streets.  From an illustration of the building, it appears that the Starks had an extensive first floor store.  With the move into liquor,  the family created their own brand of whiskey, calling it “Old Stark Whiskey,” trademarking the name in 1906.  The label for this brand was marked by a star and a “K,” a play on the family name.  
By going into the hard stuff, the Starks soon recognized a problem faced by many liquor wholesalers — lack of supplies.  Changing the name of Great Western to the Stark Distilling Company, they bought an interest in the Tom Moore distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky,  to provide them with a steady flow of bourbon and rye.   

The investment also allowed the Starks to feature a number of proprietary brands, including "Aero Club,” “Ashwood,” "Belle of Ozark,” “Gasconade,” “Hahatonka Rye,” ”Marshall,” "Old Gobbler,” and "Stone Hill."  In 1915, the Starks trademarked Old Gobbler, Hahatonka, and Gasconade, the last a reference to the county in which the city of Hermann was located.  They also featured their own brand of gin, “Lord Salisbury.”  Like other wholesalers, the Starks issued shot glasses and other giveaways to favored customers featuring their brands. 

By this time George Stark was aging and had cut back on his business activities.  Ottmar was the president and secretary of Stark Distillery Company and Louis was vice president and treasurer.  Both also held executive positions in the Stone Hill Wine Company.  In 1901 Ottmar had married Helen A. Hahn and the couple would have six children.  Louis married in 1908, to a St. Louis girl named Mae Ralwond.  No children were cited in Louis’ biography published in 1919.

By that year both senior Starks had passed.  Mother Laura had died in 1916 and George a year later.  The “founding father” of the Stark wine and liquor empire was seventy-two years old.  The couple were buried in the Hermann Cemetery in the shadow of a large monument that featured a mourning figure.  It stands over a gravestone where George Stark is remembered “as our dear Papa.”

By dying when he did, George was spared the blows of fortune that were to befall his legacy. Not so his sons. Soon after his death anti-German sentiment aroused by World War One caused a decline of business at the winery.  The coming of National Prohibition in 1920 forced termination of both the Stark Distilling Company and the winery.  During this same period disease struck the Starks’ vineyards; Ottmar and Louis ordered them destroyed and then sold the land.  By 1923, the Stone Hill cellars were being used for mushroom cultivation.

In summary, the major contribution of George Stark and his sons was not in whiskey.  The family was only one of a number of St. Louis liquor wholesalers and their brands never reached wide national attention.  In wine, however, the Starks can be credited with making Missouri the Nation’s second largest wine-producing state.   Moreover, as a result of winning awards at the 1873 World Exposition in Vienna,  the family was instrumental in American vintages gaining global recognition.   

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