Friday, January 1, 2016

The Whiskey Garretts of Georgia and Their Retreat to Baltimore

Joseph S. Garrett, the “pater familias" of the Garretts of Columbus, Georgia, accurately divined the catastrophic results of an 1885 state law allowing counties and towns by “local option” to ban alcohol sales.   Known for his bravery as a Confederate soldier, Joseph, shown left, decided not to fight this time but to stage a strategic retreat and sent his three sons to Baltimore to sell whiskey and — he hoped — prosper.

Garrett was born in Rockingham County, North Carolina, in 1831, the son of a rich planter and slave holder named George W. Garrett.  His father was able to give Joseph a good schooling, sending him to an academy in Trinity, N.C., and then to advanced education at the Holbrook Academy in Danville, Virginia.

In 1856 at the age of 25, Joseph relocated to Muscogee County, Georgia,  where in May 1857 he married Virginia E. Heard.  Apparently restless, within several months he had moved with his new bride to Mississippi, working on a plantation there until sometime in 1860 when he relocated again to Russell County, Alabama.  Garrett was there when the Civil War broke out and in August, 1862, leaving his wife and two children, he enlisted as a private in Company C of the Seventh Alabama Cavalry.  

Given his advanced education and maturity, Garrett soon was elevated to lieutenant and subsequently captain of Company C, finally being promoted to the commanding colonel of the Seventh Alabama Cavalry, part of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s forces.  Despite seeing considerable combat in such battles as Spring Hill, Franklin, Nashville and Johnson’s Landing, Garrett never was wounded or captured.  With the end of the war he moved his growing family back to Muscogee County and the city of Columbus, Georgia.  He would reside in that county with wife Virginia for the rest of his life.

By 1867 Garrett had opened a grocery wholesale business whose principal products were whiskey and tobacco, said to be the first store of its kind in Columbus.  The business flourished and as his sons Robert V.  and George J. grew to manhood, he took them into the firm, calling it “Garrett & Sons.”  With his growing wealth, Joseph S. in 1881 built a mansion home for his family in Columbus at 1402 Second Avenue.   Shown above, the house is considered a fine example of Queen Anne architecture and is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.  As his business continued to expand, two years later Garrett built a new store for a business increasingly relying on whiskey sales.  Shown here, it still stands with an historical marker outside.

All the while, Joseph S. was keeping an eye on Prohibitionary forces in Georgia that clearly were on the march.   Many attempts were being made to persuade the State Legislature to enact restrictive liquor legislation.  Finally in 1885, a law was passed granting voters the right to impose bans on alcohol sales in the county where they lived.  Under this so-called “local option” provision most Georgia counties would vote themselves dry by 1907.  Garrett early saw what was coming and by 1900 had shut down his liquor business in Columbus.

But Garrett was far from giving up on the whiskey trade.  He looked to Baltimore, Maryland, as likely place for a new start.   Sixty-eight years old by now and appointed by Republican President McKinley as the postmaster of Columbus, Joseph S. dispatched his sons to the effort.  Robert, 28, and George, 27, with financing from their father and a local partner named Williams, about 1899 established a liquor dealership called “Garrett-Williams Co.,”  located at the southwest corner of Light and Lombard Streets in downtown Baltimore.  
The company was rectifying— blending and mixing — whiskey, featuring a number of proprietary brands.  They included "Garrett's Golden Crow,” “Hagerdorn,” "Harry Bassett,” “Jubilee,” "Old 49,” "Original X X X Baker Rye", and "Solace Baltimore Rye.”  Another label, “Jerry Lynch Maryland Malt” apparently hailed a man who called himself company “distiller.”  In truth, Lynch probably was the man doing the back room blending.
The Garretts appear to have trademarked only a few of these brand, Harry Basset in 1906, Jubilee in 1907, and Solace Baltimore in 1899.  This last whiskey brand may have reflected that Baltimore was solace for the Garretts after they were closed down in Georgia.  Some of their whiskey was sold in flasks bearing the embossed motto:  “Honest Measure.”  

In 1902, Garrett sent a third son, Joseph B., to Baltimore to assist his brothers in a business that rapidly was gaining a national client base.  Described as “of a genial disposition” Joseph B. added financial talents to the firm.  About year after his arrival the three Garrett boys decided to relocate their operations to 45 South Gay Street.  That  move proved to be disastrous when the store was within the area burned out in the great Baltimore fire of 1904. Within a short time, however, Garrett-Williams was back in business at 610 Forrest East, moving in 1906 to its final location at 205 West Camden Street. 

While their financier father looked on from his Muscogee County plantation where he moved in 1910 after selling the Columbus mansion, the Garrett boys continued to prosper in Baltimore.  One reason was their generosity with give-away items to favored customers.  Shown here is a complimentary mini-jug that contained a couple of sips of Baker XXXX Rye.   The Garretts also gift celluloid backed pocket mirrors that were remarkably risqué for such objects.
The Garrett’s road, however, was not free of bumps.  In 1907 they were forced to sue a Vermont druggist and liquor dealer named Fenn who purchased three barrels of “Old 49” whiskey on credit and promptly went bankrupt. The case involved the validity of the Garrett-Williams claim in bankruptcy and hinged partially on the role of George in making the sale.  Joseph B., described as the “treasurer and credit man,” testified that his older brother “was merely a traveling salesman soliciting orders on the road and he had no authority….”  The court bought the argument and allowed the Garrett-Williams claim.  I imagine the brothers had a good laugh over that one since George, in fact, was the boss.

Another case embroiled the firm in Georgia courts when Joseph Stump, a liquor dealer in De Soto, Georgia, sued them for libeling him, after firing him as their traveling salesman because he was under suspicion of arson.  The Supreme Court of Georgia threw out the indictment.  Once again the Garretts won.

They would not have the same good fortune dealing with investigations by two state departments of agriculture about their whiskey.  After testing a half-pint of Garrett’s Private Stock Whiskey, officials in Florida declared it to be: “Illegal. Misbranded.  No statement of alcohol content.”   Earlier a similar office in North Carolina tested Garrett’s Old Baker Rye to report that in addition to whiskey it included pure alcohol, water and artificial coloring.

By 1919, of course, National Prohibition was on the horizon.  The days of Garrett-Williams and the Baltimore sactuary were over.  When the company shut its doors, the brothers scattered. Robert went to Youngstown, Ohio, and George hied back to Georgia.  At the age of 52 George had married a woman 25 years his junior and subsequently fathered four children.  He spent the rest of his life on the family plantation watching the kids grow up, fox hunting, and devoting himself to the “breeding and researching of the July strain of the American foxhound,” becoming a nationally recognized expert on the breed.
Brother Joseph B. remained in Baltimore but died in 1922 at the relatively young age of 53.  His body was returned to Georgia and, while his father, brothers, and relatives grieved by the burial site, was interred in the Whitley Cemetery in Midlands.  Three years later,  Father Joseph S., 94 years of age, died of bronchial pneumonia after three days in City Hospital, Columbus.  His gravestone is shown above.  George lived until 1947 when he succumbed to pancreatic cancer.  He also is buried at Midlands, not far from his parents and brother.

The story of the Garretts is one of a father’s foresight and his sons’ hard work and business genius.  When Garrett & Sons Co. was understood by Joseph S., to be an ill-fated Georgia business, he perpetuated family success and prosperity by sending his three sons 800 miles away to a foreign state and city to establish another whiskey enterprise.  Thus Garrett-Williams Co. was born and flourished.   In the end, of course, prohibitionary forces doomed both — but not before the Garretts triumphed.


  1. Excellent blog, curious though, what is the huge building featured bottom right near corner of the locally popular 1866 Perspective Map of Columbus, GA? It's titled Garrett & Sons Cigars & Tobacco.

  2. Unknown: Thanks for bringing the Garrett and Sons Cigars & Tobacco business to my attention. Did not know about it but am not surprised. Joseph Garrett, just back from the Civil War, may well have started out in the cigar trade, as others did. I note in the post that by 1867 he was involved in liquor AND tobacco. My estimate is that the profit margin being larger on liquor than tobacco caused a number of entrepreneurs like Garrett to combine them. There are quite a few examples of similar behavior among "whiskey men." I will check out the map, however, and add it to my file on the Garretts. Also thanks for your kind remarks on my blog.