Tuesday, January 26, 2016

“Torrents of Fire”: The Trials of Franklin Corning, Peoria Distiller

 No American distiller before or since has ever been faced with the death and destruction that plagued Franklin Tracy Corning during an period of just over five years when three major disasters in succession ravaged his Peoria, Illinois, distillery.  As one writer described it, Corning faced “torrents of fire.”  He never wavered, however, in his determination to continue to make whiskey.

Corning, born in 1851, was the oldest son in a family with deep roots in Ohio.  About 1813 His great-grandfather had trekked with a six horse team and a covered wagon from New Hampshire to Northern Ohio where he settled.  Considered a ground-breaking pioneer, Colonel Corning prospered, building a fortune that grew with his descendants, several of whom were involved in distilling.  Franklin grew up in the Cleveland mansion shown above, built by his father, Warren, a wealthy businessman who had inherited a manufacturing and distilling business from his father.

The 1870 census found the Corning family there.  Warren, 40 years old, was listed as a wholesale liquor dealer.  Franklin at 19 was employed as a clerk in the business.  Meanwhile the father was expanding the reach of Corning & Co.  As a biographer explained:  “As Cleveland was remote from the the great grain belt from which the distilling interests obtained its raw material, a plant was established at Peoria, Illinois.”  Warren Corning headed the operation but continued to live in Cleveland.  Apparently finding this arrangement difficult to manage, he dispatched Franklin to Peoria to look after the family interests.

Meanwhile the younger Corning had married.  In May 1875 Franklin wed Frances DeForest, known to friends and family as “Fannie.” He was 24 and she was 21.  I can find no children born of their union.  Exactly when this couple was uprooted from their Cleveland home is unclear, likely around 1880, but they soon settled into their new surroundings in Peoria.  The Corning family’s initial investment appears to have been in an existing plant called Monarch Distilling.  Corning & Company existed as a separate but related business, reputedly beginning as a rectifying house, that is, blending and mixing whiskeys obtained elsewhere to achieve desired taste and color.
As indicated in a Patent & Trademark publication, about the same time the Cornings adopted “Old Quaker” as the name of their flagship rye whiskey, a brand name destined to outlive them and National Prohibition.  The essential feature of their design was the representation of a male in Quaker dress, two sheaves of grain, a sack, and three barrels, one placed upon the others.  Said to have been used by Corning & Co. since 1878, the brand finally was trademarked in 1894. The Old Quaker designation would be a constant in the Cornings' distilling, to be found on labels and embossed on bottles. 

Over time, the Cornings would produce whiskey under a number of brand names.  They included: "Big Hollow S. M.,” “Chancellor,” "Corning's Canadian Type,” “Coronet,” "Fairlawn Bourbon,” "Hampton Rye,” "Haviland Rye,”"Lee Newton’s,” "Monarch Mills Rye,” "Mountain Corn,” "Mt. Pleasant,” "Newton Bourbon,”  "Redcliff Rye,” and "The Silent Spring."

The 1903 Disaster.  Despite mourning the death of his forty-four year old wife in 1899, Franklin decided only months later to build a distillery adjacent to the Monarch facility.  The new plant would carry the Corning name.  It had the capacity of processing 6,000 bushels of grain daily and was equipped for the manufacture of whiskey, other spirits, and pure alcohol.  The main building held huge steel tanks for cooking the mash, about 80 feet long and 20 feet in diameter.  A headline in the Peoria newspaper of October 3, 1903, told the story. An exploding tank was hurled through the north wall of the structure, landing 250 feet away.  The entire north wall of the distillery was blown down and other walls badly damaged.  Bricks and other debris were propelled throughout the distillery complex.  

More important, seven workmen were killed.  Two in the cooker room died instantly in the explosion;  three others, badly scalded by steam, died in the ambulance or later in the hospital.  Although thousands of people quickly gathered at the site to help, the search for two missing men, the yeast maker and the federal “storekeeper” for the bonded warehouses, was hampered by the severe wreckage of the building,  When found amidst the rubble both men were dead.  The cause of the disaster was presumed to be a vacuum created in the cooker.  When steam was introduced to heat the mash, the explosion followed.  Damage was estimated at $75,000, equivalent to almost $2 million today.

Because no fire had resulted from the blast and other buildings were still intact, Franklin, while presumably shaken by the deaths and destruction that had occurred, was able to rebuild the main distillery and repair collateral damage with in a matter of months.  By the spring of 1904, Corning & Company was again in full operation along the Illinois River, the distillery considered to be the second largest in the world.  Its work crews were at full strength, its stacks billowed columns of smoke and, “the heavy smell of whiskey mingled with the odor of the stockyard.”  Nearby, Corning was fattening cattle on spent mash.
The 1904 Explosion and Fire.  On the afternoon of a warm June day disaster struck Franklin Corning a second time. Fire was seen billowing out of control from Warehouse B, the one shown above, a structure containing some 30,000 barrels of aging whiskey.  The flames spread rapidly to adjacent buildings.  The fire also touched off several explosions within Warehouse B, causing the 11-story building to collapse, as seen below.  When firemen arrived they quickly realized nothing could save the burning structures and directed their efforts at preventing the conflagration from spreading further.  A writer has captured the scene:  “Torrents of blazing whiskey that were a foot deep spread quickly through gullies in the street and towards the river.  The burning spirits also spill into the sewers….The flood of fire continues on its destructive course until it reaches the stockyards.  Three thousand head of cattle in their pens are suffocated from the smoke and the surrounding buildings that were completed a few months before are burned as well.”

This time fifteen men, including one who was visiting from another Peoria distillery, lost their lives in the fires and explosions.  Corning was in New York City on business when the disaster occurred and returned quickly to Peoria.  Upon surveying the wreckage, he declared it to be the most expensive fire in the history of the American distilling industry and set the damage at $1 million (equiv. $25 million today.)

Although the fire had been contained within the Corning distilling complex, Peoria faced a major health problem in disposing the carcasses of 3,000 head of dead cattle.  Unable to find a way of removing them without causing a public health hazard, authorities poured a preparation of phenol over the remains and burned them.  The resulting stench was so intense that many men refused to work at the cattle pens, delaying clean up efforts.
The cause of the disaster was controversial.  Press reports had blamed it on an explosion in Warehouse B.  Insurance evaluators soon declared that story “unreliable” and “a fallacy.”  They tended to blame the conflagration on a workman’s lantern.  Because whiskey barrels tended to leak, particularly when expanded by heat during the summer, one employee made the rounds of racks looking for leaking whiskey.  It was speculated that this man, who carried a lantern, was careless with it, igniting the liquid.  He, however, was among the dead and could not be interrogated.  In the end, no specific cause was cited. 

Although he must have been weighed down psychologically by the death of 22  workmen during the past eight months, Corning almost immediately announced plans to rebuild again.  Within a year the distillery once more was in full operation.  An illustration here shows the major complex it had become.
The 1908 Fire:  Despite his efforts, Franklin Corning was not through with fire. On April 3, 1908 a blaze began on the fourth floor of a six-story mill building and spread to adjacent four-story elevators, engine and cooperage rooms, and threatened to engulf an eight story tower containing 125,000 gallons of whiskey. 

This time Corning was on the scene and promptly ordered that the spirits be drawn off the tower and run into vats used in the distilling process.  The liquid then was immediately piped to a nearby distillery, likely Monarch, where it was redistilled and later sold.  As a result the original damage estimate of $750,000 ($18 million equiv.) was considerably reduced to $187,000 ($4.7 million).  Unlike previous disasters, this time no lives were lost.

Corning quickly repaired the damage of 1908 and remained a well-recognized and regarded Peoria “whisky baron.”  He had the stature to reject membership in the monopolistic “Whiskey Trust” that had formed in Peoria.  While other distillers who disdained to join the Trust faced pressure and even violence,  Corning’s prestige apparently kept him above the fray.  At the same time he seems to have been keenly aware that prohibitionary forces were closing in on the U.S. liquor industry.   

He may even have sensed his own coming death.  At Springdale Cemetery where his wife, Fannie, lay, he erected an impressive mausoleum that today is counted among the historic monuments of Peoria.  When Franklin died in 1915 at the age of 66, he was interred there.  Despite the large structure only the couple and one other person, possibly a Corning aunt, occupy the mausoleum.

Corning & Company survived Franklin’s death, guided by other Corning family members who had joined him in Peoria as the distillery expanded. They operated the facility until 1919 and the coming of National Prohibition. The plant never reopened.  Schenley Industries obtained the Old Quaker name and revived the brand after Repeal.  Thus many Old Quaker bottles are not of the Corning pre—Prohibition vintage.

Among the giants of the whisky trade, Corning particularly deserves remembering as a man of great psychological strength and determination who repeatedly faced disasters to his distilling interests but tirelessly persevered and each time rebuilt his facilities bigger and better.  For Frankin Corning, “torrents of fire” held no fears.

Note:  Much of the information about the 1904 fire came from an article by Janine Crandell, published in the Jubilee Advocate in 2005.  Ms. Crandell deserves credit for the “torrents of fire” image and the quoted lines above.

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