Thursday, February 4, 2016

W.W. Cooper Understood “These Little Town Blues”

These little town blues
Are melting away
I'll make a brand new start of it
In old New York
   — from the song “New York, New York”

William W. Cooper may never have gotten to New York City, but he might have wished he had.  He contracted a bad case of those “little town blues” when he was forced to close up his prosperous distillery and liquor business in Marion, McDowell County, after the State of North Carolina banned making or selling “spiritous liquors” in towns of fewer than 1,000 residents.  Marion missed the cut and Cooper had to shut down his operation and move.
From the photo of its main street in the early 1900s, it is clear that Marion was a “one horse” town.  Earlier a North Carolina business directory listed only two “manufactories” there; one outfit made linseed oil and the other constructed buggies.  When Cooper arrived on the scene he started another enterprise, “rectifying" — mixing and blending — whiskey.

Cooper was born in Statesville, N.C., the son of a prominent businessman there.  He was educated in local schools and for the first years of his working life may have been assisting his father's interests.  Historical records indicate that about 1904, about the age of 28, Cooper moved 70 miles west to Marion began a liquor rectifying operation, located in a four story brick building designated No. 3 on the map above, now part of the “Depot Historic District."  Constructed several years earlier and known originally as the Buffaloe Building, the structure initially housed a “whiskey-cutting” operation known as R. H. Bennett’s Wholesale Liquor Sales and Rectifying.  When Bennett relocated to another nearby location, Cooper moved in, enlarged the space, and developed his own whiskey-blending operation.  He also appears to have had a retail outlet across the street, No. 4 on the map.

The location was a good one, right across from the depot for the Clinchfield Railroad.   That line, founded in 1902, ran from the coal fields of Virginia and Elkhorn City, Kentucky to the textile mills of South Carolina and connected with major lines. (Note below that one informant believes that the Southern Railroad provided service to Marion as early as 1870.)  The railroad’s entry into tiny Marion was a definite boost to economic activity there.  It also meant that many rural distillers scattered over the North Carolina countryside could send their raw whiskey to Cooper’s rectifying plant by train.  Moreover, Cooper could send his products by railway express to other parts of North Carolina and throughout the South, many of them into “dry” counties.  His location opposite the train depot also meant that thirsty travelers could step out of their coaches and into his emporium for a bottle or jug.

Cooper sold his liquors in a variety of containers and provided them with highly colorful and interesting paper labels.  One shown here for his “Sweet Mash Corn Whiskey” featured the North Carolina seal and and the state motto in Latin.  Translated it means “to be, rather than to seem.”  It is taken from Cicero’s treatise on “friendship” and translated liberally can be taken to mean that North Carolinians are truly friendly and not just pretending.  The state was the last of the original Thirteen to adopt a motto and by then, it occurs to me, the good mottoes likely were taken. 

Even more interesting was Cooper’s label for his “Laurel Valley Corn Whiskey,” a brand he trademarked in 1905.  The highly colorful paper label featured a log cabin nestled in the mountains, one that houses a traditional distillery. Outside a gent is loading a ox-cart with barrels, preparing to take the whiskey to market.  This bucolic scene, of course, is a far cry from the warehouse across from the train station where Cooper actually was concocting his liquor.  Other labels, shown throughout this post, are notable for the colorful rendering of a ear of corn on Cooper’s “Mountain Corn” and the apple on “Cooper’s Apple Brandy.”

Cooper’s seemingly was a profitable operation from the outset.  Government documents record an auction sale in the basement of the Marion Post Office where 4,500 gallons of confiscated corn whiskey was on the auction block, said to be “the best 100 proof stuff, made in the mountains.  It had been seized by the U.S. Revenue officers for “irregularities, such as the failure of the maker to affix the stamps which the government said to be on the barrels.”  In other words, this was illegal moonshine.  It auctioned at $1.30 a gallon.  Cooper was on hand to buy 56 barrels, the majority of the lot.  Since most whiskey barrels held 60 gallons, assuming they were full, he paid $4,360 for the corn squeezings — equivalent to more than $109,000 today.  Since the U.S. required “cash on the barrel head,” Cooper must have been doing very well, indeed.

His success, however, was destined to be short-lived.  As early as 1881 anti-liquor forces had tried to push through a statewide referendum to require total prohibition of alcohol.  The good people of North Carolina rejected the effort by a four to one vote.  But slowly the pendulum swung.  In 1902 the state legislature passed the Watts Act that banned the manufacture and sale of “spiritous liquors” outside incorporated towns.  To get around the ban, many rural distillers simply incorporated their neighborhoods, held phony town elections, and went on making their whiskey.

The prohibitionists did not take long in figuring out that dodge and several years later expanded the ban to towns with populations of fewer than 1,000.  The law effectively ended distilling and liquor sales in 68 of North Carolina’s counties.     Although Marion’s population at the time was almost up to the thousand mark, it apparently was among those where liquor was banned. 

Note that on Cooper's letterhead above, “Marion” is crossed out and “Statesville” was pencilled in. That North Carolina city is about 70 miles east of Marion and during Cooper’s time boasted some 14,000 residents, sufficient to remain legal for a liquor enterprise.  With his wife, Camille, in tow and still a young man, Cooper closed up shop in Marion and moved back to Statesville.  His former address in Marion became Blanton’s Wholesale Grocery, an enterprise that continued on into the 1950s.

Meanwhile prohibitionary forces were on the march again.  Carrie Nation, the ax-wielding crusader against drinking and smoking, toured North Carolina, branding one of its towns second only to Chicago as “the whiskeyest-soaked city in the United States.”  By 1908, the “drys” were ready for another statewide referendum.  This time it passed by 62% of the vote.  North Carolina became the first state in the South to ban the sale and manufacture of alcoholic beverages, and the first state in the U.S. to do so by popular vote.

Meanwhile in Statesville, Cooper was forced once again to shut down his liquor business.  Just 34 years old at the time, he was recorded in the 1910 census living with Camille at 683 Rase Street in Ward 4 of Statesville.  His occupation at that time was given as “Agent, Restaurant.” . 

We likely will never know if W. W. Cooper’s “little town blues” ever melted away in Statesville.  Nor is there any way to determine if he ever ventured to “New York, New York.”  We can imagine, however, that wherever Cooper was located he never forgot those glory years in Marion when he had the resources to plunk down the equivalent of more than one hundred grand for barrels of moonshine.

Afterword: When I wrote the above with the "little town blues" theme, it was without any idea that W.W. Cooper was afflicted with depression and later showed signs of being suicidal.  In recent days, however, a thoughtful resident of Statesville after reading my post has sent me news stories, including the excerpt below.

After returning to Stateville, William was institutionalized several times and in June 1913 ended by taking his own life, surely a tragic end for so young and talented an individual. Only one of the news stories directly addressed his character and it is that on that note that it seems most fitting to end:
"...Mr. Cooper was a kindly, generous man and readily made friends."  May he rest in peace.


  1. Hey Jack
    I enjoyed reading this piece on WW Cooper and his Marion whiskey outfit. My business partner and I have just bought the four-story building in the Depot District, which from my research, was the Buffaloe Building - not Cooper's across the street. Of course, documentation is a little fuzzy around this time for sure. Also, the Depot District sits on the Southern Railroad, which actually came through town around 1870 I believe.
    A very interesting piece and we will definitely incorporate a bit of this into our upcoming business.
    Derek Poteat

  2. Derek: Thanks for your kind remarks about my post on WW Cooper of Marion, North Carolina. Your information about the railroad is interesting and I have amended the post to reflect it. What use do you have in mind for the building?