Oklahoma where the wind comes sweeping down the plain
Where the wav-in wheat can sure smell sweet
When the wind comes right behind the rain
— Lines from the song, “Oklahoma”
The iconic Oscar Hammerstein lyric referenced above seems an appropriate way to introduce the story of a whiskey man named Sanford L. Shore, a pioneer settler who swept into Elk City, Oklahoma, accompanied by the sweet smell — and taste — of wheat become whiskey.
Shore’s roots were deep in the state of North Carolina. The family founder was a Swiss immigrant named Frederich Shor who immigrated to the United States before the Revolutionary War and settled in North Carolina. By the third generation family members had changed the name to Shore or Shores and were prominent in western areas of the state. Sanford, born about 1875, was the son of Jacob and Nancy Kirk Shore, both native-born North Carolinians.
The 1900 census found the 25-year-old Sanford living with his parents on a farm near the village of East Bend in Yadkin County, his occupation listed as farmer. The county was known for its agricultural products, including grapes for wine and wheat and rye for whiskey. Several of the Shore family were distillers. [See my post on I.C. Shore, April 2012.] Although Sanford later claimed to have several years college training, as a younger son, he may have decided that he would have little inheritance and needed to pursue opportunities elsewhere.
Half a continent away, in Oklahoma, the opening to white settlement of choice regions of former Indian Territory had set off a chaotic land rush in 1889. In buggies, wagons and trains prospective settlers had raced across the Oklahoma territory, jumping off at likely looking spots, making claims and erecting tent cities. During the rush a Harper’s magazine artist illustrated what it looked like as individuals staked out their parcels.
Although he was late to that land grab, Shore set his sights on the far western part of Oklahoma, near the Texas line, that remained relatively untouched. When a group of land promoters learned that that the Choctaw, Oklahoma, and Gulf Railroad was coming through the area they decided that the source of Elk Creek would be ideal to locate a town and bought up parcels abutting the proposed railroad route, eventually naming the place Elk City.
March 20,1901 was an important day in the town’s history, the date that the first lots were sold. Waiting their chance, hundreds of men already were at the site in a tent city. Almost $1,000,000 in today’s dollars changed hands that day as plots were sold. Shore, I believe, was among the buyers. It is not clear how he had traveled the more than 1,200 miles from North Carolina across Tennessee, Arkansas, and most of Oklahoma to Elk City. My guess is that he came by train to the western end of the railroad, then by buckboard the rest of the way. If he was provident, as many were, he brought trade goods with him to sell or barter for food.
Shore had picked a good spot to settle. In August the Choctaw railroad line had reached Elk City and almost overnight it became a boom town. By January 1902, Elk City had more than sixty businesses and a population exceeding 1,000. Paving the streets with bricks also had begun. Though not yet a year old, the town, shown above, rapidly became one of the largest in Western Oklahoma.
Shore may have made at least one trip back to North Carolina to get married. His wife, Sallie B. Steelman, some nine years younger than he, also was born in the Tarheel State. Her parents, George and Sallie B. Steelman, also were native Carolinians. Stanford likely brought her back to Oklahoma by train, this time almost certainly with supplies to open a dry goods store on his claim in Elk City. Having grown up in a family of whiskey-makers and living in a boom town, Shore soon saw opportunities in the liquor trade. An Oklahoma City publication in 1906 noted that he had contracted with a local builder to construct a one-story brick store, 25 by 50 feet, to house the Shore Distilling Company.
Unlike his North Carolina relatives, Shore was not a distiller but buying whiskey from Tennessee, Kentucky, and elsewhere by the barrel. It was shipped to him in barrels by train — the Choctaw line now absorbed into the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific RR. Shore was decanting the liquid from barrels into ceramic jugs of varying sizes and supplying the many saloons that had opened in Elk City to serve the overwhelmingly male population. At left is one recreated in modern Elk City.
Shore’s containers can be seen throughout this post, varying in size from half gallons, to one gallon, and up to three gallons. All carried the same label: “Shore Distilling Co., Purest Liquors, Lowest Prices, Elk City, Okla.” He also was also selling whiskey by the bottle to retail customers in Elk City. A rare “coffin” flask, shown below, exists with his embossing on it.
Meanwhile, Sanford and Sallie were having a family life. Three Shore children were recorded in the 1910 census, all of them born in Oklahoma. The Katie was the first in 1904, followed by Sanford Jr. in 1906 and Bessie in 1909. By the time they reached school age there was public education in Elk City and many of the original hardships of frontier life had receded.
Almost from the outset, however, forces were conspiring to end Shore’s liquor business. Prior to Oklahoma achieving statehood, Oklahoma Territory (O.T.) laws permitted sales of alcohol, but in Indian Territory (I.T.) “fire water” was forbidden. For more than a decade before statehood prohibitionists had been fighting to ban strong drink in all of Oklahoma and they packed the State Constitutional Convention with their proponents. Although pro-liquor groups ("wets") tried to convince delegates of the revenue value of liquor sales, they could not overcome the organized prohibitionist campaign and the strong anti-saloon sentiment spreading across America.
As a result, in September 1907 the new state constitution declared Oklahoma henceforth would be “dry.” Shore’s Elk City liquor business was forced to shut down as were the town’s taverns and bars. One Oklahoma saloonkeeper reacted to the situation by posting a verse above his business: “Hush little saloon, don’t you cry; you’ll be a drug store by and by.” My assumption is that Shore still had his dry goods business to fall back on.
In 1922, after imposition of National Prohibition, a bizarre incident occurred in Brown County, Texas, involving Shore. Two men were arrested and charged with illicit manufacture of corn whiskey after a raid by federal agents and the local sheriff. They found no still but three barrels of sour mash. A cryptic sign over the barrels read: “Shore Distilling Company. Please do not raid.” The culprits refused to cooperate with law enforcement. Thus, this reference to the long defunct Elk City liquor company was never explained.
Whatever Sanford’s occupation might have been after 1907, the work kept the Shores in Elk City for the rest of their lives. The 1940 census found them living at 415 West Third Street. Shore, now 63, listed no occupation, indicating he had retired. Living with him and wife Sallie was another daughter, Lorene, and her infant child. Sanford would live another 29 years, dying in 1969 at the advanced age of 94 He was buried in Elk City’s Fairlawn Cemetery. Sallie followed him there in 1975.
Transplanted from North Carolina and the roots of his family heritage, Sanford Shore had pioneered in helping establish a vibrant town in the Oklahoma Territory that, when it became a state, repaid him by shutting down his liquor business after only six years. We are fortunate to have Sanford Shore’s whiskey jugs and a single flask by which to remember him and his contribution to the settling of Oklahoma and the West.