Jett was born in Carrollton in 1847, the son of Richard V. and Elizabeth (Bradley) Jett — pioneer settlers in Kentucky. The father was of French descent originally from Virginia and the mother of Belgian ancestry from Maryland. His father at least initially was a farmer and itinerant shoemaker, but gave his occupation as “miller” to the 1870 census. He and Elizabeth had a family of ten children, of whom James was the ninth.
A biographer described the young man’s early days this way: “James F. Jett was afforded but limited educational advantages in his boyhood and youth, as was enabled to attend the common schools in only an irregular and desultory way.” He had a quick mind, however, and read avidly. At the age of 20, Jett went to work at the “Old Darling” distillery (RD#4, 6th District), a large whiskey-making complex across the Kentucky River at Prestonville. He stayed there three years learning the distilling business. Jett then moved to Lexington and for the next eleven years, encompassing the post-Civil War era in Kentucky, he worked for several employers, likely in the whiskey trade.
Meanwhile Jett would marry. His bride in 1879 was Albertine Anders, who although born in Arkansas was from an old Kentucky family. James was 32 at the time of their nuptials, Albertine was 27. Although they would have no children of their own, Jett’s biographer noted that they “have shown a deep interest in aiding the children of others less fortunately placed, and they have contributed most generously to the education of a number of children….”
In 1881 Jett joined with three brothers, Joseph, George, and Albert, to establish a distillery located at the confluence of the Kentucky and Ohio Rivers near Carrollton. From the beginning James was the general manager of the enterprise. By the mid-1800s the distillery had the daily mashing capacity of 300 bushels and a bonded warehouse with the capacity for 1,700 barrels. The yield was about 30 barrels a day. In 1888, Albert and George sold their interest to James and Joseph who continued to expand the facility, known in federal annals as RD #5, 6th District of Kentucky. The following year the two remaining siblings incorporated their whiskey-making as Jett Bros. Distilling Co., with James as president. Not long after, Joseph moved to Illinois where he was engaged in marketing the products of the distillery.
Known widely as the Richland Distillery, by the early 1900s the Jetts mashing capacity had increased and the warehouse capacity expanded to 5,000 barrels. As many distillers at the time, James was feeding the spent mash to cattle and his large barns could accommodate 500 head. An insurance map above of a portion of the property also shows a hog pen. Later the warehouse capacity would be expanded to 18,000 barrels, several of the buildings heated by steam.
Evidence is that Jett was selling more than 2,000 barrels of both bourbon and rye whiskey annually. The company used the brand names “Jett Special,” “Jett Bourbon,” “Jett Rye,” “Jett’s Best,” “Roland Bourbon,” and its flagship brand, “Richland” and “Old Richland,” a label it trademarked in 1904.
With the growing success and wealth of his enterprise, the Jetts approached the Carrollton City Council with a proposition to erect an electric light company partly at his own own expense. He paid for all the poles necessary to distribute the electricity, including 26 arc lamps for lighting the streets of the town, at a estimated cost of $10,000 ($250,000 today). On April 19, 1898, the switch was thrown and for the first time there was electric light in Carrollton. “The lights are the best we ever saw anywhere,” reported the local newspaper on April 22, 1898. “The lights are simply magnificent and as steady as a planet. The indoor lights are quite as satisfactory. Those who have them would not part with them for many times the cost.”
This was but the first of James Jett’s contributions to his home town. About the same time he was championing a bridge across the Kentucky River joining Carrollton to Prestonville where none had been before. Against opposition from local ferry boat operators, he spearheaded a toll span that opened in 1900 and rapidly was seen as of “great value…as it has afforded facilities of inestimable benefit to the city of Carrollton and to the inhabitants on the west side of the river.” For many years Jett was the treasurer for the bridge company.
His public spirit was further evidenced by his erection of the Carrollton Opera House, a venue that that, according to an observer, “…affords the best of facilities for the better class of dramatic and musical activities which it is now possible to secure to the city….and is a credit and a source of pride to the city.” Jett called it the “Richland” after his flagship whiskey. Opened about 1902, the Richland Opera House, according to the Cahn Official Theatrical Guide, had a seating capacity for 1,000, was heated by steam and lighted by electricity. “Patronage good,” the Guide said, “scenery first class.”
Ever the entrepreneur, Jett in 1909 organized a second business, the Carrollton Leaf Tobacco Warehouse Company, and saw to the construction of its brick, steel and concrete warehouse covering a full acre of land. “It is one of the most modern buildings of its kind, as well as one of the largest, in the entire state, and affords facilities that are of great value in connection with the tobacco industry in this section of the state,” opined Jett’s biographer in 1912. Judging from the company photo below, it also provided the townsfolk with ample employment.
Not only accounted the oldest native-born resident of Carrollton, James Jett was hailed for gifts to local charities and as a citizen for having manifested “the utmost loyalty and public spirit.” Gratitude, however, does not seem to have been a strong suit among the town fathers of Carrollton.
In 1917 the City of Carrollton brought suit against Jett Bros. Distilling Company to recover balances it said were due as taxes upon whiskey belonging to the company in a Carrollton bonded warehouse. It alleged that taxes were owed from 1907 to 1916. The problem was not, however, with the Jetts, but with the city’s own assessor. The suit alleged that the assessor had valued Jett's whiskey without authorization, made mistakes, and priced it at a substantially lower amount than Kentucky statutes allowed. It also charged that James Jett knew the true value of the whiskey but made no effort to correct the under-assessment. A Kentucky Circuit Court agreed with the city. The Jetts took the case to the Kentucky Court of Appeals. It affirmed the decision of the lower court.
The only recourse left to Jett’s lawyers was to claim a Constitutional issue was involved and take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1919, they did. The case was argued before the justices on December 19, 1919. In a decision rendered on March 1, 1920, the high court decided that no grounds existed for it to issue a “writ of error” against the Kentucky courts. James Jett was forced to pay the “pound of flesh” to the city in which he was born and for which he had done so much.
In any case, the end was near for the Jetts Brothers operation as the imposition of National Prohibition in January 1920 brought an end to the legal manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic products in the United States. There are two accounts of the disposition of the distillery. One story has the Jetts continuing to own the facility after 1920 and later being sold by an heir. The other has a whiskey dealer from Peoria, Illinois, buying it as early as 1917 and later selling out to Hiram Walker. The Richland brand survived.
Despite the rude payback James Jett had received from home town, he lived in the Carrollton for the rest of his life, dying there at the age of 82 in January 1929. He was buried in the Carroll County Odd Fellows Cemetery next to his wife Albertine who had preceded him in death five years earlier.
Note: Much of the information found in this post is from the book, “A History of Kentucky and Kentuckians: The Leaders and Representative Men in Commerce, Industry and Modern Activities,” Vol III., by E. Polk Johnson, 1912.