As the proprietor of R. S. Strader & Son (he was the son), Wilson Peter Strader of Lexington cheerfully told prospective customers that Germans might favor “wine, women and song,” but a Kentuckian knew that nothing could be better than “women, horses and whiskey” and illustrated it with ads like the one above. Omitted from this view of the good life was Strader’s run-ins with other Kentuckians, including his own relatives.
Born in Lexington in 1866, Strader, known as “Pete” throughout his life, grew up knowing a lot about horses. His father, Colonel Robert S. Strader, was a successful trotting horse breeder and manager of the Kentucky Trotting Horse Association. He maintained a large farm near Lexington where he bred and trained his race horses. Accustomed to dealing with the wealthy men who dabbled in the sport, the Colonel was a particular friend of Leland Stanford, the California railroad tycoon.
Although some of his siblings followed their father’s interest in horses, Pete early on was enthralled by another key Kentucky industry, whiskey. After serving an apprenticeship in the trade, at the age of 24 he was able to convince his father in 1890 to finance their own wholesale liquor house in Lexington. The Colonel’s money made it possible to locate R. S. Strader & Son in a building on East Main Street that provided sales space and a four story warehouse. My surmise is that management from the beginning was in Pete’s hands. The Colonel’s health was declining and a year later he was dead. By 1892 the young Strader was the sole owner.
R. S. Strader & Son soon became known as a major wholesale broker for high grade Kentucky whiskeys, fine wines from Leland Stanford’s famed Palto Alto vineyards, European brandies, mineral waters and imported cigars and tobacco. Strader developed several proprietary brands, including “Red Heart,” “Kentucky Belle,” and “Old Kentucky Home.” He also purchased the rights to “Old Pugh,” a brand originally distilled at the Gus Pugh Distillery in Bourbon County, Kentucky, and “Old Barton,” another Bourbon county whiskey previously distilled by Joshua Burton at Blocks Crossroads. Strader trademarked Red Heart, Old Pugh, and Old Barton in 1907, Kentucky Belle in 1908.
From 1891 to 1897 Strader’s whiskeys were produced by the Ashland Distillery, owned by William Tarr, a family friend. [See my post on Tarr, February 2015]. Later the James E. Pepper Distillery in Lexington produced his brands. Pete also became the exclusive agent in Kentucky for Pepper’s “Old Pepper” and “Old Henry Clay” whiskeys. [My post on Pepper appeared in September 2012]. At shown below, Strader began putting an illustration of the Pepper Distillery on his letterhead. He established a saloon and retail sales in the lobby of Lexington’s Phoenix Hotel and in 1902 opened a branch office in Cincinnati, not far from the railroad depot. Another Strader, Joseph N., managed the Ohio outlet.
In addition to being knowledgeable about horses and whiskey Pete Strader seems to have known something about women. In 1895 he married Daisy Lee, eight years his junior. She came from a Kentucky family of means and when she wed, her father gave her $1,500, equivalent today to more than $35,000. She promptly turned it over to her new husband “to take and use in his business.” Daisy apparently had good mercantile instincts and later was a director in a separate corporation set up by her husband. The 1910 census found the couple living in Lexington’s second ward with two children, Mary Lee, 7, and Theodore, 5.
Like many Kentucky wholesalers of the time Strader was generous in his advertising giving away items. These would have been provided to saloon owners and bartenders featuring his brands. They included corkscrews advertising Old Barton and shot glasses, shown throughout this post. Of note was a trade card he issued to celebrate the U.S. victory of the Spanish-American War. It shows a youth draped in the American flag with his dukes up. This pugnacious image takes us to the downside of Pete’s life in Lexington.
The trouble began in May 1902 when Strader decided to expand his operation into a two story warehouse down Main Street from his headquarters. For payment he needed $4,000 in gold coins that he obtained from the Lexington City National Bank by exchanging $4,000 in greenbacks and bank notes. After closing, while counting the money, bank personnel discovered that the amount Strader had given them was $500 short. The teller and bank president, J. Will Stoll, a member of a well-known Kentucky whiskey clan, soon called on Strader and accused him of shortchanging the bank. As reported by the Lexington History Museum, the following ensued:
“After words were exchanged, Strader knocked down Stoll. Stoll ended up with a broken leg and cut forehead. Strader was arrested for assault and battery….At a preliminary hearing Strader testified that Stoll had threatened him with a gun, while Stoll denied having a gun with him. Strader was released on $300 bond.….Stoll was represented by his brother Charles H. Stoll (attorney for the Whiskey Trust.) In July 1902 all charges were dropped.”
The Stolls may have had indirect revenge. The same year Strader had been sitting in his parked liquor delivery wagon on Lexington’s Main Street when a streetcar crashed into his van and he sustained a broken kneecap. The streetcar was owned by the Stolls who controlled the Lexington Railway Line. After these events, notes the museum narrative, “Stoll and Strader avoided each other.”
Strader had continuing problems with money. After a series of convoluted financial dealings involving Lexington drinking establishments, his brother, Stewart, with whom Strader had been partners in a saloon, sued Daisy Lee, claiming that he was owed $1,000 that he gave Pete that Pete had used illicitly to pay off his creditors. Instead of suing his brother, possibly considering him insolvent, Stewart sued Daisy Lee with her independent wealth. Two courts turn down the brother’s claim.
As the years advanced, Strader found his business increasingly constrained by the emergence of the Whiskey Trust. Not himself a distiller, he was reliant on obtaining supplies of raw product by contracting with independent distilleries. Increasingly these were being swallowed up by the Trust. Many were closed down and prices for whiskey to rectifiers like Strader were being hiked up. Given the close association of the Stoll clan with the Trust, the animosities Pete had raised obviously did him no good. In 1911 he shut down his liquor house and perhaps disgusted with the situation in Lexington, moved to Louisville,
By 1914 Strader had opened an insurance brokerage in Louisville and was involved in other enterprises. He lived to see the imposition of National Prohibition that ended all whiskey making and sales, not only in Kentucky but throughout the Nation. With Repeal in 1934, he returned to the whiskey trade opening a liquor brokerage in Louisville. A year later, as he walking downtown, Strader was felled by a massive heart attack. He was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. At the time Daisy Lee was in Owingsville, visiting her daughter who was ill. She rushed to Louisville and arranged for Pete to be buried with other Strader family members in Lexington Cemetery. His grave marker is shown here. Daisy Lee would live to be 97 and is buried in Owningsville.
“What better could you want?” Pete Strader asked in the ad that opens this post. For him personally “the good life” was appreciating thoroughbred horses, selling quality whiskey, and marrying a true helpmate. He seems to have accomplished them all. None of them, however, were enough to keep him out of financial difficulties and trouble with the law.