Often a letterhead from a distillery or liquor company will send me on a search for the whiskey man or men it represented and thereby generate a vignette for this blog. None has intrigued me more, however, than the letterhead above from the Riverside Distilling & Feeding Company. Teasing out its story led me to a panorama of North Carolina people, places and events, in which a Yadkin County distiller, William H. Renegar, figured prominently.
Renegar was born in September 1879, the son of William and Mary Bell Renegar, in the Piedmont region of west central North Carolina, an area marked by the Brushy Mountains, a greatly eroded spur of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This area was marked in late 1800s by vigorous corn whiskey-making by the heavily Scotch-Irish population. It is likely that William’s father himself was a farmer-distiller.
Among those in the region were two bearing the Renegar name, “Gough & Renegar" and “Renegar Liquor Company.” William appears to have learned distilling at a young age. In 1903 North Carolina passed a law requiring all distilleries to be inside an incorporated community. As a result, some went out of business, others consolidated, and still others incorporated into the township of Shore, Yadkin County, North Carolina, a town created specifically for making whiskey. Among the four plants in Shore was one run by W. H. Renegar, a youth of 24.
By this time Renegar was married. Described as being of medium build with black hair and gray eyes, in 1899 at the age of 21 William wed Lena Harp, the 16-year-old daughter of Baschon and Frona Harpe, native-born North Carolinians. A year later the young couple had a baby son. They would go on to have three more children over the next decade.
Although on the letterhead above the firm was designated “The Riverside Distilling and Feeding Company,” the name was changed in 1905 to the shorter "Riverside Manufacturing Co." The letter itself announced that a Ronda, N.C., distillery was consolidating with W. H. Renegar at Shore. The president of the Ronda outfit, John Sowers, may have decided that Shore was more tolerant of the liquor trade than Wilkes County where he was located.
Parsing the letterhead, a man is shown loading barrels on a covered wagon is a list of company brands. Several of the labels are North Carolina local references, among them a corn whiskey named “Bull of the Brushies,” associated with a former congressman from the area named Romulus Zechariah Linney, shown below. Wounded in the Civil War, Linney returned home to become a lawyer and a skilled orator, much beloved by his constituents with whom he close touch.
According to a biographer, “In debate concerning the internal revenue system, he represented the views of his mountain supporters; these people often tried to supplement their limited income by distilling brandy and whiskey ….They were hurt by the excise tax that the federal government placed in spirits, and throughout his career Linney tried to change this form of taxation.” His aggressive style would earn him the sobriquet, “Bull of the Brushies.” Although Linney died while William was still a child, Renegar obviously had heard of the politician’s advocacy for farmer-distillers.
Another corn whiskey label from Riverside was “Pilot Mountain.” Shown here, this was a distinctive geological formation, a quartzite rock caping a peak 2,421 feet above sea level, a remnant of the ancient chain of the Sauratown Mountains of North Carolina. Later it would figure in the TV series “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Mayberry RFD.” Another Tarheel landmark would figure as the name of one of Riverside’s few rye whiskeys. It was named “Watauga” after a river in the Yadkin Valley river, shown here. The stream runs almost 80 miles with its waters flowing into Tennessee.
Probably looking nothing like the letterhead illustration, the Riverside distillery may have had problems marketing these many brands of whiskey. Transport would have been difficult and although Winston-Salem was not far, competition among whiskey-makers was fierce. As a result, according to a Shore family descendant, most distillers sent their liquid products to the Winston-Salem based Casper Company, a large-scale distributor of whiskey. They also began to rely on mail order sales, particularly to areas of North Carolina that already had gone dry.
That would account for the large stoneware jugs in which Renegar packaged his goods. Shown here, they range from three gallon down to gallon size with an underglaze transfer label identifying them as from Riverside Manufacturing Co, Shore, N.C. Customers could write them for a “confidential price list,” i.e. to be sent in a plain brown envelope. Shipments of whiskey would also be in unmarked packages.
It did not take long for prohibitionary forces to find Yadkin County. Local opposition to whiskey-making grew rapidly, particularly when it was as blatant as in the semi-mythical Town of Shore. Distillers there began to look elsewhere for outlets. Two established second plants in Rocky Mount, N.C.;
Renegar chose to open an adjunct Riverside Manufacturing in Fremont, N.C., a hamlet in Wayne County, almost 200 miles east of Shore. This area of the state largely remained “wet” and seemed likely to remain so. As a result a number of Riverside jugs bear a Fremont address on the label.
In the end all appeals to local and state pride and jockeying to avoid prohibition did little good. In 1909 North Carolina voted a statewide ban on distilling and sales of alcoholic beverages. Riverside Manufacturing went out of business, never to be revived. Renegar seemingly had never given up farming as he pursued the whiskey trade. The 1910 census found him, just turned 29, living on a farm in Eagle Mills Township in Iredell County. Succeeding decades also found him engaged in agricultural pursuits.
William Renegar died in 1856 amid his beloved Brushy Mountains at the age of 77. As his children and grandchildren mourned his passing at his gravesite, he was buried in Sandy Springs Baptist Church Cemetery next to his wife, Lena, who had passed in 1934. His gravestone is shown here, is inscribed “GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN.”
As I have said in past posts, each whiskey bottle or jug has a story, but often a letterhead can suggest an intriguing narrative, in this case one that encompassed a whiskey man, the political forces shaping his destiny, and his rootedness in the history and natural beauty of his surroundings.
Note: A post about Shore, N.C., and specifically about I.C. Shore, the man behind the name, appeared on this blog in April 2012. The Casper Company of Winston-Salem and its owner, John Casper, were profiled in June 2011.