“In your country, like the land of promise, flowing with milk and honey, a land of brooks of water, of fountains, spring out of valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, and all kinds of fruit, you shall eat bread without scarceness, and not lack anything in it.” John Filson, in “The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucke.”
This kind of hyper-Biblical rhetoric found a ready audience in late 18th Century Maryland where years of bad agricultural practices had virtually exhausted the soil. Among listeners were Irish Catholic farmers in the only state that initially had welcomed them. In the Spring of 1875 twenty-five Catholic families left St. Mary’s County for Kentucky, seen as “America’s Holy Lands.” One of their leaders was John Medley, a farmer-distiller.
John with his wife, Elizabeth, their children, and neighbors traveled by land to Pittsburgh and then on a flatboat down the Ohio River to Maysville, Kentucky. From there it was another overland trek to Cartwright’s Creek, a small settlement on a fork of the Salt River. The site, shown above, is near the town of Springfield, Washington County.
John Medley saw that the land was particularly fertile and settled there with his family, along with other Irish farmers who had made the journey from Maryland. After establishing his farm, Medley added a distillery to the property, making small amounts of whiskey largely for local sale and consumption. When he died about 1817, John was buried at St. Rose Church in Springfield, built in 1806. Today it is the oldest standing structure west of the Alleghenies and still used as a church.
In his will, John Medley left two stills and forty mashing tubs. Here the record gets murky. This Medley had two sons, one from his first marriage, Thomas, born in 1785, and another from his second wife, John Philip, born about 1802. Which of these sons inherited the distilling equipment is unclear. We skip a generation down to William Medley who in the 1840s is known to have made whiskey at Cartwright’s Creek near St. Rose’s. By this time the Catholic population of the area had grown significantly. Orders of nuns and priests had been encouraged to come to Washington and adjacent countries to establish priories and convents where they faced no fears of harassment. Bardstown became the first Catholic diocese west of the Appalachians. Rapidly the region became known as the “Kentucky Holy Lands.” Even today, as one author has noted: “It probably has more religious establishments per square inch than any rural place in the country.”
The nature of William Medley’s whiskey-making operation seems lost in the mists of time. He died in 1853 leaving a young wife and minor children, including George E. Medley, who had been born in 1850. William’s death left the family to be raised by their mother, Elizabeth, living with a farm family named Osbourne, likely close relatives. Both the 1860 and 1870 censuses found the Medleys there. The latter census when George was 17 recorded him “at home” without an occupation.
As he matured, George, left, sought employment in town, working in a Springfield grocery story. He also found a bride there. She was Anna Isabelle Simms, called “Belle,” the daughter of Thomas Simms and Margaret Ellen Montgomery. The Simms family appears to have been involved in Kentucky distilling. A John Simms was president for a time at the Mattingly & Moore Distillery at Bardstown. George and Belle wed in November 1875 and would go on to have ten children. Their firstborn was baptized Thomas Aquinas Medley.
By 1898 George had gone to work for Mattingly & Moore in Bardstown. Possibly this reflected his marrying a Simms. Meanwhile, about 120 miles west, near Owensboro in Daviess County, a distillery had been founded two decades earlier. Over the years it had passed through the hands of several managers until it had come into the major ownership of Richard Monarch. After Monarch died, Medley with two partners in 1901 bought the Davies Distilling Company. One partner was Dick Meschendorf, a well-known and respected Kentucky bourbon maker. [See my post on Meschendorf, February 2013.] Two years later George bought out both partners. After a hiatus, the Medleys were back in the distilling business.
Enter Thomas A. Medley. As George had grown more affluent, he could afford to send his eldest son to advanced education, including law school. The investment paid off when Thomas moved to Owensboro to help his father manage his enterprise, becoming the secretary & treasurer of the Daviess Company Distilling. The plant as it looked at that time was featured in a 1905 ad shown here.
As noted in the ad: “This distillery makes only one brand, one grade, a strictly old fashioned sour mash whiskey.” The Medleys called it “Kentucky Club.” They sold it in glass containers with gold paper labels and apparently minimal embossing. The company also issued etched shot glasses advertising “Kentucky Club” to favored customers, including saloons and bars featuring the brand.
As the years progressed, Medley whiskey gained a national reputation and burgeoning sales. It allowed George to bring all six sons into the business. Ben J. became a distiller and vice president; Parker J., a manager; and William, George E. II, and F. J. Medley all worked at the distillery in some capacity. In 1910, the father’s health faltered and he died, age 60. As his widow and large family gathered by his interment site, George Medley was buried in Mater Dolorosa Cemetery as a Catholic priest intoned the burial ritual.
Now the leadership passed to Thomas who meantime had been having a personal life. In 1902, he married Florence Ellen Wathen, the daughter of Nick Wathen of the well-known distilling family. The Wathens, like the Medleys, were descendants of Irish Catholics from Maryland who had migrated to the “Holy Lands.” Thomas and Florence Ellen would go on to have a family of thirteen children.
Within a year this Medley faced his first major crisis. A fire roared through the Daviess County distillery, destroying the bottling house and one warehouse with its aging whiskey. Within a few months, the facility was re-built and expanded. Now the Medley plant had the capacity to mash from 500 to 750 bushels of grain daily. Three warehouses held 32,000 barrels.
The company continued to flourish under Thomas’ leadership until the imposition of Prohibition. For some years after 1920 the Medleys were able to warehouse and bottle whiskey for medicinal purposes. In 1927 the family sold their distillery and trade name to the American Medicinal Spirits Company (AMS) and later the complex housed a meat packing company.
Thomas continued to be active on behalf of family interests, dying in Louisville in August 1940. He was buried near his father in the Mater Delarosa Cemetery. His widow, Florence Ellen, would join him there three years later.
After Prohibition the sons of Thomas, operating as the Medley Brothers, bought a property near their original Daviess County location, one vacated by the Green River Distillery owned by J. W. McCulloch [see my post on McCulloch, April 2014] and established the Medley Distilling Company. A chart below sets the genealogy for succeeding generations of Medleys. As the family continued to be active in the whiskey trade they were responsible for a number of brands, including “Old Medley" and "Medley's Private Stock."
Ben and Thomas Medley Jr. later would leave the partnership to start their own distillery. Edwin died in 1953. Wathen and John stayed with the Medley Distillery until 1959 when it was sold. Later Charles Medley repurchased the property and with his son, Sam W., ran the operation. As late as last year Sam was involved in the liquor business as head of Charles Medley Distilllng, a non-manufacturing bottler/distributor on the West Coast that contracts for whiskey in Kentucky.
When John Medley set up his still about 1875, he was harkening to claims about the glories of Kentucky that opened this vignette. Medley found the state as advertised offered ample grain and pure waters — perfect for making quality whiskey. In pursuing distilling he founded a whiskey dynasty down through the eighth generation. For the Medleys, the Kentucky Holy Lands had become the Promised Land.
Note: The chart of the Medley family is from "The Evolution of the Bourbon Whiskey Industry in Kentucky," by Sam K. Cecil (1999).