Monday, November 28, 2016

California’s Weils: All in the Family for 50 Years

For a half century the Weil family of San Francisco and Shasta operated one of California’s most successful whiskey businesses, beginning not long after the Civil War, overcoming many challenges, including the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, and surviving up to the advent of National Prohibition.  As the founding brothers, William, Leopold, David and Joseph,  passed management along to their sons, the Weils were responsible for one of the longest tenure of any California liquor house.

The Weil brothers were born in Germany and likely  emigrated to the United States during the 1850s.   The eldest was William, born about 1826.  He was followed by Leopold, 1829, then David, 1836, and Joseph, 1842.  Their early activities have gone unrecorded but by 1859 they had settled in San Francisco.  We may assume that they were involved in the mercantile trades and that one or more of the brothers was working for a wholesale liquor house.  That may have been Frederick H. Putzman, a San Francisco liquor wholesaler and rectifier, who had established a operation at 213 Jackson Street about 1865. After three years in business, he sold out to the Weil Brothers.  While remaining at the Jackson Street address for the next 19 years, they changed the name to their own.  

Not long after taking over the business, the brothers divided responsibilities.  William and Leopold managed the San Francisco liquor business.  David and Joseph were dispatched to Shasta, California, a town 223 miles from San Francisco, to “handle distribution,” as one author has put it.  Because today Shasta, about six miles from Redding, is considered a “ghost town,” that may seem like a odd assignment.  At that time, however,  Shasta was a bustling place and the largest settlement in that part of California.

Morover, Shasta was a promising point for distribution of Weil whiskey.  It was an commercial center and a major shipping point for mule trains and stage coaches serving the mining towns and later settlements in northern California.  Moreover, although the Gold Rush had abated, many thirsty miners made Shasta a base of operations and saloons abounded — all potential customers.  In the mid-1880s, however, the Central Pacific Railroad bypassed Shasta in favor of Redding and the place went into decline.  At the time of the 1880 census David and Joseph Weil had left the liquor trade and were in business together in Shasta selling dry goods.
Meanwhile in San Francisco, William and Leopold were finding success and advertising the slogan “Up to You.”  They featured a number of brands, some proprietary mixed up on their premises and others as agents for Eastern whiskeys.  Among their offerings were "Kentucky Belle,” “Nonpareil,” "Our Boast,” "Pomona Brand,” "Standard Old Bourbon,” "Vanity Fair,” and "Virginia White Rye,” “Honeysuckle Bourbon,” and “Old Jug.”  

Their flagship brands were Standard Old Bourbon, likely their own blended product, and Nonpariel, for which Weil Bros. were West Coast agents.  That brand had been trademarked by Eastern Distillery of New York City in 1887 and then again by W. L. Perkins & Co. in St. Paul, Minnesota. [See my Perkins vignette July 2014.]  The Weils also advertised widely as agents for “Dr. Russell’s Pepsin Calisaya Bitters,” a alcohol-rich remedy for stomach disorders.  They packaged those products in both clear and amber glass bottles, from half-pint and pint up to quart-sized 

As they worked to make their liquor housesucceed, the San Francisco Weils also were having personal lives. In the late 1850s William had married a German-born woman named Lona who was 12 years his junior.   They would have two children, both born in California,  Alex W. in 1869 and Bertha in 1871.  As of the 1880 census they were living together in San Francisco.  At age 21 Alex  W. was already working in the liquor house.  That same census found Leopold in the city, married to Bertha, a woman he had married when she was about 16 in Germany.  Two of their five living children had been born in Germany including Alex L., 36, who also was working in the liquor store.
In 1887 William and Leopold took both Alex Weils into management and changed the name of their firm to Weil Bros. and Sons, the name it would bear for the next 29 years.  About the same time, the company, possibly needing more space for its operations, moved to 13-15 Front Street, the address appearing on the letterheads shown here.  In 1892, a San Francisco business directory listed all four Weils, but seven years later Leopold and his son Alex apparently had left the firm and only William and his son Alex remained. 

In 1906, the great San Francisco earthquake and fire took its toll on the Weil enterprise.  Burned out of their Front Street store, the Weils relocated for two years to 228 Eighth Street before moving into their last address at 133 Fremont
Street.  By this time William Weil had retired from the firm and his son, Alex, had been joined by Moritz Weil.  Moritz’s relationship to the family are unclear.  Born in Germany in 1846, he could have been a younger brother of the original four, an elder son of one of  them, or perhaps a nephew.  The 1910 census found him in Assembly District 41 of San Francisco, a 64-year-old widower, living with a married son who was an attorney.  Moritz gave is occupation as “merchant, wholesale wines.”

My assumption is that Alex and Moritz continued to operate Weil Bros. & Sons until 1918 when prohibitionary forces likely caused them to terminate operations. Moritz died in 1828, but I have been unable to find information on the deaths and place of interment of the other Weils.  It is my hope that these omissions can be filled by descendants who might see this post.

For 50 years the Weil family operated a successful liquor house in San Francisco, overcoming the tumult of the Civil War, the decline in their Shasta-based activities, the financial “panics” of 1873 and 1893, the San Francisco earthquake and fire, and the deaths of the founding brothers.  This long business life could not withstand the onslaught of National Prohibition, but did it give future generations many artifacts by which to remember the remarkable Weils.

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