Saturday, January 21, 2017

Five Peppers Stirred the Copper Pot

Among the best known Kentucky bourbons is “Old Oscar Pepper,” a brand that endured for more than 80 years and a tradition honored even today.  The story behind this whiskey is so long that this post deals only with the Pepper family, the five members, including two women, who guided the fortunes of the distillery until 1878 when it was sold.  My next post will describe what happened over the following 40 years.  But first we get to know the Peppers:

Elijah Pepper:  He was the founding father of the Pepper distilling dynasty, born about 1775 in Fauquier County, Virginia, the son of Samuel Pepper and Elizabeth Holton, accounted “an English lady.”  In 1794, not long out of his teens,  Elijah married Sarah O’Bannon, who the records indicate may have been only 13 or 14 at the time.  In 1797, with Sarah and her brother, John O’Bannon, this Pepper moved more than 500 miles west into Kentucky, settling near the town of Versailles, Woodford County.  There he established his first distillery.

After moving for several years to Bourbon County, Elijah returned to Woodford County and by 1812 was paying taxes on 200 acres along Glenn’s Creek. He had selected this location because a branch stream coursed through the property and three pristine springs gushed near the banks of the creek.  There he established a farm, a gristmill and a distillery.  Although  other nearby Kentucky farmer had been forced to give up distilling because of the federal taxes imposed, Elijah seemingly had deeper pockets, bought their grain and legally made it into whiskey.
By that time Elijah and Sarah had a family of seven children, four boys and three girls.  For them he built a two-story log house with a massive exterior limestone chimney.  The only part of the original Pepper settlement that remains, the house was enlarged by subsequent residents.  It is shown here as part of a Kentucky archeological project that has sought to restore and preserve the site.

All of Elijah’s structures were built of timbers on foundations of stone.  Land division maps indicate the grist mill was constructed high on the stream where the force of the water could turn a wheel and that his distillery was nearby.  The location of his slave quarters has not been identified, for — truth be told — the Peppers were slave owners.  Census records for 1810 indicate that the family had nine enslaved blacks,  With the prosperity of his holdings, Elijah was able over the next ten years to increase his slave holdings to twelve, seven males and five females.  Owning more hands for field work allowed Elijah to increase his land holdings to 350 acres.

The prosperity that followed in the next decade allowed him to buy even more slaves and the 1830 census recorded him holding thirteen males and twelve females in bondage.  An inventory taken at Elijah’s death in March 1831 provided other indications of his wealth.  His distillery included six copper kettle stills, similar to the one shown here, 74 mash tubs, a number of kegs and 41 barrels of aging whiskey, equivalent to 1,560 gallons.  His livestock counted 22 horses, 113 hogs, 125 sheep and lambs, and more than 30 head of cattle.  He also owned numerous implements for use in agriculture and timbering. 

Sarah O’Bannon Pepper: Only days before his death, Elijah Pepper made a will that left the distillery and other property to his wife.  Now about 50 years old, Sarah seems to have been fully up to the task.  The daughter of William O’Bannon and Annie Neville, she was the niece of General John Neville of Virginia, a prominent officer in the Civil War and a personal friend of George Washington.  The Nevilles were wealthy gentry in Virginia and may have assisted the Peppers financially at the start.

Although Sarah’s education may have been truncated by her early marriage, her husband entrusted Sarah with aspects of managing their large farm and associated businesses.  The inventory of Elijah’s possessions indicate that she had overseen purchases of farm and distillery equipment including, “stills and tubs, etc., in still house.”  She also likely was responsible for buying the carpeting, silver and other expensive furnishings that are said to have graced the Pepper home.

The presumption of an historian who researched the property for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places is that after Elijah’s death Sarah was in charge of managing the family businesses, including the distillery and whiskey sales, for a period of about seven years, 1831 until 1838.  That year she sold her interest to her eldest son, Oscar Pepper, who had been assisting her. 

Oscar Neville Pepper:  Born in 1809, Oscar took the relatively small whiskey business his father had founded to a new level.  Thus 1838 is recognized as the founding year of the re-named Oscar Pepper Distillery and the origin of the “Old Oscar Pepper” brand.  After buying out the shares of his brothers and sisters,  Oscar began making major improvements on the property.  He replaced the log structures of his father’s milling and distilling businesses with stone buildings and put an addition on the house.  Indicative of the amount of construction going on was a record in the 1850 census that a stone mason from Ireland named Thomas Mayhall was living with the family.  

The move from timber to stone was not a difficult one since the hillsides that surrounded the Pepper property were a rich source of limestone, a mineral important to the farmer-distiller families.  The limestone bedrock was good for growing corn and the waters of limestone-filtered springs helped produce whiskey with a distinct flavor.  Working with limestone for construction, however, took the kind of expertise that Mayhall brought.  To form building blocks the bedrock had to be quarried and shaped.  To create mortar the limestone had to be fired, ground and slaked.  As indicated by land records, the resulting distillery building was a one-and-a half story rectangle structure with an asymmetrical gable roof about 60 by 75 feet in area.   Shown below is a picture of Pepper’s stone distillery.
Oscar’s most important decision was to hire as his master distiller the now-famous Dr. James Crow, a Scottish chemist.  Crow has been hailed as the  individual who single-handed enhanced the bourbon-making process by improving and codifying sour-mash fermentation, pot still distillation, and the process of aging in wooden barrels.  

Crow also insisted that no more than two and one-half gallons of whiskey should be produced from a bushel of grain.  Shown here is a device that may have been invented by Crow.  It is a single chamber where the alcoholic content of distilled bourbon could be tested.  This example included hydrometers for checking both the first and second distillations.

Crow worked for the Peppers from 1833 until 1855, with exceptions being 1837 and 1838, possibly because Oscar’s stone construction was proceeding.  Crow’s deal was that that he would be compensated by being given one-tenth of the production.  In 1855 the distillery produced 80 barrels from which Crow presumably drew ten.  In his admiration for the Scotsman, Oscar named one whiskey “Old Crow” and gave the distiller a house of his own on the property.

Meanwhile, Oscar Pepper was having a personal life.  In June 1845 he married Nancy Ann (also given as Annette) “Nannie” Edwards, a woman born and raised in Woodford County who was 18 years old when they wed and about 17 years younger than her husband.  In subsequent years under Oscar’s leadership the farm and distillery flourished and his family increased to seven children.  The 1860 census indicated real estate valued at $31,000, the equivalent of some $770,000 today.  His personal property that included such extravagances as a piano, an icebox, and law books was valued at $36,000. 

Oscar’s wealth also included twelve male and eleven female slaves, some of them obviously inherited from Elijah.  They would have been tending the crops on his large farm as well as working in the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery along side Dr. Crow.  A record of births in Woodford County for 1859 lists Oscar and Nannie having a baby on April 10 to whom no name yet had been given, but data suggests later was christened Mary.  The same year two of the Peppers’ slave women had given birth in August, a girl named Maria and a boy named Willie.  Oscar Pepper is recorded in the column for the father’s name.  My guess is that because slaves were considered property not persons, he appears there as the owner not the progenitor.  

Oscar Pepper died in June 1865 at the age 56 and with his family and friends mourning by his graveside was interred in the Lexington Cemetery in Fayette County.  Shown here is his gravestone. 

Nannie Edwards Pepper:   The inventory of Oscar’s possessions taken after his death indicate how much he had expanded the Pepper estate.  It included 400 barrels of corn, 400 bushes of rye, 40 bushels of barley malt and 30 barrels of barley, a large copper still and a boiler, all part of the distilling operation.  The alcohol on hand included 120 gallons of whiskey.  This Pepper owned 829 acres of land and livestock that included 21 horses and mares, 7 mules, 25 milk cows, 30 yearlings and steers, 56 sheep and more than 100 hogs.

Unlike his father Oscar left no will.  A court settlement in 1869 divided his property in seven unequal lots for his seven children.  Presley O’Bannon Pepper, the youngest, only seven years old, received the largest share, including 160 acres of land, the distillery, the grist mill and the family home.  This was the court’s way carefully of providing for Nannie Pepper.   Since P. O’Bannon was a minor and would remain so for another 14 years, it put most of the financially productive property in her hands.

Still a relatively young woman at 36, Nannie, unlike her mother-in-law Sarah, seems to have had no interest in operating the distiller by herself.  Moreover, since the end of the Civil War all the Pepper slaves were gone.  As guardian of P. O’Bannon’s inheritance, she soon leased the property to Gaines, Berry & Company of Frankfort, Kentucky, a firm where the famous Col. E. H. Taylor Jr. was a partner.  The agreement gave the Frankfort group control over the distillery and all its equipment, the distiller’s house, and two stone warehouses.  The two-year agreement also included the grist mill and a pen near the distillery where the hogs were fed the spent mash.

Born in 1850, Nannie’s eldest son, James, 15 years old at the time of his father’s death, appears to have be given a role in the running of the distillery by Gaines, Berry & Co.  They appended the name “Old Crow Distillery” to the Pepper property and made “Old Crow” their flagship brand.

James Pepper:   Possibly egged on by the ambitious Col. Taylor [see my post of Jan. 2015], James Pepper apparently grew tired of playing second fiddle to his mother and in 1872 successfully sued to gain control of the distillery.  The result apparently did not cause a serious mother-son breach as Nannie is recorded giving a deposition for James later in a court case.

The next few years for the Pepper distillery are somewhat muddled.  After taking control, James apparently teamed with Col. Taylor, who had broken with Gaines, Berry and the two made improvements in the plant and increased operations.  Gaines, Berry, however, apparently retained sufficient financial interest that the “Old Crow” trademark was transferred to them, leaving James with the Old Oscar Pepper brand.
After five years of operating the distillery, James experienced severe financial difficulties and was declared bankrupt in 1877.  The Peppers’ loss was Col. Taylor’s temporary gain as he took sole ownership of the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery.  But Taylor — who had other distillery interests — shortly after met with his own financial downfall.  That led to the transfer of the Pepper distillery briefly to George T. Stagg, another well-known Kentucky whiskey man, and finally in 1878 to Leopold Labrot and James Graham of Frankfort.  Shown above is an illustration of the distillery at the time of their purchase.  Never again would a Pepper family member own the property founded by Elijah, nurtured by Sarah, expanded by Oscar, protected by Nannie, and lost by James.

Afterword:  Although the Old Oscar Pepper distillery was in other hands, the Pepper name continued for years in the trade when James later founded his own distillery in Lexington, [see my post of September 2012].  When James died in 1906, he was interred near his father and Nannie, who had passed in 1899.  A large monument, three Doric pillars on a three step base, marks the spot where the Pepper clan is buried in Lexington Cemetery. 
Now came the turn of Labrot & Graham to run the historic distillery.  Their names are combined with the Peppers in a mill wheel below, Their story and its outcome will be the subject of my next post. 

Note:  Much of the information for this post came from an undated National Park Service document associated with the listing of the Pepper properties on the National Register of Historic Places.

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