In 1859 when the youthful Milton Culbertson Russell went to work at the grocery store at Third and Market Streets in Maysville, Kentucky, no one could have predicted that he would develop an obsession with this street corner that eventually would lead to his buying the building, tearing it down, and constructing an even finer edifice to house his liquor dealership.
Russell, shown right in adulthood, as a youth probably excited little or no interest among the citizens of Maysville. Born in April 1844, he was the son of Christopher, a British-born bricklayer, who had emigrated to the U.S. and settled in town about 1830. Nor was his mother, Mary (Maule) Russell, to be considered local gentry. Before moving to Maysville, seen below, she had lived in Cincinnati and was accounted as the first woman ever to work in one of that city’s mercantile establishments. At the time many would have seen such employment as scandalous.
Russell himself had only limited formal education, quitting school and going to work at the age of 15 as a clerk in a wholesale grocery owned by John Richeson, located at the northeast corner of Third and Market Streets in Maysville. Five years later D. A. Richardson took over the business. A grocer bent on selling liquor, Richardson kept Russell on as a salesman. A biographer says of the young man during this period: “He eventually made himself an indispensable factor in connection with the business, as he throughly familiarized himself with all details thereof and showed marked discrimination and executive ability.” In the 1880 census Russell gave his position with Richardson as “bookkeeper.”
Milton also was having a personal life. At the age of 21 in April 1865, he married Elexene Porter Johnson, a woman of about his own age who had been born in Germantown, Kentucky, the daughter of a pioneer family in the state. She was known as “Woody” to friends and family. The couple would have three sons, J. Barbour, born in 1866; Christopher, 1868, and Thomas J., 1872.
In 1881 Russell, now a mature 37 years old, bought a financial interest in the store at the corner of Third and Market Streets and five years later became sole owner. The original structure where the teenaged Milton had worked has been described as “an ordinary three-story brick building.” In 1892 Russell decided to tear it down and “replace it will one more in conformity with modern ideas and especially adapted to the use to which it was to be put.”
The resulting construction, shown right, was five stories tall with a spacious basement. At the time it was considered the largest mercantile building in Maysville. Bedford limestone columns provided base ornamentals for the structure and the cornerstone carried Russell’s initials, MCR. Two angels held the building date and flanked the name, Russell Building, on its south side. It was estimated to cost $20,000. Considered a major beautiful addition to downtown Maysville, it was featured on a postcard providing a vista of Third Street looking east. Offsite Russell maintained two large warehouses to store surplus stock.
Although Russell’s enterprise sold wholesale groceries, liquor was its principal product as indicated by a local newspaper story: “The company…handle Grand Dad and other leading brands of whiskies, and also carry a full line of wines, gins and brandies of the highest grade.” The Russell marketed his liquor and other goods far outside Maysville, employing a large corp of traveling salesmen.
Russell also was making a name for himself as a public spirited businessman. He held the offices of secretary and treasurer of the local fire company, working to transform it from a volunteer force into a professional metropolitan service. He was secretary of the Mason County Building and Loan Association; a member of the Masons, Knights of Pythias, Elks and Odd Fellows fraternal organizations, and a staunch Republican who never sought office. A biographer characterized him as “…A man of broad mental ken and most insistent civic loyalty, and he did all in his power to further the social and industrial progress of his home city, whose welfare ever lay close to his heart.”
While pursuing broader community activities, Russell never forgot the little corner of the world that had given him his start and continued to be the site of his business enterprise. Scattered throughout this post are a number of whiskey jugs he issued. They vary in size from quarts to five gallon ceramic containers. Virtually all have a two-toned glazes and an attractive underglaze label. Note that all of them contain the message: “COR 3rd & MARKET STS.”
In 1890 he brought his eldest son, J. Barbour Russell. into the business as a partner and the company became M.C. Russell & Son. His growing prosperity also allowed Milton the purchase of a Maysville mansion to house his family. Still standing, it was built in 1886 and features spacious rooms on the lower floors with massive woodwork and large openings between twin parlors on the ground floor. Called “unique and unforgettable,” the manse was noted for its stain-glass windows and inlaid stone. It featured broad grounds where Exelene Russell fostered a garden where flowers were said to “grow in great profusion.”
As he aged, Russell was plagued with health problems, likely including diabetes causing gangrenous feet, kidney failure and heart problems. He retired from active control of his business about 1901 but as his obituary noted: “Whenever his health would permit, however, and often when not physically able, was found at his place of business up to the last, assisting in the management of its affairs.”
In July 1902, at the age of 58, Milton Russell succumbed to his ailments and died. The end apparently came suddenly, according to the Marysville Evening Bulletin. His funeral was conducted at the Russell home, with religious services conducted by an elder of the Christian Church where the family had been adherents. The Oddfellows were in charge of the procession to the graveyard but other lodges to which Russell belonged joined in. Milton was interred at Oval Lot 2 in the Maysville Cemetery. His grave is shown here,
With his father’s death, J. Barbour Russell became president, changing the name to “M. C. Russell Co.” He was assisted in running the operation by his younger brother, Thomas. Both men, according to a local history, were “…Numbered among the reliable, progressive and essentially representative business men of their native city where they are well upholding the prestige of the honored name which they bear.” J. Barbour, remembered as a flamboyant figure around Maysville, continued to sell liquor from the wholesale grocery until National Prohibition. In 1930 he also conceived and financed building the Russell Theatre, a structure currently being rehabilitated, located near the family mansion.
Exelene “Woody” Russell remained in the family home, cited as “…Long a center of generous and refined hospitality….She…has been a valued and popular factor in connection with the best social activities of Maysville….” When she died in 1922 at age 76 after 20 years as a widow, she was buried next to her late husband at Maysville Cemetery.
After his passing, many praises were lavished on Milton Russell. I have chosen one from his obituary in the Maysville Evening Bulletin that helps elucidate his character and personality: “A man of genial disposition, with a smile and pleasant word for all and was ever ready to lend a helping hand. He loved this city and any move looking to its welfare always received his encouragement.” To that I would add that Milton Russell demonstrated a particular love — perhaps even obsession — for the northeast corner of 3rd and Market Streets where his highly successful career began.
Note: Much of the information and all the direct quotes in this post were obtained from two sources: “A History of Kentucky and Kentuckians” by E. Polk Johnson, undated, and the Maysville Evening Bulletin of July 22, 1902.