Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Robsons' Old ‘76 Distillery — Plague of Finchtown?

Being a close neighbor to a pre-Prohibition distillery was, at best, a mixed blessing.  It provided employment but at a cost to its surroundings.  In addition to the constant danger of fire, air and water pollution from the plant posed a problem, particularly if, as often occurred, the distillery kept cattle or hogs on the premises to feed spent mash.  A case in point was the Robson’s distillery near Newport, Kentucky, located in a small settlement on the Licking River called “Finchtown,” shown on a map here.

A local resident in a letter to the Newport newspaper about 1880 described Finchtown as a “beautiful little community” and insinuated its ultimate incorporation as a town.  Among amenities he cited was a first class hotel with a highly able management.  The writer also noted proudly the “large and extensive distillery of G. W. Robson Jr. & Company.”

By 1876 work had been completed on the sprawling set of buildings owned by George W. Robson Sr. in Finchtown.  Warehouses with capacity for 28,000 barrels sat astride Licking Pike and the plant itself adjoined the river bank. The massive distillery, whose flagship brand was “Old ’76,” was producing large amounts of whiskey.  With other factories locating within its boundaries, Finchtown gave the appearance of thriving community.

On September 4, 1888, however, the residents got a rude awakening when an explosion rocked the community.  Around 10 p.m. as a night watchman was making his rounds on the third floor of the distillery, he was flattened by a blast from a still.  The force of the explosion collapsed the south wall of the distillery onto a boiler shed.  The watchman suffered severe burns but survived.  No other injuries were reported.

Assisted by his son, George Jr., Robson quickly rebuilt.  A 1892 underwriter’s report described the distillery as new and constructed of brick with a fire proof roof.   Now there were four bonded warehouses, also of brick and with fireproof roofs.  Two were joined but separated by a firewall.  One was located only nine feet northwest of the still.  In this restored state, the distillery continued to operate successfully.

In 1903, additional improvements were made.  Copper tanks were substituted for wooden tubs throughout the plant and an elaborate heating system was installed, one considered to be less susceptible to fire.  The Robesons issued a statement that cited how much the improvements had decreased the fire insurance rates on whiskey held in its warehouses.  The danger of another fire was seen as low by insurers.

That is, until January 24, 1907.  About 9 p.m. that day, a watchman came across a blaze, one that quickly spread out of control into the community.  As the flames raged, a popular saloon and the Finchtown drug store were consumed.  The fierce conflagration moved rapidly toward the warehouses that were at maximum capacity with aging whiskey.  As the flames engulfed the storage areas, the barrels are said to have exploded like rockets in the night sky.  Once again the distillery was rebuilt, as shown here in a photo.  Finchtown, however, would never be the same.

Fire was not the only hazard to Finchtown presented by the Old ’76 Distilling Company.  When the plant was first constructed the Robsons received permission to dig three tunnels below the train tracks into the Licking River.  The tunnels allowed water to be pumped into the distillery to facilitate the production of whiskey.  By that method some 250,000 gallons of water daily were being drawn from the Licking. 

The tunnels also allowed the distillery to discharge into the waterway 3,000 to 4,000 gallons a day of “hot slop” waste material.  The facility also was feeding 350 head of cattle on premises with the spent mash.  According to a 1913  Kentucky health department report:  “The cattle pens cause considerable pollution of the banks and stream.”

Although the Robson’s distillery was not the only Finchtown factory contributing to the fouling of the Licking River, it was pictured as the major culprit.  The report continued:  “Just below the distillery…several fish were observed floating near the surface nearly dead from the lack of oxygen in the river.”   Although not part of the report, odors from the cattle pens also were wafting through Finchtown’s “beautiful little community.”

Meanwhile the Robsons, father and son, were employing 45 men in manufacturing from 15,000 to 30,000 barrels of whiskey annually.  George Washington Robson Sr. was born in 1813 in Pittsburgh, one of four children of John and Mary Robson.   Of his early life details are scant but Cincinnati business directories indicate that with his brother, William, he was managing a factory that made brass fittings and steam pipe fittings.  This activity apparently resulted in his interest in the liquor industry.   With a co-inventor, George Sr. is credited with inventing an improved still that heated the mash with a series of steam-pipes deployed within the still proper with an enclosing jacket and an internal chamber for steam.

After moving to Cincinnati, during the late 1830s at about 26 years of age,  George Sr. married Mary Ann Brack, a native Ohioan.  Their firstborn in 1840 was a son whom they named George Jr.  Six other children would follow, three of them sadly dying in infancy or childhood.  George Jr. would attain maturity and be a partner with his father in their highly successful Finchtown distillery, maintaining corporate offices across the Ohio River in Cincinnati.

Through the years, the Old ’76 Distilling Company produced a myriad of brands including “Finchtown,” ”Charles Frank,” "General Lacey,” "Geo W. Robson,””Lacy," "Licking Bourbon,” "Lord Lytton Gin,” "Metropolitan Club,” “Medallion,” "Old '76 Banner,” "Old 33,” "Old 76", "Old Lacey,” "Old Liberty,” "W. T. Hewitt,”, "Willmore Rye,”, and “Woodruff."  The Robsons bothered to trademark only three brands:  Woodruff in 1905 and Metropolitan Club and Medallion in 1906.  Medallion was the company’s flagship brand, advertised widely and featured on giveaway items such as shot glasses.  

Another Robson giveaway seemingly was an oblique allusion to the given names of father and son — George Washington.  Their Old ’76 Distillery, itself a name reflecting the American Revolution, provided to saloons and restaurants serving its products a wall sign that shows a winsome young woman serving a drink from a wicker-covered bottle to George Washington.  Structures in the background left appear to be a primitive still.  

As he aged George Sr. turned more and more responsibility over to his son.  The company became G W Robson Jr & Co. The founding father died in 1899 at the age of 86.  By that time George Jr. had married, his wife the former Clara B. Newman, born in Covington, Kentucky.  The couple would have two sons and three daughters.  To house this family about 1868 George Jr. contracted with a Cincinnati-based architect to build them a Queen Anne-Romanesque Revival style house in  Bellevue, Kentucky.  Shown here, the Robson home was the first large scale residence in what would become a desirable bedroom community across the Ohio River,  a mere three miles from downtown Cincinnati.

As he aged George Jr.’s health began to deteriorate.  After what was described as “ a lingering illness,” he died in March 1909, at his Bellevue home.  He was 68 years old.  After a funeral service at the residence, he was buried at the Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, where his father and mother also were interred.  Subseqently managed by non-family members, the Robsons’ distilling company continued to produce whiskey until shut down by National Prohibition.

As Bellevue was flourishing, the five square blocks of Finchtown were waning.  Some observers blamed the fires and pollution.   While other local industries had contributed to those problems, the Robsons' distillery, as the largest enterprise, frequently was fingered as the cause.   In the 1890s and 1900s, Finchtown addresses were identified as such but listed under Newport, Kentucky.  The name stopped appearing in the 1920s and in 1938 the area was annexed to Newport.  

Over time all but one of the structures of the Robson’s Old ’76 Distillery were pulled down, until today there is virtually nothing to remind anyone of the 42 years when it was a major source of American whiskey and perhaps brought a “plague” of fire and pollution to the neighborhood.  As one writer noted:   “Today it is hard to visualize the location of the former community of Finchtown.  Even the street that was the center of the community, Finch Street, no longer exists.”  The 2015 Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky in its entry on Finchtown observed:  “Most of the streets of Finchtown are gone and forgotten, just as most of its history is.”


  1. Jack,

    A very nice writeup, as always. One correction I wanted to make: there is a building from this distillery still in existence along the railroad tracks in what was Finchtown. I visited it earlier this year. Though it is not much, it still stands.

    I was at the location to study the newest warehouse for Newport's New Riff Distillery with Jay Erisman of New Riff and our mutual friend John Lipman, who took us to the remnants of the Robson plant.

    So it's come full circle, with aging whiskey again in residence at Finchtown!

    I hope you're well!

  2. Sam: So good to hear from you. I am doing OK and able to put up a post every four days or so. Hope all is well with you. Will correct the item to clarify that one building from Old 76 is still extant. If you see John again, give him my best. Laura is talking about getting our panel back together again next year. At my age, we shall see....I did enjoy it.

  3. Somebody should stop this guy from polluting our waters.

    Ken M.