Tuesday, October 17, 2017

How Potts & Potts Picked Their Spots

Frank M. and Henry Potts can be identified with six different liquor houses located in cities in three states — Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky.   While the pressures of prohibitionary laws occasioned some of their moves, so too may have discord within the Potts relationship.

Frank was the elder, Henry’s uncle.  He was born in Troup County, Georgia, in 1836 of parents who had immigrated from England.  His father, Moses, a farmer, died when Frank was only eleven.   Not long after the youth appears to have left his home.  The 1850 census found him living in the county about 65 miles from Atlanta.  Unusual for a boy of 14, he was recorded with property worth $1,200 ($30,000 today), perhaps an inheritance from his father.

Early Potts-Thompson jug
Incised name on jug
By the time of the 1860 census, Frank Potts was living in Brazoria, Texas, with the family of a planter named Overton.  Also listed as a planter, by this time his worth had grown to almost $10,000 ($250,000).  I suspect that some of this value might have been in slaves.  Frank seems not to have served in the Confederate Army, perhaps having married by that time and begun a family.   The 1870 census found him in Montgomery, Alabama, again listed as a planter.  With him are two sons, ages six and eight, but no wife, suggesting he was a widower.

Sometime during the 1870s, Frank moved to Atlanta and changed his career course.  In 1875 he married Irene Kennin of Montgomery, Alabama, a woman 20 years younger.   In the 1800 census, Frank, now 45, had a family of five sons, ranging in age from 18 to nine months.  His occupation was listed as “liquor dealer.”

Living with the family was Henry Potts, Frank’s nephew, his occupation given as “commercial drummer,”  likely a traveling salesman for the Potts liquor interests.  Henry was 23, having been born in Alabama in 1858.  As shown above in an 1881 advertisement, the company was called “Frank M. Potts Wholesale Liquors,” located at 19 East Alabama Street in Atlanta.

During the same period, Frank formed another liquor business with Joseph Thompson at 7-13 Decatur Street called “Potts-Thompson Liquor Co.”  Potts was president;  Thompson was secretary-treasurer.  Henry Potts had joined his uncle when in 1887 they also sought to establish a Potts liquor firm in Chattanooga, Tennessee.   A city directory placed their store at 220 West Ninth Street and, as a sign of their prosperity, recorded them both staying at the Stanton House, shown here. It was Chattanooga’s premier hostelry, billed as “the most elegant hotel in the South.”  This foray into Tennessee appears to have been short-lived and directory entries for F. M. Potts Co. ended in 1888.

About the same time, the partnership with Thompson was severed.  The latter continued to operate at a new address under his own name until 1906.  Meanwhile the Pottses were continuing to operate under the Potts-Thompson name.  Henry  joined the firm as the secretary-treasurer replacing Thompson.  This firm was selling whiskey to the many Atlanta saloons in distinctive blue and white ceramic jugs of several sizes.  Although claiming to be distillers the Pottses were, in fact, “rectifiers,” that is, blending whiskeys on their premises.  Among their proprietary brands was “Stone Mountain Corn.”

In 1887 another family liquor house emerged.  Called “Potts & Potts, it was located at 24 and later 32 Peachtree Street, a major Atlanta commercial avenue, as shown above.  Also a rectifying operation, this Potts enterprise used the brand name “Manhattan Club.”  Henry’s participation in these several liquor enterprises increased his wealth considerably.  The 1900 census found him living with his wife and two children in a home with six servants, including a coachman, bell boy, chambermaid, gardener and cook.

As Frank aged, an evident rift emerged between himself and his nephew.  In 1905 the board of directors of Potts-Thompson that included Henry and two others voted a resolution that merged the offices of president and secretary-treasurer effectively forcing out the elder Potts.  Frank continued, however, to hold the lease on the Decatur Street store, renting it to the liquor house at $500 a month.  When Henry sought to break the lease and move out after Georgia went completely dry in 1908, his uncle sued him and won — but posthumously.

In early January 1910, Frank Potts had died at the age of 75.  With his wife and sons gathered at his graveside, the planter turned wholesale liquor dealer was interred in Section 5 of Atlanta’s Westview Cemetery.  The local press hailed him as a longtime active citizen and president of the Homossassa Fishing Club, a group of Atlanta businessmen who maintained an elaborate fishing destination 400 miles distant in Homossassa, Florida, shown here. 

Meanwhile, Henry Potts, ignoring the apparent earlier failure there, moved Potts-Thompson to Chattanooga.  Liquor interests from all over the South were moving there on the premise the city would never go dry and that its excellent railroad access to all parts of the country would prove profitable.  Potts’ liquor house first was located on Market Street and later on Main.  As the “dry” forces picked up momentum in Tennessee as they had in Georgia, Henry decided to double down on his moves.  In 1909 a Covington, Kentucky, publication reported: “The Potts-Thompson Liquor Co. distributors and wholesale liquor dealers are now preparing to remove to this city, and are now negotiating for property in Chattanooga…This concern will also remove its entire equipment and business here.”

That last assertion was not fulfilled as Potts-Thompson is recorded as in business in Chattanooga until Tennessee voted statewide prohibition in 1915. The Covington location provided a haven, albeit short-lived, for Henry and Potts Thompson.  The company issued a shot glass there for special customers hailing itself as “The House of Quality.”   With the prospect of National Prohibition, however, Potts-Thompson shut its doors.   Henry Potts retuned to Atlanta and sold insurance.  He died in January, 1941, and is buried in Westview Cemetery, not far from his Uncle Frank.

Over a period of roughly 40 years, Frank and Henry Potts had been responsible for founding and operating six different liquor houses that bore their names, three in Atlanta, two in Chattanooga and one in Covington.  Although they ultimately were unable to outmaneuver the forces of Prohibition, theirs had been a singular accomplishment of longevity under highly adverse conditions.

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