Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Beggs: Stalwarts of Indiana Distilling



The Beggs family, father and sons, beginning in Ohio in 1852 and ending only with National Prohibition in 1920, were involved with operating no fewer than nine distilleries in Indiana.   The last Beggs facility, the Commercial Distillery of Terre Haute,  was accounted the largest in the United States at the time and boasted the capacity to produce 60,000 gallons of whiskey daily.

The man who founded this distilling dynamo was John Beggs, born in 1832 in Feramanagh, Northern Ireland, the son of a manufacturer.  When he was eleven years old, the family emigrated to the United States and settled in Cincinnati.  John was given a secondary school education there but early found employment in a distillery in New Richmond, Ohio, a town twenty miles east and south of Cincinnati on the Ohio River.

In 1852, John Beggs at the age of 20 decided he knew enough about distilling to open his own plant in New Richmond.  It would be his first of many distilleries but the last in Ohio.  The following year he sold his plant at New Richmond and moved to Metamora Township in Franklin County, Indiana, seventy miles north and west of Cincinnati.  There he established his first Hoosier distillery, dabbled in real estate and engaged in the timber trade.  A Metamora whiskey warehouse still stands, shown here.

While in Metamora and now 21, John married Rebecca Lewis in 1853.  A woman several years older than he, she was the daughter of Isabel and Mathew Lewis.  The couple would have eight children, seven of whom would live to maturity — four girls and three boys — John E., Harry W. and Thomas G.  Each of the sons eventually would follow in the distilling footsteps of their father.

After six years working in Metamora, Beggs relocated his family twelve miles west to the town of Laurel.   The move may have been occasioned by his growing interest and influence in Democratic politics.  In 1870 he was elected to the Indiana State Senate, representing Franklin and Union Counties in the upper house of the legislature.

In 1872 John sold off his Metamora distillery and other property, purchasing the plant of the Shelby Distilling Company at Shelbyville, Indiana. Meanwhile his eldest son, John Edward “Ed” Beggs was learning how to make whiskey, working at distilleries in Ohio, Illinois and Kentucky.  The Beggs family continued to live in Laurel until 1879 when John moved the family to Shelbyville.  Shown here, Ed Beggs in 1881 went to work for his father at the Shelbyville plant and a year later had been advanced to superintendent.

Meanwhile, in 1881 Rebecca at the age of 52 died and was interred at Forest Hill Cemetery in Shelbyville.  Not long after this heart-breaking event, a raging fire destroyed the Shelby plant.  The Beggs immediately rebuilt a larger, more modern structure.  True to his pattern of regular relocations, John Beggs three years later moved again, this time 125 miles west to Terre Haute, Indiana.  While continuing to operate the Shelbyville facility he purchased a major interest in the Wabash Distilling Company, serving as treasurer.   With a partner he also purchased the Terre Haute Brewing Company and became its general manager.

Still only 50 years old, John Beggs was ready for new ventures and when the so-called “Whiskey Trust” was being formed in 1886, he was an eager participant, closing down his Shelbyville plant and working to increase whiskey prices by reducing the number of small distilleries.  As the Trust evolved, Begg’s reputation increased.  When the Trust ultimately was reconstituted as the Distilling and Cattle Feeding Company, operating a number of individual Midwest plants, he was tapped for an executive position.  In 1894 John Beggs resigned his position with the Wabash Distilling Company and moved to Peoria where he became a vice president for that monopolistic enterprise.

Meanwhile in Terre Haute, his sons were on the move.  In 1884 Ed Beggs had teamed with Herman Hulman, a prosperous local who owned the McGregor Distillery, then possibly the largest whiskey producer in Indiana. [See my post on Hulman January 23, 2012.]  Together the partners in 1884 launched a wholesale liquor house called Hulman & Beggs, located at Ninth and Cherry Streets, shown above. 

The structure also was illustrated on a etched shot glass issued for the company.  Their flagship whiskey was “White Seal,” advertised by a provocative saloon sign designed by artist Herm Michalairski, as shown below.  The partnership of Beggs and Hulman appears to have been short lived, as each went soon went on to separate activities.
Although Harry Beggs had spent his youth in Shelbyville, he too came to Terre Haute about 1887, initially associating with a lumber company owned by his father and later becoming a buyer for the Majestic Distilling Company, a Beggs property being run by brother Ed.  From that beginning Harry later was cast as the president of the Old Vincennes Distilling Company, a family liquor enterprise in a small city about 60 miles south of Terre Haute.  He made a permanent home there.  Federal records show Harry withdrawing whiskey from a bonded warehouse in Vincennes virtually up until National Prohibition.

Meanwhile back in Terre Haute, Ed Beggs in 1903 was busy creating a new distillery.  Called The Commercial Distilling Company, it would be the largest whiskey-making enterprises in Indiana.  Capitalized at $400,000 ($10 million equivalent today), the corporate membership represented eight of the most powerful distillers and wholesalers of America, including Bernheim Brothers, Freiberg & Workum, Westheimer & Sons, and S. Grabfelder, all of them profiled on this blog.


Property was purchased in Terre Haute at 501 Prairieton Avenue for a plant that would have the capacity of mashing 8,000 bushels a day, using only the latest and most improved machinery and processes.  The company created a railroad spur to the distillery and erected pens capable of holding 3,000 head of cattle.  Artists' illustrations of the plant are shown here above and immediately below. This post ends with a photo of the distillery as it looked about 1920.


While some saw the distillery as an effort to weaken the Whiskey Trust, the partners denied that allegation, claiming that the distillery would supply only its members and that:  “There can be no war, and any cutting of prices will only affect those who do the cutting and their customers, as the Commercial Company…will not have anything for sale in the spirit line.”  Such statements ignored the fact that rectifier members of Commercial Distilling had been paying inflated prices from the Trust for raw whiskey and no longer would be its customers.

Despite his father having been associated with the Trust, Ed Beggs was chosen as the president and general manager of the new corporation.  J. Walter Freiberg was vice president and I. W. Bernheim, secretary-treasurer.  In his efforts, Ed was assisted by his brother Thomas.  Coming to Terre Haute in 1891, this Beggs had learned the distilling trade under his father’s direction and in time had become superintendent  of another family property, the Indiana Distilling Company at Terre Haute.  When the Commercial Distilling Company was organized, Thomas became superintendent.

In their managerial capacities the Begg brothers were responsible personally for supervising the erection of the distillery buildings, said to have gone over and carefully studied every aspect of the plans.  In 1905 The Wine and Spirits Journal described the facility in detail, concluding:  “No person can visit the plant and make an investigation of it without being profoundly impressed with its excellence in every material point.  If there is a single improvement that can be made that will add to its excellence or safety or to its capability for turning out the best product at the lowest price, it is probable that the very gentlemanly manager [i.e. Ed Beggs]  will be willing to pay roundly for the suggestion.”  An artist’s drawing of the distillery for a postcard shows its sprawling extent. 

As the Commercial Distillery was getting off the ground, the founding father, John Beggs, was being laid below ground.  As he approached his 76th year, Beggs had contracted influenza in March, 1904.  When he failed to recover he was taken to a hospital in Chicago for treatment.  Ultimately his kidneys failed and he was returned to Chicago’s Lexington Hotel for his final hours.  His children were summoned and were at his bedside when their father expired.  The press took note that among them were his three sons “who are prominent distillers in Terre Haute, Ind.”  After a funeral service in Shelbyville, John Beggs was laid to rest in Forest Hill Cemetery next to his late wife, Rebecca.  A monument marks the spot.

Following their father’s death, the three Beggs sons continued to be engaged in the whiskey trade.  The Commercial Distillery under direction of Ed and Thomas flourished becoming not only the largest distillery in Indiana but perhaps the largest in America.  Taking advertising advantage of the discover of radium by the Curies in 1902, the brothers called their flagship liquors “Radium Spirits” including bourbon, rye, and even gin.  Their advertising hailed these as “the brightest, purest, sweetest.”  Federal records show Ed Beggs running the Commercial Distillery, shown left, until 1918.  Over in Vincennes, Harry Beggs was recorded distilling to the end in 1920.

Meanwhile John’s boys were having personal lives.  Ed Beggs had married in 1853, his wife the former Catherine “Kate” Webb of Shelbyville, the daughter of Robert and Clara Webb, natives of Virginia.  They would have a family of four, a girl and three boys, one of whom died in infancy. When Kate died prematurely at the age of 35 her sister, Stella, a kindergarten teacher,  stepped in to help care for the children.  Thomas’ wife was Nelle W. Beggs.  No children were recorded.  Harry Beggs may never have married.

Ed Beggs in 1918 was the first to die at age 57 and chose to be buried in Highland Lawn Cemetery in Terre Haute.  He was followed in 1838, by Harry Beggs, age 52, who was interred in Mount Calvary Cemetery in Vincennes.  Thomas Beggs lived considerably longer, dying in 1950 at the age of 84 and was buried in Terre Haute’s Calvary Cemetery.   By that time the distilleries of the Beggs family dynasty were just a distant memory.

For more than two-thirds of a century, however,  the Beggs family virtually had dominated the production of whiskey in Indiana.  They founded distilleries, bought and ran existing ones, and invested in others, for a total of ten. Moreover, through his participation in the Whiskey Trust John Beggs had helped dictate the fate of many more in the Midwest.  Stalwarts of Indiana distilling, theirs truly was a family affair.

Note:  Much of the information for this post was derived from the 1908 volume “Greater Terre Haute and Vigo County:  Closing of the First Century’s History of City and County” by C. C. Oakley.





















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