Sunday, December 10, 2017

R. F. Rakes: Legit in the “Moonshine Capital of the World."

Once home to almost ninety licensed distilleries and many saloons, by 1911 Virginia’s Franklin County, in the heart of Appalachia, had been reduced to a single liquor business operated by Richard Flemming Rakes.  After Rakes was forced to close in 1916 by the forces of prohibition, the county swiftly gained a reputation as “The Moonshine Capital of the World,” a name in which it glorifies today. 

During the Civil War, the federal government was not around in most parts of the South, including Southwestern Virginia, to collect excise taxes on whiskey.  Moreover, Confederate governments were not strict on taxing liquor.  As a result wildcat stills proliferated in remote mountain areas of the Commonwealth.  During Reconstruction, at the direction of President Ulysses S. Grant, the Commissioner of Revenue sent raiders into Virginia with orders to wipe out illegal stills and force  distilleries to register and be licensed so that governments could regulate and tax them.

Although the move fostered intense resentment in Franklin County and other parts of rural Virginia, it succeeded.  By 1893 some eighty-seven county distilleries had registered and bought state licenses.  Most of these were small farm-based operations, making brandy from fruit and whiskey from grain.   At same time, however, prohibitionary forces in Virginia were actively seeking to shut down these same facilities.

A member of the large Rakes clan spread over Southwest Virginia, Richard was born in Patrick County, about 85 miles south of Rocky Mount, in July 1874.  His parents were Alexander, a farmer, and Annie Turner Rakes, who died when he was eleven.  Little of Rake’s early life has made the public record.  The 1880 census found him in Patrick County at age five, living with his parents and three brothers and two sisters.  By 1900 he had relocated to Rocky Mount and was living in a boarding house while working as a storekeeper.  One account has him married to a Debra Turner;  if accurate, it apparently was a short-lived arrangement.  By February 1902, according to more complete records, he was married to Rochelle Arminda (called “Minnie” all her life) Wood.  The couple would have four children. 

Rakes early on had determined that making and selling whiskey was a lucrative occupation.  He established a distillery outside of Rocky Mount on the banks of Shooting Creek.  Shown here, it was a craggy, winding waterway that ran several miles from a spring at the top of a mountain down to a rocky and muddy road below.  It provided pristine mountain water to Rakes’ still through a homemade pipeline extending from the creek to a flat space where he built his facility.  His plant may have looked something like the Franklin County still shown below.

A licensed and tax-paying distiller, Rake specialized in making sweet mash corn whiskey.  Likely it was bottled just as it came out of the still, a clear liquid rated at 100 proof, that is, 50 percent alcohol.  He likely bottled it for sale in a back room of his Rocky Mount saloon.  In 1903 he had purchased this drinking establishment, known as the Opera House Saloon, from B. B. Dillard who ran a liquor store in nearby Roanoke. [See my post on Dillard, March 6, 2015.]

Unlike many other Franklin County distillers who used ceramic jugs for their whiskey,  Rakes fancied glass for his whiskey.  Shown below are several photos of his jugs.  Note that they came in gallon containers of a least two designs.  One had a single handle, another featured two.  As shown left, some bottles apparently also came with a cradle that allowed a purchaser to fill a glass with less chance of spilling.

One constant on Rakes’ bottles was their embossed labels. Clearly aimed at a mail order trade, they advertised his sweet mash corn whiskey at the price of $2.00 per gallon.  Because embossing cost somewhat more than a paper label, distillers were careful to order only as many as they knew they could sell.  As a result, today R.F. Rakes jugs are considered relatively rare and recently have sold at auction from $600 to $900 each.

During the first decade of the 20th Century, “dry” forces gradually were eradicating all legal whiskey production in Franklin County.  While still officially “wet” as a state, Virginia had passed “local option” laws that allowed government units as small as villages and townships to outlaw the making and selling of liquor within their boundaries.  As a result, by 1911 Rakes in Rocky Mount was had the only working distillery and his drinking establishment, as one author has expressed it, was “literally the last chance saloon.”

As he grew wealthy over ensuing years, Rakes bought up a large amount of farm land in Franklin County.  He also built a spacious Colonial Revival-style house on the outskirts of Rocky Mount, situated on acreage that included one of the county’s most cherished historical sites, a crumbling blockhouse named for Robert Hill, an early settler.  Dating from the 1740s, the fort was built to protect settlers from Indian raids.  The house, shown here still standing, became a home for Rakes, wife Minnie and their children.

The Rake family was soon to be riven by sorrow with the death of Minnie in October 1915, leaving Richard with four small children to raise, one of them — son Richard Flemming Rakes Jr. — just over one year old.  By 1918 Richard married again, this time to Ethel Pluepott.  They would have one daughter, Dixie, who died in 1920 when she was two years old.

Meanwhile, Virginia in 1916 passed a statewide ban on the manufacturing and sale of alcoholic beverages.  Rakes was forced to shut down his Shooting Creek distillery and the Opera House Saloon.  By this time one of the richest men in Franklin County, he turned his attention to farming his extensive lands and other pursuits.  Ever the entrepreneur, he bought a site along the Pigg River and created a recreational area known as the Rakes Picnic Pavilion.  He also captured a spring on the property and built a small structure over the water source that became known locally as Cement Spring.  The area is shown here as it looks today. He also bought an automobile dealership, selling Chevrolets from a building in Rocky Mount still known as the Rakes Building.

While Richard Rakes was pursuing legitimate enterprises, however, hundreds of Franklin County residents, including some of his cousins, were taking advantage of the demand for illegal liquor to take up bootlegging on a major basis — earning the county the title “Moonshine Capital of the World.”  Moonshine meant cash for impoverished area farmers despite the fact that powerful political figures and urban gangsters exploited them for the lion’s share of the illegal profits.

During Prohibition, federal revenue agents in Franklin County destroyed 3,909 stills, made 1,669 arrests, and seized 130,717 gallons of booze.  The conflict over moonshine led to a major conspiracy trial in 1935.  Eighty illicit distillers, government officials, a sheriff, police officers and others were indicted for evading $5.5 million in excise taxes —equivalent to about $95 million today.  During the trial, two hundred locals testified.  One key witness was gunned down on a country road; a Rakes was among the suspected killers but no one was ever charged.  In the end 31 people were convicted, but none of the kingpins.  Jail sentences were laughably short and fines light.  Bootlegging in Franklin County continued almost undeterred.

From his vantage as a legitimate businessman, Rakes must have looked at Franklin  County moonshining with mixed emotions.  Although he had made his corn whiskey in the sunshine of a license and paid his taxes, some of his relatives were neck deep in bootlegging.  Many of the illicit stills employed the fresh spring water of Shooting Creek just as he had done.  Rakes died on March 13, 1941, the cause given as a cerebral hemorrhage.  He was 67 years old.  He lies buried in the Alexander Ingram Cemetery, shown here, in the Franklin County village of Ferrum.   

Richard Rakes lived long enough to witness the end of National Prohibition in 1934 and the brief rebirth of a scattering of legitimate local distilleries, rapidly driven from business by competition from national liquor producers.  Rakes died too early, however, to know that Franklin County would capitalize on its bootlegging notoriety as way to attract tourists, proudly labeling itself today as “The Moonshine Capital of the World.”

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Grossmans & “The Oldest Whiskey House in the South” ?

Whether or not the Grossmans, father and sons, of New Orleans operated the oldest whiskey house and the largest mail order liquor business in the South, as they claimed, their run of almost 37 years was impressive not just for longevity but for some of the artifacts they left behind, that today are avidly collected.  

Shown left, the father, Jacob Grossman, was born in May 1848 in Lautenberg, West Prussia (now Poland).  By the early 1960s he had immigrated to the United States, originally living and working in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in the retail grocery business.  There he met Lena Saloman, who had immigrated from France, and they married in 1864.  The 1870 census found the Grossmans in Baton Rouge with three children, Louis, 5; Adolph, 3, and Isadore, 1.  The 1880 census found them still living there, now with an additional daughter, Cecilia.

In the early 1880s, Jacob moved his family to New Orleans and went into business with Simon Herrmann, a well-known local businessman who about 1876 had founded and operated two liquor houses, at 11-13 Peters and 9 - 11 South Front Streets. In 1883 the company became Herrmann & Grossman.  Shown below is an embossed bottle that contains both their names.

In February 1886, everything changed.  The headline read“Simon Herrmann, Liquor Merchant, Commits Suicide With a Revolver.”  The reason why Herrmann took his life was laid to his being afflicted with insomnia and severe headaches.  After waiting a discrete period, Jacob Grossman closed the Front Street store and changed the name of the Peters Street establishment to his own.  Shown right is a mini bottle bearing an embossed “J. Grossman.”

Although the prior firm had initiated a bitters medicine along with the whiskey line, Grossman promoted it into popularity.  It was called “Old Hickory Stomach Bitters,” named after former president Andrew Jackson.  One side of the label carried an illustration of Jackson’s equestrian statue that sits in Jackson Square, an historic park in the French Quarter of New Orleans.  The other side had an illustration of Grossman, a message, and his signature.  Shown here are two embossed bottles of the elixir.

Grossman, like other liquor dealers, provided advertising signs to saloons, hotels and restaurants carrying his products.  A favorite of mine is a sign showing a Confederate soldier about to ride off to the war, kissing the hand of his distraught sweetheart, entitled “Parting Brings Sorrow.”  It advertised Old Hickory Stomach Bitters.  Note that by now the name of the firm was J. Grossman & Sons.  Both Adoph and Isadore had gone to work early for their father in his business and as they reached maturity he made them partners.  The company also moved to larger quarters at 205 South Peters Street.

The Grossmans’ liquor house issued a number of proprietary brands, some of them blended and bottled in their back room.  They included "Farmer's Choice,” "Good Luck,” ”Old Favorite,” "Old Jim,” "Royal Buck Gin.” and "Southern Belle.”  The only label the family trademarked, however, was “Harmony Club” in 1902, the place where Jacob was said to have held his wedding party years earlier.

Unfortunately, Jacob Grossman was not destined for a long life, dying in 1899 at the age of 51.  He was buried in the Hebrew Rest Cemetery in New Orleans.  His granite monument is shown here.  By this time his sons, Adolph at 33 and Isadore at 30, not only were mature but well steeped in the whiskey trade.  After an appropriate period, they changed the company name to J. Grossman’s Sons, the name shown on their three story headquarters above.  Below is a photo of their bottling operation employing a bevy of young women.

For the next 15 years, the Grossman sons guided their liquor business along the productive lines begun by their father.  Along the way, they were prone to make claims, perhaps exaggerated.  Their slogan, embossed on their whiskey bottles was “Get the Best.” More to the point,  note the two-gallon ceramic jug shown here, one likely sold to a saloon or restaurant rather than to retail customers.  It stated that J. Grossman’s Sons is the “largest mail order house in the South.” My research has indicated any number of liquor businesses that made that claim, one that cannot be easily verified or discounted.

The sons further claimed to be “the oldest Whiskey House in the South,” as shown on a shot glass.  That boast also was open to question, although their company certainly had operated for many years.  My assumption is that the sons dated its origins back to the founding of the Herrmann liquor business in 1876, taken over by their father after Herrmann’s suicide.   Adolph and Isadore issued a number of shot glasses, including to selected customers selling their brands.

The last entry for J. Grossman Sons in New Orleans business directories was 1915.  The reasons for shutting down likely were several.  First, mail order sales for whiskey had virtually disappeared throughout the South and, indeed, all of the U.S. by the passage of the Webb-Kenyon Act that made it illegal to ship whiskey interstate to “dry” states or localities.  Second, although liquor sales remained legal in Louisiana, under “local option” many parishes (counties) and towns had enacted bans on the sale of alcohol.  Finally, although New Orleans remained one of the “wettest” cities in America, the competition among local wholesalers — all facing declining markets — was intense.  Under several company names, the Grossmans had been successful in the Big Easy for a very long time — until economic and political realities caught up with them.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Turner-Looker Co. and Whiskey Border Wars

While keeping the same name during a run of at least 38 years in the Cincinnati liquor business, the Turner-Looker Company operated under several managements, none of which were adverse to fraudulent claims.  Their chicanery became a important part of what I call the U.S.- Canada whiskey border wars.

The company name referred to two men, William S. Turner and Charles S. Looker, who joined forces sometime before 1880 to create a new Cincinnati liquor house.  The date is somewhat uncertain because the first business directory listing was not until 1887.  Looker had been an employee of Maddux Bros. in Cincinnati, a firm described as “Importers and Jobbers of Tobacco, Coffee, Tea, Cigars, Etc.”  That “etc.” included whiskey.   Turner’s background is less clear but he was identified as a merchant.

The pair saw an opportunity to cash in on the popularity of a brand called Canadian Club that was finding favor with the American public, a whiskey made by Hiram Walker at his giant distillery at Walkerville, Canada, near Windsor, Ontario.  They created a copy-cat brand they called “Windsor Club Whiskey,”  and claimed it was made in Walkerville, distilled and bottled under the supervision of the Canadian government — all patently untrue.

Ferocious in protecting his trademarks, Walker, shown right, was furious.  He gained the support of the Canadian Commissioner of Inland Revenue who abjured publicly any notion that his office was supervising Turner-Looker’s Windsor Club Whiskey.  Forced by the publicity to back off that claim, as noted in the label change shown here, the Cincinnati firm subsequently went on the attack against Walker and Canadian Club.

Turner-Looker’s ads acknowledged that Windsor Club was bottled in Cincinnati under its own supervision, but insisted that it was made in Canada “by an old distiller.”  The partners also swung back hard at Walker asserting that:  “This brand must not be confused with the low, common, trashy goods bottled in bond in Canada.”  The company issued a second brand with a Canadian flavor, calling it “Toronto Club.”

In 1898 Hiram Walker & Sons Ltd escalated the conflict, taking full page ads in a friendly U.S. journal called the American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record.”
The ads claimed as fraudulent the idea that Turner-Look’s whiskey was made by The Windsor Club Distilling Co., Walkerville, Canada — “there being no such concern.”  Nor was Toronto Club made by the “Toronto Distilling Co.” in the Ontario city, another fraud: “We are good for heavy damages if Turner-Look Co. can show that this is a libel; and we will test the matter in their own courts if they ask us to.”

The Cincinnati firm knew that if the Walkers had their day in court, they might very well win.  A year earlier, detectives hired by Hiram and his boys had triggered an investigation of whiskey fraud in Chicago that led to several arrests and an abject public apology from a key perpetrator, Charles Klyman. [See my post on Klyman, April 16, 2016.]  Smartly, Turner-Looker never initiated a case.

Nonetheless, Turner-Looker Co. mounted a vigorous, some even might say vicious, attack against the Walkers.  It struck back aggressively with ads in its own compliant U.S.publication, The Pharmaceutical Journal.  There it questioned anew the quality of Walker’s Canadian Club, citing a finding by one Alex Mattison, said to be a U.S. whiskey tester in Georgia, that his investigation found Hiram’s liquor at 97.6 proof, rather the advertised 100 proof.  “Any dealer in the State of Ohio found guilty of selling whiskey under 100 proof is subject to a fine of $100.00 and imprisonment in the County Jail for 30 days,” the American firm piously noted.

Turner-Look also accused the Walkers of issuing Canadian Club in short measure bottles, a practice not uncommon in the whiskey industry.  It asserted that the laws of the United States were more strict than those of Canada and implied that the distiller was being allowed by Canadian authorities to provide an ounce or two less in its bottles than the amount claimed on the label.  As symbolized by its giveaway poster of heavyweight champ, James “Gentleman Jim” Corbett, the Cincinnati firm did not back off from a slugfest.

Meanwhile, the founding partners had sold out their interest to Edward Pattison, an entrepreneur who was prominent in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky commercial circles.  Beginning in the 1860s, Pattison was primarily in the business of making and selling whiskey.  He was instrumental in a number of liquor ventures, most important as president and treasurer of the Miami Distillery located in Hamilton, Ohio.   After buying the Turner-Looker Company, Edward turned it over to a new management team that included his son, Harry S. Pattison, who eventually became its president.

Under the Pattisons, Turner-Look issued a blizzard of whisky brands.  In addition to Windsor and Toronto Club they included “Beechmont,” "Bunker Hill,’ ”Clovertop,” "Coon Club,” "Deerford Rye,” "Earth's Best,” "Fallbrook Rye,” "Fremont Rye,””Fresco Rye,” "Green Ridge Rye,” "Heron's Pure Malt,” "Jim Town,” "Kentucky Jewel, "Margrave Penn. Rye,” "Martha Hill Rye,” "Miles Standish,” "Old 101,”, "Old Anderson County,” "Old Bradlee Rye,” "Old Cooper,” "Old Larabie Rye,” "Old Licking Club,” "Old Orchard Rye,” "Old Tom Jarrett Rye,” ”Our Pet Bourbon Old 66,” and "Owl Grove.”  Of these, the company trademarked only Beechmont — and not until in 1914.  Shown here are shot glasses issued for several of the brands.

Having sold their company and their names to the Pattisons, the founders did not exit the Cincinnati liquor scene.  As indicated by the 1892 letterhead shown here, the partners collaborated on a new company called the Charles S. Looker Co.  Calling themselves “Distillers and Wholesale Liquor Dealers,” their establishment was located at 67 West Pearl Street.  Turner was president; Looker, secretary and treasurer.  In addition, local business directories in the mid-1890s listed Turner as president of the Wm. J. Turner Distilling Co., from about 1893 until 1910.

The dispute between the Pattisons' Turner-Looker Co. and Hiram Walker & Sons apparently dragged on for years to no conclusion.  Both Windsor Club and Canadian Club gained American sales.  The Walkers could not sue for trademark infringement since none had occurred.  Turner-Looker’s ploy in claiming to be of Canadian origin was not illegal — just part of the accepted chicanery that was common in the whiskey trade.

Stymied, Hiram and his sons turned to other battles.  A number of U.S. distillers and rectifiers, recognizing the growing popularity of whiskey from North of the border, were selling imitation Canadian whiskey, made in the United States, in bulk to saloonkeepers for the purpose of refilling original bottles in substitution of the genuine Canadian Club.  In 1914, the Walkers sued 13 liquor outfits, alleging their engagement in that practice. The defendants included some of America’s best known wholesaler/rectifiers, among them E. Eising, Cook & Bernheimer, and Joseph Beck. Interestingly, Turner-Looker was not among the companies sued.

In a case called Hiram Walker & Sons v. Grubman, extensive testimony was heard in the Federal District Court of New York in March, 1915, the famous Judge Learned Hand presiding.  His verdict was that selling non-trademarked whiskey in bottles indicating a trademarked liquor was an infringement of the patent-holders rights and illegal.  Damages were assessed against the American firms.

With the coming of National Prohibition in 1920, ultimate victory also went to the Canadians.  During the “dry” 14 years, all liquor wholesalers and rectifiers like Turner-Looker Co. went out of business.   Just a handful of U.S. distilleries were allowed to operate for “medicinal” whiskey.  Meanwhile, with no Prohibition north of the border, Canadian distilleries like Hiram Walker’s flourished, supplying whiskey for much of the bootlegging trade.  Americans got accustomed to drinking Canadian whiskey — and liking it.  Moreover, Canadian distillers used their new-found wealth to buy up a number of idled U.S. plants.  When Repeal came, the Canadians were in an immediate position to begin production in the 48.  And did.  But that is another story.

Note:  Among the 13 firms sued by the Walkers in 1914, I have profiled three in previous posts:  E. Eising, January 19, 2012;  Joseph Beck & Sons, September, 2015; and Cook & Bernheimer, November 7, 2016.