Wednesday, March 22, 2017

St. Louis’ Billy Lee: Dynamiting the Whiskey Trust

In 1891, William H.”Billy” Lee with four other St. Louis whiskey wholesalers struck a blow at “The Whiskey Trust,”  a cartel that sought to monopolize distilling and selling whiskey in the United States in order to jack up prices.  The rebellion spelled the beginning of the end of an organization that did not hesitate to use dynamite to get its way.

Taking a leaf from the trusts in the petroleum and other American industries, a few crafty men in Peoria, Illinois, backed by Wall Street moguls, in May 1887 created the Distillers’ and Cattle Feeders’ Trust, known unofficially as the Whiskey Trust.  They aggregated small-scale distilleries, then either closed them or cut back their production in order to control the quantity and price of whiskey on the market.  

In its early years, the Whiskey Trust was profitable, paid dividends and tried to convince other distilleries to join. It employed three strategies:  Initially it attempted to convince owners that it was profitable to join the Trust, giving stock and sometimes employing the owner.  If resisted, the Whiskey Trust moved into the vicinity where the distillery was located and undercut its prices. The idea was to convince the owner to join the Trust—or put the distillery out of business. Finally, if other methods failed to convince the owner to join, dynamite was an option. [See my June 4, 2012, post on the Shufeldt distillery bombing.]

But the Trust was not content with controlling distillery output, it also had to control “rectifiers,” wholesalers who bought whiskey to blend for color, taste, and body and then issued their own proprietary brands.  Rectifiers signing up with the Trust were given a break on price but paid a five cent a gallon surcharge that was kept by the organization and returned only if the rectifier had not cut prices or purchased spirits from non-Trust sources.   By this time the monopoly had cut annual U.S. whiskey production drastically and reportedly controlled three-fourths of available supplies.
Enter Billy Lee, a St. Louis liquor wholesaler with an interesting pedigree.  His father Abraham H. Lee, a native of Ohio, had come to Missouri as a young man, working as a clerk on Mississippi steamboats and ultimately becoming a merchant.  More important, in 1867,  Abraham won a lottery that was worth in today’s dollars, $5,000,000.  Soon after, he returned to his village outside St. Louis to build a three-story mansion, shown above, reported to have brought in “fine artisans from from various spots for the work.”  Staircases were walnut, windows were art glass, and bathrooms were elaborate beyond anything seen before in the vicinity.  That is where Lee grew up, the second son.  From a passport description we know that in maturity he was just under five feet, five inches tall, with blue gray eyes, and chubby, with a oval face and double chin.

Lee appears early to have gravitated to the whiskey trade, possibly as the result of his 1874 marriage to Matilda McCartney when she was 17 and he was 21.  She was the daughter of a successful St. Louis whiskey wholesaler named Samuel McCartney and Billy likely met Matilda while being in her father’s employ.  When that business closed, he gravitated with another McCartney clerk, Joel Wood, to the liquor house of Tyra Hill & Company. 

Although virtually every distiller and rectifier in St. Louis was embroiled in the “Great Whiskey Ring” scandal during the Grant Administration, the Tyra Hill organization, according to one source:  “Continued to do a legitimate business, and refused most positively to enter the unlawful combination, although it was impossible for a ‘straight’ dealer to continue business without losing money.”  Commended by Federal authorities for their honesty, the Tyra Hill staff emerged as local heroes.

When Hill retired in 1878, Lee and Wood took over, creating a partnership at 218 Walnut Street, in a busy commercial area shown here.  Their firm brought praise from one local source:  “Mssrs. Wood and Lee have a very large business which they retain from the old firm, and it is their determination to win the most honorable reputation that can be achieved….Their aim will be directed toward a position honorably in advance of all competition.”

That competition had been depleted by the fall of the Whiskey Ring.  More than 200 were indicted and 110 convicted, most of them from St. Louis.  Many of those that were not in prison left town.  Wood and Lee prospered and consequently needed more space, triggering a move to nearby 113 North Second Street, the avenue shown above.  Two years later Wood left the firm and Lee carried on as a single proprietor.

William H. Lee & Company, as the new firm was called,featured a range of proprietary brands, mixed up on the premises.  Among them were "Billy Lee’s,” "Bob Briarly.” "Boone Creek,” "Every Morning,” "Gene Ringler,” “Golden Ray,” ”High Grade Maryland Rye,” "Hillary Knott,” "King B,” “Kingston,” “Norfolk,” “Pemberton,” "Pennsylvania Mountain Rye,” "Tommy Atkins,” and "W & L Rye.”  After the Federal trademark laws were strengthened by Congress, the company spent time and money to register at least eight of those brands with the government in 1905 and 1906, a step other rectifiers often neglected.
Meanwhile, Billy Lee was having a personal life.  His first child, Josephine, had been born in 1887, followed by two more daughters, Julia in 1881 and Elmira in 1885.  A son, William H. Jr. completed the family in 1891.  To house his growing brood, Lee built a mansion home at 3713 West Pine Blvd, shown here in more recent times, apparently boarded up.  Two Irish servant girls also were resident there.

It is not clear what motivated Lee, with his established reputation for rectitude, initially to agree to the terms of the Whiskey Trust.  A likely rationale was the stranglehold that the monopoly held on whiskey supplies, the ingredient essential of the many brands Lee was selling.  Initially the five cents a gallon “forfeit” might have looked attractive given the alternatives.  With time and experience Lee and other wholesalers found strong objection to it on the grounds that they were given no interest on the money nor any assurance of its return.  Moreover, by yielding they placed themselves, as the Chicago Tribune put it, “hopelessly in the grasp of the Trust.”

Lee and his colleagues made their move in April of 1891, as reported in the New York Times, a strong opponent of the cartel.  Headlining “REBELLING AGAINST A TRUST, the Times wrote:  “For some time there have been rumors of discontent among the whiskey dealers of St. Louis, and rumors of rebellion have been rife.  Many wholesale dealers and jobbers were quite free in  their expressions of dissatisfaction with the manner in which the Trust was managing the whiskey-making business of the country, practically controlling it and dictating to the dealers.

In retaliation, Lee and the others collaborated on building a whiskey plant of their own, calling it the Central Distilling Company.   At the cost of $400,000 they constructed it at a premier site just outside of St. Louis.  The plant came on line late in 1891 with a daily mashing capacity of 4,000 bushels of corn.  This was enough for the partners to satisfy their own requirements and to have additional supplies to sell.  Initially Central Distilling kept sales prices at levels comparable to those set by the Trust.  By the following year, however, the new corporation announced it would cut the price of spirits to $1.10 a gallon, undercutting the Trust by five cents.  If there had been an unspoken truce, this move broke it.

While Trust officers were furious, there was little they could do.  The St. Louis action had begun a downward slide for the monopoly.  In May 1892, owners of the cartel’s five best paying houses announced that, because none of them had been paid the rent required for Trust control, they would repossess their plants at once and put whiskey on the market independently.  Opined the New York Times:  “It looks as if the Whiskey Trust is doomed.”

Although the Whiskey Trust did survive until National Prohibition, it was much diminished and never achieved the power it once knew.  Meanwhile Lee could bask in the glow of being part of the initial blow helped sink the organization. He continued to pilot his wholesale liquor house until May 1903 when he died suddenly, only 51 years old.  Cause of death was recorded as pneumonia.  With his widow, children and many friends by his graveside, he was interred in the Catholic Calvary Cemetery of St. Louis.

The liquor house William H. Lee had shepherded for 16 years was carried on under his name until the imposition of National Prohibition.  John S. Morrin became president and guided its fortunes.  A Trust employee targeted him with a lawsuit for $25,000 actual and $50,000 punitive damages, claiming malicious libel.  Asked about the suit, Morrin replied that it had been brought because the Lee company had passed from control of Trust officials who now were retaliating.  I find no indication that the suit was successful.  

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Fred Diebolt and Cleveland’s Saloonkeeper Revolt

“While the Blue Laws are in Force”
Oh, the new code is a corker,
Twould paralyze a horse,
We're a happy set of Christians
While the blue laws are in force.
Policemen in a muddle,
Judges a little mixed,
Bully job for lawyers
Until the thing is fixed.

German saloons were ubiquitous in Cleveland during the late 19th Century, their owners aware of the rise of prohibitionary forces, but content with the steady business they attracted for their lager beer and genial atmosphere known as “Gem├╝tlichkeit.”   Then a freshman Ohio state legislator stepped up, wrote, and pushed through a law that ordered the state’s saloons closed on Sunday, one of their busiest days.  One saloonkeeper, Fred Diebolt, rallied his colleagues to civil disobedience.  Stay open on Sunday, he advised, and with numbers we can back down enforcement. Unfortunately for Diebolt and his followers, it did’t quite work out that way.

Fred was a native Clevelander, in 1840 the firstborn of Ignatius Diebolt, 37, and his wife, Gertrude, 21, living at 29 Seneca Street North.  Ignatius was a baker by trade and in 1846 was listed in city directories running a bakery and grocery.  Evidently concluding that whiskey paid better than watermelons, two years later his establishment was listed as a bakery and tavern.  Fred apparently went to work for his father as he matured and in the 1870 census was listed as “saloon keeper.”

By this time Diebolt was married, his wife, Caroline. The couple had a newborn daughter they named Laura.  Perhaps it was these family responsibilities that caused Fred to move into other enterprises.  By 1871, with a partner, he was operating a bottling works in conjunction with a saloon at 76 and 78 St. Clair Street. 

Over the next several years he moved and expanded.  By 1879 he was operating a saloon and billiard parlor at 28 SW corner of Public Square, the area shown above, and a wholesale business at 47 Prospect.  By 1881, apparently needing more space for his liquor sales, he had moved his liquor house to 133-137 Champlain. This building of three stories, shown below, gave him ample space to store whiskey and other alcoholic drinks.
Diebolt’s customers for his wholesale spirits were the many German saloons in Cleveland, one of them shown below.  Noted saloons were Joseph Kieferle's Black Whale on Champlain St.; Albert Eisele's saloon at Superior and Bond St.; Paul Heine's or Water St.; Fred Sheurmann's on Huron St.; Boehmke's on E. Ninth St.; Brun Schwarzer's on Lorain St.; Silberg Brothers on Columbus Rd.; Weber's 242 Superior St.; Grebe's on E. Fourth St.; John Naumann's on Ontario St.  

Well known German beer gardens were Kindsvater's on E. 55th St.; Dahler's on Tod St.; Raaf s in Brooklyn; Sommer's Tivolian Garden on Pearl St.; Gieszen's; Hoffman's Forest; Lied's Tavern  These drinking establishments made comfortable living for their owners — and sometimes more.

Enter Frank V. Owen, a “self-made” man from Mount Vernon, Ohio, 105 miles south of Cleveland, whose father had died when he was but six years old.  Shown here, he received the normal education for the day then studied for the law, was admitted to the bar in 1884, and began handling personal injury cases and other legal matters.  In 1887 Owen ran for a seat in the state legislature and won.  An opponent of alcohol sales he saw an opportunity to replicate the “Blue Laws” then in fashion throughout the U.S., statutes that banned specific activities on Sunday.  He introduced a measure in the Ohio House requiring that all saloons be closed on Sunday.  It passed and became law, a statue widely known as the “Owen Sunday Closing Law.”

The news of this development hit Cleveland’s German saloonkeepers like a thunderclap.  Sunday was perhaps the busiest day of the week for those establishments.  Germans, both Catholics and Lutherans, attended church services then whole families repaired to a tavern for beer, fellowship and perhaps  a meal.  These were working men and women whose lifetime patterns were being disrupted to the distinct disadvantage of the saloonkeepers.  They turned for leadership to Fred Diebolt, among the wealthiest and most influential of their group.

He was ready to give it.  Defy the Owen Law, he is said to have advised. Stay open on Sunday.  If all of us fail to comply, the authorities will have to back down.  Twenty-one of his fellow German publicans took his advice.  When the first Sunday mandated for closing came around in August 1888, they stayed open.  The police, alerted by news stories to this open defiance, arrived and all, including Diebolt, were arrested.  Each requested a jury trial, hoping that acquittals would help null the law.

There were problems with Diebolt’s approach.  He was far from getting universal acceptance from his colleagues for the strategy.  Many German proprietors rejected civil disobedience.  His committee’s plea to the Ohio Liquor League, a bottling coop of saloons, their bottle shown here, was unavailing.  The members refused to meet or recognize Diebolt’s group in any way.  Churches, newspapers and prominent citizens called vigorously for enforcement.  The police were pleased to oblige.

Diebolt apparently was the first to be tried.  While Clevelanders watched in fascination, he was found guilty in his first trial by a jury said in the press to be predominantly German.  Because of unexplained “irregularities,” however, that verdict was thrown out and he was granted a new trial.  The second jury also found him guilty.  Speculation was rife in the media and among the public:  “How tough a sentence would be handed down?”

The Police Court Judge was George R. Solders, a well-respected jurist and a man active in Cleveland’s German-American community.  To quote his obituary:  “In all the activities of local German clubs and societies, he took a conspicuous and leading part….”  Given Diebolt’s prominence in the same ethic organizations, they must have known each other.  According to a New York Times story of November 19, 1882, many Cleveland residents doubted that Judge Solders would mete out the kind of stiff sentence he often handed down to “poorer and less influential men.”
Solders proved up to the job.  He fined Diebolt $100 (equivalent to $2,500 today) and sentenced him to ten days in the Cleveland Workhouse, shown here, for selling liquor in violation of the Owen Law.  Clearly stung by the result, Diebolt declared that he intended to carry the case to a court of appeals and, likely feeling the heat from his co-conspirators, announced that he planned to leave town for a while.  Meanwhile the remaining hapless German saloonkeepers were left to contemplate their fates.

I have not found the results of the other trials nor of Diebolt’s appeal.  Cleveland saloons all stayed shuttered on Sunday.  Eventually, however, the Owen “Blue” Law was overturned and Cleveland’s saloons, taverns and beer gardens were allowed to stay open on the Lord’s Day.   As for Diebolt, he resumed running his enterprises, even allowed to rename the short street to his saloon at Public Square, “Diebolt Place.”  

As he aged, Diebolt retired from active business, living to 91. Today Fred and Caroline are interred side by side in Woodland Cemetery, Cayuga County, Ohio.  German-run saloons ultimately were closed when Ohio went “dry” in 1916, many of them never to reopen.   Travel Advisor currently recommends four German restaurants in Cleveland that serve alcohol on Sunday.  Fred Diebolt would sign off on that.
Note:  The verse about Blue Laws that opened this post was written by Sam Devere, an African-American songwriter and performer of the 19th Century.


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

DC’s Mystery of the “Silver Wedding” Three

Three proprietors dealing in liquor sales in the Nation’s Capital — John Keyworth, Harry H. Meyerstein, and Alonzo Bunch — had one unusual attribute in common.  They each claimed to be the source for a D.C.-based whiskey called “Silver Wedding.”  The truth behind these assertions is not easily uncovered, the facts are scanty, and much remains a mystery.

John Keyworth is the first on the “Silver Wedding” scene.  According to records, he was born in District of Columbia in 1838, the son of Robert Keyworth, an immigrant from England who became a “citizen of prominence” in Washington.  Robert was a watchmaker and jeweler, doing business on Pennsylvania Avenue, west of Ninth Street.  He also was a major in the First Regiment, D.C. Volunteer Militia.

Robert’s son, John, eschewing his father’s profession, but not a commercial life, ran a grocery store and liquor shop at the corner of Ninth and D Streets, N.W.,   From a fuzzy photo of Keyworth’s establishment can be noted multiple barrels, several of which likely held whiskey, likely including Silver Wedding.  This store eventually was torn down to make way for the FBI Building. 

In an unusual step for the time — trademark laws were generally not respected — he registered the brand name in 1876 with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.  The label is shown here as it appeared in the trademark application and as reproduced on a shot glass.  Calling his establishment “Wholesale and Retail Dealer in Fine Groceries, Liquors and General Merchandise,” in 1881 Keyworth advertised himself in Washington newspapers as “sole proprietor” of Silver Wedding Rye.
On the personal level, Keyworth was a family man.  Listed as a “grocer - wholesale and retail,” in the 1870 and 1880 census forms, he lived in the District of Columbia with his wife, Mary, and their five children, four boys and one girl.  I have been unable to find a definitive date of death but a John Keyworth, whose occupation was listed as a grocer, died in April 1897 and is buried in Washington’s Congressional Cemetery.  

Enter Harry H. Meyerstein.   Baltimore business directories for 1900 show him working there for L. Strauss, a grocery outfit.  The following year he was listed in D.C. directories working for the Strauss outlet there.  By 1905 Meyerstein was operating a saloon at 417 Eleventh St. N.W.  In 1901 he had either purchased or obtained by default the trademark on Silver Wedding Whiskey.  At the time he said that the words had been used since September 1, 1874.  He may have been the source of a second Silver Wedding shot glass, shown here.
How Meyerstein fared in business is not recorded but at some point he appears to have sold or given up his right to the Silver Wedding brand.  Now it was claimed by the Colonial Wine Co., located (like Keyworth) at Ninth and D Streets N.W. and more particularly to its flamboyant owner, Alonzo Bunch.  The 1910 census found Bunch, living on 9th Street, likely above his liquor store and saloon.  Age 33, he was Virginia born and married to a woman whose name — no kidding — was given as Cuta Bunch.  No children were recorded in the household.

At least three shot glasses were issued by Colonial Wine, two advertising Silver Wedding Whiskey.   Those would have been given to saloons, restaurants and bars featuring Bunch’s liquor.   Alonzo also was running a bar on the second floor of a building at 1213 Pennsylvania Avenue.   He had acquired the license after the previous owner was cited by First Precinct Lieutenant J. A. Sprinkle as follows:   “Under present conditions this place should not go on…I think it is the worst conducted place in the precinct, and unless the musical attractions and the woman trade is eliminated I recommend that this license not be granted.”   The license was denied and the saloon put in the hands of receivers, from which Bunch obtained it and, I trust, cleaned up the situation.  

Alonzo’s hands, however, were not altogether “clean.”  He was acting as the D.C. agent for Cincinnati Extract Works, selling vanilla, lemon and other extracts, all with a high alcoholic content.  In 1913, his extracts were found by Food and Drug officials to be “imitation products, artificially colored.”  The Feds confiscated Bunch’s stock and he was fined $15.

After the Congress in 1917 voted to make the District of Columbia “dry,” Bunch, who had continued with his liquor interests up until the end, made headlines in Washington newspapers during his testimony at a Congressional hearing when he accused Justice Department officials of confiscating his liquor, providing no compensation, and then clandestinely giving it away to friends.  It is not clear that his charges were ever confirmed.

Along the line,  Bunch sold Colonial Wine Company to a pair of Washington businessmen named Landmesser and Fox.  The circumstances of the change are unclear.  The new owners published an announcement that the business would “hereafter be conducted in a first-class manner,” seemingly implying something about Bunch’s proprietorship.  Subsequent Colonial ads continued to advertise Silver Wedding Whiskey.  It cost $1.00 per quart; “better whiskies” cost $2.00.

My assumption is that sales of Silver Wedding Whiskey ceased in the Washington with the coming of Prohibition.  Nor is there any evidence of the brand being revived after Repeal.  The hand-off of the brand name from Keyworth to Meyerstein to Bunch and beyond remains murky.  But 1917 was not the end of the saga.  Shown here is a 1932 “medicinal” prescription for Silver Wedding whiskey issued by a “Greens’ Eye Hospital” in San Francisco during National Prohibition.   Was this whiskey from a usurper of the brand name or federally confiscated liquor from Washington, D.C., that had found its way to the West Coast?  Just another Silver Wedding mystery.  

Friday, March 10, 2017

Louis Sambucetti Blended Whiskey and Memphis Politics

Working as a youthful bartender in his mother’s working class saloon, Louis Sambucetti may have fantasized about becoming a wealthy and important figure in Memphis, Tennessee.  He would find that path to fortune and recognition in the liquor trade and by cultivating powerful political friends.

Louis’ parents were John and Mary (Maria) Dasso Sambucetti, immigrants from Italy who came to the United States as a young married couple in the late 1840s.  Louis was born in Louisiana in 1850.  By the time of the Civil War, the family had moved to St. Louis where Mary, the Sambucetti entrepreneur, reputedly became wealthy by selling food to soldiers, possible as a sutler going from encampment  to encampment.  After the war her earnings apparently made it possible for the Sambucettis to move to Memphis where she opened a saloon in a working class neighborhood.

The 1870 census found the family living in the Greenlaw Section, the most ethnically and racially mixed area of the city.  Mary was listed as a saloon keeper with a net worth equivalent to $125,000.  Her husband had no occupation.  Louis, an only son and twenty years old, was working as a “bar keeper,” almost certainly for his mother.  By the 1880 census, John had died and Mary had retired to keep the household.  At 29 Louis was still living in her house and running the saloon.  

In 1877 he had married, his bride 18-year-old Amelia, the Tennessee-born daughter of John and Ann Grace Lagorio.  The first of their four children, Angelina, was recorded by the 1880 census, only seven months old.  Lorena would be born in 1883,  Joseph in 1885 and Mary in 1887.

Perhaps impelled by the needs of his growing family, sometime during these years Sambucetti shifted from selling whiskey over the bar to becoming a wholesaler.  By about 1900, he had founded a liquor house at 233 Main Street in Memphis, taking the somewhat younger Frederick Bianchi as his partner.  Two jugs shown above advertised the firm of Sambucetti & Bianchi.  The partnership appears to have been short-lived with Bianchi departing by about 1904.
This same decade was to see Sambucetti’s fast ascendancy in Memphis. He had become strong friends in Greenlaw with John T. Walsh and his brother Anthony.  After building their fortunes as owners of a large Memphis grocery and as cotton brokers, the brothers had opened a bank that became the financial center for North Memphis.  At the same time, John T. had become a powerful political figure, one known for being able to deliver the Irish vote.  Seeing Sambucetti as a leader of a growing Italian population,  the Walshes brought him into their fold.

In 1906, when James H. Malone was elected mayor and John Walsh vice mayor and Fire and Police Commissioner,  Sambucetti was selected to serve as one of several Supervisors of Public Works for Memphis.  Serving in the same capacity was E. H. Crump, whose rise would be meteoric.  In Malone’s second term in 1908, Louis had the same position, but Crump, shown right,  had been raised to Fire and Police Commissioner.  In 1911, Crump obtained a state law to establish a small commission to manage Memphis, a government he dominated as “Boss” Crump for the next fifty years.

Sambucetti never held public office again.  Initially his allies the Walsh brothers sided with Mayor Malone against Crump likely dooming any chances Louis might have had to stay in office.  Seeing the machine politician’s hold on the city, John T. eventually capitulated and threw in with him.  Considered a machine politician by some and a reformer by others, Walsh supported the Crump organization thereafter.  Louis stuck to business.

Now called Sambucetti & Company, the firm was expanding its reach throughout Tennessee and into Mississippi.  Although the latter had banned statewide sales of alcohol in 1908, it was still possible to order liquor for delivery from other states.  This mail order trade proved lucrative.  As a “rectifier,” that is, someone blending whiskeys to achieve a desired taste, color, body and alcoholic content, he featured a number of propriety labels.  

Sanbucetti's brands included "Ehleton", "Ellendale", "Golden Oak,” "Lincoln Springs,” "Pride of Tennessee,” “Samanco,” ”Stillmore,” "Wee Nippy,” and "Yazoo Special.”  Of these he only saw fit to trademark Stillmore in 1908.  As seen above, for customers like saloons he packaged his whiskey in ceramic jugs.  He also used glass bottles in both flask and quart sizes, as shown here.

Sambucetti was also engaged in building projects.  In 1906 he received a permit to build a two story retail and office building at the northeast corner of Grand and Lindell Streets.  At the same time he was overseeing the final touches of a new mansion home for Amelia and their children at 700 North Seventh Street, still located in the Greenlaw Section where he gotten his start. Shown below, it was a brick and stone house that subsequently became a convent.

At the same time this Italian-American liquor dealer was not neglecting larger community activities.  In 1906 he was chosen as the chair of the Wines and Liquor Trade Committee of the Memphis Chamber of Commerce.  During the same period he was active as an incorporator of an interurban electric street railway between Memphis and Clarksdale, Mississippi, a distance of about 76 miles and linking towns in between.  Although routes were laid out and stock sold to the public, no evidence exists that the line actually was built.  In 1912 a stockholder and creditor sued, claiming that the company was bankrupt. Perhaps the cause was a surfeit of trolleys, as indicated by the postcard below.

As proof of his continued leadership role among the Italian population of Memphis, Sambucetti was chosen, along with P. M. Canale, another whiskey man [see my post November 2011] to head an committee to design and erect a statue of Christopher Columbus in a local park.  A local paper noted that: “In the mercantile, professional and financial life of Memphis the Italian citizen has been prominent for a good many years.” It predicted that the monument would be unveiled the following Columbus Day.  Shown here, a Columbus statue does stand in Memphis.  It was erected, however, only many years later.

As Louis aged, he brought his son, Joseph, into the business, teaching him the wholesale liquor trade from the bottom up.  After a stint as a bookkeeper for the firm, the young man became part of management by 1912, serving as the company secretary and treasurer.  Meanwhile, the forces of Prohibition were growing stronger and stronger in Tennessee.  Increasingly towns and counties were voting “dry” under local option laws.  In 1913, the U.S. Congress effectively shut off mail order sales across state borders and business in Mississippi ended.

The last directory entry for Sambucetti & Company, re-located at 86-88 North Front Street, was in 1915.   Louis, now 65 years old, retired to his Seventh Street home.  Joseph subsequently established a wholesale and retail cigar and tobacco business he called J. L. Sambucetti & Company.  His wholesale store was at 79 Jefferson with retail outlets at the Claridge Hotel and the Exchange Building.

Sambucetti lived another 24 years, seeing National Prohibition imposed in 1920 and repealed in 1934.  He died in March 1939 at the age of 89 and was buried in the Catholic Calvary Cemetery near Memphis.  Wife Amelia had preceded him there six months earlier.  Shown here is his gravestone.  

When the Greenlaw Addition was proposed as an historic district, Louis Sambucetti was singled out in National Park Service documents as one of several “important residents.”  By dint of selling whiskey — and friendships — this Italian-American in his time had reached the top rungs of the Memphis business and political community. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Down at the Still with George Washington

Note:  By my count this is the 500th post for my blog on pre-Prohibition whiskey men.   For this “historic” occasion, I have decided to devote the vignette to a truly historic figure, George Washington.  Living not far from Mount Vernon, I was privileged to write a number of articles as Washington’s distillery was being reconstructed there under the guidance of staff archeologists.  Those articles largely were about the distillery; this vignette is on the distillery owner, a pioneering American whiskey man.

After George Washington’s death a myth was spread by Temperance forces that our first President drank nothing stronger than tea.   Nonsense!   Even as a teenager the future President had recorded with evident satisfaction that there had been “wine and rum punch in plenty”  at a dinner prepared for him and companions.  During the Revolution Washington considered liquor “essential to the health of the men.”    Now the myth has been exploded entirely.  Washington,  it turns out,  was one of the earliest and most successful distillers in the newly fledged America.

Washington was a farmer at heart.  Upon returning to Mount Vernon after his presidency, he threw himself wholeheartedly into the agricultural activities of the plantation, including growing corn and rye wheat.  At the urging of his farm managers, James Anderson,  a Scotsman with experience making whiskey both in his homeland and Virginia, Washington began commercial distilling in 1797.  Anderson had advised George that Mount Vernon’s crops, combined with his large gristmill and abundant water supply, would yield a profitable venture.  Always looking for ways to make the farm pay off, Washington agreed.

As a result, in February 1797 the cooperage at Washington’s grist mill, 2.7 miles from the plantation house, was converted to distilling and two stills bought and put into operation.  Success came quickly and Anderson was able to convince Washington to increase the number of stills.  That fall, construction began on a building large enough to hold five stills.  The foundation was laid from large rocks brought from the Falls of the Potomac where Washington was trying to build a canal.  The walls were of sandstone quarried right on the plantation itself.  Washington also invested heavily in the interior.  He bought five large copper kettles, 50 mash tubs, five work tubes and a boiler.

The enlarged distillery was up and running by the spring of 1798.  The facility was managed by Anderson’s son, John, aided by six black slaves.   While not the first distillery in America, nor the largest, Washington’s 75-by-30 foot facility was among the largest of its kind in 18th Century America.  An artist’s concept of the original complex is shown above with the distillery on the right and grist mill on the left. Between 1798 and 1799,  Washington produced 11,000 gallons of whiskey,  valued in that day at more than $7,000 (equivalent today to several hundred thousand dollars).  The  distillery also made brandy using locally grown apples, peaches and persimmons.

In October 1799, a delighted Washington wrote his nephew:  “Two hundred gallons of Whiskey will be ready this day for your call, and the sooner it is taken the better, as the demand for this article (in these parts) is brisk….”  About the same time he was writing to friends to describe a steady market for his liquor in nearby Alexandria, Virginia.  A merchant there named Gilpin there would buy all Washington could provide of this un-aged whiskey — equivalent today to moonshine or “white lightening.”  Shown below is a reproduction of the desk that George might have used to calculate his earnings.

Some liquor clearly was kept for home use.  Marquis de Lafayette, on a visit to Mount Vernon from Paris,  wrote of the “swift authority” of the plantation’s spirits.   Achille Murat,  a Frenchman who married Washington’s great-grand niece,  remarked after a taste:  “Whiskey is the best part of the American government.”
A determined agriculturalist, willing to do hands on experimentation in the pursuit of profit, Washington himself became versed in the process, writing in 1798 that: “Rye chiefly, and Indian Corn in a certain proportion, compose the materials from which the Whiskey is made….”  Never one to waste anything, he stored the spent mash and fed it to more than 150 hogs and cattle kept on the site.

The success of Washington’s distillery was short-lived.    In 1799 the first President died suddenly, the facility was closed  and within a decade the building had fallen into disrepair.  His heirs removed many of the stones from the structure for other building projects on the plantation.  In time the distillery site disappeared, although drawings of it survived.
For a long time it was believed that one of the original stills from the Washington distillery resided in the Smithsonian Institution.    The copper kettle had been confiscated in 1939 from a moonshine operation, allegedly run by a Virginia family descended from Washington’s servants.  Later it was put it on display at Mount Vernon.  While almost certainly not one of Washington’s, the still dates from 1787 and England,  and is similar to the ones George purchased.   It became the model for the five stills installed in the restored distillery.

Today the American public knows a great deal more about the Father of the Country as a whiskey-maker.  Using a multi-million grant from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DICUS), the distillery as conceived and operated by the Washington was recreated on the original site and opened to the public in 2005.  

I recommend a visit.  The second floor contains a museum where a number of artifacts can be found, including my gift of matches from a “Mount Vernon whiskey” that had nothing to do with Washington’s liquor.  Once a year DISCUS actually distills on premises and the bottled whiskey is sold to raise funds for Washington’s home at Mount Vernon.

Afterword:  More than a year ago when the number of whiskey men profiled reached 400 and I determined to go to 500, the question was left open about what would happen when that mark was reached.  In ensuing months, I have found so many intriguing stories of pre-prohibition distillers, liquor dealers and saloonkeepers that it was an easy decision. I will go for 600.