Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Henry Laub Blazed a Whiskey Trail from KY to CA

Shown right in a 1922 passport photo, Henry Laub was steeped in Kentucky whiskey merchandising when about 1905 he pulled up stakes in Louisville and headed to Los Angeles where he founded the Old Plantation Distilling Co.,  There he sold what he claimed were “pure” Kentucky whiskeys and offered an iconic “Souvenir from Sunny California” carafe from which to pour them.

The son of Isaac and Hannah Abraham Laub, immigrants from Germany, Henry was born in Louisville in November 1858.  His father was a local grocer with a store at 991/2 Market Street between Floyd and Preston.  Liquor was a major part of its sales.  The family initially lived over the store.  As his sons matured, Isaac took them into the business, Henry included.  He would work for his father until 1884, absorbing information about merchandizing whiskey.

In 1882, at the age of 24, Henry married a 18-year-old woman named Hannah, a native of Kentucky whose parent both were native Kentuckians.  They would have one daughter, Florence, born in 1883, and a second daughter who died at six months.  The marriage launched Laub into another career.  Hannah’s sister Fanny had married Benjamin Stromberg and her sister Mollie had wed Leo Kraus.  With these brothers-in-law, in 1884 Henry co-founded a company that manufactured trunks, suitcases and other traveling bags.  The business was successful but after six years, Laub sold out his interest to Stromberg and Kraus who moved the plant to St. Louis.   The money and opportunity sent Henry’s mind westward.

“Realizing the future in store for Los Angeles,” wrote the LA Herald, Laub headed to California with a partner named Edward Mansbach and opened a liquor house. The Herald commented:  “Backed by sufficient capital to meet every emergency
…and possessed of the experience which is necessary in dealing with a discriminating public, the firm entered the Los Angeles liquor field prepared to make a successful bid for a large patronage.”

Calling their enterprise The Old Plantation Distilling Co., the partners found rapid success. Located initially at 108 South Broadway, the company within a month had outgrown their space and expanded to an adjoining storefront.  A 1906 company ad touted the reason for growth:  “No hypocrisy but actual facts—no misrepresentation but the truth—no vile substitute but purity.  No business such as our could be built up so quickly if we swerved an inch from these principles.” 

Despite these protestations of truth-telling, Laub and his partner claimed in ads to be distillers, citing as theirs Distillery No. 401, 5th District, located near Claremont, Bullitt County, Kentucky.  While Old Plantation Distilling might have been buying its whiskey from that distillery, it did not own it.  That facility had been built in 1880 by a trio of partners and was known as the Murphy, Barber Distillery.  A review of bonded warehouse transactions from this distillery from 1898 to 1918 nowhere indicates direct participation by Laub or his company.

The company featured a limited number of proprietary brands, with “Old Platonic” as the flagship.  It was sold as Kentucky bourbon “for family and medical purposes.”  Its label contained a line from Stephen Foster’s song:  “My old Kentucky home…good night.”  Other brands were “Old Plantation” “Old Huckster Whiskey,” “White Corn Whiskey,” “and “White Rye Whiskey.”  Laub bothered to trademark none of them.  He marketed those products in glass, from gallon bottles to quarts and flasks.  They bore paper labels but underneath were embossed with the company name and “Los Angeles.”

In a 1906 ad, Laub’s company touted its prompt service delivery carried out on bicycles.   But he was increasingly aware of the utility of motor vehicles for such purposes.  In 1911 Laub and Old Plantation made front page news in Los Angeles with a story about the company having purchased three two-ton trucks to assist with deliveries.  They promptly ceased using horses and possibly bicycles.  The paper reported:  “…In the short time the trucks have been in use Mr. Loeb [sic] says that they have reduced his delivery expenses half and he is serving a third larger territory.”   Laub was also talking about ordering a fourth truck, a five-ton vehicle.

As the march to Nation Prohibition proceeded, Laub was recognized for his leadership as a whiskey man and in 1915 unanimously elected president of the Allied Industries of Southern California, an organization organizing the campaign against prohibition in the lower half of the state.  The Wine & Spirits Journal  quoted Laub as saying that “…Los Angeles is to be the background in the coming fight and a majority of 50,000 votes against the dry amendments will have to be raised in that county.”

Although the prohibitionary referendum seems to have been defeated, Laub apparently could see the end of the liquor trade.  In 1916 the Western Canner & Packer reported that Laub was organizing a cannery for fruits and vegetables to be called the California Sanitary Canning Company with headquarters in Los Angeles.   The owner said that the new enterprise would give employment to 200 persons.  The following year Laub, now 58, closed out the Old Plantation Distilling Company together with a second enterprise called the Napa Wine Company. Instead, he was operating his canning factory from a concrete building at Industrial and Mill Streets, Los Angeles, initially concentrating on tomatoes. “The uncertainty of the wholesale liquor business caused the change,” reported The Grocer’s Advocate trade paper.

Both articles referred to him as “Colonel” Henry Laub.  Since he had not been involved in the military at any time in his life, this title must have been the honorary “Kentucky colonel,” a distinction awarded by the state’s governor to  individuals who had benefited the Kentucky economically, socially or culturally.   My assumption is that Laub’s strong exertions to bring Kentucky whiskey to Southern California had been recognized in his native state.

Throughout his life, travel abroad had been a passion of Laub’s.  He left the U.S. on trips, according to passport and ship records, in 1908, 1919, 1920, 1923 and 1925.  The most unusual jaunt was his 1920 trip to China, Japan and Hong Kong aboard the ship “Empress of Russia,” embarking from Vancouver, Canada.  In his passport application Laub said he was going as a “missionary.”  Since the Jewish faith does not evangelize, either he was spoofing or had converted to another religion.

By the 1920 census, Laub at 61 was a widower.  He was living alone with a single male servant, a Chinese named Seth Wong.  Laub had retired from business entirely.  He lived another six years, dying at the age of 68 in 1926 and was buried with other family members in Angelus Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles. His wife Hannah does not appear to be interred with him.

When Henry Laub first settled in Los Angeles and opened his liquor house, the population had just exceeded 100,000.  When forced to shut down in 1918, the city had passed the half-million mark and was heading toward a million.  Not only had his foresight picked a city on the move, Henry Laub had brought California’s drinking public the riches of blue grass bourbon, an achievement that had earned him the title of  "Colonel," even to his tombstone.

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