Monday, March 12, 2018

Farm Girl Flora — Boston’s “First Lady” of Whiskey

In 1898, a farmer’s daughter, Flora Doble, found herself filling the shoes of her late husband, Otis Neale, at the head of a large liquor, wine and bottling business in Boston.  It secured her a place in the high society “Blue Book” of Boston, but also brought financial and legal challenges that she may not have expected. 

Flora J. Doble was born on a farm near Oxford, in the southeastern part of Maine about 1846, the daughter of Phineas and Lucinda Doble.  Although girls were being educated in local co-educational public schools and private “seminaries,” it is doubtful that Flora received more than an elementary education.  Likely growing a little hay and feeding cattle, her father, according to net worth figures given in the 1860 census, was far from rich.  Moreover, the Dobles had five children to feed and clothe.  The oldest four were girls.

Thus it probably was considered a family blessing when Flora, still in her teens, was courted by Otis S. Neale, shown here in middle age.  Neale had only recently returned from Civil War military service.  At the outbreak of the conflict in 1861, at the age of 19 he had enlisted as a private in the Massachusetts 1st. Light Artillery Battery and almost immediately shipped out to guard the Nation’s Capitol.  A gunner, he later was extolled for his “generosity, tact, and energy” in military service.  Advanced to full corporal during the war, Neale was mustered out in 1864 and returned to Boston.

How Flora and Otis came to meet is uncertain, but on June 14, 1866,  they were married and took up housekeeping in Boston.  At some point in the 1860s Neale went to work for an old established bottler of mineral and soda waters called Moses Fairbanks & Co.  Shown left is an embossed bottle from the company.

Since its earliest beginnings this company had been located in the Athaneum theater building on Howard Street.  Among the city’s most famous theaters, shown here with adjoining buildings, the address was a prime one for beverage sales.After the retirement of Moses Fairbanks,  Neale, showing promise as a  business executive, about 1872 became a junior partner in the business with Levi Fairbanks.  By the early 1880s the Civil War veteran had taken over full ownership, renaming the business the Otis S. Neale Co. while remaining in the Athaneum building, shown right.

Meanwhile, Flora was playing the role of dutiful wife and mother.  The couple had a single child, Albert.  In the 1880 census her occupation was given as “housekeeping.”   There is no indication that she was playing any part in her
husband’s rapidly expanding commercial activities.  Dubbing himself “Doc” Neale, Otis was selling a “fine old private stock” whiskey under his own name, as well as a line of liquors called “Outing Club” that included whiskey and cocktails. 

He also offered ginger ale, twelve flavors of tonics, apple cider, brandy, rum, gin and wine by the barrel or by the gallon, in cases or by the bottle, as those shown here.  He also offered lager beer “of the best brands” and Philadelphia ale and porter.  His ads touted a wide range of beverages, both alcoholic and non-.   In short, if it was drinkable, “Doc” Neale could sell it to you. 

Neale ascendancy did not go unnoticed by his colleagues.  In 1883 he was elected to the board of a national organization called the United States Bottlers’ Protective Association, a group primarily concerned about the growing temperance movement.   He also found time to become the manager of the A. J. Houghton Brewery, founded in 1891 and located in the Roxbury District of Boston.  

Then in 1898 Otis Neale suddenly died, only about 52 years old, perhaps weakened by the strain of running both a major liquor house and a brewery.  His funeral was well attended and marked by the rituals of the Masonic order to which he had belonged.  He also was accorded military honors by the GAR, the veterans organization in which he had been active.  He is buried in Forest Hills Cemetery, his monument shown here. 

Seemingly in an instant Flora Neale was thrust forward into running the Otis S. Neale Company.   As the 1901 bullhead that opens this post indicates, she assumed the titles of both president and treasurer of the company, the only woman in Boston with that distinction.  Although aided by a manager named Gardner, evidence is that Flora was an active participant in the business from 1898 forward.  She advertised extensively.

The “Blue Book” of Boston, a directory of the rich and powerful took due notice of the widow, Mrs. Otis T. Neale.  She was listed, along with several neighbors, living in one of the area’s luxury apartment houses.  Shown here, Richmond Court likely was the first in the Northeast made to resemble an English Tudor manor house.  On the National Register of Historic Places today, it was then a highly fashionable place to live.  Flora, the former farm girl, made herself at home.

Flora’s time at the helm of the company was not, however, without its difficulties.  In 1908 an involuntary petition in bankrupcy was filed against the Neale Company by three creditors, the largest being Burkhardt Brewing, an Akron, Ohio, a company also headed by a woman.  It claimed to be owed $13,000, the equivalent of more than $300,000 today. Flora appears successfully to have survived that challenge.  The company avoided bankruptcy.

Flora also found herself in trouble with the Massachusetts Board of Health from time to time over beverages her company was selling.  In February 1907 she was called to account as the result of an analysis of her “Golden Seal” champagne cider, found to contain neither champagne nor cider.  Rather, said the Board, it was a “large admixture of sugar, malic acid and carbonated water.”  The state came down hard on her again in 1913, this time for a purported “non-alcoholic” temperance drink.  Along with eight other similar Massachusetts products, her “Imperial - A Liquid Food” was found to be adulterated with salicylic acid, considered poisonous if taken in quantity.

The last year for Flora’s leadership of the Neale Company appears to be 1913.  That year she moved to Winthrop, Massachusetts, an oceanside Boston suburb, and was living in elegant apartment with a relative.  No further references to the Neale Company can I find past that date.  The company Otis built passed into the mists of history.  I have also been unsuccessful in finding details of Flora’s death.

Note: I am always on the lookout for women who had responsibilities for whiskey related businesses as distillers, distributors or saloon keepers during the pre-Prohibition era.  Thus it was that the billhead from the Otis T. Neale Co. of Boston caught my eye.  “Mrs. Otis T. Neale, President and Treasurer,”  it read.  That was all I needed to begin researching the farmer’s daughter who began life as Flora Doble.  Brief profiles of five other women who succeeded in the whiskey trade can be found in my post of June 19, 2017.

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