As prohibitionary forces gradually shut down liquor distribution and sales in states and localities throughout America, the Nation’s imbibing public came more and more to rely on a phenomenon known as “The Jug Train.” Though operations differed from locality to locality, basically the Jug Train brought liquor from “wet” states into “dry,” protected from being seized by the Interstate Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Isaac Oppenheim, a saloonkeeper and liquor dealer forced out of Georgia by prohibition into Tennessee, parlayed the Jug Train into personal prosperity.
Isaac was born in Charleston in 1858, the son of Joseph Hertz and Hannah Oppenheim, both of them South Carolinian natives of Jewish ancestry. Joseph was a married man with a family in Charleston when the Civil War broke out but joined the Confederate Army as a lieutenant with the 16th Regiment of the South Carolina militia. His service largely was guarding the islands and ports of the state against Yankee incursions and allowed him considerable home time.
With the Southern surrender, Joseph established himself as a merchant in Charleston. The 1870 census found the family there. Isaac was the oldest son at 19, working in his father’s store. He was followed by three brothers and four sisters, the youngest of them five years old.
Perhaps seeking to “spread his wings” away from the family business, at some point Isaac moved to Atlanta, Georgia. There he likely entering the liquor business in one of the many Jewish-owned saloons. Marni Davis writes in her book, “Jews and Booze,” how strongly the Jewish community relied on selling alcohol for their livelihood. Atlanta provided a good example. Although only two percent of the population there were Jewish, more than ten percent of the businesses on Decatur Street were Jewish-owned saloons, including the one shown below.
Not only did Oppenheim find a career in Atlanta, he found a bride in Florence F. Meyer. They married in December 1889. There was one child, Leon Henry, born in 1891. It may have been family obligations that caused Isaac to leave his employer and in 1892 set up a saloon of his own, located at One Whitehall Street. He appears to have met with immediate success. A 1904 Atlanta business directory indicates his expansion to three saloons: 27 North Pryor, 33 North Forsyth and 7 East Alabama Streets. At the last location Oppenheim also was retailing liquor and wine.
His proprietary whiskeys were “Oppenheim’s No. 14 Rye,” “Oppenheim’s Mistletoe Rye,” “Strate Whiskey,” “Royal Warrant,” “Old Pharaoh,” “Wellworth,” and “Farm Bell” rye and corn whiskeys. He sold those brands in amber glass bottles embossed with his name, “fine whiskey,” and Atlanta. The liquor came in sizes ranging from quarts to pints and half pints, the latter shown here. All would have had paper labels, most lost over the years. Like other whiskey men, Oppenheim never bothered to trademark any of his brands.
By 1905 Isaac was back to running one saloon and liquor sales at 7 East Alabama. His North Forsyth address had been turned into a cigar and tobacco store. This move presaged Isaac eventually founding the Oppenheim Cigar Company in Atlanta, with his son, Leon, as the secretary treasurer of the organization and its head salesman.
Meanwhile, Georgia was edging ever closer to passing a statewide ban on the manufacture and sale of alcohol. When the hammer fell in 1908, Oppenheim quickly moved his operation to Chattanooga, Tennessee, 120 miles east of Atlanta. He set up his liquor house at 1013 Chestnut Street and in that railroad town quickly made use of the Jug Train. He ran ads in Atlanta newspapers stating: “Fifteen years in Atlanta — send your orders now to Chattanooga.”
A buyer would send Oppenheim money by mail order. Upon receipt of the funds in Tennessee where liquor sales were still legal, he would send a “wet” package via the Jug Train to Atlanta. Since it had been purchased out of state, the liquor was legal in Georgia. Competition came from what was known as the “lightning express.” This was an illegal extension of the Jug Train phenomenon. An Atlanta buyer paid cash to an intermediary and thirty minutes later liquor was delivered in a package stamped “Chattanooga” — clearly having made the 120 mile trip in “lightning” time.
Oppenheim in a trade journal took aim at that practice, writing: “All the injurious effects attributed to whiskey comes from mixed, manipulated stuff that is but a poor imitation of the real article…Every drop of whiskey sold here is guaranteed absolutely pure. I stake my reputation on every transaction.” The good stuff — “government standard whiskies” — came from Chattanooga, Isaac attested. Moreover, he paid express charges.
Shown here is a cartoon that depicts liquor being pumped south into dry Georgia from Chattanooga and north from Jacksonville, Florida, via the railroads. Although Atlanta was a principal destination, Jug Trains fanned out from that city across Northern Georgia to smaller towns. One writer, describing the disastrous effects of prohibition in Griffin, Georgia, noted that: “A daily train, called the jug train, was run between Atlanta and Griffin, bring liquor of all kinds to Griffin.” The prominence of Jug Trains throughout the U.S. caused Congress to outlaw the practice in the Webb-Kenyon Act of 1913. After seven years of riding the “gravy train” Oppenheim shut the doors on his Chattanooga liquor house in 1915 when Tennessee also went “dry.” He returned to Atlanta and his cigar business.
With son Leon to look after that enterprise, Isaac, as he aged, apparently took the opportunity to vacation. A tobacco trade journal in June 1919 noted that: “The senior Mr. Oppenheim is making preparations to visit the east, of course, landing in THE CITY…where he will enjoy the company of his manufacturing friends for some time; then for a nice peaceful, quiet rest in some secluded part of the New England states.” Isaac must have found the East to his liking, eventually buying a house in Ostego County, New York, not far from Cooperstown, and living there with his sister, Yetta.
This move suggests a rift in Isaac’s marriage to Florence. She seems to have remained in Atlanta with Leon while Oppenheim was in Chattanooga and did not follow him to New York. She died in Atlanta in 1925 and was buried in a local cemetery. Isaac died seven years later at the age of 73. He was buried in East Worcester, Ostego County, where, as shown here, he shares a gravestone with Yetta.
For about seven years Oppenheim had a ticket to ride — a very lucrative ticket. From Chattanooga virtually every day he shipped liquor back to Georgia via the Jug Train. No only did the railroad traffic make him rich, it provided a measure of sweet revenge on the state that had banned the sale of alcohol and put him out business in Atlanta.