Friday, April 27, 2018

John Low — Rising High in War and Peace

During the Civil War, John S. Low of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, advanced from corporal to captain over the course of three years of heavy combat only to return home, his heroism apparently forgotten, to menial jobs and near penury.  Once more through personal exertion, Low rose significantly in income and local business esteem, in large part by producing a popular whiskey he called “Elk’s Pride.”

Within a week of President Lincoln’s call for 75,000 men to serve for three months at the outset of the conflict, Low, 25 years old, joined a Carlisle troop called the Sumner Rifles and was given the rank of corporal.  His unit ultimately became Company C of the 9th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, performing garrison duties in Delaware and West Virginia.  When its term of service ended the company returned to Harrisburg to be mustered out.

Anticipating its end, Low enrolled again at Carlisle and in August 1862, his leadership skills being recognized, he was enlisted in Harrisburg as 2nd lieutenant of Company G, 130th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.  Within a month Low was engaged in hot combat at Antietam, West Virginia, one of the costliest battles of the Civil War.  A monument to the 130th stands today on the Antietam battlefield near the “Bloody Lane” where many Union soldiers fell.

This was just the first fierce fighting for the 130th Pennsylvania as it participated at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December 1862 and at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863.   Meanwhile, Low was being promoted to 1st lieutenant in August 1862 and then to captain in February 1863.  By the time the 130th was mustered out after Chancellorsville, the regiment had lost 92 men during service, four officers and 56 enlisted men killed or fatally wounded;  32 enlisted had died of disease.  Once back in Carlisle, Low headed a home guard company.

None of Low’s Civil War heroics seemed to translate into prosperity.  John had been married with at least two children when he went off to war.  His wife was the former Rebecca Humes, a Carlisle resident and a girl of 19 when they married.  Over the next few years the couple would have five more children.  A history of the First Presbyterian Church reported that Rebecca had six of their children baptized on one day in June 1869.

The 1870 census found the family living in Carlisle on Sassafras Street with their seven children, the oldest 13, the youngest, John S. Low Jr., eleven months.  Low’s occupation was listed as “produce dealer.”  This enterprise may have failed since a subsequent directory gave his occupation as “mechanic.”  The same directory listed Low’s taxable assessment at just $100 — among the lowest amount recored.  In the 1880 census Low’s occupation was listed as “huckster,” defined as a person selling items from a push cart or stall.  He seems to have been distant from from the prestige and prosperity that greeted many Union Civil War officers upon their return home.

But Low’s fortunes were about to change.  His reputation and income appear to have risen significantly sometime in the 1880s when he established a liquor wholesale house and bottling facility.  He featured a proprietary brand that he marketed as:  “A Whiskey Without a Headache.”  It was “Elk’s Pride.”  Shown here is a ceramic mini-jug “on the square” advertising the liquor.  

Low also sold his whiskey in glass bottles.  Shown here are two views of a Elk’s Pride flask, blown in a mold with an applied lip.  It is large at 9 1/2 tall by 4 1/2 inches wide and 2 1/2 inches deep and probably held a quart of whiskey.  It is considered rare and is sought by collectors because of its heavy embossing involving a stag elk’s head.

Elk’s Head Whiskey appears to have been a blend, likely a mixture of rye whiskeys obtained from Pennsylvania distilleries and “rectified” by Low or one of his employees to achieve desired color, taste and smoothness.  This operation likely occurred in the large building occupied by Low’s operation.  Shown here, the structure was located in the first block of North Pitt Street in Carlisle.  Its size also allowed Low and his son, John S. Low Jr., who eventually had joined his father in the business, to expand from whiskey into beer and soft drinks.

An advertisement indicates that Low’s company wasacting as the local distributor for several important breweries, including Pabst beer from Milwaukee and Bartholomay beer from Rochester, New York, two very popular brands of the times.  The Lows apparently were able to bottle those and other brands of beer.  They embossed their bottles, found in clear and amber, with “Registered,” the company name, and Carlisle.

The Lows also were bottling soft drinks sold under their name, often using  Hutchinson patent bottles.  Charles G. Hutchinson had invented and patented the Hutchinson Patent Stopper in 1879 as a replacement for cork bottle stoppers that commonly were being used to cap soda water bottles. His invention employed a wire spring attached to a rubber seal. Production of these stoppers was discontinued after 1912.  Seen here with Low’s embossing, Hutchinsons, as they were called, featured a bulbous top.  

Over a period of less than two decades, John S. Low had made the move upward in Carlisle business circles from being recorded as a “huckster” to owning of one of the city’s largest manufacturing enterprises.   

In 1891, at the relatively young age of 55, John Low died.  Although he had not joined the Presbyterian Church with the rest of his family, his funeral service was conducted by its pastor. A later parish history opined:  “He may not have been a church member since he had a wholesale and liquor bottling business.”  Low was buried with military honors in Grave 31, Section C, of Carlisle’s Ashland Cemetery.  His widow, Rebecca, joined him there twenty months later.  Their monument is shown here.

Dates and places of John Low’s battles and his rise in the ranks during the Civil War have been amply documented by historians of that period.  Unfortunately, details are scanty of how Low after the war was able to lift himself and his family from what appear to be low-level occupations and near-poverty conditions to a place near the center of Carlisle commercial life.  I am hopeful that one of his descendants will see this post and comment here, bringing some of those details to light.

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