Friday, June 29, 2018

Lauriston Durkee: Boston’s Blind Whiskey Man

There was a subtle irony in the motto used by the liquor house of Durkee, Davis & Drake. It read:  “Every time we drink, things look different.” Lauriston C. Durkee, one of the principals, was not looking.  He had gone blind years earlier but continued to be a major player in the whiskey trade of Boston.

This story of a sightless man in a business where seeing was an important part of success, began in 1840 when Lauriston C. Durkee was born in the bucolic town of Montague, Mass., 95 miles east of Boston, the son of Jeremiah and Susan C. Durkee.   Born sighted, Lauriston was but three years old, when his mother died.  The 1850 census found the remaining family living in Montague.   The household contained Jeremiah’s mother, Susannah, Jeremiah, now 41 years old, and a second wife, Mahaley, 25, with her child Charles, a one year old, and four sons from the first marriage.  The boys included Lauriston, at seven the youngest. 

Durkee may be assumed to have had a basic education in the local Massachusetts school and, like many others, in his mid-teens to have sought employment.  He gravitated east toward Boston, settling in Somerville.  His choice of a city was an inspired one — Somerville was booming. Within a few years the population increased from 15,000 to 90,000.  Brickmaking had taken a hold in the area after the railroads first arrived and the city’s brickyards boomed through the 1860s. In the 1870s meatpacking displaced them as the primary industry in the Somerville, called by some "The Chicago of New England.”  

Recognizing the customer base for alcohol in a boom town, by 1865 Lauriston was recorded as a partner in a Somerville liquor house called “Burrows and Durkee.”  By 1869, Burrows had exited the scene and Durkee was listed as a sole proprietor of a saloon and liquor store.

In 1869 Lauriston married.  Unusual for those times, his wife, Martha L. Dane, was six years older than he, 34 years old at their marriage.  Born and raised in Massachusetts, she was from nearby Medford, the daughter of Herman and Hannah Dane.  The couple was married in Reading, Massachusetts.  There is no indication of children from their union.  Whether it was a desire for a wider market or the draw of a major city, by 1871 the couple had pulled up stakes in Somerville and moved to Boston.  

Durkee found success there, opening a liquor emporium at 99 Causeway and later a second outlet at 7 &1/2 Bowdoin Square, the area shown here.  In May 1873 his Causeway store was damaged when flames spread from an adjoining lumber mill  spread to the building in which he was operating.  The fire caused $5,000 damage (equivalent today circa $125,000) but quickly was repaired.

Durkee operated both stores alone until about 1885 when he was struck by blindness — the cause unexplained.  This misfortune and the additional burden it placed on his ability to effectively manage his business seemingly moved Durkee to merge his efforts with two Boston locals with credentials in the whiskey trade.  They were W. L. Davis, described as a resident of Boston from his boyhood and “thoroughly conversant with the business” and M. W. Drake who had twenty years experience working for a liquor house.  They called their firm “Durkee, Davis, and Drake, Liquors.”

Their headquarters at the intersection of Causeway and Lancaster Streets was a five story building, forty by fifty feet, located almost opposite the Boston & Lowell Railroad depot, shown here.  The first floor held the partners’ business offices, described as “elegantly furnished” where customers were received.  Upper floors were used to store their liquor supplies and imported wines and brandies.  Fifteen employees looked after a trade that was said to extend throughout New England.  Despite his blindness, Durkee had become a wealthy man.

To brand their company, the partners adopted a distinctive monogram of interlocking “D’s.”  They featured the mark on their advertising shot glasses, given to saloons and restaurants using their products.  The opposite side contained a favorite slogan:  “Every time we drink, things look different.”  Given Durkee’s blindness, this language seems ironic.  

Despite having ample space, the company does not appear to have “recified” (blended) whiskey and sold it under their own label.  Instead they sold “Owl” rye and bourbon, a brand name originating with another Boston whiskey man, John Walsh. [See my post on Walsh, August 30, 2016.]  An 1892 directory of Boston commerce commented that Durkee, Davis and Drake had sold thousands of cases of Owl Whiskey and “have yet to hear of an instance in which the goods did not give the best satisfaction.”  The same directory lauded the firm as one “whose success and enterprise have rapidly advanced them to general favor in business circles.”

Despite his handicap, throughout this period, Durkee also was operating a retail liquor dealership on his own in a one and one-half story building at 259 Friend Street in Boston.  In addition, he had bought a small farm on the Connecticut River in Northfield, Massachusetts, and settled his half-brother, Oscar and Oscar’s wife, Nettie, on the property.  As he aged and his health declined, he spent increasing time in a highly picturesque landscape on the farm.

In August 1894, after being blind almost a decade, Lauriston Durkee died at the relatively young age of 53.  After a Masonic ritual funeral he was buried on a tiny family graveyard on his farm, now an undeveloped unit of the Connecticut River Greenway Park.  A single large granite monument, shown here, facing upriver, memorializes Lauriston, Oscar and Nettie.  Though surrounded by woods, with underbrush heavy with barberry and briars, the plot itself has been kept clear. Someone cares for it.  Durkee’s wife, Martha, is not buried there.

Durkee had accrued a substantial estate from his liquor business and in his will left a generous bequest for a home to provide affordable room and board for older women without other means of support.  A committee of local residents used the money to buy a large Victorian home at 24 Church St. in Greenfield, Mass., shown here.  When the home was sold in 2015 it was reported  that the housing program initiated with Durkee’s money had helped hundreds of elderly women and others through the years. 

With Lauriston’s death, the liquor house became Davis & Drake, with one fewer “D” in the monogram.  Apparently Durkee’s sighted partners were not as canny at business as he was.  In January 1900 came the news that Davis & Drake, characterized as one of the largest liquor firms in Boston, had filed for bankruptcy.  Its liabilities were placed at $93,105 and assets at $18,328.  Among the firm’s creditors was Paris, Allen & Company of New York, the force behind one manifestation of the Whiskey Trust.

Note:  Although the information in this post is from multiple sources, key information about the Durkee, Davis and Drake Co. came from the 1892 publication “Boston: Its Commerce, Finance and Literature” from the A. F. Parsons Publishing Co., New York.

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