Saturday, June 9, 2018

Whiskey Men in Mormon Land

Foreword:  For every fourth post on this blog I currently am consolidating brief stories of whiskey men previously profiled who have similar characteristics in order to obtain a broader picture of them and their times.  This post is devoted to those who were involved with liquor in a seemingly unlikely place — Mormon Utah.

Terming the Mormon leader Brigham Young a “whiskey man” might strike some as an absurdity, given the injunction against strong drink that has been a traditional teaching of the Church of the Latter Day Saints.  The facts seem otherwise.  For example, in 1873 at Young’s request the Utah territorial legislature granted him the exclusive right to manufacture and distribute whiskey and other spiritous liquors.  “Valley Tan” was the name of his principal brand.

Young seems to have been of two minds on the subject of strong drink.  Although indications are that he drank beer when polluted water was an issue, he is said never to have tasted whiskey.  Brigham is recorded saying:   “If I had the power, I would blow out the brains of every thief in the territory, and I despise the whiskey maker more than I do the thieves.”  Strong words indeed from a religious leader and sometime distiller.  

Valley Tan predates Young’s monopoly over Utah whiskey.  The name itself was associated with a range of goods produced by Mormons in Utah.  One of the first industries they introduced into Salt Lake Valley was leather tanning.  Because their tanning process often was done crudely, the term became associated with any article of home manufacture done in a rough-hewn way, including distilling liquor. 

Another link from Brigham Young to Valley Tan was its sale in the department-like store the leader had established to provide necessities to Mormons in Salt Lake City, ostensibly because non-Mormon local merchants were gouging his people.  Called Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution (ZCMI), the store, shown here, sold Valley Tan.   That could never have occurred without the leader’s blessing.   Because Young died in 1877, however,  his whiskey monopoly may have lasted only a short four years.

After Young’s death,  number of liquor stores were established in Salt Lake City, among them Henry Sadler’s emporium, just a little over a block way from the spires of the Mormon Temple.  There Sadler, an immigrant from England, successfully ran a saloon and sold whiskey to both the wholesale and retail trade, beginning after 1880.  Shown above is the front window of Sadler’s Mercantile Company.   It was located on South Main Street, a major thoroughfare that originates immediately south of Temple Square.  Note that the window contains full a display of “Old Ripy,” a well-known Kentucky bourbon.

Sadler’s sales room occupied the front portion of the building and was 24 by 75 feet in dimensions.  The center was the saloon portion of the establishment where Budweiser could be had on draught.  In the rear was the bottling and shipping departments.  The Deseret News, a Salt Lake daily owned by the Mormon Church, enthused:  “The company [is] extensive bottlers of fine wines and liquors and have every modern facility for bottling, corking and labeling, the packages they put up are noted for their neatness as well as purity and excellence of contents.”  

Sadler saw his liquor business slowly dwindle as Prohibition forces took the offensive.  Both Idaho and Colorado voted bans on distilling or selling alcoholic beverages in 1916.  Utah followed in August of the following year.  The Mormon Church itself remained largely neutral on a liquor ban, reputedly fearing a backlash by non-members.  As will be seen later, however, other forces were at work that eventually would cause Sadler to close his doors. 

To quote one observer:  “It is a sight you would never encounter today: liquor bottles proudly displayed to the public in a big shop window, only a couple of blocks from Temple Square, right out there on a bustling thoroughfare for the whole world -- Mormon and gentile alike -- to admire.”  He was talking about the picture shown above of the Salt Lake City store where Jacob (“Jake”)  Bergerman sold whiskey.  Bergerman called his firm the Utah Liquor Company.

Bergerman’s liquor store and saloon first shows up in Salt Lake City directories in 1898. From the outset,  he was not shy about selling whiskey in the heartland of the Mormons.   For example, he issued a metal token good for 12&1/2 cents in trade that had an image of the Mormon Tabernacle on the reverse.  

Bergerman also showed considerable imagination in the containers he chose for his liquor.  Among them are patterned molded gray canteens with cobalt decoration that depict on one side a scene of men drinking and on the other has the address of his firm.  They were made by White’s Pottery in far off Utica, New York.

Ironically, the man principally responsible for prohibition in Utah, Gov. Simon Bamberger, was a close friend of Bergerman.   On August 1, 1917, the governor, a Jewish immigrant from Germany,  pushed through a law making it a crime to manufacture, sell or consume alcohol.  The local press estimated that the law would affect four thousand persons in Salt Lake City alone who were dependent on the liquor trade.  Among them obviously was Jake Bergerman.  As the deadline approached, he and others sold their stocks at bargain prices. The Salt Lake Tribune estimated that hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of liquor had been so acquired and was stored in the cellars of Salt Lake residents.  

After a young manhood of restless wandering through America, another German immigrant, Frederick “Fred” Kiesel,  settled in Ogden, Utah, where in 1887 he established a liquor house and became known for his staunch opposition to Mormon church rule in the state.  Although he was frequently involved in politics and served a term in the Utah Legislature in 1901-1902,  Kiesel, shown here,  was primarily an entrepreneur.  He incorporated his business in 1887 under the name of Fred J. Kiesel and Company,  of which he was both president and manager.

Kiesel’s willingness to tweak the nose of the religious advocates of prohibition and the Mormon Church was epitomized by an 1909 ad that he placed in a magazine called The Western Monthly.  Claiming that “Uncle Sam Is Our Partner,” Kiesel boasted of being able to reach into “dry” Idaho Counties and other parts of the West where alcoholic beverages had been banned.  He said he was able to supply all demands of the thirsty, including “Ministers, Bootleggers, or even Politicians, from the Governor down to the least official.”
Among Kiesel’s jabs was issuing his own Valley Tan whiskey and advertising it with a picture of the Brigham Young monument that stood in downtown Salt Lake City.  Shown here is a celluloid match safe with an ad touting Valley Tan as “Pioneer of Whiskies.”  The other side of the safe advertised “Brigham Young Tonic Bitters” with a picture of the Mormon leader.  As with Sadler and Bergerman, Kiesel was forced to shut down when Utah went dry.

The history of whiskey in Utah is far more complicated and interesting than it might seem at first glance.   Events took several interesting twists and turns — from Brigham Young as a state-sponsored whiskey dealer, “Gentiles” running thriving liquor houses in the shadow of the Mormon Temple, a Jewish governor  responsible for the state going “dry,” and Young’s name, figure and face being appropriated for a whiskey and a highly alcoholic bitters.

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