Friday, July 20, 2018

Hamlet, N.C., Was Built on Eli Lackey’s Liquor

A regional history, commenting on a North Carolina town adjacent to the South Carolina line, concluded:  “In a manner of speaking, much of early Hamlet was built on money from liquor production…The Lackey liquor fortune….”   Indeed, the day in 1890 when Eli Alexander Lackey settled in Hamlet made possible the day in 1917 when the famous Enrico Caruso sang in the city’s Opera House.

Lackey was born in Idrell County, North Carolina, in 1861, as the Civil War was raging.  His father, Joseph, a farmer, was twenty-four at the time of his birth and his mother, Frances, was 20.  Of his early life, little is recorded.  It would appear that as a youth he became acquainted with the liquor trade, possibly working in a saloon that had its own distilling facility.  

It is evident that when Lackey arrived in Hamlet, he was newly married, perhaps the impetus for the move.  His bride was Ellen (“Ella”) Halyburton of McDowell County, North Carolina.  She was the daughter of Hoyle, a farmer,  and Harriet Halyburton and the youngest of nine children.  When they married Eli was 28 years old and she was 21.  They would go on to have a family of four children who would live to maturity.


Lackey had made a wise choice of a destination.  Although Charlotte was closer to his home place than Hamlet, he had bypassed it to arrive at this this southern most city in North Carolina.  In the early part of the 20th century, more than thirty trains stopped in Hamlet daily at its spacious station, shown here, en route to New York City, New Orleans, Richmond and cities in Florida. Known as "The Hub of the Seaboard,” railroad line, Hamlet boasted seven hotels and numerous boarding houses and restaurants catering to rail passengers.  

Recognizing that many of the transients as well as the locals would have a thirst and the requisite cash, Lackey lost no time opening a saloon.  It was an ornate, well decorated watering hole — and highly popular.  By 1891 he also had opened a distillery, located on Lackey Street, to provide liquor for his bar and for retail sales.  He erected a building on Hamlet’s Main Street that he called the “recified house” where he stored his bottles and jugs.  He also built a shed just across the railroad tracks on Hamlet Avenue he called “the grain house.”  From there he used an eight-horse wagon to haul grain to his distillery, shown below.


Lackey featured a number of brands including N.C. Corn Whisky, Pride of N.C. Corn, XX Anchor Rye Whisky, Old Henry Rye, as well as gin and brandy. His flagship brand was Eli Lackey’s Pure N.C. Silver Top Corn Whiskey.  Its label carried a picture of the owner himself.  



Ever the canny businessman, Lackey, unlike many of his North Carolina competiors, took the trouble and cost of registering this brand with the Patent and Trademark Office — the first in the state to take that step.  He sold his whiskey in ceramic containers:  “No charge for jugs.” Sizes varied from gallons, shown above, and two and three gallon containers, as below.


Courting an express mail order trade, including to areas that had gone “dry,” his ads emphasized railroad access:  “Train goes out every day.”  His jug labels boasted:   “Shipping advantages not Equaled by any other Mail Order House in the South.”   Lackey also was shipping his liquor in quart glass bottles, emphasizing that the products were coming “direct from distiller to consumer.”  Four quarts of Silver Top Corn were $3, the glass a bit more expensive than the $2.50 for a gallon jug.  Both were shipped in plain cottonwood cases:  “No marks to indicate contents.”


Lackey’s vigorous merchandising paid off handsomely and he amassed significant wealth.  He used his profits to purchase and develop 100 acres of land in Hamlet, constructing modest homes that were affordable to residents with moderate incomes.  Called “Lackeytown,” the neighborhood is shown above as it looked circa 1909.  About the same time Eli built his family a mansion home, later to become a church property, shown below.


The distiller also transformed downtown Hamlet starting in 1906 by building its first block of brick buildings on Main Street, structures that still stand.  He had surveyed and platted the downtown in 1898 and guided its development for the next twenty years. His contributions include two identical Lackey buildings, one shown here at 23-27 Main and the other at 41 Main.  Examples of Italianate style, they feature distinctive cut-away corners and exterior metal declaration.  Chiseled on the corner of each building in large letters above cornices is the name “E. A. Lackey.”  Nearby was the Central Hotel, constructed in 1911 with Lackey funding.  It rose three stories, again in Italianate style.  Lackey founded a bank and built a Neo-classical building to hold it  A fifth Lackey building on Main Street he gave a distinctive cast-iron store front.

Although these construction projects were a source of pride to the Lackey family and brought them considerable community recognition, Ella and Eli dreamed of bringing something cultural to Hamlet.  They decided on contributing an opera house at 55 Main Street, where Eli’s distillery warehouse earlier had been located.  Building commenced in 1912. As shown here the opera house originally had a Greek Revival facade with an ornate interior to match.  The theatre provided a venue for the people of Hamlet to hear lectures by Booker T. Washington and William Jennings Bryan, songs by Jenny Lind, and shows by Buffalo Bill Cody and other traveling entertainers.  “And for one glorious night in 1917,” according to an historian, “Hamlet was the center of the musical world as Italian tenor Enrico Caruso performed before a packed crowd….”   This performance brought Eli and Ella Lackey to their pinnacle of success.

Unfortunately the glow was not to last.  The Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 ravaged Richmond County and caused the governor to put Hamlet and other towns under a strict quarantine.  It did not save Eli who succumbed on October 11, 1918.  His two brothers and business associates, Ollie and Fred, died of the same epidemic within three days of Eli’s passing.  Ella and their four children survived.  With his wife and family looking on, Lackey was buried in Hamlet’s Mary Love Cemetery in a plot that contains other family members.  A tall obelisk marks the place.

Ella Lackey lived another 38 years, long enough to see the family fortune wiped out.  A survey of his estate following his death showed that Eli had left a vast amount of real estate to his widow.  It included much of downtown Hamlet and other properties.  The onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s, however,  hit the Lackey family hard.  By 1935 Ella and other heirs had lost almost all their Main Street holdings and other tracts through foreclosure.  Their mansion home was sold and later torn down.

Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the Main Street buildings that Lackey financed still stand.  Although its facade was altered to “Art Deco” in the 1920s, the opera house continues to be in use.  These structures are constant reminders to residents and visitors alike of Eli Alexander Lackey and how he used his profits from distilling and selling whiskey to build up his adopted home town.

Note:  The information for this post was gathered from a number of sources, the principal one being Linda Harris Edmisten’s report, dated 1991, proposing Hamlet’s Main Street as a historic district. 




























Monday, July 16, 2018

Elliott & Burke on the Prohibition Merry-Go-Round


When Thomas G. Elliott and the Burke brothers, Leonard and Ed, teamed up to sell “fine whiskey” in Aberdeen, Mississippi, they likely were unaware that they had taken their places on a circular ride dictated by the prohibition movement that would take them from Aberdeen to Memphis, Tennessee, and eventually back again to Aberdeen. 

Born in Aberdeen in 1841 of parents both from Georgia, Elliott was considerably older than his partners.  He had left home in May 1861 to fight for the Confederacy in the Civil War, joining Company B (the Hamilton Guards) of the 20th Mississippi Infantry as a private. He served the entire course of the war until the surrender at Appomattox, seeing considerable hot combat over that period.


The 20th had the distinction of being the first Mississippi regiment to serve in the field under Gen. Robert E. Lee, initially campaigning in the West Virginia mountains.  After Lee’s transfer elsewhere, Elliott’s unit was sent to counter Gen. Grant’s combined naval and army advance up the Cumberland River.  From there the 20th was engaged in battles and skirmishes throughout the South.  In  1865 the unit was sent to central Mississippi where its final major combat was the “Battle of Raymond,” depicted above.

Discharged in April 1865, apparently never seriously wounded, Elliott found his way back to Aberdeen, a busy port  during much of the 19th Century and at one time the second largest city in Mississippi.  Twenty-four years old when the war ended, his early post-war employment has gone unrecorded.  By 1871, however, he had opened a saloon at the southeastern corner of  Commerce Street, a major business avenue, and Meridian Street. 


After running that establishment as a single proprietor for eight years, in 1879 Elliott formed a partnership with Helio E. Stoddard, who likely was related to Thomas’ stepfather, Cassius Stoddard.  They did business together for three years until a fire in their saloon in March 1882 put them out of business and ended their partnership.   Elliott went back to his single proprietorship for a short time before taking the Burkes as his partners.

The Burke boys also were Aberdeen locals, Leonard born in 1856 and Edward in 1863, the sons of James L. and Mary E. Burke.  Their father apparently had died at an early age. The 1870 census found the brothers as children living with their mother, a widow, and three siblings, a girl and two boys.  All of them were under 15 years. 

The situation suggests that the brothers must have gone to work at an early age to help support the family and that their industriousness had come to the attention of Elliott, now in his early 40s, partnering with them despite Leonard being only about 26 and Edward barely 20.  Known as Elliott & Burke, the trio seems quickly to have found success in selling liquor, both over the bar and as a retail outlet.  After selling one saloon in 1889 they soon opened another located at 76 Commerce Street, the building shown here as it looks today.
The partners were buying whiskey by the barrel from a range of sources and decanting it into a variety of ceramic jugs.  As seen here, these ranged in size from quarts (right),  gallons (left) and two gallons (left below).  Of indeterminate size is the jug (right below) with a Bristol glaze body and Albany slip brown top.  Each carries the name of the partners, the motto “fine whiskey” and the name of their home town.

Aberdeen, however, was poised to disappoint and dispossess them.  Mississippi had been edging toward prohibition of alcoholic sales for some years, initially adopting “local option” laws that allow individual cities and counties to go “dry” by forbidding the making or selling of liquor within their boundaries.  In March 1902, Richmond County that included Aberdeen took that step and put Elliott & Burke out of business.

The partners wasted no time in moving their operation.  Although many Mississippi whiskey men facing a liquor ban moved to neighboring Louisiana, a state that stayed reliably “wet” until National Prohibition, Elliott & Burke chose to relocate 145 miles north to Memphis, Tennessee, a problematic choice.  The state legislature there in 1887 had passed a law that prohibited selling intoxicating liquors within four miles of any country school, virtually banning the whiskey trade in rural Tennessee.

Because cities were still “wet” Elliott and the Burkes were counting on Memphis to buck the trend toward prohibition.  Almost immediately they began newspaper advertising in Mississippi towns that had gone dry.  Among them was Okolona, a village about 20 miles from Aberdeen.  They advertised “all the best grades of Kentucky and Tennessee whiskies” as well as gin, brandy and wine.  Orders would be filled and shipped by railroad express from their Memphis store at 459 Main Street.

Although Elliott does not seem ever to have married and spent much of his life in rented quarters, the Burke brothers both had families that they uprooted for the move to Memphis.  In 1883, Leonard had married Sarah Rush, Mississippi-born of parents from Alabama.  That couple appears to have had no children.  In 1889, Edward had married Eva, a Mississippi native with parents from Virginia.  This marriage resulted in at least one son, Robert, whose middle name was Elliott, perhaps indicating Ed Burke’s respect for his older partner.

The Memphis iteration of Elliott & Burke appears to have been as successful as their Aberdeen saloon and liquor house.  As shown here, once again they were filling a variety of ceramic containers that advertised “fine whiskey.”  Both their Aberdeen and Memphis jugs are avidly sought with the Aberdeen examples seemingly commanding higher prices from collectors.

With each passing year, Tennessee became increasingly prohibitionist.  The Four Mile rule was extended to cities in 1909, but had little effect in the four largest, including Memphis where saloons continued to operate openly.  One liquor trade publication claimed that more whiskey was being sold in Tennessee than before the law.  In 1917, however, a “bone-dry bill” advocated by the governor passed and completed the prohibitionist campaign in Tennessee. The legislation made illegal the receipt or possession of liquor and banned the transportation of liquor into or out of the state.

After a run of 15 years in Memphis, Elliott & Burke were forced to close down for a second time.  Sensing the impending end, Ed Burke in 1916 purchased a stock of goods and fixtures from a bankrupt drugstore and moved back to Aberdeen to open a pharmacy where “medicinal” whiskey could still be made available.  Thomas Elliott and Leonard Burke appear to have returned as well.  By this time, both men were advanced in age,  Thomas at 76; Leonard 61.  Both today lie buried in the Odd Fellows Cemetery in Aberdeen.  I have been unable to find Ed Burke’s burial information.

Amid the travails of the anti-alcohol forces, the partners had been able to maintain their business for a quarter century by riding the merry-go-round that took them from their home town of Aberdeen, Mississippi, to Memphis,Tennessee and back again.  In the process Elliott & Burke left behind a wealth of whiskey jugs to help remind us of their persistence in the face of public pressure and restrictive laws.

















Thursday, July 12, 2018

Whiskey Men Who Fought the “Whiskey Trust”


Foreword:  A prior post was devoted to whiskey men who, one way or another, contributed to the success of what became known as the “Whiskey Trust,” an organization with headquarters in Peoria, Illinois, that was organized in the late 1800s to control multiple distilleries and thereby drive up the price of whiskey to the American consumer.  Officially it was known as the Distillers and Cattle Feeders Company.  The Trust was known to use coercion and even violence to get its way.  A few distillers, rectifiers (whiskey blenders) and liquor wholesalers boldly risked opposing this monopoly and in so doing helped to bring it down. 

It was fairly obvious that the best way to defeat the Whiskey
Trust was to start up new distilleries — but that was an expensive and potentially risky strategy.  From St. Louis to Philadelphia to Buffalo, a handful of whiskey men understood the challenge they faced and met it to the detriment and eventual defeat of the Trust. 


In 1891, William H.”Billy” Lee with four other St. Louis whiskey wholesalers decided to break with the Trust.  With an established reputation for rectitude, it is not clear what motivated Lee initially to agree to its monopolistic terms for providing him with whiskey.   A likely rationale was the stranglehold that the Trust held on whiskey supplies, essential to the many brands Lee was rectifying and selling under his own brand.  With time and experience, however, Lee and other wholesalers found strong objection to Trust financial dictates.  By yielding they seemingly had placed themselves, as the Chicago Tribune put it, “hopelessly in the grasp of the Trust.”

Lee and his colleagues made their move in April of 1891, as reported in the New York Times, a strong opponent of the cartel.  Headlining “REBELLING AGAINST A TRUST, the Times wrote:  “For some time there have been rumors of discontent among the whiskey dealers of St. Louis, and rumors of rebellion have been rife.  Many wholesale dealers and jobbers were quite free in  their expressions of dissatisfaction with the manner in which the Trust was managing the whiskey-making business of the country, practically controlling it and dictating to the dealers.”

In retaliation, Lee and the others collaborated on building a whiskey plant of their own, calling it the Central Distilling Company.   At the cost of $400,000 (equivalent to $10 million today) they constructed their distillery at a premier site just outside of St. Louis.  The plant came on line late in 1891 with a daily mashing capacity of 4,000 bushels of corn.  This was enough for the partners to satisfy their own requirements and to have additional supplies to sell.  Initially Central Distilling kept sales prices at levels comparable to those set by the Trust.  By the following year, however, the new corporation announced it would reduce the price of spirits to $1.10 a gallon, undercutting the Trust significantly.  If there had been an unspoken truce, this move broke it.

While Trust officers were furious, there was little they could do.  The St. Louis action had begun a downward slide for the monopoly.  In May 1892, owners of the cartel’s five best paying houses announced that, because none of them had been paid the rent required for Trust control, they would repossess their plants at once and put whiskey on the market independently.  Opined the New York Times “It looks as if the Whiskey Trust is doomed.”

Meanwhile, during the same year across the country in   Philadelphia a group of liquor dealers announced the purchase of 103 acres in Bucks County to build “an enormous distillery for the production of rye whiskey.”  Their leader was James Edward Maguire, an Irish immigrant whose “Montezuma Rye” was a nationally recognized brand.  Although vigorously denied, this project was a direct challenge to the Trust.  The monopoly had driven up prices for “raw” whiskey used by wholesalers, like Maguire and his allies, for blending their proprietary brands.  By creating their own source of supply these Philadelphia whiskey men were striking a blow to end their dependency on the cartel.

The new facility, organized with capital of $3 million (equivalent to $60 million today) was titled the Pennsylvania Pure Rye Whiskey Distilling Company.  “Nearly every large liquor dealer [in Philadelphia] holds stock in the company,” said one press account.  A prominent member of the venture noted:  “I suppose those 40 firms represent about $30,000,000.  All the subscriptions have been paid in.  The plant, shown below, eventually had a capacity of producing 30,000 barrels of whiskey a year.


Mcguire was quick to disavow any intent to be antagonistic to the Whiskey Trust.  The reasoning behind the new distillery was to established an industry close to home, he contended, economizing on shipping and by buying local grain.  He added:  “Then too, we are going to try some new experiments in the manufacture of whiskey which are entirely original, and which, if successful, will have a tendency to revolutionize things.”  

Nonetheless, alarm bells must have gone off in the Trust’s Peoria headquarters.  Not only would they lose the Philadelphia houses as customers, members of the new distillery were being encouraged to promote sales of excess whiskey stocks to dealers outside the membership.   According to the press account: “Each stockholder will virtually be an agent, and will use extra efforts to sell the whiskey, because he will reap a decided benefit from it.”   And the Trust would be the loser.

Meanwhile, resistence was mounting elsewhere.  Beginning in 1901 Moody’s corporate digest included a business “incorporated under the laws of New York State for prosecuting a general distilling and wholesale business in cologne, spirits, alcohol, whiskey, medicinal preparations, etc.”   Henry M. Naylon of Buffalo was among its founders and later its leader.  Moody’s did not mention what the liquor industry knew:  This organization represented a backlash to the Whiskey Trust -- and was succeeding.  

Walter B. Duffy, owner of two distilleries in Rochester, New York, in 1900 had organized three major Kentucky distilleries and five New York liquor manufacturers into the New York and Kentucky Company.  The idea was strength in numbers to prevent the Whiskey Trust from threatening them.  A chief Duffy ally in this gambit was Naylon who owned three distilleries in Buffalo under the name, The Erie Distilling Company. 


The New York and Kentucky Company, with main offices in Rochester, subsequently found success as it defied the Whiskey Trust.  The capital stock of the company consisted of $1,000,000 in preferred stock and $1,000,000 in common stock, about 25 times that in 2018 dollars.  It was paying dividends of 7% on the preferred stock and 6% on common.  Moody’s listed the assets as “real estate and appurtenances (conservatively valued at upwards of $850,000), fixtures, machinery, brands and good will of said concerns, all absolutely free from mortgage, debt or other liability.”  

The company’s real liability was Walter Duffy, its president.   Duffy ran one of the most notorious whiskey operations in the country, criticized for his outrageous advertising,  blasted in the press for shoddy products, and hounded by Federal and state officials for selling his liquor as medicine.  When Duffy died in 1911, the directors took no time in naming Henry Naylon the president and chairman of the board, likely because of his “squeaky clean” business reputation and clear leadership qualities.  

Under Naylon’s leadership from his Buffalo offices, the New York and Kentucky Company continued to thrive and to pay handsome dividends to its stockholders.  Meanwhile its despised Trust rival, officially the Distillers & Cattle Feeders Company,” was falling apart, reputedly because of its weight of debt and reputation for violence.  

As fast as the Trust shut down distilleries, new ones like those in St. Louis, Philadelphia and Rochester had sprung up.  Price fixing in the whiskey industry had proved to be elusive.  Meanwhile Naylon’s organization rolled on until its operations and those of its member distilleries, including the Erie Distilling Company, were forced to shut down by National Prohibition.  That event also forever killed off what remained of the Whiskey Trust.

Note:  More complete information on each of these three whiskey men can be found on this blog.  The posts are Billy Lee, March 22, 2017;  James McGuire, November 18, 2017, and Henry Naylon,  February 14, 2014.  More information on Walter B. Duffy can be found in a post devoted to his colorful career, May 31, 2011.












Sunday, July 8, 2018

The Astounding Ascent of the Brothers Gaff


Born into an immigrant Scottish family, brothers Thomas, James and John Gaff found opportunity in America’s midsection to create a business empire of extraordinary size and breadth.  Founded on revenues from distilling whiskey,  Gaff enterprises encompassed a brewery, a fleet of steamships plying the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, Indiana grain and hog farms, a Louisiana plantation, a silver mine in Nevada, turnpike construction, railroad financing, banking, and what may have been the world’s first ready-made breakfast cereal.

The Gaff saga began in 1811 when James and Margaret Wilson Gaff pulled up stakes in Edinburgh, Scotland and emigrated to the United States with their three-year-old son, Thomas.  The family settled first in New Jersey where son James was born in 1817 and John in 1820.  Subsequent moves took the Gaffs to upstate New York and then to Brooklyn where Margaret’s brother, Charles, was operating a distillery.  There he taught his nephew Thomas the distilling business.

Armed with that knowledge Thomas, eventually accompanied by younger brothers James and John, moved to Pennsylvania.  There the Gaff brothers engaged in several businesses, including storekeeping, papermaking, and most important, making whiskey.  For a number of years they were highly successful and made money until the financial Panic of 1837 depressed the national economy.  About the same time the brothers began having difficulty obtaining sufficient grain for their distilling and found taxes increasing on their liquor, depressing their profits.

The combination was enough to have the Gaffs looking around for other opportunities.  Out on the frontier of Indiana, pioneer local businessmen were eager to attract young entrepreneurs with money.  They offered the brothers tax incentives and free land to move their activities to Aurora, a small town along the Ohio River in southeastern Indiana.  The Gaffs accepted and sent James, shown here in maturity, to established a general merchandise store.  Thomas stayed in Pennsylvania to close out businesses there and joined James about 1843.  John followed in 1845.  After the Gaffs’ father died, their widowed mother and three sisters also moved to Aurora.

Upon Thomas’ arrival, the Gaffs almost immediately began to build a distillery near town on the banks of Hogan’s Creek, a waterway that emptied into the Ohio River.  This distillery eventually produced rye, bourbon, and a scotch-type whiskey that the brothers dubbed “Thistle Dew.”  The Gaffs also used the brand names “Excelsior," "Howe & Hubbel Excelsior’” "Pleasant Valley,” "Silver Lake,” "Wild Cat,” and "Wild Cat Family Whiskey.”  The latter two names showed a certain sly sense of humor since “wild cat” was a name at the time applied to illegal moonshine.  The brothers called their distillery “T. and J. W. Gaff & Co.”  By 1850 it had become one of the largest in the United States.  An illustration of the distillery complex later in the 1800s shows its growth and proximity to the Ohio River.


The success of their whiskey-making spurred the brothers to build a brewery in Aurora, stretching for 300 feet along Market Street adjacent to the Ohio River, an enterprise they called the Crescent Brewing Company.  A drawing of the six-story building shows a substantial complex on the slope of the steep riverbank. The entrance was on the third floor.   Below at riverside were large stone cellars  where the beer could be kept cool.  The Gaffs’  primary brand was Aurora Lager Beer, said not only to be sold in the Amecan Midwest but also exported, including to Germany.  The brewery was under the direction of James Gaff.

With their multiplying products, it was almost natural that the Gaffs would gravitate to shipping.  They came to build and own a fleet of steamboats, among them Diana, Mary Pell, Eclipse, J.W. Gaff, and Forest Queen.  Despite the pro-Confederacy feeling among some in southern Indiana, the Gaffs loaned the Forest Queen, shown left, to the Union where it served for a time as General William Tecumseh Sherman's headquarters at Vicksburg, and later successfully ran the blockade there during the Civil War battle.  Below are the Eclipse, left, and Diana, the latter involved in perhaps the longest, closest and most exciting contest of the steamboat era.  Challenged by the Baltic steamboat in March 1858 for a race up the Mississippi 1,382 miles, the Diana kept pace but lost narrowly.



Meanwhile the brothers were having personal lives.  Thomas, for whom there are no known photographs, at the age of 27 in 1835 in Brooklyn married Sarah Darling Whipple, a widow four years older than he.  The couple would have six children, only three of whom would live to adulthood.  At the outset of their residence in Aurora, the family lived in cramped quarters above the Gaff mercantiles store, a household that also included Thomas’ mother, Margaret.  

With his growing wealth from distilling, brewing and the fleet of steamboats, Thomas Gaff saw an opportunity to provide his family with a twelve room, three story home on a wooded slope on the outskirts of town, affording a view of Aurora below and a broad sweep of the Ohio River Valley beyond. Completed in 1855, Thomas called his mansion “Hillforest.”  Shown here, it is an outstanding example of Italian Renaissance architecture.


The ten acres of ground on which the house sits were equally impressive.  Influenced by Italian landscaping, the hillside behind the house had formal gardens, a lake, gazebo, terraced gardens, and baths. The ravines of the landscape influenced the use of a rusticated footbridge and a grotto built of local stone to form a barrel vault.  On the hill above were vegetable gardens, vineyards, orchards, and pasture land.

Meanwhile brother James Gaff at 28 had married Rachel Susannah Cornwell, an Indiana native who was 18 when they wed.   They would have six children, three boys and three girls.  He anticipated his brother by building a large home in Aurora before the construction of Hillforest.  It was located at Fourth and Main Streets in Aurora.  James called his abode “Linden Terrace” named for linden trees he had imported from Germany.  Although the home later was razed, a photo suggests that it too was done in Italian Renaissance style.

Sometime in the late 1860s, James moved his family to Cincinnati where he engaged in a partnership with Charles and Julius Fleischmann who had emigrated from Germany to the United States to make yeast by a new process.  Impressed with the brothers, James helped bankroll their efforts in a business called Gaff, Fleischmann and Company, Manufacturers of Compressed Yeast.  The investment seemed like a failure until, as a gamble, a pastry shop and restaurant were set up at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition with the yeast used in the baking there.  The product revolutionized the industry and made James and the Fleischmanns multi-millionaires.

Because distilling was in James’ blood, he convinced the brothers to make liquor — yeast being a component — and again invested with them.  About 1972  the trio founded two distilleries in nearby Riverside, Ohio.  Fleischmann distilleries  gained a national market by being the first American operation to produce good gin.  Rivaling imported Dutch and English gins and less expensive, Fleischmann’s gin proved very popular, amassing more profits for the partners.  James Gaff also had a quarter share in the Boone County Distillery, located at the hamlet of Petersburg, Kentucky, a short 25 miles from Cincinnati.

Meanwhile back in Aurora, Thomas was busy investing Gaff family funds in a diverse set of enterprises including the Treasure Hill Silver Mine in Nevada, a strike that between 1867 and 1880 yielded silver valued at the current equivalent of $500 million.  Through Thomas the family also was engaged in farming operations, raising cotton and selling horses, owning a plantation in Louisiana, and dealing in land in three states.  They owned a foundry and machine works and financed turnpike and canal construction.  Thomas was one of the original stockholders of the Ohio and Mississippi Road, a line that subsequently became the B & O. 

Perhaps the Gaffs’ most historic business venture resulted from a grain mill that they built in Columbus, Indiana, some 65 miles west of Aurora about 1867.  They needed it to grind corn being used in their brewing process.  The mill created corn grits in the form of uncooked flakes.  Eventually the prospect dawned on them of selling the product directly to the public. Cerealine, as it was called, has been cited as the first dry breakfast food in America, predating Kellogg by several years. 

Besides their many enterprises, the Gaff brothers were heavily involved in Aurora civic affairs, backing the town's first utility company, the Aurora Gas and Coke Company, and founding in 1856 the First National Bank of Aurora, of which Thomas was as president.  Moreover, the Gaff distillery was issuing its own currency, a bill that included two comely women and one of its steamboats. Thomas also helped to organize Aurora's school system, served on the City Council with his brother James (John was mayor), and, with his brothers, bought  Aurora a fire engine and town clock. 
An 1880 history of Indiana's eminent and self-made men captured Thomas Gaff's wide range of interests, both business and philanthropic, noting:  “His executive ability is remarkable. No transaction within the range of his complicated affairs escapes his observation. He is generous, and ready to relieve the deserving poor. Few men have been more liberal in the contributions to religious and charitable objects."

Although Thomas was among the incorporators of the Riverview Cemetery in Aurora, the Gaff brothers and families are buried in Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, their monument shown here.  The first brother to go was James who died in January 1879 at the age of 62.  He was followed in death only a month later by John, 59 years old, who apparently never married.  Thomas, the eldest, lived to be 76, passing in April 1884.

After Thomas’ death, the Gaff business empire was directed by Thomas T. Gaff, a son of James, who continued add to the family fortune primarily in distilling and running the Gaff heavy machinery business in Cincinnati.  Appointed by William Howard Taft as a commissioner for the construction of the Panama Canal, this second generation Gaff later moved to Washington, D.C.  Thomas Gaff’s Hillforest mansion home remained in the family until it was sold in 1926.  Today it is maintained by Aurora townsfolk as a museum and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Note:  This post is drawn from a variety of sources, a primary one being an  unsigned Park Service document nominating Hillforest for the National Register.  The paper contains a great deal of information about the Gaff family and an extensive bibliography.