Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Whiskey Men Building Their Towns

Foreword:  Having recently profiled three whiskey men who contributed in extraordinary ways to to the progress of cities as large as New York City, this post features four individuals involved in the pre-Prohibition liquor trade who were particularly important to the smaller municipalities in which they lived and worked.  Their personal exertions and investments contributed to the growth and prosperity of towns in states as various as Montana, North Carolina and Kentucky. 

 Few whiskey men did as much for their local communities as James Francis Jett, a distiller who called Carrollton, Kentucky, his home.  Born there in 1847, Jett joined with his brothers in 1881 to establish a distillery located at the confluence of the Kentucky and Ohio Rivers near Carrollton, shown below. From the beginning James was the general manager of the enterprise, eventually becoming president of the Jett Bros. Distilling Co. 

With the growing success and wealth of his enterprise, Jett approached the Carrollton City Council with a proposition to establish an electric light company partly at his own expense.  He paid for all the poles necessary to distribute the electricity, including 26 arc lamps for lighting the streets of the town, at a estimated cost of $10,000 ($250,000 today).  On April 19, 1898, the switch was thrown and for the first time there was electric light in Carrollton.   

About the same time Jett was championing a bridge across the Kentucky River joining Carrollton to Prestonville where none had been before.  Against opposition from local ferry boat operators, he spearheaded a toll span that opened in 1900 and rapidly was seen as of “great value…as it has afforded facilities of inestimable benefit to the city of Carrollton and to the inhabitants on the west side of the river.”   

His public spirit was further evidenced by his erection of the an opera house, a venue that that, according to an observer, “…affords the best of facilities for the better class of dramatic and musical activities which it is now possible to secure to the city….and is a credit and a source of pride to the city.”   Opened about 1902, opera house had a seating capacity for 1,000, was heated by steam and lighted by electricity.  

Ever the entrepreneur, Jett in 1909 organized a second business, the Carrollton Leaf Tobacco Warehouse Company, and saw to the construction of its brick, steel and concrete warehouse covering a full acre of land and employ dozens of locals.  Not only accounted the oldest native-born resident of Carrollton, James Jett was hailed for gifts to local charities  and as a citizen for having manifested “the utmost loyalty and public spirit.” 

The day in 1890 when 29-year old Eli Alexander Lackey settled in Hamlet, North Carolina changed that town forever.  As one historian has written: “In a manner of speaking, much of early Hamlet was built on money from liquor production…The Lackey liquor fortune….”    Upon his arrival in Hamlet 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 wholesale and retail customers.  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.  It was called “Lackeytown,”  

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.  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.

As Jett had done in Carrolton, Lackey and his wife decided to build an opera house for Hamlet.  Building commenced in 1912 for a hall with a Greek Revival facade and an ornate interior to match.  The opera house provided a venue for 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 the saloonkeeper and distiller to the pinnacle of his success.  Unfortunately, shortly after, Eli Lackey died at 57, victim of the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic.  

After an adventurous youth spent on the Western frontier, William Carvoso Whipps settled into Kalispell, a town in northwest Montana.  As a prominent businessman and owner of the Kalispell Liquor & Tobacco Co., Whipps, shown here, served four terms as mayor and became known as the “Czar” for his forceful advocacy of public improvements and for the creation of Glacier National Park.

Born in Ohio in 1856, Whipps about 1892 relocated to Kalispell where he founded The First National Bank and erected the first brick building in town to house it, serving as manager and cashier.   In 1903, Whipps or house, naming it the “Kalispell Liquor and Tobacco Company.”   

Throughout this period, Whipps also was pursuing a political career.  He became Kalispell’s first elected mayor in 1893 and served three consecutive two-year terms.  During this tenure, he was instrumental in installing a complete sewer system, paving the principal streets, and lining city thoroughfares with trees. In 1910, public clamor was for Whipps to run again.  He did and, without opposition, won a fourth two-year term.  

During that that term he pushed for and achieved the reclamation of some 43 acres of marsh lands and transformed it into public green space known as Woodland Park.  Whipps also oversaw the installation of cement sidewalks, a system of lighting for the business district, and new municipal finance auditing systems.  He also able to obtain lower consumer water and electricity rates.  “Most of what was accomplished by him had to be fought through against strong opposition,” according to a biographer.  To both his adversaries and friends, Whipps became known as the “Czar” of Kalispell.  

Whipps maintained a summer home at what was then the Glacier National Forest Reserve in Montana.  When the Forestry Department was considering the sale of timber from the reserve from a site near Lake McDonald, shown above, Whipps “showed himself an aggressive friend of conservation and took up the matter directly with President Roosevelt, describing its wondrous beauty….”  His was among a number of voices calling for the Glacier region to be made a national park, a process begun by Roosevelt and completed by his successor, President Taft.

When Whipps died in Kalispell in 1937, he was honored as an outstanding citizen of Montana and his adopted home town.  Said one tribute:  “It is the deliberate judgment of a large part of the citizenship of Kalispell that no one man has longer exemplified the strongest influence of his public spirit in behalf of all matters affecting the welfare of the community as William C. Whipps….”

On the morning of July 6, 1913, many people in Paducah, Kentucky, reached for their Sunday newspaper to be greeted by a front page headline that might have been used for declarations of war or major U.S. disasters.   It told them that the previous day a man named Joseph L. Friedman had died in Chicago while on his way to his summer home in Northern Michigan and that the announcement of his death had shaken “Paducah commercial life to its foundation.” 

Friedman’s story began in April 1857 when he was born in Louisville, Kentucky, to parents accounted as pioneers in Kentucky.  Moving to Paducah, about 1891 Friedman partnered with his brother-in-law in a liquor firm called Friedman, Keiler & Company.   Although their letterhead accounts them as “distillers,” the partners principally were “rectifiers,” blending and mixing whiskeys drawn from several Kentucky distilleries, including investing in one in Lancaster, Kentucky.  The business was highly profitable and Friedman eventually was accounted the wealthiest man in Paducah and among the richest in Kentucky.  His net worth at his death was accounted (in current dollars) at between $20 and $24 million. 

If Friedman had been only a whiskey merchant, however, he would not have merited the blaring headline in the Paducah News Democrat.  His involvement in the commercial life of his home town was intense.  He was a moving force for the development of the Paducah Traction Company, bringing street cars to the city,  and subsequently was its president.  Friedman  also served as president of the company that constructed and owned the Palmer House hotel, shown here.  He is credited with building the Kentucky Theater.  He was vice-president and director of the City National Bank, shown below, and a director of the Paducah water company.  Friedman had a financial interest in the Smith & Scott Tobacco Company, and Lax-Fos, a patent medicine firm.  He also owned considerable Paducah real estate.  

Friedman’s charitable work was legendary.  It was said that whenever a petition for funds was circulated, he frequently headed the list with a liberal donation and reputedly assisted every charitable institution in town.  His dedication to Paducah is indicated by the following story:   During one Ohio River flood, likely in 1884, Friedman was out of town.  He reached Paducah on the last train. Without a moment's hesitation, he assisted the rescue work. Not only did he contribute financial aid to the relief fund that was dispensed through the local flood committee, but personally purchased supplies for suffering families.  Insisting as well that he wanted to be physically involved, Friedman donned a pair of hip boots and waded into the water with flood workers bringing relief to stricken families.  

Upon his death The News Democrat told its readers:  "Joseph L. Friedman probably was interested in more enterprises in Paducah than any other man. There have been but few projects of consequence launched in Paducah in the last 20 years that he has not been one of the moving spirits in his untiring energy, combined with his keen foresight and his faith in the bright future of the city, is attested by the great success of all the institutions in which he was most interested."

Note:  Longer and more complete profiles of each of these whiskey men can be found elsewhere on this blog:  James Jett, May 12, 2016;  Eli Lackey, July 20, 2018;  William Whipps, January 13, 2018;  and Joseph Friedman, June 5, 2014.

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