Thursday, November 29, 2018

Lee Levy and “Black Cock Vigor Gin”

    

“Oh, you learn tomorrow, 'Bout a month ago, You'll learn tomorrow night, 'Bout a month ago, Couple bottles of mo' gin, Mama, Lordy, an’ I had to go.” — Excerpt from a blues song  

In March 1905 a white teenager named Margaret Lear was on her way home from school in Shreveport, Louisiana.  As she passed through an African-American neighborhood she was brutally attacked and murdered. Her accused assailant, a black man named Coleman, allegedly was drunk on “cheap gin” he had bought at a local saloon.  Lee Levy, left, running a liquor house 560 miles north in St. Louis, later would be held in Collier’s National Weekly to be equally responsible for the crime. 


After his arrest Coleman was nearly killed by a white lynch mob and the Louisiana militia had to be called out to protect him. Nine days after the crime, according to newspaper reports, the African-American was tried in a Shreveport court, found guilty, and  executed. It was reported that the Governor of Louisiana was expected to be in attendance at the hanging.  As implied by the national magazine, did Levy deserve the same fate?

What had Levy done to merit so harsh a judgment?  Throughout the South in saloons catering to blacks he was supplying fifty cent bottles of a gin whose brand name left little to the imagination.  Levy called it “Black Cock Vigor Gin.”  A verse on the back of a trade card told the story:

Black Cock Vigor Gin, always all right,
Loads you with courage daytime or night,
A drink that makes men feel good all through,
Cures kidney weakness, other things too,

Kind of puts life in the old and new.
Considered by all great in its line,
Oysters can’ equal this stimulant fine,
Cures laziness, makes your limbs grow,
Keeps muscles hard from head to toe.

Vigor and vim it imparts and maintains,
Gets up the steam in the sinews and veins,
It gives you the courage to go in and win,
Nothing can equal Black Cock Vigor Gin

The murder and its aftermath garnered national headlines. Months later a prominent muckraking American journalist, Will Irwin, writing in Collier’s of May 16, 1908, used the incident to indict the saloon trade and in particular inexpensive gin being produced in the North and peddled in the South.  Irwin, shown here, also blamed the names and advertising of brands of gin for suggesting that they possessed the properties of aphrodisiacs. “The gin was cheap, its labels bore lascivious suggestions and were decorated with highly indecent portraiture of white women,” he opined.  His explicit conclusion was that this liquor was responsible for sexual aggression in Coleman and other blacks.

While acknowledging that Levy was not the only purveyor of cheap gin, Irwin singled out the St. Louis liquor dealer as “probably the worst” because of his “popular and widely sold brand.”  Irwin would not name the gin, however:  “If I should give its name here, or attempt to describe its label,  this publication could not go through the mails.”   Because Coleman allegedly had been drinking Levy’s gin before committing the murder, Irwin asserted that the real murderer of Margaret Coleman had gone unpunished.  “What if he wears a white face instead of black,” he asked his readers, “Would you grease a rope for him?”








Irwin objected to the tone of Levy’s advertising cards, claiming the pictures were lewd.  Shown above is an example.  It appears to depict a man holding a nude woman at a bedstead on which has been transposed a quart of Black Cock Vigor Gin.  It was a “mechanical” card when opened revealed a scantily clad woman holding a bottle and offering a glass to a male caller.  While obviously suggestive, it was far from the most scandalous whiskey advertising.


More of an issue might have been made of Levy’s trade card above, showing the backs of four black men in various modes of dress urinating agains a wooden fence as a black rooster looks on.  The text is an ambiguous “We’ve got them all skinned,” reputedly because the participants drink Black Cock and the gin is “good for the kidneys.”

The Colliers article had almost immediate repercussions for Levy and his company.  Within weeks a Federal grand jury issued indictments for violation of postal laws against Levy and his company for sending alleged obscene materials through the mail.  Some bottles were alleged to bear a label with a naked woman it.  Levy was arrested along with Adolph S. Asher, a German immigrant who was a partner in the firm.  Meanwhile in Memphis, Tennessee, Samuel Greenwald, an sales agent for Levy, was arrested and charged with having circulated “improper pictures” in the city.  All were found guilty and subjected to heavy fines.

While Levy appears to have dropped his provocative brand of gin, the episode did not discourage him from continuing in the liquor trade.  He had come too far to quit.  Born in New York City in April 1856 or 1857 (records differ), Lee was the son of Meyer and Caroline Levy.  Early in life one or both of his parents apparently died and Levy was sent to live at the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, a forbidding looking building at Amsterdam Avenue and 186th St., shown above.

Levy’s early employment has gone unrecorded but it is likely he was involved in some aspect of the liquor trade.  Apparently looking for new opportunities in 1881 he moved 1,560 miles west to Gainesville, Texas.  Although this relatively small town stood in strong contrast to New York City, it was undergoing a growth spurt from 2,000 residents in 1880 to more than 6,000 in 1890, the result of opening direct railroad access to Chicago and major Texas cities.  Levy traveled the state working for a local liquor wholesaler.

In 1886 at the age of 30 in Philadelphia he married Zetta Sproesser, a woman who was only 18 at the time of their nuptials, likely the daughter of Albert Sproesser, a handbag manufacturer.  All three of the couple’s children — Milton, Irene and Bebe — were born in Texas.  Perhaps the incentive of a growing family prompted Levy to open his own liquor store in Gainesville.  Five years later he made a further move to St. Louis, establishing a liquor house called Lee Levy Company at 200 Market Street.

There he established as his trademark brand “John Hart Whiskey.”  The label carried a facsimile signature and a man’s picture, presumably of Hart, inclosed in a heart-shaped figure with scrolls at the side.  He filed with the Federal government for a trademark in June 1905, one granted the following January.  The brand was featured on a company shot glass, one that was given as advertising to saloons and restaurants carrying his whiskeys.

At the time St. Louis was crowded with wholesale wine and liquor dealers and Levy may not have been satisfied with business growth.  Looking around he saw that other liquor houses were benefiting from gin sales to blacks, particularly Dreyfus, Weil & Co. of Paducah, Kentucky.  Its “Devil’s Island Endurance Gin” used trade cards, like the one shown here, and posters throughout the South. Considered more restrained in their advertising by Will Irwin, the writer still condemned Dreyfus, Weil for selling its gin “in all the low dives of the black belt from the Carolinas to Louisiana and Mississippi….”
Levy’s retreat from that market after his conviction does not seem to have caused severe economic losses to his company.   He continued to operate profitably, moving with some frequency.  By 1912, his store was listed in business directories at 6 North Main Street.  Three years later he was at 222 Market and in 1917 at 103 North Main.  With the coming of National Prohibition, however, Levy was forced to shut down his business.

Soon after, Lee and Zetta moved to Houston, Texas, possibly to be close to a son and daughter and their families.  Levy became a partner with his son-in-law, Ben Wolfman, in owning and operating a series of clothing stores, including the Fashion and Palais Royal in Houston, Leeland’s in Dallas, and the Fashion in Shreveport, Louisiana.  He and his wife lived in a mansion home at 4118 Montrose Blvd, shown here.  

Throughout these latter years, Levy was plagued with heart problems and died March 8, 1924, at the age of 67.  The diagnosis was acute myocardial degeneration.  His obituary called him “a prominent merchant of Houston.”
He had asked to be buried in Missouri and his body was taken there by train.  With his family gathered around Lee Levy was buried in the New Mt. Sinai Cemetery in Afton, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis.  Fourteen years later Zetta joined him there.  Their grave sites are shown here.

If Levy went to his grave with lingering regrets about his foray into gin sales to blacks, it may have been the backlash against Jews involved with alcohol sales nationwide.  While Irwin’s articles had fingered the St. Louis whiskey man specifically, the writer also emphasized the fact that Jews owned most of the saloons and dives catering to African-Americans.  The Collier’s article sparked a series of sensationalist, anti-Semitic articles in racist and other publications that continued over time to be troublesome to many American Jews.

Note:  The material for this post has been gathered from a wide array of sources. A key source on Levy’s early life was “The Book of St. Louisans:  A Biographical Dictionary of Leading Living Men of the City of St. Louis.”, edited by John W. Leonard, 1906.































Sunday, November 25, 2018

Three Who Grew the Pepper Tree — Saloon

 
Today in the San Pedro district of Los Angeles a central open space, shown below, is designated Pepper Tree Plaza.  A metal plaque there identifies one spot as the former site of the Pepper Tree Saloon, a sometimes rowdy drinking establishment whose history paralleled that of the community.  The saloon flourished under the aegis of three California publicans, Gustav Falk, John Goudie, and Caspar Mckelvy.


Falk was the founder.  Born in Sweden in 1840, reputedly of German ancestry, he early went to sea.  According to descendants Falk began as a deckhand on a voyage from London to India via the Cape of Good Hope.  Showing considerable aptitude as a seaman, he was promoted to second mate, subsequently employed on a ship that sailed around Cape Horn and eventually landed in San Francisco.  Falk liked California and decided to stay, in time advanced to captain on the sailing ship Glendale.

That post employed him hauling lumber up and down the California coast and provided him with an opportunity to explore a number of ports of call.  After first seeing San Pedro in 1877, a major port town near Los Angeles, he marked it as likely place to settle down.  Because of its access to the sea, a wharf had been built there as early as the 1850s.  A horse-drawn freight and stage service connected it to Los  Angeles.  Soon San Pedro was made an official U.S. “port of entry” with its own customs house.  Development of the town to support the port did not occur until 1881 when the railroad arrived.  By 1883 a new 1,600 foot wharf had been constructed along the waterfront, followed by railroad yards. A business district began to take shape.
Visiting San Pedro with his ship periodically, Falk could see the potential for growth and in 1890 settled there permanently.  He bought property at the corner of Sixth and Front Streets and constructed a block of buildings that included the Pepper Tree Saloon.  An 1893 map of the San Pedro showed the community in detail — the port, the railroad line, the streets and the newly-constructed buildings.  In a detail above, the Pepper Tree Saloon would appear to be the structure partly obscured by the left-most mast of the four-masted ship in the foreground.

Like many port towns, San Pedro did not lack for saloons, many of them along Front (now Harbor) Street, shown here.  They boasted names like “The Admiral,”  “Coaster,” “Johnny’s Place,” “Orient” and “Pioneer.”   Falk determined to name his drinking establishment after a tree.  

The California pepper tree, shown right, is an evergreen that can grow to fifty feet tall.  A native of the Andes, the tree thrives in arid soils and took well to California climates. Its crushed berries and leaves have been used in traditional medicine for treating wounds and infections because of its antibacterial and antiseptic properties. 

The Pepper Tree Saloon proved profitable for Falk from the outset.  In 1892 he married Ida, a woman some 25 years younger who had immigrated from Germany.   The couple would have five children, four girls and one boy.  With his saloon profits Falk was able to build them a fine house at 330 West Tenth Street.  Shown here as it looks today, it is a single-story hip-roofed bungalow with a large bay window and stick-style detailing on the facade dormer.

As Falk aged, his zest for operating a saloon apparently waned.  At some point early in the new century, he sold the establishment to a San Pedro transplant named John Goudie.  Goudie had been born in 1863 in Belmont, Wisconsin, the son of a merchant who had immigrated from Scotland.  The family subsequently moved to Chase, Kansas, where the 17-year-old Goudie was recorded by the 1880 census working as a farm hand.  

Sometime during the ensuing decade Goudie moved further west to California, settling in San Pedro, where the 37-year-old bachelor was recorded living in a boarding house and working as a machinist.  By the 1910 census Goudie was listed as a saloonkeeper, the proprietor of the Pepper Tree, by now a saloon that also featured a poolroom.  Although one author pegged the place as “infamous,” it appears to have had a good reputation with ships captains looking to recruit reliable sailors for their vessels and for wharf bosses seeking stevedores.  

Assured of a steady drinking trade, Goudie moved to take a partner.  He was Caspar McKelvy, originally of Pennsylvania, who had moved to California to work as a miner.  His toils had cost McKelvy the little finger on his left hand and may have occasioned his moving out of the mines.  The partnership of Goudie & Caspar was featured by their issuing  a series of amber and aqua whiskey flasks, ranging from half pints to pints, today avidly collected.  They advertised “Louis Hunter Rye” a brand from J. & A, Freiberg of Cincinnati.


By 1915, John Goudie appears to have sold out to McKelvy, who now ran the Pepper Tree Saloon as a sole proprietor and issued an amber flask bearing only own his name, shown right.

Ensuing years confronted McKelvy and the Pepper Tree with two challenges.  The first was increasing labor unrest along the waterfront.  Longshoremen up and down the Pacific Coast were engaging in strikes and other actions, sometimes resulting in clashes with ship owners and police.  As a gathering place for San Pedro’s stevedores, the Pepper Tree became a hotbed of labor activity that sometimes could spill over into violence.  Second, prohibitionary forces in 1916 were successful in enacting statewide bans on alcohol production and sales in Washington and Oregon.  They now targeted California.

With the coming of National Prohibition in 1920, Caspar McKelvy was forced to close down the Pepper Tree Saloon.  The space then became a union hall.  In use throughout the 14 dry years, the building was the site of the first meetings of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).  Capable of tying up all West Coast shipping the union became a powerful (and controversial) force.  Eventually Falk’s 1890 building was torn down and in its place the community plaza was created, named Pepper Tree.  A water fountain at the approximate site memorializes the historic saloon.

San Pedro, a city in its own right in 1888, voted in 1909 to be annexed by Los Angeles.  In 1988 — 100 years to the day it was incorporated — a local centennial committee held a celebration in Pepper Tree Plaza.  A group of longtime residents re-enacted the signing of San Pedro’s incorporation papers in a replica of the Pepper Tree Saloon.  Gustav Falk’s grandson, Ray, built the replica and took part in the ceremonies, playing the part of his grandfather.


The saloon replica was temporary, but the San Pedro Historical Society in its local museum contains a display of Pepper Tree bottles.  Thus does the saloon and its trio of owners continue as part of the treasured heritage of this California port community.
















Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Thomas Gilmore and Common Sense on the Saloon

By turns a whiskey broker, editor of an influential wine and liquor trade publication, and chief spokesman for an anti-prohibition association, Thomas Mador Gilmore, shown here, proposed common sense solutions for the alcoholic excesses attributed to the saloon — but to no avail.  In the end the “Drys” got their way and ushered in the era of the bootlegger.

Gilmore’s ability as a writer and speaker are all the more impressive given his lack of formal education.  Born in September 1858 in Columbus, Georgia, he left school for good at the age of 12 when his cotton broker father died and Tom was called upon to augment the family income.  Details about the next few years are scant but as he matured he gravitated to Louisville, Kentucky, the center of the whiskey industry.  There he apparently clerked in one of the many distilling related companies and learned the trade.

In Louisville, Tom met Julia Foster, the daughter of a prominent Southern secessionist, Dr. A. M. Foster and his wife, Elizabeth.  They married in December 1880 when he was 22 years old and she was 24.  They would go on to have a family of four children.   

Gilmore’s marriage may have encourage him to strike out on his own and he set up a business as a “commission merchant” and broker in the liquor trade.  By 1900 he had entered a partnership with local businessman Albert Mead.  Their firm, Gilmore & Read, Whiskey Commission Merchants, came to be located at several addresses on Louisville’s Main Street “Whiskey Row,”  including an upstairs office at 125 Main, shown above.


During this period Gilmore’s astuteness and leadership in the liquor industry increasingly began to be recognized.  When Kentucky distillers met to discuss a limitation of production in order to halt falling prices for whiskey, they repaired to the Louisville offices of Gilmore & Read for their deliberations.  Gilmore’s reputation for integrity was enhanced when he was hauled into court by the distilling Samuels family, wife and son of W.B. Samuels.  After W.B.’s death they contracted to sell their aging bourbon, the distillery property, and the business itself, through Gilmore.  Having sellers’ remorse almost immediately, the son went to court, arguing his mother was on morphine and did not know what she was doing when she signed the contract with the broker.  After Mrs. Samuels testified under oath that she “knew and understood” what she was doing, the court ruled in favor of Gilmore.

That victory may have been a “last hurrah” for Gilmore’s direct activities in the liquor business.  On subsequent census forms he listed his occupation as “writer.”  As early as 1895 he had written the definitive chapter on whiskey for the book “Memorial History of Louisville, from its Settlement to 1896.”  In concluding his article, Gilmore wrote: “…Fine Kentucky whiskey sins far less than it is sinned against.  Used in moderation and a properly matured state, is, beyond question, one of the great blessings to mankind.”  


From that chapter it seemingly was just a short step to becoming the Kentucky editor and writer for Bonfort’s Wine and Spirit Circular, a semi-monthly journal published in New York City.  The publication offered him a platform for his ideas, including: “Local option and high license [fees] are both growing with alarming rapidity, and if voters are not educated on he question there is no telling where it will stop, or what millions it may cost our trade.”  He offered himself as a spokesman for the liquor industry against the Anti-Saloon League.

As Gilmore increasingly was becoming a national figure, he was experiencing domestic tragedy.  In 1905 his wife Julia was walking home from a shopping trip and crossing railroad tracks when she was hit by a train.  Gilmore was away when it occurred but hurried home only to find that she had died.  With her husband and young children looking on, Julia was buried in Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery.  Four years later, Thomas married a second time.  His bride was Mary McGowan of Louisville, daughter of John and Lucy McGown and a woman thirteen years his junior.  They would have one child, a son.


Throughout these years, Gilmore was developing an idea to keep the “dry” forces at bay.  Alcohol was still being trafficked through interstate shipments in states that had passed prohibitionary laws.  More could be gained, Gilmore insisted, by closely regulating saloons and retail sales of liquor though local license laws than by banning alcohol completely.  He founded an organization called the National Model License League to promote the idea.  At its zenith it boasted 35,000 members, many of them in the liquor trade, and was able to help enact laws in several states.  The League was headquartered in Louisville’s Columbia building, shown here.

His advocacy drew fire on Gilmore.  In 1910, he took the League message to Texas to counter an attempt by the Anti-Saloon League to ban liquor under a local option election.  His advocacy triggered a 1911 Texas State Senate inquiry into his activities.   Sometimes his own words triggered a firestorm.  For example, in 1917, during World War I,  he wrote a letter to a “dry” Congressman that said, in part:  “I believe that a good drink to each soldier before a charge will insure that steadiness of nerves that wins battles.”  As a result he was roundly criticized in prohibitionary media as insulting the troops by suggesting that alcohol fueled courage in combat.

For the most part, however, Gilmore’s speeches and writings were aimed at curbing the worst excesses of the saloon culture through locally crafted and rigorously enforced regulations on drinking establishments.  Complete banning of the making or sale of alcoholic beverages, he predicted, would run up against the thousands of years humankind had drunk wine or used strong drink.  He was convinced, Gilmore said, “…That the adoption of what is called ‘prohibition’ invariably drives the lawful element out of the traffic and turns the business over…to an element in our population that does not respect either law or public sentiment.”

In the end of course, all Gilmore’s exertions counted for nothing as the Anti-Saloon League and its allies triumphed with the imposition of National Prohibition in 1920.  His strenuous efforts, however, did not go unnoticed.  He was named a “Kentucky colonel,” an honorific bestowed by the state’s governor.  By this time Thomas also was enjoying a spacious three-story home with wife Mary and his family, located at 1441 Highland Avenue in Louisville.  At the same time, however, his health was failing from chronic kidney disease.

Gilmore lived long enough to see National Prohibition imposed, but before the full truth of his prediction about the rise of bootlegging had been revealed.  According to his death certificate, shown here, he died on June 5, 1921, after a two year battle with nephritis.  Buried in Cincinnati two days later, Gilmore was 63 years old.  Thus ended the life of a true crusader who tried but failed to stem the tide of prohibition.  With Repeal thirteen years later, however, many of the reforms Gilmore advocated in his National Model License laws were incorporated in the 1934 enabling legislation that re-established the liquor trade in America. 























Saturday, November 17, 2018

Whiskey Men Contributing to Health Care


Foreword:  In the last post citing comparative whiskey men, the subject was those who most notably contributed their wealth to the cause of education.  Other distillers, distributors and saloonkeepers lavished their philanthropy and often their personal attention on improving the health care for people in their communities.  In brief vignettes here are told the stories of three who made significant contributions to that cause.   
Philip Engs, whose liquor business survived more than 100 years, recognized the public needs of a burgeoning, pre-industrial New York City and answered with his time and money, among a host of causes, to provide public health care The picture right is based on a portrait given posthumously by his family to the City of New York to honor Engs, truly a “first responder” to the needs of his fellow New Yorkers.

Beginning in 1808, Engs not only carried on a vigorous wholesale liquor trade, he also was operating as a “rectifier,” that is, blending raw whiskeys to achieve a particular taste and color.  His efforts met with quick success.  As he rose in wealth and influence, Engs increasingly was becoming involved in the civic affairs of a rapidly expanding metropolis where the unmet needs of the populace, particularly the poor, were a growing concern.  In December 1817 Engs was among what he called “a number of philanthropic gentlemen” who met at a New York hospital to consider the causes of poverty and adopt efforts to remedy them, including creation of an alms house to provide shelter and health care for the indigent and a community medical dispensary.  Philip Engs would play a pivotal role in both those efforts.   


In 1834, Engs was named one of five Commissioners of the Alms House.  Their job was to supervise those sanctuaries and provide general relief to poor people living outside them.  Shown above is a drawing of the largest of the facilities, located on Blackwell’s Island, now Roosevelt Island, in the East River.  The commissioners also had responsibilities for medical care and those duties may have propelled Engs into still another philanthropic effort.  

The Northern Dispensary, shown here still standing, was erected in Greenwich Village just off Christopher Street in 1831 for the purpose of providing medical and hospital care for the indigent.  The dispensary was designed to serve 40,000 people living between Spring and 21st Streets and from Broadway to the Hudson River.  A dispensary annual report of 1832 listed 3,296 patients treated. Edgar Allan Poe is recorded as having obtained medicine there for a winter cold in 1837, but many patients were treated right in their own homes.  In 1834, Engs was named Commissioner of Supplies for the dispensary, responsible for seeing that it had necessary medicines and other supplies. 


In 1859, a time of significant unrest in Germany, two boys, Lesser Levy and Albert Lewin, were born.  Each emigrated to the United States, settling in Denver where their fortunes intertwined in a liquor business known as the Levy & Lewin Mercantile Company.  With diverging personal interests, each man earned a measure of local fame:  Lewin was a showman;  Levy a humanitarian.

Levy’s initial contribution was triggered in 1899 when a wave of Romanian Jews, victims of harsh laws in their homeland, fled to the U.S.  The American Jewish community immediately made efforts to aid those refugees settle into American society, find them employment and social services, including health care, and dispersed them to other parts of the country to relieve the burden on East Coast relief agencies. Obviously moved by pictures of the homeless Romanians, Lesser Levy served as the chairman and leader of the Denver relief organization from 1901 to 1907.  In this way he helped re-settle 2,791 Jewish refugees in Colorado.  

Levy also volunteered for the Local Board of Managers for the National Jewish Hospital for Consumptives in Denver.  The need was felt for such a hospital where the mile high altitude and clear air was seen as therapeutic for those suffering from tuberculosis.  At the time, no medical institution in Denver would admit penniless consumptives, and many poor victims of the disease lived and died on the city's streets. Organized in 1890, the hospital project took nine years to realize.  Financial support was nationwide and some of Denver’s best physicians donated their services.  Patients arrived from all across the country, many of them non-Jews.  The hospital motto, as shown on the postcard view above, was:  “For the poor only—None who enter pay—None who can pay may enter.”   Levy was among those welcoming the first patients.

Perhaps the most unlikely whiskey man to have made a contribution to health care was Robert E. Garner.  Raised on a farm in nearby Georgia, he found his way to Anniston, Alabama, during the latter part of the 19th Century.  He became known as “Daddy” Garner there and created a saloon he called the “Peerless,” Shown left, it has been revived by his modern counterparts and now is accounted the oldest such establishment in Alabama.

During his lifetime Garner provided one of the fanciest watering holes in Alabama.  Built in Classic Revival Gothic style, the Peerless featured a massive mirror-backed mahogany bar, shown below. It had been purchased at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and moved by Garner to the Peerless in 1906.  He also bought old church pews, had them sawed in two and fashioned customer booths from them.

But that was the only thing “churchy” about the Peerless.  Garner set aside the entire second floor of the Peerless for a brothel. There were four rooms, each with its own ornamented fireplace, and a fifth bedroom in a loft accessed by a ladder.  It is something of a mystery how Garner earned the nickname “Daddy.”  No record exists of a marriage or any children.  It occurs to me that the ladies upstairs might have bestowed that name on him as the boss male of the Peerless Saloon — and it stuck.  

Nor was Garner above flouting the law in other ways.  After Alabama passed statewide prohibition against making or selling liquor in 1915, he is said to have bootlegged whiskey through the Peerless.  At his death in 1919, however, Robert Garner belied his reputation as the “outlaw” proprietor of a rowdy saloon and bawdy house.   Never having married and with no children as heirs, he left his considerable fortune to the creation of a new Aniston hospital, the existing structure having become outdated.  Using the saloonkeeper’s money, city fathers built a new health care institution and named it Garner Hospital, shown above.  After many years of service as the municipal hospital, the building now serves as a nursing home.


Each of these three whiskey men in his own way contributed to the health and welfare of his community, deserving to be recognized in his own time — and ours — as a humanitarian.  

Note:   Longer vignettes on each of these three men can be found on this blog.  They are:  Philip Engs, January 7, 2017;  Levi Levy, May 13,2018, and Robert “Daddy” Garner, July 2, 2017.  












Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Abe Trattner and his Pennsylvania “Wet” Hotel


During the early decades of the last century the sale of liquor was being attacked  by prohibitionists in many ways and on many fronts — nationally, statewide, and in hamlets as small as Delta, Pennsylvania.  Located in York County, 30 miles southeast of York City, Delta and its Auditorium Hotel had attracted the attention of the Anti-Saloon League — regrettably for Abe Trattner, liquor dealer, realtor, and co-owner of the hotel.

Tiny Delta was a site for hotels primarily because it was a railroad crossing. The Peach Bottom Railway entered the hamlet in 1876 and ran its line to Red Lion and York City. From the South, the Maryland Central Railroad reached Delta in 1883 and began operating trains in 1884 from there to Bel Air, Maryland, and Baltimore  Catering to travelers and licensed by the county, the Auditorium Hotel, shown here, featured a bar and restaurant where whiskey and other alcohol were readily available.

In the Spring of 1914, prohibitionists staged a large rally in Delta and submitted  a petition of 345 names, mostly from women, demanding that the Auditorium and another hotel be denied liquor licenses.  Three hundred protesters, likely abetted by the Anti-Saloon League, chartered a special train and filed into a York City courtroom to make their point:  “They brought overwhelming proof that both proprietors had violated the law,”  according to “The American Issue,” an organ of the League.  Things looked bleak for Trattner and his partners.

In a sense, Abe had been heading for a conflict with “dry” forces for some years.  Born in 1868 in Galicia, Austria, he was the eldest child of Isaac and Bella (Durst) Trattner.   With four younger siblings his parents brought him, about age 15, to the United States, settling in York, Pennsylvania.  There Isaac ran a grocery store.  Although Abe’s early employment is lost in the mist of history, he likely began his career working for his father.  The 1900 Federal census lists his occupation as “traveling salesman.”


Apparently tiring of life on the road, by 1905 Trattner had established an office at 38-40 East Market Street in York where he dealt in real estate and insurance, as well as providing small loans, as indicated by an ad in a local business directory.  York teemed with real estate offices and Abe may have found it difficult to crack the market,  By 1909 he was listing himself as a general merchandise “broker.”

The following year in March, his mother Bella died.  Several months later Abe, a bachelor of 42, in York married a woman seventeen years his junior  She was Esther Bauer, an immigrant from Hungary.  Apparently their marriage was childless.  His nuptials may have persuaded Trattner to seek a more profitable occupation.  By 1911 he was advertising as a “Wholesale Dealer in Beer, Wine and Liquors,” located at 144 South George Street.  The real estate business now was “in the rear.”  Abe and Esther lived above the store.


Instead of the crowded real estate field, Trattner had emerged as one of only two liquor wholesale houses in York.  He was buying whiskey by the barrel from Pennsylvania distilleries and decanting it into gallon and larger ceramic jugs with his label and selling them to local saloons and restaurants.  There the liquor  would be poured into smaller containers to be sold to customers, either by the drink or in glass flasks.


As shown here on his billhead, Trattner had been designated by the Anheuser-Busch brewery of St. Louis as its local agent, signing him up as a member of its network of dealers across America.   Having purchased the appropriate machinery,  Abe was able to bottle Budweiser and other beverages on site. A Trattner labeled bottle is shown here along with a detail of its embossed label.

Continuing to expand his enterprises, Abe looked to Delta and the Ambassador Hotel that recently had come up for sale.  The family already had a hostelry in York, appropriately named “Trattner Hotel.”  It was run by Abe’s younger brother, Harry.   Partnering with Theodore Helb, characterized by prohibitionists as “the big millionaire brewery boss of York,” Trattner invested heavily in the hotel, sharing a mortgage of $10,250  — equivalent today to about $205,000.

Now Trattner found the Ambassador’s liquor license under heavy attack.  According to the opposition, Abe was overheard talking to his attorney about how much the hotel would be worth if the court refused the license.  His response was quoted as a curt, “Not a damn.”  This response seemingly defined the stakes as the crowded courtroom was hammered to order in York City in February 1915.  Local judges Wenner and Ross presided.

After several days of testimony, the judges rendered their decision, noting:  “If this were a mere question of majorities, we would, of course, be obliged to refuse this license, but the law does not permit the case to be decided on that ground alone.”  On the other side was the need to accommodate travelers by rail who regularly stopped overnight in Delta.  The only other hotel in town was dry, the court noted, and evidence existed that “…a large majority of the strangers and travelers stopping there prefer a licensed hotel, where liquors can be procured, to the temperance house.”  With that justification, the judges awarded the Ambassador Hotel an extension of its liquor license.

The Anti-Saloon League, having targeted the situation in Delta, was outraged.  Its American Issue publication trashed the Ambassador Hotel as “an old frame shell” without any substantial value if it was denied alcohol sales and suggested that financial interests and political influence had leveraged the decision.  Trattner was fingered as exerting “a mighty political influence in the county.”

Whatever lay behind the decision, its effect was short-lived.  Although the Anti-Saloon League had been bested in Delta, five years later it triumphed when National Prohibition was enacted.  The Ambassador Hotel went dry. Trattner was forced to shut down his liquor house.  After initially concentrating again on real estate, by 1931 Abe was listed in business directories owning and operating a storage company.

Trattner lived long enough to see Repeal but did not revive his liquor business, dying in 1939.  Following a Jewish funeral service, he was buried in in the South Hills Hebrew Cemetery in York, the grave shown here.  Abe’s confrontation over the Ambassador Hotel with the Anti-Saloon League was only a small blip on the prohibition screen but it reveals the lengths to which the Drys would go, even in tiny Delta, Pennsylvania.