Foreword: Although the word “drayman” today usually describes only brewery deliverymen, historically a drayman was the driver of a dray, a low, flat-bed wagon without sides, pulled by horses or mules, that transported a range of goods, including barrels of whiskey. Some individuals who came to own major distilleries and liquor houses began their careers in the whiskey trade by driving a dray. The stories of four of them follow.
William McRoberts, an immigrant from Ireland who settled in Cincinnati about 1853, landed a job as a drayman for a local wholesale liquor house known as Boyle, Miller & Company. In this role McRoberts became a cog in the “Underground Railroad,” smuggling escaping slaves to freedom in the North and safety in Canada. A key to freedom was escaping the borders of slave states; crossing the Ohio River was a major objective. Ohio was the closest state to Canada with only about 250 miles from the Kentucky border to Lake Erie and safety.
People who guided slaves from place to place were called “conductors.” McRoberts was a conductor with excellent opportunities. Among his duties was traveling by horse and wagon over the Ohio River to distilleries in Kentucky and bringing barrels of whiskey back to Cincinnati. On his return McRoberts would halt his team at an isolated spot and another conductor would help him load a slave, or perhaps two, into whiskey barrels that he would cart back across the river and offload at the distillery. After dark the escapees would be spirited north to another “station” on the way to Canada.
My assumption is that the distillery owners were aware of the scheme and approved. All were taking a risk. If discovered, the distillery would have had its wagon, horses and cargo confiscated. McRoberts would have faced fines, jail, and possible physical harm. Never caught, the Irishman eventually took over Boyle Miller, and rose to become a notable American distiller. Crushed in a train accident, McRoberts died in January 1876 at the age of 52.
Another Irish immigrant who rose from hauling whiskey barrels to running his own distillery was Arthur McGinnis of Baltimore. McGinnis’ intelligence and “go getter” attitude as a drayman brought him to the attention of John B. Brown, the owner of a successful liquor outfit Brown had founded in 1869.
After hiring McGinnis as a driver in the mid-1880’s Brown brought him inside and taught him the liquor business. By 1895 the name of the firm had become Brown, McGinnis & Company. McGinnis’s three sons -- John, James and Patrick -- all became involved in the business. Brown’s name eventually disappeared entirely and the A. McGinnis Company of Baltimore emerged.
McGinnis reorganized the company and invested $5,000. With the new infusion of funds McGinnis built a distillery adjacent to the Western Maryland Railroad at a place located four miles from Westminster, Maryland, that came to be known as McGinnis Siding, McGinnis corporate offices remained in Baltimore, first at 208 Lexington Av. and then in the American Building downtown, shown here. After Arthur died in 1905 his sons carried on the distillery.
Being a drayman for a wholesale liquor dealer in the late 1800s was a highly difficult and taxing job. He was required to manage a team of horses hauling a large wagon filled with barrels of whiskey and heavy crates that he usually was required to load and unload by himself. Benjamin F. Hollenbach was such a driver and he ultimately drove himself into the ownership of the Reading, Pennsylvania, whiskey house for which he labored.
Born in Pennsylvania and given only an elementary education, Hollenbach was seventeen when he arrived in Reading and was hired as a driver by George W. Hughes who owned a wholesale liquor business founded in 1869. Hughes saw potential in young Benjamin as someone who handled his responsibilities with a maturity that belied his age. Before long he brought the youth into the store as a clerk.
Two years later Hughes died and his son-in-law R. H. Jones took over management of the firm. Not long after, however, Jones also died. Hughes’ widow was left with a business to run and she turned to the trusted clerk. Still in his early 20’s, Ben Hollenbach took over running the firm. For four years he managed the liquor dealership for the widow under Hughes name. As the company prospered Ben saved his money and in 1900, with a partner, he bought her out and became the co-owner and senior partner. The business now became Hollenbach & Dietrich and the flagship brand, "Social Rye."
The company proved to be a highly prosperous enterprise. A contemporary account noted the following: “The firm...does a large business, handling nothing but the finest wines and whiskies, and they are the proprietors of the well known ‘Social Rye,’ handled by the trade all over the country.” At the time of his death in 1915 Hollenbach had become recognized throughout the region for his business acumen and his leadership in fraternal and social organizations.
Born on a farm in 1850 in Wayland, New York, John Rauberhad limited formal education. Farm life apparently had little or no appeal and at sixteen in 1866 he gravitated the fifty miles to Rochester. There Rauber found work as a drayman for the Rau Brewery. According to a biographer: “Active and diligent he won the esteem of his employers and gained promotion from time to time with a corresponding increase of wage that at length enabled him to save a sufficient amount to engage in business on his own account.”
With the arrival of his brother, Peter, in Rochester the two youths almost immediately launched a liquor house called P. F. Rauber & Bro. According to a 1918 History of Rochester and Monroe County: “From the beginning the new enterprise proved a profitable one — a fact which was due to the excellence of their product and also to the fact that they were ever found reliable and trustworthy in business transactions.”
After 18 years as co-owner of the Rauber liquor house in April 1896 Peter died at the early age of 38, leaving a young widow and three minor children. With his brother's death, John Rauber became the sole proprietor of the liquor firm and changed its name to his own. He lived only an additional sixteen months, dying in August 1897 at the age of 47. His eldest son took over management of the business.
With John Rauber’s death came warm tributes in his memory. The former drayman was hailed as an individual who had made many friends in both the business and social world and was particularly known as a benefactor of the children of Rochester. One encomium ended: “In matters of citizenship he was progressive and public spirited and gave active support to many measures for the public good. It is thus that the community lost a citizen it had learned to value.”
With only limited education and few resources each of these men began their careers driving a horse and wagon. By dint of intelligence and hard work each rose to prominence because of their leadership in the liquor trade. While managing successful enterprises, these former draymen also played significant roles in their communities and were acknowledged for their positive influence on their times.
Note: More complete profiles of each of these four whiskey men can be found elsewhere on this website: William McRoberts, November 19, 2016; Arthur McGinnis, August 25, 2011; Benjamin Hollenbach, March 18, 2013; and John Rauber, February 12, 2017.