Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Cummins of Kentucky Had Bourbon in Their Blood

Well before the Civil War and extending to the advent of National Prohibition, the Cummins family were major figures in the development of the Kentucky liquor industry.  Beginning with Richard Cummins, its members seem to have been born with bourbon flowing through their arteries.  So recognized for quality whiskey were they that the Cummins brand name was revived after Repeal.

The story begins and revolves around Richard Cummins, born in Ballykealy, County Carlow, in the South-East Region of Ireland, the son of Arthur and Ellen (Walen) Cummins.  Shown here in maturity, Richard was from a poor family and seems to have had only a rudimentary education.  He may have been functionally illiterate, for example he signed his will only with the initial “R.”  At the age of 14 Richard was apprenticed as a distiller’s helper and yeast maker, an essential element in making whiskey.  After spending four years at that job, Richard at 18 emigrated from the Emerald Isle to the U.S., arriving on the ship “Defence.”  He initally settled in New Jersey, working in a distillery there.

After four years learning the whiskey trade, Cummins teamed up with a fellow Irishman of future renown, Henry McKenna. [See my post on McKenna July 1, 2013.] In 1852 the partners opened a distillery in Illinois but after several years saw better opportunities in Kentucky and in 1858 migrated there  — and split up.  Cummins located in Raywick, a small village in Marion County, teaming there with Dr. Taylor Mitchell in running a distillery.  There Richard originated the brand “Cummins Sour Mash.”

In 1851, in the midst of the Irish famine, Richard was able to help pay for passage to America for other members of his family, including his parents, two brothers, Patrick,18, and David,11; and a sister, Margaret, 16.  After residing in New Jersey briefly the parents moved to Louisville, possibly to be closer to Richard.

In Marion County Cummins met Emily J. Brady, a Kentucky-born woman who was eight years his junior.  She was the daughter of John and Mary Simpson Brady, from a family that was part of the Irish Catholic migration from Maryland to Kentucky early in the 1800s.  They were married in 1861 at St. Francis Church in Raywick.  Emily was said to be “a valiant woman of keen intellect and zealous for the obligations of duty and right living.”  The couple bore ten children, only five of whom would live to maturity.  They also welcomed eight other children, orphans and “half orphans,” and raised them as their own.  Said a local newspaper:  “Their open-handed generosity went out for the blessing of many….”

After the end of the Civil War, Cummins in 1866 uprooted his growing family and moved to adjacent Nelson County, about seven miles south of New Haven, Kentucky, at a site he called “Coon Hollow.”  He built a large house there, said to be one of the first in the area to have indoor plumbing.  Cummins also organized and built a distillery he named Coon Hollow Distilling Co. and originated the brand “Old Coon Hollow.”  Cummins started small, able to mash only 100 bushels a day.  He believed in distilling with the latest advances in machinery, however, and over time was able to increase daily capacity to 1,000 bushels.

Richard operated the Coon Hollow Distillery successfully for fifteen years and then, for unexplained reasons, in 1881 sold out to the Kentucky Distilleries & Warehouse Company,”  one manifestation of the “Whiskey Trust.”  The Trust also bought the rights to make Coon Hollow whiskey and continued to market it.  As a result flasks with the name and a possum embossed may have been produced after Cummins relinquished ownership.  The same caution extends to a Coon Hollow shot glass.

With whiskey-making still in his blood, Cummins took his profits and bought into the Mattingly and Moore Distillery at Bardstown, becoming a third partner.  The facility is shown here.  Apparently restless to have his own facility after three years he sold his interest in that distillery and in 1885 bought the Ballard & Lancaster Distillery at Loretto, Kentucky.  The Irish immigrant soon changed the name to R. Cummins and Company.  A photo circa 1890 is said to show Cummins, as second from left on the platform, with some of his distillery employees.

Insurance underwriter records compiled in 1892 suggest that the distillery was of frame construction. The property included two warehouses:  Warehouse A was iron-clad with a metal or slate roof and located 170 feet north of the still.  Warehouse B was brick with a composite roof, located 110 feet north of the still.  Although handicapped by a stroke in 1886, Cummins operated this distillery until his death.   In July 1903 at age 73 Richard was stricken a last time while at home.  He was buried three days later in a family plot in St. Vincent's Cemetery, New Hope, Kentucky.

By this time other members of the Cummins clan had become involved in the whiskey trade.  Richard’s son, J. P. Cummins, had joined his father in the Loretto distillery, serving an apprenticeship to learn all aspects of the business.  Meanwhile Patrick Cummins had settled in Jeffersonville, Indiana, and was working as a house painter.  His son and Richard’s nephew, Arthur Cummins, after finishing elementary school, at the age of 14 joined his uncle at Coon Hollow where Richard taught him the elements of yeast-making and distilling.

Bearing Richard’s endorsement, in time Arthur was eagerly sought as a distiller.  For two years he worked for the Sam McLancaster Distillery in Bardstown.  From there in 1892 he became distiller and general manager of the Crystal Springs Distillery in Louisville.  After years of working for others, in 1898 Arthur had sufficient wealth to build his own distillery back at Coon Hollow.   He called it the Willow Springs Distillery  and produced “Willow Springs Bourbon.”  In this endeavor he was assisted by other Cummins family members.  His son, Arthur J. Cummins was involved as were his cousins, J. P. and Martin Cummins. Insurance underwriter records compiled in 1892 suggest that the distillery was of frame construction. The property included a single warehouse, iron-clad with a metal or slate roof, and located 114 feet north of the still.

Meanwhille, after Richard’s death J. P. Cummins was continuing to run the R. Cummins & Co. distillery at Loretto.  He early on found a way to memorialize his father by naming a whiskey “Old Pap.”  The label contained a photo of Richard Cummins as “Master of the Art.”  With the coming of National Prohibition both the Cummins distilleries were forced to shut down.  Family members disposed of the facilities and moved to Louisville.  Arthur died in 1924 and was buried in Louisville’s Calvary Cemetery, his gravestone shown here.  

A passion for making whiskey, however, still flowed in Cummins’ blood.  As a biographer put it:  “Being so closely associated with the whiskey business all his life and not wanting to retire, it was not long before Arthur J. Cummins was again resuming his activities.” He and a partner purchased the plant and equipment of a “mothballed” plant in Atherton, Kentucky and called it the Cummins-Collins distillery.  Also involved in plant operations were Arthur J.’s brother, Charles, and the brother's son, Charles W. Cummins.  

From the Atherton site the distillery issued a number of brands, including “Singing Sam Whiskey” and “A.J. Cummins Kentucky Straight Bourbon.” In 1946 Arthur J. sold the plant to Seagrams.  He then proceeded to build a new distillery on the grounds of an old brewery in Louisville with a daily mashing capacity of 900 barrels.  The facility had no warehouses, aging its whiskey in space rented from another distillery.  After Arthur J.’s death in 1949, this plant was sold, ending the Cummins whiskey dynasty.

A  contemporary label for “Old Cummins Bourbon.” dates the brand origins to 1844, the year when Richard Cummins first went to work in the distillers’ trade in Ireland.  Dated that way, the family distilling history encompasses much of two centuries as well as four generations of the Cummins clan.  Even though no family members were involved with this so-called Old Cummins Distillery or its brand of bourbon, the label reinforces the respect the Cummins name has been given in the Kentucky whiskey universe.

Note:  While this post was gathered from many sources, a key text was “A Sesqui-Centennial History of Kentucky” by Frederick A. Wallace and Hambleton Tap, published in 1942.  Another important reference was a webpage, “Cummins Family of County Carlow, Ireland,” compiled by Robert L. Goodin & Susan E. Clement.  There is a certain amount of conflicting information available on the Cummins family.  I have done my best to choose the most likely narrative.

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