Tuesday, June 11, 2019

George Washburne: A Voice for Spirits in a “Drying” Nation



Shown here, George Rudy Washburne gave up his pursuit being a “big butter and egg man” in Louisville, Kentucky, to turn his attention to a more lucrative trade — liquor.  It led to his founding and leading for 32 years a publication called the “Wine and Spirits Bulletin” where he became a vocal and influential leader in the ultimately losing fight against “Dry” forces pushing toward state and national prohibition of alcohol.


George was born on June 1, 1860,  the fourth of seven children of Jermaine and Mary Ann Rudy Washburne, at a town called St. Mathew in Jefferson County, Kentucky, about nine miles from Louisville.  Jermaine was a farmer and both George and his older brother, Delaney, were recorded in the 1880 census as “assisting farmer.”  The family lived in the frame house shown here, at 711 Fountain Avenue in St. Mathew.  Built by an ancestor on a 50 acre tract, Jermaine Washburne had inherited it when his father died and added a two-story rear wing.  Shown above, the house still stands and is considered a county historic landmark.

Neither Washburne boy fancied farming life.  Dulaney headed to medical school and became a well-known professor of medicine.  George skipped higher education and went into the dairy business.  Louisville directories in 1883 and 1884 listed him as foreman in a local dairy.  By the following year Washburne had moved to the Louisville Creamery and Supply Co.   The pivotal year was 1886 when George was 26.  He partnered with Harry Tramplet, a local businessman, as commission agents for a variety of products, including dairy, soft drinks, and a distinct emphasis on alcohol.

Although Tramplet & Washburne was an short-lived venture, George, described as a “hustler,” also was publishing a small newsletter aimed at the Louisville liquor industry.   He called it the “Wine and Spirits Bulletin.”  Washburne proved to have a natural ability as an editor and publisher.   Originally a four page weekly eventually the Bulletin became a monthly of some 50 pages, well-illustrated and providing substantial news and information.

In 1893, a competitive trade journal, the Pacific Wine and Spirits Review, did a brief profile of Washburne describing him as “…young comparatively, but he has been identified with the liquor trade for some years”  and congratulated him the growth of his publication.  The item concluded:  “Mr. Washburne is a jovial, good-natured man personally, whom it is a pleasure to meet and his visitors always receive a royal welcome.”

Despite the success of the Bulletin, other ventures had proved less so.  Washburne joined a group of colleagues in investing in a real estate development call Warwick Villa, an area in the countryside about 20 minutes from Louisville.  George was recorded buying ten lots for resale.  The panic of 1893 doomed the effort as the land company of which he was a member went bankrupt and lawsuits resulted.  Washburne himself declared bankruptcy the following year.  The Courier-Journal reported:  "...  No estimate of assets and liabilities could be given. It seems that there is small demand for real estate in the country, which is said to form a considerable portion of Washburne's assets, he being one of the promoters of the Warwick Villa scheme ... It is understood that his liabilities are much larger than his assets.

These untoward events occurred not long after George had found a bride. She was Mary A. Moore, the eldest daughter of W. B. Moore of Louisville and a native-born Kentuckian.  Shown here later in life, Mary was 22 at the time, he was 34.  On April 28, 1893, they were married in the First Christian Church, the Rev. Mr. Powell officiating.  The Louisville Courier-Journal described an elaborate wedding and a church “crowded to suffocation.”  The couple would go on to have two daughters. 


Eventually Washburne recouped his wealth.  He bought a four-acre lot at LaGrange and Ash Avenues in a hamlet about 22 miles east of Louisville called “Peewee Valley” and built a large family home, shown above as it looks today.  Now on the National Register of Historic Places and known as the Washburne-Waterfill House, the structure is described as “eclectic” in architecture.  Also located on the property were two sets of historic gates, servants’ quarters, a pump house and a carriage house.  

Despite the failure of the Warwick Villa venture, Washburn continued to dabble in real estate, emphasizing land in Peewee Valley.   Elected mayor of the small town, George was responsible for a brochure called “Beautiful Pewee Valley”  with scenic photographs.  It extolled:  “Every resident of the city desiring a change of scene, and to escape the grime and clatter of the metropolis, would do well to consider Pewee Valley as the site for either a summer or permanent home.” Increasingly popular as a summer resort, the sales of cottage sites proved brisk.

Meanwhile Washburne was building his magazine.  In a special editorial in the January issue welcoming in the 20th Century, he commented about progress since he founded the Bulletin “We cannot but look with pride to what has been accomplished in the past, and with regard to the future we desire to renew our pledge to our patrons that we will spare no means and expense to maintain the high standard we have set and to improve on…the excellent news service furnished our readers.”


The publisher emphasized that the Bulletin was primarily an organ of the whiskey industry in the Ohio Valley, covering Kentucky and Cincinnati, at the time the leading city in liquor marketing.  Eventually the publication would open adjunct offices in New York, Baltimore, Cleveland, Buffalo, Milwaukee and New Orleans.  A review of Bulletin front covers indicates that the publication was drawing advertisements from distillers and rectifiers in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and other eastern cities.   

The Bulletin was well illustrated, including photographs of leading distillers, whiskey wholesalers and others in the liquor trade, as well pictures of their store fronts. The magazine’s attention grabbers, full pages scattered among more serious items, were of European paintings known as “salon nudes,” and analogous to the naked ladies often found displayed in American saloons.

Washburne did not ignore the general population.  In 1911 and again in 1914 he published a booklet he called “Beverages de Luxe,” a prelude to the “drink books” that currently flood the reading marketplace.  He explained in a foreword:  “Despite a spirit of fanaticism that periodically passes over the land, there is no denying that fine beverages are among the things that make life brighter, happier and worth while. A knowledge as to the best of them, their selection, their care and their serving, is, therefore, not amiss.”   The publication provided recipes for cocktails of the era to the drinking public.

Most of Washburne’s efforts, however, were providing news and editorials about the growing trend in America toward banning alcohol in localities, states, and ultimately the entire country.  As the U.S. inched closer to National Prohibition, a group of  brewers in 1918, hoping to make friends of the powerful Anti-Saloon league, pointed fingers at distilled spirits as the culprit while championing beer as “food.”  In effect, those beer makers were breaking with the distilling industry in last ditch effort to save themselves.  

Washburne wisely saw the folly in that approach, writing that:  “If the brewers begin a warfare on distilled beverages, they will, in our opinion, make a very great mistake….”  He understood that the forces of “dry” were intent on shutting down every saloon in America and cared not at all if liquor were served or only beer.  Events soon would prove him right.  As National Prohibition became assured in 1919, his client base doomed, Washburne after 32 successful years was forced to cease publishing the Wine and Spirits Bulletin.

Still only 59 years old, George’s immediate reaction was to go into the advertising business.  After all, he had been successful in filling his publication with ads.  With a Cincinnati businessman, Alfred B. Flarsheim, he founded an advertising agency with headquarters in Cincinnati and branches in Louisville and five other cities in the Ohio Valley.  The motto of the firm was “Sales promotion through business-building advertising.”

Shown here about 1920, Washburne also founded a second company called “Revista” that published a trade journal in the Portuguese language aimed at Latin America and most particularly Brazil.  This resulted in the government of Brazil appointing him its Vice Consul in Louisville.  Said the Courier-Journal of the appointment:  “The selection of this city indicates clearly that the Brazilian government expects American manufacturers in this section will be deeply interested in developing and extending their sales in Brazil.”

Washburne had only three years to serve as Vice Consul.  In February 1923, he became seriously ill and died on the 12th at the age of 62.  He was interred in Section Q, Lot 109, Grave #2 of Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery, the grounds where many of Kentucky’s most famous distillers are buried.  It was a fitting resting place for a man whose journalism had done so much and for so long for the liquor industry.  George’s widow, Mary Anne, would join him at Cave Hill 36 years later.  

Note:  Most of the information and illustrations for this post have been drawn from a single source, a pictorial history of the Washburne family published online under the title “Washburne-Waterfill House” by Donna Andrew Russell and the Peewee Valley Historical Society.  My thanks to them for this valuable resource on George R. Washburne, a truly remarkable “whiskey man.”


























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