Friday, June 26, 2020

“Spoon” Was the Other Distilling Motlow

Jasper Franklin Motlow, known during his lifetime as “Spoon” and in death as “Frank,” is an obscure figure in pre-Prohibition whiskey history, unlike his brother, Lem Motlow, a familiar name because he was Jack Daniel’s favorite nephew.  Leaving his native Tennessee, Spoon, shown here, sought his fortune in Alabama as a saloonkeeper and later as a distiller.  His notable success was cut short when parts of the state voted “dry.”

Spoon was born on December 7, 1868, in Tennessee to Nancy Bobo and Zadock  Motlow, a farmer.  His brother, Lemuel, was born a year later.  When the boys were six and five, their mother Nancy died, leaving Zadock with children to raise.  He remarried two years later.  Spoon received an elementary education and then likely worked with Lem at Daniel’s Lynchburg distillery. 

In 1890 at the age of 22, Spoon decided to strike out on his own.  He moved the 125 miles south from Lynchburg to Gadsden, Alabama, and likely with help from Jack Daniels, opened a saloon. He had selected a city that was on the move.  Beginning in the late 1800s and into the 20th Century, Gadsen was a center of heavy industry, including the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company and Republic Steel.  The town boasted plenty of thirsty workers with money in their pockets.

Although Gadsden’s Broad Street already teemed with saloons,  Motlow’s Saloon, shown above, was an early success at 400 Broad as Spoon proved to be an amiable and popular proprietor.  That may be he standing in the doorway.  The interior had the requisite elegance with a long carved bar, brass railings, and an ample staff of bartenders.

Despite his achievement in Gadsden, Spoon was ambitious for more.  In 1898 he partnered in the opening the Deep Springs Saloon in Huntsville, Alabama, some 73 miles northwest of Gadsden.  He also was working with his brothers, Lem and Jesse, in Tennessee on improved distilling techniques, They created Motlow Brothers Distillers with the aim of branching out from Lynchburg.  Early in 1901 they visited Birmingham, Alabama, and decided to open a distillery there.

As the story is told:  The brothers approached the Farmer's Bank of Lynchburg, in which Jack Daniel had a minority share, for a loan, but were denied. They quickly raised enough capital to buy out the majority owners and installed Lem as president and a younger brother, Thomas, still finishing his studies at Vanderbilt University, as cashier.   No surprise —the loan was approved,Dividing his time between Gadsden and Birmingham 63 miles away, Spoon with his brothers purchased a large plot of land on Avenue B between 12th and 13th St, opposite the Birmingham Rolling Mills, and  built a distillery.  The Motlow Distillery is the silo-shaped structure to the left according to the caption of a photograph from the Samford University Library.  The headquarters building carried an ad for Motlow’s corn whiskey and Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey.

Meanwhile back in Gadsen, Spoon in May 1903 bought 2.7 acres of land at Fifth Street and Tuscaloosa Avenue, paying $1,365 for the property. He began to make plans to build another distillery, selling an interest to brother Lem and a local named W. S. Boyd.  When city approval was granted in 1904, Spoon saw to the quick erection of ten buildings, to include the still house and storage warehouses.  The main building was two-stories with an exterior of vertical planking.  All structures were painted red.  The property, named the Gadsden Distilling Company, also contained a reservoir. 

The product of Spoon’s distillery he called “Coosa River Corn Whiskey,” distilled using processes learned from his Jack Daniel’s experience.  He packaged some of it in quart ceramic jugs that bore an underglaze transfer label that read in part“Spoon Motlow Distiller, Coosa River Corn, Sandifer Springs, Lincoln County.”

The last were allusions to a spring in Lynchburg, then in Lincoln County, and to Daniel’s distilling methods.  The jugs are extremely rare, one selling recently for $2,125.  Spoon also sold his products in flask sizes, some covered in leather, that carried a similar message as the jug and indicating that Spoon was selling Coosa River Corn at both wholesale and retail.

While all of this entrepreneurial activity was going on, Spoon Motlow was having a personal life.  In 1900 he married a woman named Fannie Byrom in Franklin, Tennessee.  Spoon was 3 l, Fannie was 20.  To his sorrow, she died a few months later.  There were no children.  He  would wait eight more years, time marked by significant change, before marrying again.

In Gadsden, saloons like Motlow’s were being blamed for a rise in the city’s crime rate.  Alarmed, a group of prominent citizens organized to close such establishments using Alabama’s local option laws allowing counties to vote “dry” if they wished.  A vigorous campaign was waged by both sides with Spoon strongly on the “wet” side, arguing that the question of alcohol and the open saloon should be left up to each individual's own freedom of choice.

Among the crimes prohibitionists could point to was one committed in a saloon Spoon had opened in nearby Mountainboro, Alabama.  His bartender and manager, a man named John Davis, was found brutally murdered and the saloon robbed in September 1906.  Davis had been shot three times in the head and shoulders, his throat was cut from ear to ear, his head being almost severed from the body and he was beaten about the head and body in what the press described as “a frightful manner.”  To my knowledge the killer was never caught.

The election was dominated by women, who were not allowed to vote but demonstrated noisily at the polling places.  When the votes were counted, 1,632 had voted for prohibition and only 474 for the legal sale of alcohol. County-wide Prohibition became law Jan. 1, 1908.  Spoon was forced to shut down the Motlow Saloon and his distillery.  In time the Gadsden Distillery became a derelict property.

At the same time Birmingham had gone through the same voting process and like Gadsden, had voted “dry.”  The Motlow Distilling Co. was forced to shut down and family members involved, except Lem, retreated to Tennessee.  Now owning the Jack Daniel’s distillery, Lem bided his time and when prohibition laws affecting Birmingham were repealed in 1911 he re-opened the distillery under the Daniel’s name.

Meanwhile Spoon returned to his home turf in Tennessee where he took up farming and raised prize mules to sell, trade, and exhibit at shows.  He also bred and raised fox hounds, an offshoot of his passion for fox hunting.  A color photo shows Spoon, right, surrounded by his dogs who obviously seem enthusiastic about him.  Replacing Lem, he also became president of The Farmer’s Bank of Lynchburg, the Motlow-owned financial institution. His brother, Thomas continued as cashier.

Spoon also remarried.  His bride was Floy Sebastian, a 24-year-old woman from Bedford County, a short 15 miles from Lynchburg.  The groom was 15 years older.  They would have two daughters, Nancy Virginia born in 1914 and Clara Sue who died in infancy.   Four years later Floy, after 12 years of their marriage, also would die, age 36.

Spoon himself lived another five years, dying suddenly at age 57 on October 10, 1925, leaving his eleven-year-old daughter Nancy an orphan.  Because he died intestate his entire estate went to her.  Spoon was buried in the Lynchburg Cemetery next to Floy.  His gravestone identified him as “Frank,” a name some may have deemed more appropriate than Spoon.  Although less well remembered than brother Lem, Jasper Franklin “Spoon” Motlow has been hailed by at least one writer as “a favorite son of Gadsden, who made a mark on the world.”

Note:  This post was compiled from a variety of sources, the principal ones were a newspaper story with no byline from the Gadsden Messenger of May 2, 2014; an article for the Jack Daniels Collector’s Page by Joel Pitts, great grandson of Spoon Motlow;  and an Internet entry dated June 12, 1813, about the Motlow Bros. Distillery that was posted on “Bhamwiki, an encyclopedic resource for anyone curious about Birmingham, Alabama and the region around it.”  My post on Lem Motlow can be found at November 16, 2019.

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