Boasting more than 73 distilleries, Peoria, Illinois, was known in the late 1800s and early 1900s as the “Whiskey Capital of the World.” At peak production the Peoria tax collection district supplied nearly one-half of the federal government’s entire revenues. The “boom” years for Peoria’s liquor industry were the 1860s and 1870s when the number and capacity of distilleries nearly doubled. The Lehmann brothers, Arthur and Edwin, were still children. By the time they arrived in Peoria to make and sell whiskey, alas, the party was just about over.
Sons of German immigrants Joseph and Barbara Lehmann,Sons of German immigrants Joseph and Barbara Lehmann, the brothers were born in Burlington, Iowa, Edwin in 1868 and Arthur in 1873. Of their early lives, details are scant. The assumption is they received the education offered by the local school system. Arthur, had some training in accounting. His earliest reference in Peoria city directories was in 1895, age 22, as a “bookkeeper,” likely in one of Peoria’s many liquor houses. Shown here in maturity, Arthur Lehmann by 1901 had stepped up to owning and operating his own Peoria whiskey dealership.
Edwin earlier had left their parents’ home in Burlington and moved to Chicago where he worked for several years as an insurance salesman. By 1903 he had relocated to Peoria where he joined Arthur in the liquor business. Edwin’s first occupation listed in city directories was “compounder” — someone who blended whiskeys to achieve specific color, taste and smoothness. The Lehmann’s “May Bloom” label, for example, was a blended whiskey. By 1904 Edward had been advanced to manager of the liquor house and by 1907 to “general manager.”
Meanwhile the brothers each found a wife. In 1898, Arthur married a Peoria woman named Laura Schradski, daughter of immigrants Abraham and Bertha (Sharps) Schradski. The couple would have two children, Alvin, born in 1905 and Dorothy, 1910. Edwin married Minetta “Min” Watson, daughter of John Quincy and Lucy Watson in Peoria in January 1906. Although this couple does not seem to have had children, records indicate they never lacked for other family members, young and old, living with them.
Under Arthur and Edwin’s leadership, the liquor business flourished to the point that they were able to buy out one of Peoria’s oldest and strongest liquor firms. Founded by Mathew Henebery in 1851, it was accounted “one of the most prosperous, best known and did the largest business of any whiskey house” in Illinois. After Henebery died his estate ran the business until the heirs sold out in 1907. With this accession the Lehmanns’ business more than doubled in size; Arthur became president of the combined companies and Edwin secretary-treasurer.
By that time, however, the noose was tightening on the liquor industry in Illinois.. The state's first local option law, passed in 1839, stipulated that a majority of voters in any county, justice's district, incorporated town, or city ward could petition local authorities to stop granting liquor licenses. Although that law was repealed, the subsequent Towns and Villages Act of 1892 gave city councils the power to license, regulate, and prohibit the selling or distribution of intoxicating liquors. Many jurisdictions took the opportunity to go “dry.”
While recognizing the potential loss of markets, the Lehmanns redoubled their efforts to sell their whiskey. “Jersey Pure Rye Whiskey” became the flagship brand. Advertised as “richer than cream,” the brothers trademarked the brand in July 1910. They sold it at retail in glass bottles with a colorful label that features a Jersey cow on the label. The whiskey came in a range of sizes from half-pint to full quart.
The Lehmanns were particularly notable for advertising items gifted to the saloons, restaurants and hotels featuring Jersey Pure Rye and their other house brands, and to individual good customers. Lehmann molded glass back-of-the-bar bottles were particularly notable. Made to resemble cut glass carafes, these would have been kept on a prominent shelf behind a bar and employed by bartenders to pour out individual shots of the company whiskeys. These decanters added a touch of elegance. Lehmann brands were also marketed on giveaway shot glasses.
While the firm might have been buying a large proportion of the output of this facility (in federal parlance, RD#5, 6th District) the Richland distillery in fact was the property of the Jett family who had built it in 1881 and had incorporated as Jett Bros. Distilling Co. The Lehmanns continued as whiskey blenders. One of the Jett brothers moved to Peoria and presumably was collaborating closely with Arthur and Edwin employing Richland his family’s whiskey for their brands.
The Lehmanns could see Prohibition closing in. Temperance advocates, aided by Henry Ford, had targeted Michigan in the industrial Midwest. When Michigan voted to go “dry” in May 1917 and the Lehmann’s Detroit outlet was forced to shut down, the brothers seemingly envisioned a bleak future for their trade. Although Illinois would stay officially “wet” until National Prohibition in 1920, markets were shrinking as states and counties increasing voted to ban sales of alcohol. The Lehmanns exited the liquor trade.
When they sold their business the brothers were still relatively young — Arthur 44 and Edwin 49. Edwin apparently tried to start his own wholesale liquor house, but apparently was forced to close it after a short time by National Prohibition. Then he made seemingly unsuccessful attempts to become an automobile dealer. Along the line Edwin dabbled in insurance, non-alcoholic beverages, paving contracting and a knitting mill. With Repeal in 1934 he made another try at the liquor trade, founding Lehmann Distilling Co. in 1934. The business apparently lasted only a year.
Arthur may have fared better. He apparently had been investing in Peoria real estate over the years. In 1916 he had been the principal financial backer for the construction of a twelve story building shown here in downtown Peoria at 415 Main Street. At the time considered the city’s finest, the structure was known as the Arthur Lehmann Building. Arthur kept his office there, looking after his real estate and other investments. Among them was a large stake in the Civic Center Plaza Building downtown that subsequently sold for $7.8 million. He also engaged in philanthropic work, serving as state chairman of the United Jewish Appeal.
Arthur died in May 1954 at the age of 81 in Peoria and was interred in the family mausoleum, shown below, beside his wife, Laura, who had preceded him in death by seven years. Edwin also died earlier, in March 1941 and was buried in Peoria.
If the Lehmann brothers had arrived in Peoria a generation earlier they might be remembered among the liquor barons who helped make that city “The Whiskey Capital of the World.” Arriving after the start of the 20th Century, however, the brothers faced diminishing prospects for liquor sales. Nevertheless, young Arthur and Edwin in the short 14 years of their enterprise nevertheless managed to make a mark before National Prohibition doomed their enterprise.
Note: This post was drawn from a range of sources. Particular thanks goes to Terry Riegel for the material from his online article “Edwin Lehmann” on his website https://reigelridge.com/mom.shtml. Edwin was Mr. Riegel’s great-uncle by marriage.