When National Prohibition was imposed in 1920, those involved in the liquor trade had one of four broad choices: 1) permanently go out of business and retire, 2) find a different occupation, 3) attempt to carry on illegally, or 4) find interim things to do and await the uncertain day when Repeal would occur. Given the odds, only a handful of whiskey men chose the fourth option. Among them was Kentuckian Patrick Raphael Lancaster, the pipe-smoking liquor house proprietor whose photo opens this post. He would find that waiting out Prohibition could have its pitfalls.
Patrick was born in May 1880, one of eleven children of J.R. and Ann Lancaster. His father was accounted an early pioneer farmer of Daviess County, Kentucky, initially a slaveholder who freed his slaves before 1840. His father, according to an obituary, “was known all over a wide scope of country and was highly respected throughout his life.”
By 1870 J.R. Lancaster had moved to Owensboro, the Daviess County seat, and Patrick grew up there attending local schools. There is little in the record about his early career. In October 1905 at the age of 25, Patrick married Sue Elizabeth “Susie” Taylor, shown here. According to the records they would have only one child, Patrick Junior, born in 1909.
Lancaster first surfaced in local business directories in 1901, working as a bookkeeper in what likely was a Owensboro liquor house. By 1907 he was listed as the proprietor of P.R. Lancaster & Company, wholesale liquor dealer, located at 321 West Third Street. He seems to have had early success, requiring a subsequent move to larger quarters at 310 Third Street.
There Lancaster marketed his whiskey under the name “Premier Pure.” Not a distiller, he was buying whiskey by the barrel from the many distilleries that dotted the Kentucky landscape and was “rectifying” (blending) it to achieve a desired taste, color and smoothness. Key among his suppliers was the Green River Distilling Company of Owensboro whose owner, Col. J.W. McCulloch, became a close friend. [See post on McCulloch April 1, 2014.]
Landcaster decanted whiskey into stoneware jugs of half-gallon and larger sizes. Some of these containers also suggested that Lancaster’s was “The whiskey for family use,” suggesting he was also selling directly to retail customers. Another company brand was “Old Quality Whiskey.” It was advertised on shot glasses that the proprietor would have provided to the saloons, hotels, and restaurants stocking his brands.
During the early years of the 20th Century, Lancaster prospered in his liquor dealership. He was increasingly being viewed as one of Owensboro’s “up and coming” young businessmen. He was reported in 1919 to have cleared a profit equivalent to more than $1 million in 2020 dollars. Then on January 1, 1920, National Prohibition arrived and after a relatively few years in existence, Lancaster was forced to close his liquor house.
Later that year the family relocated to Louisville. Lancaster’s wealth from liquor sales allowed him to move his family into a mansion home, shown below, in one of Louisville’s prestigious neighborhoods at 2508 Longest Avenue. Given its size the house almost certainly required live-in servants.
Lancaster’s took up an executive position as secretary and principal investor in a Louisville-based operation called the Thraman Oil Company. Associated with him in the company was Colonel McCulloch. They shared offices in Louisville’s posh Starks Building downtown. Speculation in oil exploration stocks was soaring at the time and the Thraman outfit was adept at publicizing what it reported as “finds.” The November 1919 issue of “Louisville Oil World” reported: “The Thraman Oil Company has brought in No. 1 Stevenson north of Ranger in Texas and is said to be showing for 2,000 barrels….No. 1 in the Somerset field near San Antonio is in. This is high grade oil and is showing from 20 to 50 barrels….Thraman has four wells completed in Texas and four drilling.”
Given this and other positive accounts, it must have been a shock to the public to read headlines in September 1922 and find that P. R. Lancaster had filed for bankruptcy in U.S. District Court. His liabilities were listed at $453,611.70 ($6.6 million today) and assets at $199,085. The cause of the failure were “unfortunate investments in Eastern and Southern Kentucky oil,” according to the press.
One result of the bankruptcy was the sale of the Lancaster mansion and a move to a more modest home. At age 46 Lancaster was ruined. A photo exists of his son showing off a new grandchild. Patrick Sr., standing behind, seems to have been aged significantly by his financial disaster.
In ensuing years, Lancaster continued to work in Louisville, his occupation recorded by the census taker as “salesman, stocks & bonds.” Eager to return to the liquor trade again, he watched through the early 1930s as National Prohibition grew increasingly unpopular and began to unravel. With Repeal Lancaster saw an opportunity to rejoin the liquor trade as a broker, acting as a “middleman” between the newly revived distilleries of Kentucky and the liquor dealers and drinking establishment opening all over America. He worked from an office in Suite 1203 of Louisville’s skyscraper Washington Building, shown here, reviving his reputation in the liquor trade and his fortunes. Lancaster was joined in this successful enterprise by Patrick Jr. and continued to work for many years, enjoying the adulation of ten grandchildren.
Patrick lived to be 83 years old, his bankruptcy of 1922 largely forgotten. After several year in declining health with heart disease, he was felled by a stroke in March 1964 and died at Lady of Peace Hospital. After a funeral at St. James, his parish church, he was buried at Louisville’s Calvary Cemetery next to Susie who had died several months earlier.
Patrick Lancaster had chosen the fourth option, waiting out the “dry” years and rejoining the liquor trade at the opportune moment. The fourteen year hiatus of National Prohibition had not been easy but despite a bankruptcy he had emerged triumphant yet again as a “whiskey man.”