Thursday, May 26, 2011

E. E. Dowham: Yankee in a Southern Town

Alexandria was a Virginia town with strong Confederate sympathies that greatly resented Union occupation during the Civil War. That animosity failed to deter a New Jersey lad of 23 who arrived in 1862 to sell whiskey to thirsty troops. Despite this problematic start, he became Alexandria’s mayor and a leading citizen while founding a liquor business that prospered until the advent of Prohibition. His name was Emanuel Ethelbert (he much preferred “E.E.”) Downham, seen here in maturity.  

Census records indicate that a substantial number of Downhams were in the liquor business and his father likely was among them. Certainly E.E. Downham, born in 1839, was versed in the whiskey trade when he arrived in Alexandria to set up shop amidst Yankee-hating Southern sympathizers. 

E.E.’s promise as an “up-and-comer” must have been evident very early. In 1865, despite being a Northerner, he married Sarah Miranda Price, the daughter of a leading Alexandria merchant. The ceremony took place at the mansion of the bride’s father. The couple would be married for 56 years and produce four sons and a daughter. 

 Downham’s early business locations were on the lower end of Alexandria’s King Street. Whether he truly was a distiller, making whiskey directly from grain on his premises, is open to question. More likely he was a “rectifier,” someone who bought raw whiskey or grain alcohol from others, refined it, mixed it to taste, added color and flavor, bottled and labeled it. The resulting liquor was sold at both wholesale and retail. E.E. and his early partner, Henry Green, also dealt in beer and wine.


In 1867, in the wake of the Civil War, the Alexandria City Council, seeking to raise additional revenues, put a series of taxes on alcoholic beverages imported into the City from outside the state, thus discriminating in favor of Virginia-made products. When the young upstart Downham refused to pay the tax, the Alexandria City Council sued him and won. He appealed lower court decisions all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. At issue was an early test of the Interstate Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. While the Court refused on a technicality to rule in favor of Downham, it asserted its right to hear the case, disputed by Alexandria, and claimed jurisdiction to overturn local taxes that violated the Commerce Clause. As a result Downham v. Alexandria (1869) became an important legal precedent, frequently cited in cases up to the present day. 

In 1874 Downham sought and won election from Alexandria’s Third Ward to the same City Council he had sued seven years earlier. He served there for two terms before seeking office on the Board of Aldermen and was elected there for five two-year terms. Following the sudden death of Alexandria’s mayor by heart attack at Christmas 1887, the Board met to select an interim mayor from among their number. On the sixth ballot, Downham was chosen. He was reelected in his own right in 1890, serving a total of four years, and then permanently retired from public office.

Throughout this period Downham continued his business in downtown Alexandria, beginning at 9 King Street and by 1881 moving to 13 King Street. Shown here is an 1885 ad with the latter address from E.E. Downham & Co. Wholesale Liquor Dealers. Four years later the firm moved to 107 King, It featured a menu of whiskey brands, among them was “Old Mansion.” It used an illustration of Mount Vernon on the label, on back-of-the-bar decanters, and on shot glasses, as shown here front and back.

Other Downham brands were “Old Dominion Family Rye,” “Crystal Maize-Straight,” “Old King Corn,” ”“Mountain Corn” and “Old Triple XXX Maryland Whiskey” The flagship brand was “Belle Haven Rye,” with a well-designed label featuring heads of grain. Shown here is a giveaway corkscrew with the slogan, “Pull for Downham Whiskey,” The instrument also cited prices. The cheapest drink was Old King Corn at $2 a gallon. Mountain Corn was $2.50 and Crystal Maize, $3.50 a gallon. Old Mansion sold for $1 a quart or $11 for a case of 12. Downham promised to pay the freight on any order over $2.50.


The whiskey business proved lucrative and Downham moved his family into a home at 411 Washington Street, the city’s most fashionable. It was a double house and he appears to have owned both sides. His residence, shown here, is the one with the white door. With time, E.E. Downham brought sons Robert and Henry into the business as he progressively became involved in other activities. In 1899, for example, he was active in a scheme to honor George Washington in Alexandria with a giant equestrian statue. The project required raising money around the entire United States. Citizens elsewhere apparently were not convinced of its need and the statue was never built. By 1915 E.E. Downham’s principal occupation was president of the German Co-Operative Building Association, a building and loan organization at 615 King Street. 

In 1917, despite his German connections, he was chosen as one of three Alexandrians serving on the local draft board for World War I. Meanwhile, with E.E.’s financial backing, son Robert bought the Lee-Fendall mansion, the birthplace of Confederate General Lee, which still stands as a major Alexandria tourist attraction. The sons by now were responsible for the daily operations of the liquor business. By 1915 they had moved the company to 1229 King Street. In 1920 National Prohibition closed down E.E. Downham & Co. forever. Downham himself died a year later at his Washington Street home, age 82. His obituary in the Alexandria newspaper stated that his “long life of usefulness entitled him to the esteem and affection” of all Alexandria citizens.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Guido of Toledo: A Refugee to Riches Story

The “rags to riches” story is common in American folklore. But a man with the improbable name of Guido Marx followed a “refugee to riches” road as a whiskey and wine merchant that led him eventually to becoming the mayor of Toledo, Ohio, and an American ambassador.

Guido’s story begins in 1827 when he was born in Carlsrule, Germany. Educated there, he worked in his father’s store, learned the export-import business, and studied art in Paris. More important, when he was 21 he and a brother, Emil, became revolutionaries, fighting for German political rights against Prussian authoritarianism. The Revolution of 1848 was crushed.  As participants were being arrested and executed, the brothers fled to the United States. They were part of a German refugee group known in history as the “Forty-Eighters.”

After settling first in Wood County, Ohio, the Marx brothers in 1851 moved to Toledo where they opened a grocery store. As the store prospered, Guido became restless for new challenges. He convinced a third brother, Joseph, to leave Germany in 1853 and help him begin the first German language newspaper in Toledo, called the Ohio Staats-Zeitung. At first a weekly, by 1857 the newspaper went daily and changed its name to the Toledo Express.

In the meantime Guido in 1853 had married Elizabeth Brehm, six years his junior. She had been born in Hessia, Germany, and brought to Toledo as a baby. The couple would have 13 children, of whom 11 lived to maturity. A Republican and strong supporter of Abraham Lincoln, Guido was becoming known outside Germanic circles for his newspaper articles and business acumen.

Still restless, in 1860 Guido sold his grocery interests and bought a partnership in a whiskey “rectifying” and wholesale liquor business -- the oldest and largest in Toledo. Named the R. Brand & Company and located at 30 Monroe St, it had been founded in 1850 by another German immigrant, Rudolph Brand. After Brand’s death five years later, in partnership with Rudolph’s nephew, Guido took over the firm. He wasted little time in expanding the business, traveling to Germany, Spain, France and Hungary to begin the import of European wines. He alsopromoted Lake Erie wines. In a short time R. Brand & Co. became the largest wine wholesaler west of the Atlantic Coast, eclipsing even Chicago and Cincinnati.

By now wealthy and well-known, the former revolutionary began his American political career in 1869 when he was elected to the Toledo City Council. He subsequently was elected to the Ohio Legislature in 1871 and reelected in 1873. That same year the Governor of Ohio appointed him as the representative of Ohio at the Vienna Austria Exposition of 1873. This was just the first of such appointments. Guido later would be named to the Board of Judges (for alcoholic beverages) at both the Philadelphia International Exposition of 1876 and the Chicago Colombian Exposition of 1893.

In 1875, Guido Marx was elected Mayor of Toledo, serving as the city’s first chief executive of Jewish heritage. It was a time of great mercantile and industrial expansion in that Lake Erie Port. Guido epitomized the go-go spirit by purchasing land at 120-124 St. Clair Street and erecting a spectacular (for the time) four story Italianate style commercial building to house R. Brand & Co. Shown here, it held the whiskey rectifying operation, the Nation’s first U.S. bonded warehouse, and sales offices for wines and liquors.

Of the approximately 4,600 barrels of spirits produced in Toledo in the 1870s, fully one-fourth came from Brand & Co. Its whiskey brands, including Rehmann Rye, Dew Drop Rye, R. Brand Rye, were sold throughout the Midwest and were accounted the first to exploit markets in the Lake Superior region. Adopting an elaborate new letterhead. the firm also began to issue its products in fancy ceramics. The example shown here bears the mark of the Port Dundas Pottery in Scotland and was issued in both blue and green. The firm also featured a line of giveaway shot and wine glasses advertising its products.

But Guido’s career in public service -- and armed conflict -- had one more chapter. In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him as ambassador to Chile. That landed him squarely in the middle of the so-called “War of the Pacific” which pitted Chile against the combined forces of Peru and Bolivia in land and naval battles, as shown here. In the wake of Chilean victories -- the U.S. had stayed neutral -- he returned to Toledo and resumed running R. Brand & Co.

Guido continued to be appointed to local posts: Ironically for a former revolutionary he served for six years on Toledo’s Police Board. In 1884 he became a member of the Board of Trustees of the University of Toledo. Afflicted by a kidney disease, he died in 1899 at the age of 72 and is buried in Toledo’s Woodland Cemetery. R. Brand, the company he inherited and guided for almost 30 years, was sold to employees and went out of business about 1916 when Ohio voted “Dry.”

Guido Marx, the former German revolutionary who found fortune and fame in Ohio, continues to be remembered in Toledo. The building he had erected on St. Claire Street is on the National Historical Register. Moreover, a fictionalized play of his life was presented in 2009 by a local theater company. The play was entitled: “Guido of Toledo.”  Guido's grave in Toledo's Woodlawn Cemetery is simple rock with his name attached.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

E.E. Bruce: Mixing Liquor and Drugs

During the Pre-Prohibition era it was common practice for pharmacies also to carry a line of alcoholic beverages. Often wine, whiskey and brandy package sales were the chief economic engine of such establishments and made rich men of their owners. Edwin Estelle Bruce of Omaha, Nebraska, shown here, was one of those American druggists who profited mightily by being in the whiskey trade.

E.E. Bruce originally was an Iowan. With three partners in the 1880’s he founded a wholesale drug company in Ottumwa, Iowa. Their success led them in 1887 to open an company in Omaha that was known as Blake, Bruce & Co. They billed themselves as “wholesale druggists, importers of drugs and stationers’ sundries.” Their location was 19th and Harney Street in a four-story up-scale brick building, shown below.

The firm quickly found success in Nebraska and beyond. Its trade was reputed to extend “throughout all sections of the West to the Pacific coast.” By the early 1900s thirty clerks, assistants and traveling salesmen were employed. During the same period Blake retired to Ottumwa and the firm became E.E. Bruce and Co. Despite the facade of wholesale drugs, Bruce’s advertising emphasized his wines, whiskey and brandy.

His flagship brand was Country Club Bourbon that he sold
 in elegant stoneware, a quart cylinder that was the  product of Sherwood Brothers Pottery in far off New Brighton, Pennsylvania.  His whiskey likely was obtained from distilleries in Kentucky. He also may have done some “rectifying,” that is, mixing several whiskeys to improved taste and smoothness. Bruce also used the highly collectible Red Wing pottery for his wine and whiskey, shown here in one and two gallon sizes, Each bears the Bruce logo.

Made rich by his drug and liquor business, Bruce and his family occupied a mansion, located in Omaha's Gold Coast neighborhood. Designed by Omaha architect John McDonald his house was, and still is, considered a distinctive example of the Georgian Revival style.

Bruce also was well-known in Omaha business circles, according to a contemporary account, someone respected for his ability, enterprise and ingenuity. He was a co-founder of the National Association of Wholesale Druggists, an organization some thought was an attempt to control drug prices and quash competition. He also was a board member of the Omaha Grain Exchange.

Presumably as a result of his strong business reputation, Bruce was tapped by 
the elite of the city to be a principal officer for a world’s fair known as the "Trans-Mississippi International Exposition."   This event was inspired by leading Nebraskans to illustrate the “progress of the West." It highlighted the 24 states and territories west of the Mississippi River and was meant to spur economic development. 

Held a mere five years after Chicago’s highly successful 1893 Columbian World’s Fair, the Trans-Mississippi Exposition ran from June to November 1898.   Bruce held the pivotal position of Exhibits Manager for the Exposition, an extravaganza that covered 108 city blocks on the borders of Omaha. He was pivotal in choosing and managing 4,062 individual exhibits. The success of his efforts can be measured in the 2.6 million people who visited during the six month run of the fair. Constructed quickly of flimsy materials, none of the Exposition buildings survives today.

In 1910 Bruce’s wife died of the complications of surgery. E.E. himself lived to see the onset of Prohibition and his liquor sales ended in 1920. The man who mixed liquor and drugs died in 1924 and is buried next to his spouse in Omaha’s Forest Lawn Cemetery. Bruce’s mansion still stands, listed on the Historical Register since 1982. We also can remember this Omaha druggist and whiskey dealer by the ceramic jugs, particularly the elegant stoneware bottle from Sherwood Bros., as part of his legacy.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Small Sam and His Tall Tales

A news reporter, acting on a tip, in 1990 visited an elderly woman named Mollyann at a Dayton, Ohio, nursing home. She told him an incredible story about her paternal grandfather, Samuel Altschul, a man who stood only 5 feet, 3 inches tall. 

Mollyann avowed that because of the quality of his whiskey, Grandpa Sam while still in his twenties had become a favorite of the last German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, who had declared him “Baron Samuel Von Altschul.” Mollyann had other amazing details. Shortly after receiving his title, the old lady said, Sam heard that a young woman in Piqua, Ohio, bore a birthmark that heralded the coming of the Jewish Messiah. With that information, he renounced his barony and left Germany for the United States discarding the “Von” along the way. He courted and married the lady with the purported birthmark, and started once again making the Kaiser’s favorite whiskey -- but now in Springfield, Ohio. All this was duly reported to the public. 

A fascinating story, but was it true? The historical record suggests something else. Altschul Distilling claimed an origin in 1862, several years before Sam was born. The business was founded by his father, Samuel Altschul Sr., an immigrant from Germany.The date of Sam’’s birth varies by census but records show definitively that by 1881 he was a clerk in his father’s whiskey business.  In 1890 Sam married Carolyn (Carrie) Lebolt of Piqua. Where Carrie bore the fabled birthmark on her person has not come to light, nor has the shape or character of the sign. Settling down to the life of a distiller’s wife, Carrie bore Sam four children: Charles, Justine, and fraternal twins Leon and Malcolm. 

 In the early 1880’s, perhaps upon the retirement or death of his father, Sam took over the Altschul distillery. At that time the business was located at 22 S. Market Street. In 1884 Sam moved to fancier quarters in Kelly’s Arcade, a relatively new Springfield retail center and hotel, shown above on a 1920 postcard. Altschul’s address was 62-64 Kelly’s Arcade for the next 23 years. Although diminutive in size, Sam proved to be a giant as a marketer for his whiskey. In the late 1800s he began to advertise his liquors extensively in national magazines. His ads stressed: “One profit: From producer direct to consumer.” 

Within a fairly short time, Sam had built a thriving mail order business. Altschul assured customers that he would ship his whiskey by express free of charge everywhere in the United States except the Far West. With success and the desire to be closer to his customer base, Sam moved his sales offices in 1908 to Dayton while maintaining his distilling operations in Springfield. As a result Altschul’s artifacts may have either or both cities named on them. As shown here, the distillery packaged its goods in both stenciled ceramic jugs and glass containers embossed with the name of the firm. 

 Sam featured more than a dozen brands, including: Altschul’s Bouquet Old Rye, Altschul’s Private Brand, Harvest Home Rye, Jolly Tar Rye, National Club Bourbon, Old Anchor Gin, Old Judge White Wheat, Old Private Stock Blue Ribbon X X X X, Silver Edge Rye, Springfield White Wheat, Staghead Rye, Sweet Home Rye, Sweet Clover Whiskey, Altschul’s White Corn and Teutonia Doppel Kummel. His flagship label was Old School Rye. He styled this whiskey “pure and potent.” He packaged his whiskeys in both ceramic and glass.

 Sam loved to give away shot glasses. Several variations of Altschul shots exist for Old School Rye. They were designed by the most famous etcher of spirits glasses in America, George Troug. Troug’s sketchbook, shown here, contained a drawing for Old School Rye. Lagonda Club featured its own distinctive etched glass. 

About 1910, Altschul moved his operation from Kelly’s Arcade to 9 W. Main Street in Springfield. Son Malcolm joined him in the company. Unlike other Ohio whiskey outfits that went out of business when the state voted dry in 1916, Sam was able to operate until 1919, probably on the basis of his mail order trade to states that still permitted alcohol. When National Prohibition arrived, Sam shut the door on Altschul Distilling Company and went into the real estate and insurance business. 

He and Carrie were recognized as notable citizens of Springfield. He helped found a local newspaper; she was a leader of the Red Cross. According to census records, the couple resided in Springfield until at least 1930. Sam lived until 1939, dying in St. Petersburg, Florida. His body was brought back to Springfield and is interred there in Ferncliff Cemetery. 

What about the story Altschul’s granddaughter told? My research indicates that German barons were titled through heredity, not by an action of the Kaiser. Nor can I find anything in the literature about a birthmark that heralds the coming of the Jewish Messiah. Mollyann’s account gives every evidence of being the kind of story a grandfather might tell a gullible youngster. From his genius at merchandising it is clear that Small Sam had a rich imagination. And, we can believe, a taste for tall tales. 

Friday, May 13, 2011

George Shawhan: A Giant in Distilling

In late July, 1863, Confederate General John Hunt Morgan brought the Civil War north to Indiana and Ohio. Morgan and his men on horseback pillaged and terrorized dozens of hamlets and towns, moving east from Indiana.   A contemporary lithograph from Harper’s Magazine depicted the attack by Morgan’s Raiders on Washington Court House, Ohio. With them was a young giant with prodigious strength named George Shawhan. Born in 1843, Shawhan joined the Confederate army in Kentucky in 1862 at the age of 19. He stood six feet five inches tall and weighed 250 pounds. This was at a time when average American males stood 5 feet, 8 inches, and weighed 150 pounds.


 With most of Morgan’s troop, Shawhan was captured trying to cross the Ohio River into West Virginia in August 1863. He was sent to Camp Douglas on the outskirts of Chicago, a prison facility known in the South as “Eight Acres of Hell.” Of the 12,000 Confederate soldiers held there, more than 4,500 died. Shawhan was a survivor. 

After the war, George returned to Kentucky, got married, tried farming and quickly decided that making whiskey was a better way of life. It was an easy choice since his family had been involved in distilling for three generations. Unlike his forebears, however, George Shawhan moved out of Kentucky. In 1872 he transplanted his family and mother to a town in Missouri called Lone Jack. It was named for a large black jack tree that stood near the intersection of the Missouri and Osage Rivers. A Shawhan whiskey label later memorialized the tree. The scene of a bloody Civil War battle, Lone Jack was noted for its good water and fertile soil. Shawhan bought a farm and within a year completed his first distillery, shown here in an artist’s rendering. Initially it had a capacity of producing two barrels of whiskey a day, each holding 42 gallons. 

In Lone Jack Shawhan’s strength became legendary. He was said to raise a 400 pound barrel of whiskey, hold it by the rim, and drink from the bung hole. On one occasion, the story goes, the tailgate of his wagon holding full whiskey barrels opened, spilling the cargo onto the street. Working alone, Shawhan corralled the big kegs and heaved them back onto the wagon. In the process he dislocated his shoulder and needed the help of two friends to force it back into place. A grandson later said of him: "Grandpa was a person that always watched his temper, but he was a very powerful man.” 

The Shawhan enterprises grew steadily. He built three large barns where tobacco grown around Lone Jack was dried, graded and made into plugs, cigars, and loose for rolling into cigarettes. He also opened a saloon in Kansas City. In January 1900 disaster struck. Around midnight, the distillery caught fire and burned to the ground. George’s warehouses were spared. They held 800 barrels of whiskey at the time and provided a valuable financial resource. This time the giant distiller decided against rebuilding. Instead he moved to Weston, Missouri, and bought a distillery there. It was located near a pure limestone spring and the quality of the water caused Shawhan to enthuse that with his whiskey formula he could “beat those Bourbon County fellows all hollow.” 

He also was withdrawing whiskey from his Lone Jack warehouses and bottling it under the Shawhan Whiskey label. About this time he expanded his brands to include "1786 Shawhan Rye", "Double Stamp", "Four Generation", "Lone Jack", "Old Holladay Rye", "Old Stamping Ground", "Selected Stock", "Shawhan", "Shawhan White Corn", and "Stone River." Among Shawhan’s merchandising efforts were a series of shot glasses and other giveaways to important customers. 

Throughout the late 1890s and early 1900s as his whiskey business continued to grow, Shawhan built a Victorian mansion in downtown Weston for his family, shown above. It is considered a classic example of “steamboat architecture” and survives today as a bed and breakfast. In 1908 Shawhan sold his Weston distillery and the brand name to the Singer family who operated the distillery until Prohibition. Shawhan continued to be involved in the whiskey trade until his death in 1912 at the age of 69. He is buried near Kansas City in Lee’s Summit Cemetery. His name was perpetuated by the Singers and their successors on their whiskey labels for years.