Thursday, June 30, 2011

John L. Casper: Whiskey's Wandering Pitchman

No doubt about it. John L. Casper was a smooth operator, described as a"neatly dressed man with sharp black eyes and a great talker." With those attributes he built a mail order whiskey business worth millions, only to find himself chased from state to state by the forces of Prohibition. 

The Casper story begins in North Carolina when his grandfather set up a still on his farm outside Winston-Salem about 1861. He produced whiskey largely for family use. In 1865 his son, John C., returned from four years in the Confederate Army. The two expanded the distillery and sold their product locally for several decades, during which the son assumed management of the distillery.

The third generation of whiskey-making Caspers was our John L., seen here in a much enlarged photo wearing a bowler hat. After serving an apprenticeship with his father, during which his merchandising genius began to be evident, this Casper eventually took over the operation in the late 1890s.

In a promotional brochure he wrote to attract investors, John Casper described his key concept: Sell liquor directly to consumers by mail order. He wrote: “I started without the aid of capital -- worked night and day -- kept the customers gained, and month after month added new names to my list. After plodding this way from year to year I found myself worth several thousand dollars and calculated I could never expect to amass much unless I resorted to the businesslike mode of advertising.”

Casper’s pitch to potential stockholders worked. With the help of friends and his own resources, he capitalized and incorporated a business he called “The Casper Company” and named himself president and chief operating officer. From his family and through purchases Casper reportedly started with about a dozen stills. More importantly he was able to negotiate successfully with 21 other distillers in Yadkin and Davie County to take their entire production.

At the same time he began an advertising blitz in newspapers and magazines across America, with a claim to be the lowest-price whiskey distributor and largest mail order concern in the South. His ads boasted: “All the North Carolina whiskey we sell is good -- there’s no bad. People here wouldn’t adulterate if they knew how - they are too honest! Most whiskey sellers are noted for mixing, blending and watering. We sell more genuine old whiskey and less water than any known competitor.”

By 1905 the Casper Company is recorded with a net worth in 

excess of $250,000. With the profits John L. built a huge structure, one he claimed to be “the largest building in the world devoted to the mail order whiskey trade, shown here. It covered a full city block in Winston-Salem and true to Casper’s pitchman nature, proclaimed the firm as “Distillers, Rectifiers, and Wholesalers” and the local outlet for Milwaukee’s Pabst Beer. Revenue records indicate Casper also maintained a bonded warehouse near Gold Hill, North Carolina.

Casper’s merchandising skills extended to the containers he used for his 
whiskey. Of particular note were attractive fluted-top cobalt bottles. Other bottles and jugs add, New York, Chicago and St. Louis locations, but there is scant evidence of Casper facilities in any of those cities. His cobalt bottles originally bore an elaborate paper label picturing a man tasting whiskey flowing from a giant still. Finding a Casper bottle with label intact is rare indeed. Here it is replicated on a match box.

Casper’s ceramic jugs came in a number of sizes and shapes. Many, like the one shown here featured a bail handle. His jugs were salt glazed stoneware and likely were made by a number of local North Carolina potteries. These containers bear a wide variety of labels. Among my favorites are those celebrating the “honest North Carolina people” who presumably made or mixed Casper whiskey.

John Casper also had a flair for giveaway items, among them back of the bar bottles and decanters. Made of clear glass with acid etched labels, they could be given to saloon keepers and as premiums for large customer purchases. He also gave away shot glasses carrying his logo, some with the slogan: “Mild, Mellow and Enchanting.”

Ironically, part of Casper’s success was due to the onset of Prohibition. All across America localities and then whole states were going “dry.” In the early 1900’s no restrictions existed on mail order whiskey sales to customers living areas where alcohol was proscribed. On request, the Casper Company would send its price list in a plain envelope. After a mail-in purchase, the postman would bring the booze in an unmarked brown box.

John Casper’s desire to be America’s largest mail-order liquor dealer was doomed to disappointment. The problem resided with those same honest North Carolinians he boasted about . It turned out that many of those folks were strongly anti-alcohol. Little by little laws were put on the books that ultimately would drive out Casper and other distillers out of the state. The process began in 1901 when North Carolina legislated that distilleries could operate only in incorporated towns and ended in 1906 when the state voted to go completely dry.

As a result, Casper folded up lock, stock and whiskey barrel in 
Winston-Salem and moved his business to Roanoke, Virginia, in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Before making his move, however, he re-capitalized his firm. He published a new prospectus, promoting his ability to provide 12 percent return on investment and asking for the public to buy $250,000 in stock at $10 a share. “I am not,” the pitchman avowed, “selling wild cat’ or fake mining stock.” He was selling whiskey.

Once again, Fortune seemed to smile on Casper. The money rolled in and he was able to move to self-described “magnificent buildings” in Roanoke, as illustrated in a contemporary newspaper advertisement, shown below. The facility, which boasted being on 14 acres, appears rather odd, with a mountain rising out of the center of a campus-like setting as shown here.

After only several years, however, fortunes turned for John Casper in Virginia. Whether overextended financially or for other reasons, years before the state went dry, he left Roanoke for other locations. In 1911 he was listed as an officer of the Atlantic Coast Distillery Company of Jacksonville, Florida. Casper, as might be expected, apparently was in charge of sales. The firm boasted that it did annual business in excess of half a million dollars and broke all prior sales records under his leadership.

The same year, however, finds Casper also was recorded more than a thousand miles away as the “proprietor” of the Uncle Sam Distilling Co. in Fort Smith, Arkansas. An ad for this firm indicates he took brands like Gold Band and Golden Rose Whiskey with him. Interestingly, Casper apparently never bothered to register any of his whiskeys with the Federal Government for trademark protection.

Beginning in 1913 1913 the entire mail order whiskey business was finished. Over a Presidential veto Congress passed the Webb-Kenyon Act that forbid the transportation of alcoholic beverages into Dry Areas.  After court challenges failed, the law was in force by 1915. The postman no longer could bring the booze. Although National Prohibition did not follow until five years later, John Casper’s high-flying career went into a tail spin.

Seemingly rootless and now without purpose, Casper traveled from place to place over ensuing years. There is no evidence of his having a family or even marrying. He apparently lived out of hotel rooms for much of his working life. After leaving Jacksonville, he was reported to have resided in Kansas for a time. In the end, as published in the Winston-Salem Journal, his hometown newspaper, John Casper died in obscurity in Mexico. There, of course, Prohibition could not touch him.

Regardless of Casper’s fate, a century later the rise and fall of this dapper whiskey pitchman continues to draw our interest. We also remember him for the many interesting -- and now often valuable -- artifacts he left behind.

Friday, June 24, 2011

101 Years of Fulton Whiskey

Shown here is a caricature of Henry R. Myers sitting on a barrel of whiskey, surrounded by a blizzard of letters. It represented the success of a man and a whiskey organization located in Covington, Kentucky, one that almost uniquely in America survived and prospered for more than a century.

Among the nation’s best known brands, Fulton Whiskey originated in in 1817 when a colorful Scots-Irishman named Malcolm Fulton founded a distillery in the Ohio River city just across from Cincinnati.

Growing up in Northern Ireland in a family of distillers, Fulton joined the French army under Napoleon as a youth and was on the disastrous winter retreat from Moscow. Wounded at the battle of Leipzig in 1813, Malcolm’s political allegiances barred him from returning to Ireland after his recovery. Consequently he took his distilling skills to Hungary, Germany, and finally to the United States.

Finding his way to Kentucky, Fulton convinced a moneyed man there to help him build a small distillery where he could manufacture a whiskey according to a “secret” family formula. He called his product "Fulton Whiskey." The brand was an immediate success and the facility was enlarged. Its slogan became: “Unequaled Natural Advantages Make Fulton Superior.”

Malcolm Fulton married the daughter of his investor and raised a family whose members after his death kept the distillery and whiskey recipe going for 60 more years. Eventually the inheritance came to a great-granddaughter who wanted little to do with whiskey. Business suffered severely.

Enter Henry Myers. The son and grandson of distillers himself, he saw great possibilities for Fulton Whiskey. In 1887 Myers negotiated the purchase of the plant, the "secret" formula, and the business, giving him the sole right to manufacture Fulton Whiskey. Because the original buildings were in grave disrepair, he constructed new ones and greatly increased production capacity. The rebuilt distillery is shown here from a letterhead illustration.

Early on Myers decided that his marketing future lay in mail order sales and 
widespread advertising. His aim was to sell in large quantities. His ads indicated he marketed casks holding 10, 26, and 46 gallons. In addition he patented a series of demijohns holding from two to almost five gallons of whiskey. Many of these large glass bottles have survived, usually without their rattan wrapping. Myers also employed blue stenciled stoneware jugs of one and two gallon capacity.

Like other enterprising whiskey barons, Myers also fancied giveaways. If you bought a sufficient quantity of Fulton Whiskey, he threw in two mini-bottles like the one shown here. He might also send along a corkscrew , one of several advertising shot glasses, or for a really big order, a fancy back-of-the-bar decanter.

Myers’ marketing strategy was a huge success. By 1902 U.S. postal officials had upgraded Covington from a 2nd class to a 1st class office because of the volume of Fulton Whiskey mail order sales. The company, cannot have been popular with mail carriers. Imagine lugging one of those filled five gallon demijohns up to someone’s front door. All mailed goods, even the casks, came in “plain wrappers” to foil nosy neighbors.

To fend off copycat use of the Fulton name, a fairly common practice in that day,
 Myers registered the brand name with the Federal Government in 1906. Another common practice of distillers was to pay independent agents for the right to distribute their products in a particular territory. Myers advertising boasted that because the company sold directly to consumers, it avoided those commissions and fees and could pass the savings on to customers.

If Myers was the bane of mail carriers, he likely was beloved by his workers. His employees, he claimed, enjoyed optimal working conditions and “better pay and better hours than is the custom elsewhere.” Benefits included leave for all National holidays, a free hot midday dinner, and profit-sharing through which every employee received a pro rata share of profits. Myers clearly was ahead of his time in his workforce policies.

Despite these enlightened attitudes Myers’ operation took a body blow with the controversial 1913 Congressional passage of the Webb-Kenyon Act and its eventual implementation several years later.  The law forbid mail order sales of liquor into “dry” states or localities. Violations met with stiff penalties. The customer base for Fulton Whiskey was cut drastically. The end came in 1918 with the enactment of National Prohibition. After 101 years Fulton Whiskey was history, with only its bottles, jugs and advertising items to remind us of its glory days.

Note: The material for this article was drawn from a range of sources. Most important was “A Little Book of History: Fulton Whiskey,” written by George M. Major, M.D., and published by the distillery in 1902.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Charles C. Clarke and "The Whiskey Trust"

In failing health and only three years from his death, Charles C. (for Corning) Clarke, seen here in his late 30s, was summoned in 1899 from his Peoria, Illinois, home to testify to an elite Washington, D.C. investigating commission about one of America’s most notorious organizations, known popularly as “The Whiskey Trust. That monopoly bore a reputation for ruthlessly shutting down distilleries throughout the Midwest and beyond, reputedly using dynamite when necessary.

 Charles’ father was one of Peoria’s pioneer distillers. Born in 1821 in Northhampton, Massachusetts, the elder Clarke had a natural head for business. He started distilling whiskey about 1860 in Peoria, seen here in panorama. His enterprise was assisted by his friendship with Abraham Lincoln and other prominent Republican politicians. 

Charles, the eldest son, was born in 1856 and educated in the Peoria, graduating from the local high school. Early on he began working at his father distillery but his health was fragile. As part of his recuperation the young Charles went to Montana for a better climate and went into business raising cattle. Although ranching was physically and financially beneficial to him, his father’s retirement brought the young man back to Peoria in 1880. 

Taking up the family distilling business, he formed a partnership with his youngest brother, Chauncey, and called the firm Clarke Bros. & Co. The distillery stood on Grove Street, at the foot of Persimmon in Peoria. It produced a number of brands, including Castle Rock, Checker Board, Elkhorn Gin, Kickapoo Bourbon, Pearl Spirits, and R.D.C. Bourbon. The flagship brand was Clarke’s Pure Rye. 

Clarke Bros. operated at a tumultuous time in American distilling history. Anxious to insure high profits, a number of Midwest distillers in 1887 organized a monopoly under the name of the Distillers and Cattle Feeders’ Trust. Headquartered was in Peoria, it quickly became known as “The Whiskey Trust.” 

When a distillery joined the Trust its owners received stock but surrendered control of their operations to a board of trustees. Of some 86 distilleries that eventually joined (or were forced into) the Trust, only about a dozen were kept operating. The rest were shut down. The idea was to corner an overwhelming market share and fix prices to insure ample profits. At the time such business practices were still legal. Criminal activity, however, often was alleged in the strong arm tactics employed by the Trust, including bombings, against distillers who refused to join. 

No evidence exists that Charles Clarke was involved in any mayhem, but he knew a lot about the Whiskey Trust. . While not a founding member, Charles early brought his distillery into its fold. When later asked why, he replied: “I went into the first Trust because I was glamoured with the pictures that were painted of fancy profits, and also because of the intimations that, if I did not go in, the Trust would get after my customers and make life a burden to me....I was quite a young man at the time and did not like to go into a combination and lose control of my business, but after some time I agreed to do it. I regretted it from the day I went in, although I secured very good profits for a long time.” 

The Trust shut down the Clarke Bros. distillery, gave them $100,000 in stock, and put each of the brothers on the payroll for $5,000 a year, a substantial salary in those days. When the stipend ended as the Trust fell into financial difficulties, Charles broke out of the monopoly in 1885 and began distilling again as independent operator. He continued to be harassed by Trust forces but persisted.  Amidst the tumult he was married in 1892 to a young widow, Alice (Chandler) Ewing. Charles and Alice would have three children: Alice, born in 1893 who died five years later, Charles C., born 1895; and Margaret, born 1897. 

Beginning about in 1889 the revived Clarke Bros. dropped the most of its other brands to concentrate on merchandising Clarke’s Pure Rye. It was sold in clear glass bottles with little embossing and paper labels. About 1990 Clarke Bros. built a new facility at the foot of Pecan and South Peoria Streets, illustrated here, boasting that it was the “largest whiskey distillery in the world.” 

 It also incorporated as Clarke Brothers Distillery. Its letterhead and ads stressed its “independent” status -- by inference a jab at the Whiskey Trust. The most unusual merchandising strategy employed by Clarke Bros. was plastering the face and body of an elderly and sickly looking man on its advertising. This geezer shows up on items from hand mirrors to decorative plates, canvas and wooden bar signs. 

As the company prospered it also became known for its giveaway items. On saloons featuring its whiskey it showered shot glasses, tip trays back of the bar bottles, and attractive “nips, ” including is a hollow dog with a pottery and cork stopper at the rear and Clarke’s Pure Rye written across its back. 

While Clarke Bros. & Co. were prospering as an independent distillery, Federal authorities were increasingly becoming concerned about the Whiskey Trust. President William McKinley in 1898 had appointed a special Industrial Commission to investigate monopolistic practices in a wide range of industries, It was chaired by a close friend of the President, Andrew L. Harris, a former Ohio governor and Civil War general. Federal investigators saw Charles Clarke as a key witness who might, under oath, disclose the full inside story of this secretive organization. 

Being summoned to Washington by a high-powered investigative panel likely held no fears for Charles. His father had been a a well-known figure in the Republic Party both nationally and in Illinois. Clarke himself, running on the GOP ticket, had been elected twice as major of Peoria, the first time when he was only 36. In short, this witness was accustomed to the rough and tumble of politics. The New York Times of May 14, 1899, headlined his testimony before the Commission. 

Clarke was cautious. He revealed nothing very new, restating only the obvious. The Trust was, Clarke testified, “bound to fall of its own weight.” He argued against passing new antitrust laws. The Commission, however, did not agree and in concluding its work in 1902 recommended stronger legislation. Teddy Roosevelt, by then President, agreed, ushering in the “Trust Busting Era” in American history. 

By then the Whiskey Trust had disintegrated into several organizations and Charles Clarke was dead in 1902, only 46 years of age. He had never been in good health and it is speculated that the strain of the past several years had taken their toll. One obituary said: "Few men in Peoria developed a better capacity for business, and no man had a better reputation for integrity and honor than Charles C. Clarke."  

After Charles’ death, the company remained under members of the Clarke family. They advertised their rye widely as meant for “family and medicinal use” but eventually the company was closed down by Prohibition. Ironically, the Whiskey Trust may have had the last laugh on the Clarkes. After Repeal one of its Peoria-based remnants called U.S. Industrial Alcohol, Inc., bought their facility and sold the Clarke Bros. brand name to another distiller.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Cleveland's Wenhams: Prosperous -- and Passing

In 1904, a book of caricatures entitled "Clevelanders as We See ‘Em" depicted 290 of the city’s most prominent citizens. Only one set of brothers was featured -- A.A. (Arthur) Wenham(right) and F. L. (Frederick) Wenham. It was testimony to their prominence and prosperity in the liquor and grocery business. Yet within three years their firm was gone, a casualty of the early deaths that plagued the family. 

 The story begins in 1825 when their father, A.J. Wenham, was born in England. At an early age, presumably in the company of his parents, he emigrated to the United States and settled in the Cleveland area and attended school. 

In the late 1840s A.J. married a woman named Melvina and their first son, Arthur, was born in 1850. The elder Wenham by this time was engaged in the retail business in Cleveland. City directories of that time show him as a partner in a drug store called Wenham and Beckwith. He also may have operated a dry goods firm. In 1857, a second son, Frederick, was born. 

The elder Wenham’s importance in early Cleveland business circles is confirmed by his being chosen in 1865 to be part of the local civic guard of honor for the body of the slain Abraham Lincoln when he lay in state in Cleveland, shown below.


About 1882, the family went into the wholesale grocery and liquor business, located at 138-140 Water Street. The company was called A.J. Wenham & Son. Within four years of its founding however, A.J. Wenham died unexpectedly, not yet 60 years old. Arthur and Frederick took over the operation and in 1886 renamed it A.J. Wenham’s Sons Wholesale Grocery.  In 1874, age 24, Arthur married Lulu Pelton, 22, the daughter of Frederick W. Pelton. Pelton was a Civil War hero and successful businessman who was elected to the Cleveland City Council in 1965, and later became Mayor (1871-1873). 

 Arthur took over the grocery side of the Wenham business; Frederick looked after tobacco and liquor. They eventually moved the company from Water Street to 138-144 Sheriff Street. Under the direction of the brothers the firm prospered. Their Euclid brand of food products became well known in the Cleveland area. Embossed bottles with the Wenham name are found widely by diggers in Northern Ohio.  As was common with grocers of the time, the brothers featured their own cigar line called Old Monopolists and their own brands of whiskey, including "Wenham’s Grove,"  "Linn’s Castle,"  and "Edgewater. Country Club Rye," advertised on two shot glasses shown here, was their flagship brand. 

 Things seemed to be going well for the Wenhams. Their widowed mother and sister Grace resided at 337 Franklin Street. Nearby, Frederick built a large house for himself and his family at 1206 Cedar Avenue, shown here. Arthur and Lulu, with son Russell born in 1885, lived at 166 Kennard. Arthur was one of the founding members of the Euclid Club, shown below, one of the first country clubs in the Cleveland area devoted solely to golf. Over time, important golf tournaments like the Western Open were held there. 

In 1904 -- the same year the brothers were memorized with a caricature -- early death struck the Wenhams again as Arthur’s wife Lulu unexpectedly died in their home. Only 50 years old, she was buried in the Pelton plot at Riverside Cemetery, shown here.  Arthur appears to have been devastated. He sold their house on Kennard and moved into an apartment at the Euclid Club. The Wenham firm moved for the last time in 1906, to 2204 East Fourth St., SE. 

 A year later Arthur suffered an apparent heart attack in his rooms at the Euclid Club and died at age 57. He was buried next to his wife. With him died A.J. Wenham’s Sons company. After 1907 the firm disappears from Cleveland business directories. What happened to Frederick is unclear. The 1920 census finds him living in Cuyahoga County but gives no hint about his occupation. Arthur’s son Russell became a farmer and lived near Painesville, Ohio. As if carrying out the family fate of early deaths, this Wenham died in 1935, only 50 years old.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Billy Foust and a Banana Full of Whiskey

Born in 1838, William “Billy” Foust in 1858, age 22, took over a distilling operation that his father had begun in 1840 at the family farm near the small town of Glen Rock in York County, Pennsylvania. Shown here in maturity, Billy rebuilt his father’s still, constructed a six-story warehouse and added other ancillary buildings. He also greatly increased production. Foust rapidly became known for his highly imaginative way of packaging his liquor. 

 Some 15 figural glass and ceramic bottles were issued by the Foust distillery. In addition to a realistic yellow banana,, they included a salt-covered pretzel, a ceramic ear of corn, a partially peeled sweet potato and a glass billy club. Other figurals attributed to Foust are a roast turkey, cigar, ham bone, oyster, fish, pig and horn of plenty. 

Foust also featured interesting small ceramic jugs. They bear the name of the Wm. Foust, Distiller, sometimes in gold letters. He packaged his whiskey in glass, both clear and amber, and provided saloons with a back of the bar bottle that advertised his whiskey. 

By 1907 under Billy’s leadership production was up to 3,000 barrels of whiskey a year. A small brick and stone village grew up around the spring-fed hollow that was the site of the distillery. The town had housing for the employees, a railroad station, a town square with a water fountain, as well as telephone service -- rare for a rural location. 

 A engraving from the 1890s shows the original farm house surrounded by distillery-related structures. The location became known as Foustown -- causing confusion with another Pennsylvania community of the same name. Eventually the distillery grew to include a bonded warehouse and a “bottled in bond” bottling facility.To facilitate the transport of his whiskey by rail Billy also maintained an office in downtown Glen Rock.

In March 1859 Billy married Christina Bricker of York County. Seven surviving children were born to this marriage, five boys and two girls. Active in the Lutheran Church and his his community, the elder Foust became a respected business leader, holding a number of positions of prominence in Glen Rock. A 1886 History of York County declared: “Few men are better known throughout York and adjoining counties than Billy Foust.” 

In 1910 Billy retired. Four of his boys took over the operation and changed the name to William Foust’s Sons Distillers. With the coming of Prohibition in 1920 the Fousts were forced to close the business. Billy died the same year at the age of 82. The Fousts subsequently sold the distillery. 

After Repeal the Foust brand continued to be produced, apparently by Sherwood Distilling in nearby Westminster, Maryland. During World War II Foust’s Glen Rock facility was refitted to produce industrial alcohol, but the war ended before production began. A 125-foot smokestack built at that time, but never used, is all that remains intact of Foustown and the Foust distillery. As shown here, the rest lies in ruins. What remains are the highly sought bananas, pretzels and other unusual bottles in which Billy Foust packaged his farm-raised whiskey.