Saturday, July 23, 2011

Charles Tracey: Mixing Politics with Whiskey

Perhaps no distiller either before or since has surpassed the career that Charles Tracey, shown here, crafted as president and treasurer of the Columbia Distillery Co., in Albany, New York. He was a four-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives, an aide to five governors of New York, including one future President, and a  man who also went to war for the Pope.   

Tracey exemplified the Irish-American Catholic who rose to power by mixing politics liberally with whiskey. Charles was the son of John Tracey, an orphaned immigrant from Rosecrea, County Tipperary, Ireland. With older siblings John arrived in Montreal in 1825. Initially he settled there, married Maria McCarthy and set up in business. Forced to leave Canada because of suspicion he was involved in anti-British protests, he emigrated to the U.S. circa 1838 and settled in Albany. There he founded the Columbia Wine and Liquor Company. The Tracey family and its whiskey business thrived in America, achieving wealth and political influence. 

Charles Tracey was born in Albany in 1847, attended school there, and early on showed an adventurous spirit. In 1866, barely 20, he visited the Middle East and Europe. While in Italy he enlisted and served two years as a corporal in the Pontifical Zouves, part of the Pope’s army. In 1870, returning to Europe, he went to Rome and took part in the battle for the city against the forces of King Emmanuel. Captured, he was held prisoner for a time. Upon his release Tracey returned to the U.S. Subsequently Pope Pius IX made him a Knight of St. Gregory the Great with the rank of “Chevalier.” It was first of many titles Tracey would enjoy in his ascendancy.
Back home he joined his father in the liquor trade. With his parent’s death in 1875, Charles, age 28, took over the management of the business, then known as Columbia Distilling Company. 

 Always looking for new challenges, the same year Charles accepted an invitation from Governor Tilden of New York (later a Presidential candidate) to become his aide-de-camp with the rank of colonel. Two years later, at the age of 30, the next governor named him Commissary General. That post was responsible for the general custody and supervision of the military property of New York State. He held the job under succeeding New York governors, including Grover Cleveland, later President of the United States. Charles carried the title, “General,” for the rest of his life. 

At age 36 Charles married Hermine Duchesnay in Montreal. They had five children of whom one, James, died in infancy. Surviving were Marie, Philip, John and Charles Jr.

In 1886 Charles incorporated the whiskey company becoming both president and treasurer. A letterhead indicates that the sales offices were on State St. in Albany,with the distillery, likely a rectifying plant and bonded warehouses, in Waterloo, New York, 180 miles away. 

Charles was just getting started on his political career. In 1887 he was elected from Albany to the U.S. House of Representatives. He would go on to serve four terms. The Albany Morning Express said of him as he ran the second time: "Gen. Tracey is young, energetic, intelligent, with plenty of leisure for his public duties, and the tastes which lead him to enjoy their punctilious discharge.” He cut a figure in Congress, earning him a full length illustration as he strolled on Capitol Hill, shown here. 

His importance was emphasized in a 1891 book on New York political figures in which it was said of him: “Gen. Tracey is quiet and unassuming in his manners, sunny in his disposition, firm in his opinion of what he believes to be right, and honorable in his discharge of public and private duties. He is therefore well qualified to be a leader and adviser among men having charge of political affairs.” 

While he served in Congress, Charles continued to look after the whiskey business. Strongly opposed to the Illinois-based “Whiskey Trust,” in 1900 he sold Columbia Distillery to a “backlash combine” of six distilleries called the New York and Kentucky Company. Headed by Water B. Duffy (see my post April 2022), the new organization was capitalized at $2 million. Charles was elected an officer and board member. 

During this period Columbia Distilling produced a number of give-away items to advertise their various brands, which included shot glasses and tip trays for "Beaver Rye"and "Dongan Club Rye."  The last was named for an organization that honored a former colonial governor of New York, a Catholic, Thomas Dongan. After four terms in Congress, during which he staunchly upheld the rights of the whiskey industry, Charles was defeated in1895. He went on to become the head of the “Gold” Democrats, a conservative faction of the party, organized against “free silver” advocates.


Charles died in 1905, age 58, and was buried in St. Agnes Cemetery, Albany. His tombstone lists his service in the Zouaves, his Knighthood of St. George and his Congressional service. After Charles death, Columbia Distilling, now owned by the New York and Kentucky Co., moved its headquarters to Broadway in Albany and installed a new manager, as illustrated by a 1906 ad. 

According to a Moody’s analysis, by 1918 the combine had increased its assets to $6 million while the much larger Whiskey Trust had imploded. Columbia Distilling was still part of the organization but identified as rectifiers (i.e., whiskey blenders) not distillers. Everything stopped in 1920 with National Prohibition. 

As noted earlier, no pre-Prohibition whiskey man ever climbed the political ladder more effectively than did Charles Tracey, a fact seemingly recognized by his contemporaries. After his death a colleague penned these lines in verse:
His life was plotted on a noble plan,
He viewed the future with a trustful smile.
Gentle and true he leaves an honored name 
More lasting in the hearts of friends than fame.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sherwood Distillery and the Family Feud

On January 16, 1902, seven jurists of the Maryland Court of Appeals in Annapolis heard a case that pitted quarreling members of a wealthy family and their high powered attorneys disputing over the operation and future direction of the Sherwood Distillery. The Wight family feud had been the “talk” of local society for months.

The story begins in Cockeysville, Maryland, about 17 miles north
 of Baltimore on the road to York, Pennsylvania. The town was named after the Cockey family who built a hotel around the time of the Civil War and convinced the Baltimore and Susquehanna Railroad to locate a station there. The presence of a rail line drew businesses, among them a distillery operated by partners John J. Wight and a partner. They called their liquor Sherwood Pure Rye, named after the nearby Sherwood Episcopal Church.

In 1868 the distillery was bought by a pair of New York City whiskey distributors. One of them was Edward Hyatt, the son of a Baltimore grocer. The new ownership greatly expanded the facilities, increased production, and marketed its whiskey aggressively. By 1878 the Army Medical Purveying Depot in New York was stockpiling Sherwood Rye for its hospitals.

With his partner’s departure in 1882 Hyatt incorporated the firm, with assets of $30,000, as the Sherwood Distilling Company. He became president. Despite selling majority ownership, John J. Wight had married Hyatt’s sister and remained active in the distillery. His son, John Hyatt Wight, from youth also was involved in the business. All three men were principal stockholders in the privately held company.

The distillery sold its Maryland rye in a range of bottles, including flasks, pints and quarts, as shown here. Sherwood Distilling adopted as its logo a recumbent barrel and used the image frequently in its advertising, such as an 1891 ad. Throughout the 1800’s the business continued to prosper. A sales office was opened in Baltimore. By 1897 the Maryland Department of Revenue estimated the taxable value of Sherwood whiskey at $308,920, several millions in today’s dollar.

The Wights were a leading Maryland family. John J. and his wife were rose fanciers whose garden gained national attention. An article in the New York Times featured the headline: "A Great Collection of Roses, Three Hundred and Eighty Varieties Growing in the Open Air.” The story began: “Twelve hundred rose bushes shed their fragrance and beauty on the lawn in front of Mr. John J. Wight's house at Cockeysville. Red roses and white, pink roses and yellow, in every variety, shade, and size, meet the eye.”

The rosy prospects began to wane when John J. Wight died. His estate transferred most of his stock to his son, John Hyatt Wight, who became secretary and treasurer of Sherwood Distilling, with his uncle remaining as the president. In 1894, Edward Hyatt died. John Hyatt Wight was made trustee over his uncle’s estate and became president of the company. His Aunt Charlotte, Hyatt’s widow within a couple of years married a man named William Dailey. In 1899 she filed a lawsuit against her nephew, accusing him of fraud.

Dailey vs. Wight was a notorious case in the Maryland courts. Because considerable amounts of money were at stake, both sides hired high profile lawyers. Aunt Charlotte was represented by Charles J. Bonaparte, a grandnephew of Napoleon Bonaparte and a Teddy Roosevelt’ appointee as U.S. Attorney General. Wight’s chief attorney was W. H. deCourcey Wright, a well known and well placed lawyer in Maryland. His father had been a Maryland Supreme Court judge and his mother the daughter of a prominent Confederate general and congressman who had settled in Baltimore after the war.

As Maryland’s social set looked on with intense interest, Bonaparte, Wright, and their respective clients did fierce battle before Judge Albert Richie in the Circuit Court of Baltimore. Aunt Charlotte made a range of scurrilous charges against Wight, accusing him of “cooking the books” of the corporation, concealing distillery profits, and lining his own pockets at her expense. When Judge Richie disagreed and threw out her petition, she appealed. In 1902 The Maryland Appeals Court agreed with Judge Richie and affirmed his decision. In its opinion, the Appeals Court totally dismissed Aunt Charlotte’s charges, commenting that “trifles as light as air” had become for her “confirmation as strong as proofs of holy writ.”

John Hyatt Wight continued to run Sherwood Distillery successfully until Prohibition. Maryland tax records show a steady increase in the value of the whiskey produced to almost $400,000 by 1909. One merchandising method Wight particularly favored was giving away a variety of “back of the bar” bottles to saloons and other favored customers. All prominently advertised Sherwood’s whiskey.

Prohibition closed the original Sherwood distillery in Cockeysville and the buildings were demolished as early as 1926. A Wight family member and the brand name both survived Prohibition and remained in the whiskey trade -- but on separate tracks. Frank L. Wight, most probably John Hyatt Wight’s son, after Repeal organized the Cockeysville Distilling Company and in 1946 built a facility right down the street from where the original distillery had stood. It operated until Frank’s death in 1958.

Meanwhile the Sherwood brand name had been bought by Louis Mann during the 1930s. He re-created the Sherwood Distilling Company in Westminster, Maryland, about 25 miles north of Cockeysville. This outfit appears to have been blenders rather than distillers with much of its product coming from other whiskey-makers, such as the Foust Distillery of Glen Rock, Pennsylvania, ref. June 2011 post.  Mann’s operation apparently closed during the 1950s and the brand disappeared.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Milton Kronheim: Teenage Hustler to Washington Power Broker

In 1968, Milton S. Kronheim, who dropped out of school at 14 to work in the liquor business, was asked by the Harry S Truman library in Independence, Missouri, to provide his oral memories of the 33rd President of the United States.

Shown here with President Truman, the Washington DC whiskey dealer was being recognized as a national power broker. In his interview, Kronheim said: “Mr. Truman and I were on a very friendly basis....He was a very simple man and so am I.” Whatever Truman was, Kronheim was anything but simple. He had a burning ambition to make money and powerful friends. He accomplished both and in the process left a legacy of bottles, jugs and advertising items by which to remember him. Kronheim was born in the District of Columbia in 1889. 

At the age of 11 he went to work part time in his father’s D.C. saloon. Three years later he rejected an offer by a cousin who owned a D.C. liquor store to go to work for him for $6 a week. Milton held out for $8. When refused, he quit school and in 1902 at the age of 14 open his own liquor store at 3218 M Street, NW, in Georgetown. He called his business the Maryland Wine and Liquor Co. -- the name he kept throughout his eight decade career. As Kronheim explained later: “In those days it did not take a lot of capital to open a store. I did not buy expensive fixtures. All I needed was some shelves.” That first day, with whiskey selling for 24 cents a pint, he reportedly made $6. 

Almost immediately his company met with considerable success. Kronheim bottled his own whiskey and packaged it in clear glass bottles. They carried embossing that makes them easily identifiable today. As Kronheim’s business grew he expanded his brands, among them, "Snooky Oakums," after a popular song, and "Casino Club." A bottle of the latter claims that it is: “The whiskey for particular people.” Another early brand was "Finola Pure Rye,"  seen here with the original label. The company also bottled and sold its own brands of beer and wine. 

 Like other Washington, D.C. whiskey dealers before Prohibition, Kronheim merchandised through an array of giveaway items. Among them were shot glasses, one of them featuring the pig motif, and drink glasses. One of the latter advertises the firm as a “Mail Order House” which probably dates it from around 1905 when neighboring states were going dry but liquor by mail was still legal. When Prohibition hit the District of Columbia in 1917, Kronheim’s Maryland Wine and Liquor was forced to close its doors. Milton was only 29 years old and already a rich man. 

Apparently without missing a beat, he opened a clothing store in Washington and a bail bonding business. Later his critics would claim that he specialized in furnishing bail money to notorious bootleggers and other underworld characters. Those businesses failed to absorb his energy and when Prohibition ended in 1934, he jumped back in as a liquor wholesaler, famously providing whiskey to Roosevelt Administration officials. About this time he took his son, Milton Jr., into the firm. That dates the bottle of “Kronheim’s Bond” shown here as post-Prohibition, probably late 1930s or 1940s. 

Kronheim’s reputation as a Washington “mover and shaker” arrived with the Truman Administration in 1945. He had befriended the then senator in the restaurant of the Mayflower Hotel during the 1930s and thereafter contributed generously to the Missourian’s elections, including $25,000 for Truman’s presidential campaign in 1948. After Truman became President, Milton was a frequent guest at the White House. This proved controversial for both men. In 1945, the Office of Price Administration (OPA) levied its stiffest fine of $200,000 against the Kronheims for “black marketing.” The story goes that Milton paid by plunking stacks of hundred dollar bills on an OPA hearing table. 

For more than 50 years Kronheim presided over a lunch at his northeast Washington warehouse. There he hosted presidents, lawmakers, judges, sports figures, religious leaders, and businessmen. Shown here is a picture of Kronheim, seated third from left, hosting a power lunch. It included, at his left, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Earl Warren, and three other Supreme Court Justices. 

An anti-Truman “muckraking” book in 1952 identifed Kronheim as the “czar and Boss Hague” of Washington. Such terms, however, unfairly characterize a complicated man who also was known as a local philanthropist and friend to many. As one writer has characterized him: "Milton Kronheim Sr....had friendships with lawyers and judges, police officers, journalists, retail liquor dealers, old athletes, politicians, local businessmen, Little Sisters of the Poor, and has-beens.” 

By the time of Kronheim’s death at age 97, following a stroke at his Mayflower Hotel apartment in 1986, his storefront enterprise had grown to mammoth proportions. His firm distributed an estimated 4.5 million cases of beer, wine and liquor annually. It employed some 350 employees in the D.C. area and maintained a 211,000 square foot distribution facility in Jessup, Md. A dozen years after his death in 1998 Kronheim’s company was bought by National Distributing Co. of Atlanta, an even larger liquor wholesaler. It continues to operate from the Jessup location, but the Kronheim name has disappeared.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Sanford Petts: Selling the Spirits of ‘‘76

It was not a coincidence that Bald Eagle Whiskey, represented here by a celluloid pocket mirror, should be the flagship brand of S. F. Petts & Co. The driving force behind the Boston liquor wholesalers, Sanford Petts, was himself a certifiable Yankee Doodle Dandy. 

Many of his forebears had served General Washington gallantly in the Revolutionary War. By using the national symbol to sell whiskey Petts was invoking his patriotic heritage. Through his father Petts was related to at least six soldiers who fought in the War of Independence from Britain. The Petts clan was renowned for its military service, described in detail in a 1908 regional history. Afterward these forebears settled down to lives as farmers and merchants in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. 

Petts’ father, Ferdinand, was a New England hustling type. In 1855 at the age of 20, by saving his money from a job in a glass factory, he was able to buy and operate the Marlowe House Hotel in Stoddard, New Hampshire. Ever restless, Ferdinand left New Hampshire in 1860 to run the Central House Hotel in Ashburnham, Mass., the year of Sanford’s birth.   Five years later father Ferdinand became a grocer; within three years he had exited that business and was selling tobacco. Given his father’s frequent moves, it is questionable how much formal education Petts enjoyed.

Nevertheless, he had inherited an enterprising spirit. Although little appears in the record about his early years, by the age of 34 he had established his liquor business at 256 Friend Street in Boston and in time established himself as a noted local businessman. One contemporary account, asserting Pett’s prominence in Boston, said: “His success has been entirely the result of his effort.” 

 In addition to ambition, Petts showed considerable imagination. He contained his whiskey both both in ceramic jugs and in clear and amber embossed glass bottles. For Bald Eagle Whiskey he commission an elaborately etched shot glass, shown here front and side, and a elegant tip tray featuring a scantily clad woman and a flute-playing cherub, shown below.


Again harking back to his Revolutionary War heritage, Petts sold ‘his rum in ceramic jugs that invoked the “Spirit of ‘76.” His ads asserted he was selling: “The same kind of rum that George Washington drank in Ye Olden Time.” Other Petts brands of liquor were “Benjamin Franklin,” Old Reliable,” “Pett’s Malt,” “Suprema,” ”Jan Steen Gin,” and “Cedar Slope,” the last shown here. He also featured “Petts’ Fruit Punch,” a beverage that mixed juices with alcohol. 

In the 1880s Petts married Nellie Cushing. From this union was born in 1889 his only child, Sanford Junior. With the success he had enjoyed Petts was able to give the boy the education he may have lacked. Harvard University lists Junior as a graduate in 1916. By that year Petts had exited the whiskey business. S. F. Petts and Co. disappeared from Boston business directories after 1914. The following year Petts was listed as a banking executive with the Old South Trust Company of Boston. He died in 1927, age 67. 

With all the merchandising ability Petts had shown and the obvious success of his business, the question remains: Why did he quit? With the death of wife Nellie, he had remarried, this time to Catherine Lane. Perhaps this change of spouses was responsible. Perhaps Sanford Junior exhibited no interest in the whiskey business. Perhaps Petts foresaw the coming of National Prohibition. The record provides no explanation. What ever the case, over its 20 year life S.F. Petts & Co. had carved an attractive and patriotic niche in the history of American whiskey.