Friday, September 30, 2011

Rufus Put the Rose in "Four Roses"

When the definitive history of American distilling is written,  Rufus Mathewson Rose -- whose company gave rise to the familiar “Four Roses” brand whiskey -- will deserve considerable attention. Not the least of his accomplishments were his early use of aggressive advertising and the range of stoneware jugs in which he marketed his products.

Rufus Rose, shown here in maturity, was born in 1836, a Connecticut Yankee with a Puritan pedigree. While studying medicine in New York, he traveled in 1853 to Hawkinsville, Georgia, to help out temporarily in his uncle’s drugstore. He liked the place and the work. In 1858 he moved to Dixie for good and in 1860 opened his own drugstore in Hawkinsville. That same year he married a local girl, Susan Wilcox of Wilcox County.

Sympathetic to the Southern cause in the Civil War, Rose closed his business early in the conflict and despite his medical background enlisted as a foot soldier. In late 1861 he was reassigned by the Confederacy to be a pharmacist and sent to work in Virginia. There his health failed and he was honorably discharged in 1862.

He then relocated to Macon, Ga., where he opened a laboratory to produce medicines for the Southern cause. Rose’s health eventually was restored, the enterprise proved successful, and he was honored by being named a captain in the Georgia reserves by the Governor. In 1864 his first wife, Susan, died. The next year he married again, to Katherine Fleming of Pulaski County, Ga. They eventually had two children, Randolph and Laura.

After the Civil War, Rose relocated to Atlanta where about 1867 he organized a whiskey producing enterprise he called “House of Rose.” His knowledge of the chemistry of distilling and business acumen were rewarded with rapid success. He built a large distillery on Stillhouse Road in nearby Vinings and established a retail store for selling whiskey in the downtown Atlanta.

According to one contemporary account, this transplanted Yankee became “very successful, winning a prominent place among Atlanta’s enterprising citizens.”  By 1870 as “R.M. Rose Co. Distillers,” Rufus was advertising his products heavily in the Atlanta and other Southern newspapers, touting such blended rye and corn liquor products as “Rose’s Atlanta Spirit Rye,” “Rose’s Mountain Dew, “ “Blue Ridge Whiskey,” “New Sweet Mash,” “Old Reserve Stock” and “Special Old Corn.”

Rose loved being a distiller and had little time for the anti-liquor folks who proclaimed whiskey “the demon’s drink.” He advertised his whiskeys as “...the purest, safest drink you could buy” and claimed that “when used in moderation, its effect on the human system is wholesome and beneficial....”

Rose was a prime customer of many Georgia potters of his time. Howell’s Mills, a pottery center close to Vinings, produced a wide variety of articles for the distillery, large jugs for providing whiskey wholesale to taverns and saloons and smaller containers for direct sales to the public. These stoneware jugs described a broad range of appearance, from beehive shapes and “scratch” jugs to shoulder jugs with overglaze labels. Some had the traditional brown top and beige body, others were covered entirely with brown Albany slip or white Bristol glaze. 

Sometime after 1900 the Rose moved to fancier jugs with an underglaze transfer that says “Rose Distiller” and the drawing of a single large rose. Variations on this jug are those most frequently depicted in books and magazines but all Rose ceramics currently are collected, particularly on a regional basis.

Despite whiskey distilling being a major Southern industry, states below the Mason-Dixon line were prominent among those experimenting with prohibition laws. When Atlanta briefly went “dry” in 1885 Rose moved his offices from his beloved city for two years until it legalized liquor again. During this period Rose also opened an operation in Jacksonville, Florida.

His confidence in being able to continue operations seems expressed in his building a mansion in 1901 for $9,000 on Peachtree Street, then the neighborhood of Atlanta’s elite. Following the fashion of the time, the architecture of the home is Queen Anne-style but it was placed on a narrow lot that gave it a townhouse look. Nonetheless, the Rose mansion was included in the 1903 “Art Works of Atlanta.” The house still stands today and recently was up for sale.

After only a few years in his fancy new home, Rose must have been devastated when the State Legislature voted all of Georgia dry in 1907. He shut down the distillery in Vinings and the Atlanta retail outlet. Then R.M. Rose Distillers moved lock, stock and barrels to Chattanooga, Tennessee.  A shot glass from that period marks the move.

Rufus, however, was devoted to Atlanta and refused to go. Resigning as president, he turned over the business to son Randolph and devoted his time to his thriving Atlanta real estate interests. Rufus died at his home on Peachtree Street in 1910 at the age of 74.

His funeral, held at his home, was a major event. An Atlanta newspaper reported: “The funeral was one of the largest in point of attendance ever held in Atlanta for a private citizen, the entire first floor of the large resident and the front lawn proving altogether inadequate to accommodate the hosts of friends who gathered to pay the last sad tributes to one who has played an important part in the upbuilding of Atlanta, even though he at all times refused absolutely to permit his name to be used for any public office.” His grave was marked with a sign of his service in the Confederate Army.

A late achievement may also have been Rose’s most lasting. About 1906, according to accounts, he came up with the special blend that he called “Four Roses.” But it was only after Rose Distillery was transplanted to Chattanooga that the name became a synonym for American whiskey throughout the U.S. and eventually the world. By 1914 Four Roses was a national best-selling bourbon.

Almost from the beginning the origin of the Four Roses name has been in dispute. One ad claimed Rufus named the whiskey after his four daughters; but he had only one. Family members believe the four Roses were Rufus himself, son Randolph, brother Origen, and Origen’s son. Another story ties the name to Rose at one time having run four retail establishments. But other records fail to document that number of retail outlets.

Whatever the origins of its most famous brand, the Rose Distillery, relocated in Chattanooga, had little time left. In 1910 Tennessee enacted statewide liquor prohibition. Possibly in frustration, Randolph Rose sold the Four Roses brand name to a whiskey entrepreneur named Paul Jones. Jones moved to Frankfort in still “wet” Kentucky, founded his own distillery, and there built a strong national reputation for the Four Roses name. Eventually the Four Roses brand was purchased by the Seagram Company of Canada which continued to market the bourbon but mainly for export.

Meanwhile, Rufus Rose probably lies happy in the grave knowing that his family name became synonymous with good American whiskey and has been perpetuated around the world.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Has Anyone Here Seen Kelly?

The Phil. G. Kelly Company first appears in Richmond directories in 1905. It had ten years of outstanding success, becoming the leading liquor dealer in the capital city of the Virginia Commonwealth. But just who was Philip Kelly? My research has yield virtually nothing about the man behind the business. Moreover a 2011 article about the company in the Richmond Times-Dispatch fails to provide any personal details. 

The firm initially was located at the corner of 17th and Franklin Streets. A 1909 ad gives its next address as 1413 East Main St. and shows a three story building with the slogan “The House that Treats You Right.” Other ads of that time claim the Kelly enterprise as “importers, distillers and distributors of fine liquors.” It is doubtful that Kelly actually was a distiller. More likely he was a “rectifier,” that is, an operation that bought raw liquor from distillers, mixed and bottled it, slapped on a label, and sold it to the public. 

The sign on the Kelly building claimed “distributors of straight whiskies.” The company also boasted that it handled only “straight goods...the pure food kind.” That too may have been disingenuous. Real distillers were seeking to have the government enforce the Pure Food and Drug Act against rectifiers on the grounds that they made only “artificial” whiskey. Kelly Co. clearly was retaliating by claiming its whiskeys were “straight” and the pure food kind. 

Kelly featured more than a dozen brands of whiskey, of which only one -- its flagship label, Westover Rye -- was registered with a federal trademark (1905). Among other Kelly brands were Huron River, Tidewater, Money’s Worth and Climax Whiskey, Maryland Belle, Bankers Rye, Miss Tempting Rye, Old Tiverton Rye, Kelly’s Special Reserve, Virginia Queen Corn, El Maize Corn, Blue Ridge, and Donald Kenny Malt Whiskey. 

Kelly bottles, jugs and giveaways have been popular with collectors in Virginia and elsewhere. For example, a fairly ordinary looking miniature pinch bottle of Kelly’s Bankers Rye, shown below, sold on eBay in October 2006 for $357. More recently, a Miss Tempting Rye advertising hand mirror, two inches in diameter, with pictures of birthstones on the back brought $103.50. 

Part of the Kelly mystique may be the prominence of its name on its whiskey containers. The firm embossed many of its glass bottles and flasks prominently with its name and often added decoration. Kelly ceramic jugs appear in more than a dozen variations. My particular favorite is a blue and white miniature jug, shown here. 

Early in the 1900’s Phil. G. Kelly bought out a competing whiskey merchandiser, the E.A. Saunder’s Sons Co., that had been active in the Richmond liquor trade since 1885. In buying out his rival Kelly added Saunder’s brands to its own. Those included Casey’s Malt Whiskey, Old Bob Burton Rye, Old Fulcher Va. Mt. Rye, Old Bumgardner Va. Mt. Rye, and Possum Hollow Corn. 

Strong in the mail order business, Kelly promised to send its goods in neat, plain packages “with no marks to indicate contents.” Kelly’s Special Reserve, for example, shipped in one, two or three gallon jugs packed inside a wooden case. That jug, his ad claimed, is “the safest and most up-to-date package. It’s a beauty and you will say so when you see it.” Another Kelly slogan was “The Prompt Mail Order House.” 

Despite energetic efforts and business success, temperance forces rapidly were closing on Kelly. In 1913 the U.S. Congress passed the Webb-Kenyon Act that forbid any mail order sales of liquor into dry states. Most of Virginia voted itself dry in September of 1914, but Richmond rejected the idea. Under a local option provision.  Kelly’s mail order business was severely affected. In 1915, the firm moved to 427-431 N. 18th St. for its final year. 

After Virginia went dry Kelly pulled up his operation and moved it to Baltimore. A corkscrew, shown here, bears his name and indicates a location at Baltimore and Howard Streets in that city. Kelly does not appear to have prospered in Maryland and his firm disappeared with National Prohibition. 

There is an old British music hall song called: “Has Anyone Here Seen Kelly?” Part of the chorus goes: “Has anybody here seen Kelly?K-E-double-L-Y. Has anybody here seen Kelly? Find him if you can!” Despite singular efforts to locate Phil. G, the man behind the business remains elusive. He operated for just single decade in Richmond but managed over that brief time to become a whiskey kingpin whose legacy is in myriad jugs, bottles, and giveaways. Just who Kelly was as a person, however, remains shrouded in time.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

George Benz: Realizing the American Dream

George Benz, shown here, and the liquor empire he built are an American success story of epic proportions. Born in Osthofen Germany in 1838, he emigrated to the United States in 1853 at the age of 15. After working for three years in Chicago he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, which would be his home for the remainder of his life.

In St. Paul he found a wife, Rosa Voehringer. Married in 1861, the couple would have eight children. About the same time Benz established a sports eatery in St. Paul. Indicating his devotion to his new country, he called it the “United States Billiard Hall and Restaurant.” By 1865, he had branched out into a liquor wholesale business with Major C.J. Becht. They also imported wines and other spirits.

With Becht’ s death in 1878, Benz became the sole owner in the business and lost no time in expanding it not only in the Twin Cities but into the distilling business across the country. He apparently was seeking a guaranteed supply of good whiskey for his business of blending and bottling liquor.

Benz’s letterhead claims -- and I have not found contrary information -- that he was a part owner of the Spring Gardens and Federal Distillery in Baltimore, a city famous for its rye whiskey, the Meadville Distillery in Meadville Pennsylvania, also famous for its rye liquor, and the Merchant Distillery in Terre Haute, Indiana. But Benz’s pride was outright ownership of the Eminence Distillery, located at a town in Kentucky with the same name. There he produced his flagship brand, “Old Blue Ribbon,” which he advertised nationally.

He marketed Old Blue Ribbon in both quart and flask-sized bottles and issued a earthenware jug with a remarkable glaze to be used back-of-the-bar. I consider it to be among the top five whiskey jugs ever produced in America. He also issued an attractive jug for his “Oldays Pure Rye.”

The company used myriad brand names: "Aurora Rock & Rye", "Dellwood", "Doctor's Special", "Hiawatha", "Jack Silver", "Maltese Gin", "Minnehaha", "N. P.",, "Pickwick", "Pickwick Club", "Royal Scot", "Sundown Gin",, and "Wenonah." Emblematic of his devotion to his adopted country Benz featured an “Uncle Sam’s Monogram” whiskey. He also produced “Geo. Benz and Sons Appeltine Bitters” in a fancy bottle that made no medicinal claims.

His building, shown here, was four stories at 81 E. 6th Street in St. Paul. Several aspects of his operation were carried out there, from mixing laboratory to motor fleet. He rented the basements of nearby buildings for storage space for whiskey, wine, mineral water, and soft drinks -- all marketed under the Benz name.

In time, as his five sons achieved maturity, he brought them into the business and changed the firm name to Geo. Benz & Sons. His oldest boy, George G., went to Europe and earned a doctorate in chemistry before joining the firm. Son Herman opened a Benz branch in Duluth, Minnesota. Son Paul worked along side his father.

In addition to his business acumen, Benz had a sense of public service to the country that had given him so much. He was elected and served three terms in the Minnesota Legislature and was a member of the St. Paul School Board, as well as participating in many local philanthropic organizations. He lived in a mansion, shown here, that was one of St. Paul’s most notable.

Benz died in 1908 at the age of 69 and is buried in St. Paul’s Oakland Cemetery along with other members of his family.  The family monument features an angel.  His sons kept the business going after his demise. Then, possibly seeing Prohibition on the horizon, the family abandoned the liquor trade, sold the business, and went into real estate, where they also prospered.

In a very real sense George Benz realized the American Dream. Arriving in this country with little more than the clothes on his back he used intelligence and creativity to grow into one of the largest liquor operations in the Upper Midwest. In the process he “gave back” by a record of public service and private philanthropy.

Note: This post was recast from an article in my book, “The American Whiskey Jug.” It in turn was indebted to Ron Feldhaus, whose book “The Bottles, Breweriana and Advertising Jugs of Minnesota, 1850-1920, is an excellent source of information on Minnesota pre-pro whiskey men.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Edson Bradley and the Making of "Old Crow"

Growing up, Edson Bradley probably could not tell sour mash from sweet corn, but in maturity he turned whiskey-making into abounding wealth. In the process he made possible the rise of Old Crow bourbon -- still one of America’s most popular whiskeys.

Immediately after the Civil War, members of the firm had become interested in whiskey production as an investment. They connected financially with Frankfort, Kentucky, distillers that included the estimable Colonel E.J. Taylor, a major force in Kentucky bourbon. Together the money men and the whiskey makers built a distillery in Frankfort, shown here. At the same time they purchased the nearby Old Crow distillery, closed it down, and moved the operations to the new facility along with the brand name.

The Crow name had particular importance. A Scottish physician, James Crow (1789-1856) is credited by many for inventing the sour mash method of making whiskey and for being the father of modern bourbon. After his death his recipe was handed down through several distillers until purchased by the Taylor group. Through the years the Old Crow brand repeatedly has invoked James Crow’s heritage, including ads purportedly showing him delivering whiskey to the American statesman, Henry Clay.

In 1887 the firm incorporated in Kentucky as W.A. Gaines and Co. New York-based Marshall Allen of Paris, Allen became president and Bradley a vice president. Although the whiskey industry has always emphasized the backwoods, rustic nature of distilling, the truth is more complicated. New York Wall Street investors frequently were directly involved in the whiskey trade. Almost immediately upon joining the distillery the youthful Bradley was anointed the principal spokesman for the Gaines company and represented its interests and those of the distilling industry on Wall Street and in the halls of Congress. 

A black crow early became a fixture on its labels. Bold and interesting advertising, exemplified by a racy trade card and a giveaway shot glass, were part of the success. The operation became highly profitable, selling the Old Crow brand nationwide. The distillery was expanded.

As the driving force behind Old Crow, Bradley soon became a national figure. In 1884 the New York Times identified him as a leader of the Wine and Spirits Exchange -- an early attempt at a “Whiskey Trust.” In the process Bradley also was becoming immensely wealthy. Soon the press was referring to Bradley as a liquor millionaire and a kingpin of the American distilling industry. 

About this time he moved his family from New York City to Washington, D.C. He bought a large Victorian home on fashionable DuPont Circle and tore it down to build the grandest mansion the Nation’s Capitol had ever seen.

Bradley’s home was truly his castle, featuring towers, turrets, and stained glass windows. It contained a Gothic chapel,  an art gallery -- to hold his extensive collection of ceramics, tapestries and books -- and a 500 seat theater he called “Aladdin's Palace.” Some interior rooms were transferred intact from France. Almost instantly the Bradleys became a regular item on the society pages of Washington newspapers. Edson’s daughter, Julia, had a splashy and well-publicized “coming out” party in 1894 that drew a crowd of the rich and powerful to his home.

At the same time Bradley was finding that success had its downside. Because “Old Crow” had achieved national fame as a brand, other whiskey organizations were using some variation of the name on their products. Some of these were licensed bottlers. Others simply appropriated the Crow name and prestige. W.A. Gaines Company sought to fend off this competition by registering the Old Crow trademark in 1887. When that move failed to deter the copycats, Bradley and his colleagues registered again in 1897 and repeated the process in 1904 and again in 1909.

The principal culprit was the Rock Springs Distilling Company of Daviess County, Kentucky. It persisted in selling a whiskey it called Hellman’s Old Crow, above right. Eventually the dispute found its way into the courts. A Federal judge in Kentucky decided for Bradley and the Gaines Company. That decision was reversed by a Federal Appeals Court and in 1918, the case found its way to the United States Supreme Court. The High Court ruled in favor of Bradley and ordered Rock Springs Distilling to “cease and desist” its use of the Old Crow name. We can speculate that at least a few of the Supreme Court Justices had been guests at Edson’s palatial Washington home.

Bradley’s victory quickly became a hollow one as National Prohibition was imposed a year later. His company struggled along until 1922 when it was dissolved and the Gaines distillery was left for a time abandoned and derelict. Now 70 years old and enormously wealthy from Old Crow profits, Bradley was restless. He determined to leave Washington, move to fashionable Newport, Rhode Island, and, almost incredibly, to take his castle with him.

Brick by brick, tile by tile, the mansion was dismantled and transported to Rhode Island while the fascinated populace of Washington looked on. Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” highlighted the event for a national audience. In Newport Bradley purchased a large existing home called Seaview Terrace. He joined the two structures to become one of the largest mansions in America. Shown above, it featured 17 rooms on the first floor, 25 on the second, and 12 on the third.

Time, however, was catching up with the Bradleys. A few months after construction was completed on Seaview Terrace, Mrs. Bradley died there, age 76. Six years later in 1935, Edson, while on a trip to London, also died. He was 83. Today the mansion in Newport still stands. From 1966 to 1971 it was the setting for a spooky ABC daytime soap opera called “Dark Shadows.” The house currently serves as a dormitory for a local college.

The Old Crow brand survived and thrived. Immediately after Repeal the American Medicinal Spirits Co. bought the Frankfort plant, renovated it and later turned it over to National Distillers Products Co. which purchased the brand name in 1947. That firm operated the distillery, shown here, until it went out of the whiskey business in 1985. National Distillers then sold the brand and facility to the Jim Beam Brands Co.  It shut the plant but has continued to market Old Crow.

Friday, September 16, 2011

George W. Meredith -- From Orphan Boy to Medicine Man

Some of whiskiana’s most interesting containers and advertising might not ever have existed if it had not been for the initiative of a orphaned and virtually unschooled pottery worker who rose to fame and fortune in Ohio by selling liquor and calling it medicine. His name was George W. Meredith.

The story begins in Utica, New York, where Meredith was born in April 1850, the son of Thomas and Elizabeth Meredith. Not long after the family moved to Trenton, New Jersey in 1852, Thomas died. Elizabeth soon followed him to the grave, leaving George a orphan from boyhood. The youth soon abandoned school to learn a trade as a potter and in 1877 moved to East Liverpool, Ohio.

During the late 19th and early 20th Century this town on the Ohio River was America’s largest producer of ceramic table and vanity wares. Known widely as “Crockery City,” in 1887 East Liverpool boasted 270 kilns and annually produced ceramic products valued at $25 million -- in a time when 25 cents would buy dinner. The largest pottery in town was KT&K -- Knowles, Taylor & Knowles, founded in 1854.

After a year working for a small pottery operation, Meredith in 1878 joined KT&K, working in one of the lowlier jobs -- as a jiggerman. This was the relatively unskilled the laborer who turned the potter’s wheel to shape the clay. But the occupation did not suit Meredith and may even have injured his health. After a little more than two years he left the factory, ostensibly on his doctor’s recommendation.

Almost immediately this 30-year-old determined that a far better occupation was making and selling whiskey. The late 19th century was a time when saloons were opening in every city and town. They did not lack for customers. Lots of folks were going into the whiskey business, many as rectifiers -- operations that refined and blended liquors made by others. Meredith was a rectifier. He rented a storeroom in downtown East Liverpool and with one employee began buying grain neutral spirits in large quantities and blending his own brands, adding color and flavoring.

It soon became clear that despite his lack of book learning, Meredith had a real genius for marketing his whiskey. Early on, for example, he called his principal brand “Meredith’s Diamond Club Rye.” Diamond Club was the name of East Liverpool’s most prestigious grouping of businessmen. It took lots of nerve for Meredith to associate his liquor with the club and his use of the name raised considerable ruckus around town. Before long, however, Diamond Club whiskey was a big seller, not only in East Liverpool, but in Ohio, and eventually across America. Eventually the businessmen’s club surrendered and changed its name to “Buckeye Club.”

Key to the popularity of his whiskey were Meredith’s advertising campaigns. His signs were painted on barn sides and rock outcroppings for miles around East Liverpool. He maintained a boat that was moored on the Ohio River and carried a mural advertising his products. One hot August day he even distributed hand fans to Temperance marchers that had an plug for his whiskey printed on the back. For his  patrons he provided a decorated cup that featured a quart of Diamond Club Rye being enjoyed by banker and farmer alike.

Meredith’s knack for publicity was matched by the themes of his advertising. His newspaper ads and container labels insisted that the whiskey was “pure,” once again exhibiting his merchandising savvy. The hottest consumer issue of the decade was the safety of merchandised food and drink products. The Pure Food and Drug Act would be enacted a several years later and “purity” had the same draw as “all natural” does today. Diamond Club’s purity, Meredith announced, made it “the safest whiskey on earth” for medical purposes. He claimed that one “nip” was worth 10 doses of medicine and boasted that his liquor had been “officially recognized” by the medical profession. How and where, he did not elaborate.

By stressing his whiskey’s therapeutic rather than its lubricating qualities Meredith also was attempting to circumvent the burgeoning Temperance Movement. The business of selling “the safest whiskey on earth for medicinal use” expanded rapidly. Within a decade Meredith was one of North America’s largest whiskey distributors, serving a clientele, as he put it, “from Maine to California and Canada to the Gulf.”

This canny, self-promoting businessman also saw the customer appeal that bottling his whiskey in a whiteware china jug might have. He talked his former employers at KT&K into shaping a distinctive container, one with a graceful tapering body, a serpent handle, a fancy over-glaze label and plenty of gold trimming. On April 4, 1891, the East Liverpool Daily Crisis newspaper ran an ad stating: “The G.W. Meredith Co. is offering its Diamond Club Pure Rye Whiskey in china jugs that will come in three sizes.” The KT&K whiskey jug was launched -- every one of the bearing the message: “Expressly for Medicinal Purposes.”

Before long the white jug with the serpent handle had become an important product of the pottery. Other whiskey distillers and distributors saw that the containers were attractive and commissioned KT&K to apply their labels. Nonetheless, George Meredith remained KT&K’s best customer. In addition to the three sizes of Diamond Club available -- quart, pint and half-pint -- he ordered a non-pouring one & one-half inch advertising replica that could be used as a watch fob. He also approved a totally different design for an “1880” Meredith Rye.

As Meredith grew in wealth and prestige, he branched out in East Liverpool, organizing and becoming principal stockholder in the Crockery City Brewing & Ice Company. He also helped found the Colonial Company, a pottery with six kilns. But the town he had adopted as his own ultimately disappointed him. In 1907 the Temperance marchers had their way when East Liverpool by local option voted itself dry.

Meredith retaliated by eliminating the town name from his bottles and jugs. One such jug is shown here. In 1908 he moved his operations to Pittsburgh. After National Prohibition wiped out his liquor business there in 1920, he migrated to Atlantic City, N.J., where he is said to have made another fortune in real estate. He also bottled a soft drink called “Whistle,” an orange-flavored beverage that had been invented in St. Louis just as Prohibition began. He died in Atlantic City in 1924 at the age of 74.

George Meredith’s legacy, however, remains with us in the ceramic jugs and other advertising items he generated and left behind, some of which are shown here. His was a true “rags to riches” story that deserves retelling at least as long as the containers and artifacts he commissioned are collected. And that should be a long time.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

James “Jimmie” Durkin: Spokane’s Legendary Liquor Tycoon

Foreword:  From time to time this blog will include a post about a pre-Prohibition whiskey man that is drawn from another source. I have long wanted to do a piece on Jimmie Durkin, known to me through his many whiskey jugs. Research soon disclosed that his life and career had been captured by other writers as well or better than I could do it. Thus I am reprinting here an essay written by Peter Blecha and made possible by the Washington State Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation. It is dated June 2009. Above are illustrations of many points made in Blecha's article.

Born to Irish parents in Wasall, England, young Jimmie Durkin and his family (including 13 siblings) arrived in America as immigrants in 1868. After briefly settling in Decatur, Illinois, and then in Liberty, Missouri, the daredevil 9 year old ran away from home, and soon wound up in Brooklyn, New York, where he lived with an uncle and raised funds by selling the The Brooklyn Eagle newspaper. By 1872 he was working in a bar. Eventually Durkin moved on to learning the wholesale liquor business in Perham, Minnesota, where on August 8, 1882, he married Margaret Daily (and they went on to have three sons and two daughters).From time to time this blog will include a post about a pre-Prohibition whiskey man that is drawn from another source.

James "Jimmie" Durkin gained notoriety in the Inland Empire of Eastern Washington as Spokane's legendary liquor tycoon. Wild tales abound regarding his outlandish exploits and stunts, but beyond becoming one of the town's most successful businessmen and an early millionaire, Durkin earned a well-deserved reputation as a thinking man. Indeed, locals and area newspapers routinely referred to the one-time gubernatorial candidate as no less than "Spokane's Main Avenue philosopher."

A Daredevil "Irishman"

Born to Irish parents in Wasall, England, young Jimmie Durkin and his family (including 13 siblings) arrived in America as immigrants in 1868. After briefly settling in Decatur, Illinois, and then in Liberty, Missouri, the daredevil 9 year old ran away from home, and soon wound up in Brooklyn, New York, where he lived with an uncle and raised funds by selling the The Brooklyn Eagle newspaper. By 1872 he was working in a bar. Eventually Durkin moved on to learning the wholesale liquor business in Perham, Minnesota, where on August 8, 1882, he married Margaret Daily (and they went on to have three sons and two daughters).

Years passed and in 1886 Durkin headed out west to Washington Territory. He first arrived in Colville, a bustling little town that was experiencing a boom due to the silver rush at Stevens County's Old Dominion Mine. Though the hamlet already boasted nine active saloons, Durkin couldn't find a job. He poked around a bit and realized that each of those bars was unwisely overpaying wagon-train companies for freight deliveries from Spokane. After some quick calculations he realized that by shipping booze in by the barrel (instead of the jug), he could cuts costs by 50 percent. And thus, with the $2,500 he'd arrived with, Durkin opened Colville's 10th liquor outpost -- and within a few years his nest-egg had grown into a small fortune totaling $65,000.

Durkin's Bar

At some point his young family apparently rejoined him, but times became harder. The first disruption came on August 4th with the Great Fire of 1889, which saw Spokane nearly destroyed after a Railroad Avenue saloon's kitchen erupted into flames. Then there was the economic Panic of 1893, which frightened everybody and hurt most businesses. Meanwhile, a new mining boom broke out in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, with Spokane becoming a great beneficiary of all that nearby activity. The draw of the big city attracted Durkin and in the spring of 1897 he relocated there.

Situated in a downtown storefront on the northwest corner of Sprague Avenue and 
Mill Street (today's Wall Street), Durkin's Bar began retailing liquor, and his adjacent bar served fine alcoholic beverages, including Dewar's Scotch, Seagram's Canadian Whiskey, Old Crow and Hermitage brand Kentucky whiskies, Spanish sherries, and Ireland's beloved Bass Ale and Guinness Stout, along with quality cigars. Under the supervision of his employee -- a dignified white-haired gentleman called The Colonel -- drunks and their boisterous language were not tolerated and bartenders were forbidden to imbibe while on duty. So Durkin's Bar not only offered better-priced drinks to its clientele, it also earned a reputation as a relatively respectable joint.

Jimmie Durkin Rocks!

But Durkin had a plan for bypassing the competition represented by Spokane's other 120 saloons -- and it amounted to an unceasing advertising blitz. His most famous brainstorm occurred while he was riding a stagecoach into Spokane. Along the way Durkin had noticed plenty of large boulders lining the route, and he soon had a local Swedish sign-painter applying a "Jimmie Durkin's Fine Wines and Liquor" sign on nearly every stone, tree, ledge, or other bare surface around. That commercial graffiti reportedly annoyed some locals and the tale is told about the day that a miner swaggered into the bar, dropped a chunk of granite on Durkin's desk and said "See anything peculiar about that rock, Jimmy?" Durkin replied, "No. I can't say that I do." "Well," came the stranger's retort, that's because "I found that rock 4,000 feet below the surface and it's the only one in this part of the country without your name on it!" (Federal Writers' Project).

If mildly controversial, those painted advertisements merely proved to be Durkin's opening act of audacious promotion. Among the many popular tales surrounding Durkin and his outlandishly fun-loving ways is the one regarding housecats. Asked by a pal why he invested so much capital in his advertising campaigns, he responded: "It is the very life of trade. I will wager I can place an advertisement in The Spokesman-Review offering to buy cats, and by nightfall I will have a basement full." Once that bet was accepted, Durkin promptly placed his "cats wanted" ad and when his buddy dropped by the following evening he was astounded to see the power of advertising in action: Durkin was suddenly the proud owner of a teeming menagerie of scores and scores of cats that the public had delivered.

Additional means of promoting his enterprises -- eventually Durkin had three shops (at 702 Sprague Avenue, 121 Howard Street, and 415 W Main Avenue) -- included offering his customers a daily free lunch and entertaining them with several cages of singing canaries. Beyond that he took to retailing wines and whiskies in custom-made stoneware jugs of various sizes and shapes -- each bearing the logo and street addresses of his firms. Among the most notable of these units were the large dark-brown glazed "drum top" jug, and an oddly shaped brown-glass "megaphone" bottle. Though considered worthies by antique collectors for many decades now, even back in the day, old Durkin had a prescient quip about the containers: "Durkin's bottles are good when they are full, that's more than you can say for the fella that gets full emptying them" (Kalez).

Temperance and a Good Temper

Well before the prohibition of alcohol sales in Washington became law on December 
31, 1915 -- five years before Prohibition went into effect nationally between 1920 and 1933 -- a temperance movement had been simmering among moralistic activists across the land. But along the way, Durkin faced such issues with his typical forthrightness and good humor.

One celebrated example: Around June 1907, the good Reverend E. H. Braden -- pastor of a local Baptist Church (probably the Calvary Baptist Church at 426 E 3rd Avenue) -- took offence at Durkin's window display, which at the time featured a flock of stuffed crows intended to promote Old Crow Whiskey. When an area newspaper noted Braden's fulminations from the pulpit about how such advertising failed to depict the evil downside of liquor trafficking -- and that he'd stated a desire to have a chance to mount his own display at Durkin's -- the booze magnate slyly took him up on the idea. Durkin even graciously told him that "you can use all of my windows for any liquor displays you want. You can use anything you want, advertise anything you want, and I will not interfere. Also I will pay for everything. You can depend on me: I'm a man of my word" (Kalez).

Braden -- who was ably assisted by John Matthiesen (the advertising manager for Spokane's stationery shop, the John W. Graham Company) -- proceeded to mount an ambitious new eight-window tableau at Durkin's. The displays were certainly eye-catching, some might say a bit morbid and depressing. They included a mock-up of the "dream home" of a happy newlywed couple that included a full-sized piano and other genteel furnishings. The adjacent window hammered its anti-alcohol theme home with another view of that household, this time showing the bride, along with shabbily dressed kids, sweating over a laundry washboard. The message of alcohol's ability to destroy lives and dreams was powerful, but Durkin's standing in the community was resilient and some locals would forever after jokingly refer to their washboards as "Durkin's pianos."

The new displays drew considerable attention over the weeks, enough to make The Spokesman-Review scoff, calling the incident a "gigantic publicity stunt," which it certainly was. But that was Durkin's genius -- and business at Durkin's Bar increased dramatically. Enjoying the media coverage, and apparently all caught up in the hoopla, Durkin even went so far as to run as a Democratic candidate for governor in the 1908 election. He received 4,398 votes, but lost during the primary.

Meanwhile, Reverend Braden famously conceded that at the very least, "Jimmie Durkin is a man of his word." And though Durkin would proudly use that phrase as his motto ever after, the wily businessman always managed to get in the last word: By July 1907 he was placing display ads in newspapers that stated: "Visiting Baptists Are Invited to Inspect the Only Liquor Store in America Whose Windows Were Decorated by a Baptist Minister."

The other six Baptist-designed windows contained a variety of displays generally featuring "pictures of ragged women abandoned by hard-drinking men and with statistics about the ill-effects of liquor. One window contained a pile of sad, worn-out shoes, next to a gleaming pair of patent-leather shoes with gaiters, labeled, 'The shoes of the saloon-keeper'" (Kershner). However, even after Braden and Matthiesen's display was eventually replaced, Durkin reportedly respected its main message enough to place a sympathetic sign of his own in the bar: "If your kids need shoes, don't buy booze" (Biegler).

Prohibition Era

Although Prohibition directly threatened Durkin's business interests, he reacted calmly and resolved to make the best of the situation. On July 31, 1915, he told The Spokesman-Review: "We finish here now. Some day, it is my personal opinion, there will be a reversal of the prohibition policy. In any case, I and my organization will give the law the strictest obedience."

Durkin faced the coming shift in legal status by informing his suppliers back east that he would be ordering no new liquor, by wholesaling out his current stock to various buyers, and by closing down two storefronts. The third business (at 415 W Main) was sold to a duo who opened a men's card-room and billiard hall called Stewart and Ulrich -- a partnership that later broke up. Durkin resurfaced after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 and recast the card-room as the Durkin and Ulrich Saloon.

"The Main Avenue Philosopher"

Durkin was a famously outspoken individualist and life-long Democrat in a city not noted for progressive politics. He spent most days holding court at his small wooden desk, doling out witty opinions on many topics. During the 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial" over teaching the theory of evolution in schools, he fired off a congratulatory telegram to the beleaguered defense attorney, Clarence Darrow, saluting his commitment to "freedom of thought and education." Durkin himself reflected a remarkably open mind for his times. Raised within the Catholic faith, he eventually came to publicly espouse an atheistic philosophy.

Durkin became less active over time, although he did once make a three-month trip to his ancestral home of Ireland (and England and Scotland). As comfortable millionaires, he (with a new set of solid-gold dentures) and his wife, Margaret, (and those canaries) were quite happy in their beautiful 1910 Craftsman-styled home located in the Cliff/Cannon neighborhood of Spokane’s South Hill at 930 S Lincoln Street. Interestingly, on July 10, 2006, the "Jimmie and Margaret Durkin House" (and its circa 1915 garage addition) were designated as historic landmarks with the City-County of Spokane Historic Preservation Office due to their being "excellent examples of the American Arts & Crafts tradition as expressed in the Craftsman style. The house was designed by the Ballard Plannary Company, a prominent Spokane architectural firm" (

Last Words

Durkin fell ill and on July 8, 1934, the remarkable Spokane character passed away at Sacred Heart Hospital (101 W 8th Avenue). He was buried on July 11 at the Greenwood Cemetery (211 N Government Way). But Jimmie Durkin once again got in the final word. Two deathbed quotes have been attributed to him. When asked if he wished to renounce atheism in favor of the Catholic faith of his youth, he stated: "As I live, so I die, for any man who does otherwise is not a man" (Kershner). The second was the one he arranged to have engraved as the epigraph on his headstone: Jimmie Durkin / Born 1859 Died 1934 / The minister said, "A man of his word."

In 1935 The Spokesman-Review looked back, noting that: "Jimmie Durkin is dead but everybody who knew the old man has tales to tell of his individualism. He belonged to the vanishing race of individualists, men who developed in original molds and not in the machine standardization of today. He was an Irishman who dared to be himself."