Thursday, March 29, 2012

Max Fleischmann: Ohio Distiller Extraordinary

Shown here in a caricature at the helm of a sailing boat is Max Fleischmann, whose rich life encompassed infantryman, combat balloonist, yachtsman, big game hunter, world traveler, businessman, philanthropist, and, as we remember him here, distiller of one of America’s most famous brands of liquor - Fleischmann’s. 

The story begins with Max’s father, Charles, and his uncle, Maximilian. The elder Fleischmanns came from Austria-Hungary in the 1860s. With the help of a wealthy Cincinnati businessman named James Gaff they created the cake yeast business that overnight revolutionized baking in America and made the trio multi-millionaires. 

Gaff had made his money in whiskey. In 1843 he and his brother Thomas had built the T.& J.W. Gaff & Co. distillery in downtown Aurora, Indiana, on the banks of Hogan Creek. It made bourbon, rye, and Thistle Dew scotch whiskey. It was perhaps natural that when Gaff linked with the Fleischmanns, they also began liquor-making operations. They founded two distilleries in nearby Riverside, Ohio, about 1872, three years before young Max’s birth. 

Fleischmann distilleries gained a national market by being the first American operation to produce gin during the 1870s. Rivaling imported British and Dutch gins, their American made -- and less expensive -- product proved to be highly popular. A 1900 ad boasted that the company was “The Gin Distillers of the United States.” Among its brands of “dry, sweet and neutral” gins were Pilgrim, Perfection, White Tavern Tom, and Dan Duke. As the Fleischmann company was flourishing, Max was growing up. Even before his graduation from the Ohio Military Institute in Riverside 1896, he began working in the family liquor business. 

His career was put on hold in 1898 by the Spanish American War. Young Max enlisted in the First Ohio Volunteer Infantry and was sent to Jacksonville, Florida, where the Ohio troops stayed in reserve until the the war ended. He was ordered back to Cincinnati, discharged, and went back to the family business. While thus engaged, Fleischmann also became a world class balloonist, as shown here in his 1907 ascension. As recounted by the New York Times, after taking off from Cincinnati, Max reached 5,000 feet. As he descended, he is reported to have jettisoned some liquor. At the outset of World War One Max enlisted, was sent to France, was injured in a poison gas attack, and became as the commandant of the U.S. Army Balloon School in Arcadia, California. All his life he would be addressed as “Major.” 

The Fleischmanns produced popular brands of whiskey. The flagship label was "Magnolia Whiskey,"  shown here in a 1909 ad. It came both in amber and aqua embossed bottles. The Magnolia brand had been bought from S.N. Pike and Company which first sold it in 1849. Fleischmann also marketed a range of liquors in fancy ceramic jugs and merchandised its other brands with ads in national publications and through glass-painted saloon signs, as shown above. 

In the two decades between the wars, Max proved to be a brilliant marketer and strategist for the firm, but something less than a day to day manager. His major interests lay in his hunting, specimen collecting and scientific expeditions around the world as well as yachting, horse racing and part ownership of the Cincinnati Reds baseball team. Max’s exploits earned him national press attention while his brother Julius ran the Fleischmann distillery and yeast empire. Things changed radically in 1925 when Julius suddenly dropped dead. Max rushed back to the U.S. from an expedition exploring the White Nile of Africa and immediately was elected Chairman of the Board. 

Prohibition shut down the firm’s distilling business for a time but the Fleischmann interests, perhaps because of their diversity of products, and unlike many others, survived the loss. In 1929 Max masterminded a series of mergers with other firms to form Standard Brands. He became first board chairman and the largest stockholder of the new firm that eventually included the Nabisco line of foods. Max continued to serve as Chairman of the Finance Committee of Standard Brands until his death in 1951. 

After the end of Prohibition in 1934, the Fleischmann Company began producing alcoholic beverages once again. In 1940, operating under the Fleischmann name, Max bought out the Daviess County Distillery in Owensboro, Kentucky. That distillery had a long and hallowed history in Kentucky bourbon manufacture but had been sold to the American Medicinal Spirits Company during Prohibition. Max’s firm based its revived distilling operations in Owensboro, producing brands like Preferred Blended Whiskey, Royal Vodka and distilled Dry Gin. In time it expanded its production facilities to Dayton, New Jersey; Plainfield, Illinois; and Clinton, Iowa. 

 Major Max characteristically watched this growth from afar -- at his home in Santa Barbara, California, or aboard one of the 22 yachts he owned in his lifetime. In subsequent years, Max, shown here in later life, and his wife became known for their philanthropy. They are remembered best for their substantial contributions to the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and, in their final adopted state, the University of Nevada Agricultural College, which is named for Max. The couple also gave large donations to many other worthy causes. Max died in 1951 at the age of 76, a much beloved figure. Today Fleischmann is still a familiar brand on liquor store shelves, part of Barton Distillers which in turn is part of the Constellation Brands group. Barton’s production facilities are located at Bardstown KY. Among current products are Fleischmann’s Vodka, Gin, Preferred Whiskey, Brandy, Rye and Flavored Vodkas.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Orene Parker: Kentucky’s Impresario of Whiskey

By any reasonable definition, Orene Parker was an “impresario,” that is, someone who organizes entertainments for the public. He ran a highly successful vaudeville theater in Covington, Kentucky, for years and with the coming of motion pictures early introduced the new medium into his offerings. He is pictured here in a photo from Variety, the newspaper of the theatrical business. Orene has our interest because he also was an impresario of Kentucky whiskey.

Parker first appeared in the whiskey trade during the early 1870s as the co-owner of a distillery located in Gethsemane, Kentucky, with a man named Francis M. Head. Located on Pottinger Creek, the plant was of frame construction and included a still-house, three warehouses, and a cattle shed. In 1883, Parker sold his interests in this distillery and about 1885 joined the Boone Brothers, Charles and Nicholas, in acquiring a distillery located on the farm of R. B. Hayden, two miles southeast of Bardstown, Kentucky

About 1886, Parker also founded a wholesale liquor business in Covington, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. The offices were located at 25 Pike Street. In 1902, the Orene Parker Co. moved permanently to 12-14 Pike Street, shown here, The facility held both a bottling plant and a warehouse.

The Boone Brothers distillery provided the raw product for a series of brands issued by Parker’s liquor business. They included "1884 Rye", "Boone Co.", "Defiance", "Mayfield", "Old Griffin", and "Old Petoskey." The company’s flagship brand was “Old Maid Whiskey.” An amusing caricature of Parker featured him with the spinster lady. While he was labeled as a “distiller,” the cartoon correctly shows him blending spirits as a rectifier.

Like the showman he was, Parker strongly merchandised his Old Maid label, with advertisements and giveaways, as shown above. His gifts to saloons and other favored customers included several varieties of ornate shot glasses, of which two are shown. The second one indicates a subsequent distinct change of direction in marketing Old Maid. No longer was the spinster the centerpiece of attention; Orene has substituted a monogram of his own initials capped by an eagle head. For his saloon signs, Parker replaced the overdressed maiden lady with a bare breasted fairy.

By 1903, Parker appears to have reentered the distillery trade. Internal Revenue records show him operating a distillery, RD#47 in the 5th District of Nelson County. Under the recently enacted Botttled-in-Bond Act he made a number of transactions, both storing and withdrawing whiskey from his federally supervised warehouses. In 1912, he was hailed into court for having sold whiskey to a customer in “dry” Laurel County, in violation of state law that forbid such sales. But Parker was canny enough to ship his spirits from a location in neighboring Cincinnati. Ohio had no similar law, however, and the judge found him not guilty.

While engaged in the whiskey trade, Parker was also a major figure in Covington show business. He owned the Colonial Theatre, a vaudeville house, on Madison Avenue between Fourth and Fifth Streets. Such theaters displayed live acts, lasting between five to ten minutes each. Because the shows cost on a nickel or dime to get into, they became the dominant form of mass entertainment in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many “respectable people,” however, refused to enter such premises. Parker oversaw a constant flow of new entertainers each week to make sure that the crowds came back regularly. He apparently ran a tight, and possibly stingy, ship. The story was told that when his manager, one L.B. Wilson, a former vaudeville actor, asked for a raise, Orene refused, and Wilson promptly quit the Colonial Theater and opened his own Covington shop selling cigars.

Parker was one of the first theater owners to recognize the possibilities of film as a popular medium. Early in the 1900s a few canny impresarios, such as Parker, began to intersperse short films among the live acts, seeing the potential for drawing in larger audiences, including people who would not enter a vaudeville house. Parker became an early member of the Motion Picture Exhibitors of America and in 1914 was elected National Treasurer of that organization. That occasioned his photograph in Variety.

But trouble was on the horizon. The same dry forces that brought Orene Parker into court were about to triumph with National Prohibition. He was forced to close down his liquor business and distillery in 1920. Moreover, about a year later his Colonial Theater burned to the ground. Ironically, the vacant lot later was purchased by L. B. Watson, Parker’s former manager. Watson built a new theater on the site, one dedicated entirely to the motion picture.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

James Clark, Mail Order Whiskey, and the Supremes

When James Clark opened his distillery in Cumberland, Maryland, in 1883, he knew that the National Pike and railroads that traversed his town would take his whiskey to the Western reaches of the United States. He could not have known that they also would take him to the U.S. Supreme Court and into American legal history. 

The National Pike, sometimes called the National Road, was of historic importance. Work begin in 1811. Snaking its way across the mountains, the road was the best that had ever been built in North America. The road took seven years to reach Wheeling, Wes Virginia. Subsequently it was pushed eastward from Cumberland to Baltimore and westward by 1841 to Vandalia, Illinois, where it stopped -- 800 miles long. Although the coming of the railroads eventually brought a decline in the need for the National Pike, for decades the road engendered a lively atmosphere along its route, including in Cumberland. According to one witness, “never had there been such landlords, such taverns, such dinners, such whiskey, such bustle or such endless cavalcades of coaches and wagons....” Supplying those travelers with liquor spawned a distilling industry in the town. 

An immigrant named James Clark was among the principal beneficiaries. Clark was born in 1846, reputedly aboard a ship en route to America from Ireland. When he arrived in Cumberland is unclear. However we know he early showed a strong business acumen and probably was engaged for a number of years in whiskey sales and distribution as the James Clark Company. Eventually Clark bought an existing Cumberland distillery erected in 1856. That business had failed and the plant subsequently had been turned into a chemical factory. Clark restored the facility as a distillery and in 1895 reorganized his business, changing its name to the James Clark Distilling Company. A line drawing of the distillery, shown here, exhibits it as an impressively large installation. The drawing also emphasized the ready availability of the plant to both overland and rail transport. 

Clark’s ads also trumpeted his flagship brand, Braddock Maryland Rye, as “America’s Finest Whiskey.” There were distinct ironies in Clark’s choice of this name. General Braddock was the ill-fated British general who marched out of Alexandria, Virginia, more than 250 years ago to confront the French and Indians in the Ohio Valley. His passions, said contemporaries, were for women and liquor. Braddock camped for a time in Cumberland, then known as Fort Cumberland, before marching out to be killed on the battlefield in Pennsylvania. Braddock was pictured on Clark’s letterhead and labels. Clark registered this brand name with the U.S. government at least three times, in 1886, 1905 and 1916. Braddock Maryland Rye sold in three formats, 4 year old, 4 quarts for $4.50; 8 year old, 4 quarts for $5.50; and “black label” $1.50 per quart. ”

Clark issued a number of giveaway items for this brand, including paperweights, shot glasses, and match safes. Shown here from a early 1900s magazine ad are an array of Clark’s whiskey labels and bottles, including Old National Pike Maryland Rye, Old Cumberland XXXX, and Queen City Club. From the number of Clark Distilling bottles and jugs that have been dug and otherwise found, the firm did a strong business though saloons and stores in the Shenandoah Valley and the Washington, D.C. area. The company’s major sales, however, were made though the U.S. Post Office. As town after town, state after state, in America voted to go “Dry,” thirsty Wets in those areas had to obtain their supplies by ordering through the mail. By the early 1900s James Clark had developed a thriving mail order business for his whiskey, making use of the good transport by railroad, road and water out of Cumberland. His ads emphasized distance sales, urging customers to cut out pictures of the items they wanted and send them in with their money. 

Clark’s mail order business took a potential body blow in 1913 when Congress, under pressure from “Dry” interests, passed the Webb-Kenyon Act over the veto of President Taft. The law prohibited the interstate transport -- by mail or other means -- of “any spirituous, vinous, malted, fermented or any other intoxicating liquor of any kind” into a state where laws forbid the sales of such products. Initially the law was unenforced and the mail order sale of liquor continued relatively unabated. As a result the State of West Virginia, that had enacted a statewide prohibition law, took the step of enjoining the Western Maryland Railroad and the American Express Company from carrying alcoholic products into their state. 

Clark, whose business was in serious jeopardy, fought back. Questioning both the constitutionality of the Webb-Kenyon Act and its application to West Virginia, he filed suit against the two carriers and the state government. The case was argued before a U.S. District Court judge in 1915 who ruled in favor of Clark. The victory was short lived, however, as the U.S. District Court of Appeals quickly overturned the lower court and in 1916 explicitly upheld West Virginia. Undeterred, Clark took his case all the way to the United States Supreme Court. On January 8, 1917, by a vote of 7 to 2 the Supreme Court ruled against Clark and upheld the constitutionality of the Webb-Kenyon Act. The majority opinion was written by Supreme Court Chief Justice Edward Douglass White. Ironically, he had been appointed by President Taft, who opposed Webb-Kenyon. Chief Justice White handed down an opinion that established that in specific instances Congress may abridge the Interstate Commerce Clause of the Constitution. The case of The James Clark Distilling Co. vs. Western Maryland Railroad Corporation, etc. became part of legal history and even today frequently is cited in interstate commerce disputes. 

Judge White, an obese man, dropped dead in office in 1921 at the age of 76 and is buried in Washington, D.C. He was preceded in death by the James Clark Distilling Co., that terminated business in 1920 with the onset of National Prohibition -- never to open its doors again. The Irish distiller’s legacy, however, may still be seen in downtown Cumberland. The Clark-Keating Building that once held his retail liquor store remains at 55 Baltimore Street. Constructed in 1899 and shown here, it currently is on National Historic Register and a stop on the town’s walking tour. The Webb-Kenyon Act has proved to be as durable as the building. When President Franklin Roosevelt sought to eliminate the law in 1935 following Repeal of Prohibition, Congress overturned his veto and kept it on the books. It remains the law of the land today.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

William Peter Drueke Built a Future in “Furniture City”

After an international exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, Grand Rapids, Michigan, became recognized as a world leader in the production of fine furniture. Three years earlier, a young German immigrant had arrived in that city and began building a future for himself and eventually his family by becoming a leader in purveying good whiskey. His name was William Peter Drueke, shown above in retirement. 

 Drueke was born in 1853 in the town of Niederheld, 58 miles east of Cologne. At the age of 18, he left from the port of Hamburg on the steamship Thuringia, arriving in New York City. He was accompanied by his sister and her future husband and her husband’s children. Drueke is believed to have stayed with them in New York for two years before moving to Grand Rapids.  In the 1875 city directory, he was listed as a clerk for William Hake, a wholesale wine and liquor dealer on the east side of the Grand River that runs through the city. Drueke proved to be an able employee and by 1876 had become a traveling agent for the Hake firm. 

With continuing advancement, William Peter, age 29, found it possible to get married, His bride was Elizabeth Berles, 24, who worked as a milliner and was the daughter of a Grand Rapids grocer. The couple exchanged vows in November 1882 at St. Mary’s Church, a parish formed in 1857 to serve the city’s German Catholic immigrant population. They would go on to have eight children. 

 In 1883, after working for Hake for seven years, Drueke started his own wholesale liquor business, partnering with a man named Alexander Kennedy. Their firm was located at 25 Canal Street (now Monroe Avenue) on the east side of the Grand River. After a year the Kennedy & Drueke firm moved to 75 N. Waterloo Street, still on the east side. Apparently the working relationship between the German and the Irishman was not an altogether smooth one. In 1888 it was announced that Drueke and Kennedy had dissolved their partnership of five years. William Peter took the stock and fixtures and relocated at 16-18 Crescent Avenue where he continued business, as shown by his letterhead, under the name William Drueke Wholesale Liquor Merchant. Kennedy stayed at the old address. 

The 1890s were a period of growth for Grand Rapids as its furniture business thrived and population grew, as exemplified in a 1898 photo. It also was a time of expansion for Drueke’s firm and in 1897 he moved it several blocks south to Ionia Avenue. The business name was changed to Wm. Drueke Company, with William Peter listed as President. His wife’s cousin, Frank Berles, formerly the bookkeeper, was named Secretary and Treasurer of the corporation. A new letterhead marked the change. The firm used the brand names "Lakeside Club", "Lakeside Club Bouquet", "Loreley", and "Old Cargo, with Lakeside Club Bouquet being the flagship brand.  Drueke merchandised all of his whiskeys with attractive giveaways to saloons and other favored customers. As shown here, they included signs, posters, and tips trays. William Peter liked to advertise featuring comely women, some demure as in the five young ladies shown here, some more provokative as in the Loreley sign. 

Despite his immersion in business, Drueke found time to be active with his church and community. The 1907 History of St. Mary's Parish says that William Peter was on a five-man committee that built a new school for St. Mary's Church. The Grand Rapids Herald of February 22, 1892, reported that he was one of the marshals of the procession of Catholic societies that celebrated the dedication of the new school that day. He also was president of the St. Joseph's Mutual Aid Society at St. Mary's Church in 1894-95. His obituary added that he was a member of the Elks and “connected with many charitable endeavors in the city.” 

 In 1907, at age 54 perhaps for health reasons, William Peter stepped down as president of the firm that bore his name. Henry Huber replaced him and Drueke became Vice President. Frank Berles was replaced as Secretary/Treasurer. In 1908, William Peter's son William Francis left his father's liquor business to become a traveling salesman for a wholesale grocery. Eventually, this son would start the Wm. F. Drueke & Co., a manufacturer of chess sets, backgammon, cribbage, and other games. Based on the Grand Rapids directory listings, Wm. Drueke Company went out of the retail business in 1910, but remained in wholesale liquor. 

 A year later, the organization faced another major management change. The name of William Peter's company was changed to the Drueke-Lynch Co. Henry Huber was out as president, but Drueke remained Vice President. The new president was C. H. Kahler. The business was moved a block south to S. 13-15 Ionia Avenue in a structure known as the Blodgett Block. The building, shown here in an illustration, is still standing. In 1912, Grand Rapids directories list William Peter as “traveling agent” for the company he founded rather than Vice President. In 1913, he was restored to Vice President with another new set of company officers. 

 C.H. Kahler was out as president and management was shaken up once again. This change too would be short lived. Michigan was one of the first Midwest States to vote in statewide Prohibition, two years before it became national law. On April 30, 1918, Drueke-Lynch was forced out of business. William Peter was then 65 years old. In April 1926, after eight years of retirement, Drueke died of cancer at the age of 73. He was survived by his wife Elizabeth and six of their eight children. He was buried at Mount Calvary Cemetery in Grand Rapids. 

His obituary in the Herald noted that he had been in the liquor trade for 43 years, that he had traveled to all parts of Michigan while involved in that industry and that he was well known throughout the state. It did not comment on why so many major management shake-ups had occurred to Drueke’s business over the years. 

 Note: Unlike most of my whiskey men vignettes in this blog, this one has been researched and illustrated almost entirely from a single source. It is a website sponsored by Peter Biggins called the “William Peter and Elizabeth Berles Drueke Family.” The site gives considerably more information than is provided here about the personal life of Mr. and Mrs. Drueke and their children. It is one of the better researched family geneological efforts that I have seen.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Levy & Glosking of Delaware: Targeted by Temperance

Market Street, Dover Delaware

For Conrad Glosking and Jacob Levy, one of German Catholic background, the other of German Jewish ancestry, involvement in the liquor trade was an unashamed part of their heritages. Together they forged a wholesale liquor and distilling company that was unsurpassed in the State of Delaware. Unfortunately, it also made Levy & Glosking a tempting target for the forces of Prohibition and ultimately they struck.

Conrad Glosking was born in 1865 in Philadelphia into a family of German immigrants from Rhineland-Palatinate in Western Germany. His father, Henry nee Heinrich, ran a wine house in the City of Brotherly Love, providing a living for his wife, Elizabeth, and five children. The 1880 census found all of them at home, with everyone but the youngest out of school and working. Conrad, then age 15, listed his occupation as “segar maker.”

Jacob Levy shows up 1900 census, living with his wife and children in the Slaughter Subdivision of Dover, Delaware. In a local survey Levy was represented as “Euro-American of Prussian descent.” He owned a distillery on N. Front Street in Dover in a neighborhood described as largely Afro-American.

How Gosking and Levy connected is not clear. By the late 1890s Glosking had left off making “segars” in Philadelphia and had joined Levy in a Wilmington, Delaware, wholesale liquor business with a store on Market Street, shown above as it looked in the 1890s. They called their company Levy & Glosking. State tax records show that the company paid $100 in 1905 for a license to produce alcoholic beverages. 

They also were listed as owners of a distillery on North Street in Dover, 47 miles from Wilmington, probably the same facility that Levy had begun some years earlier.  According to a 1906 government survey, Levy & Glosking's Dover complex consisted of the distillery, two warehouses, an office building , a storage facility and four out-buildings. 

The company prospered, issuing whiskey containers that variously cite each city. Of particular interest are the firm’s stoneware jugs, shown here, all with a Dover address. They bear differences in shape, color and, albeit slightly, in fancy calligraphy. Years later the Wilmington Museum would feature Levy & Glosking jugs in an exhibit.

The Wilmington address appears on the label of the Levy & 
Glosking flagship brand, Diamond State Rye Whiskey, named after Delaware’s state sobriquet. That whiskey was sold in flask size and, as shown here, in quarts. The company also issued shot glasses that advertised the brand. With passage of the Bottle-in-Bond Act by Congress, the partners joined up and put their warehouses under government control, as reflected by the label on Diamond State Rye. Federal records show five bonded warehouse transactions by the partners from 1898 to 1914.

Meanwhile, the forces of Prohibition were closely watching Levy & Glosking’s success in Delaware. A group of Temperance advocates in nearby Philadelphia had formed an organization called the “Law and Order Society.” Composed of clergy and others dedicated to a “dry” America they had succeed in getting laws passed in Pennsylvania and Delaware that decreed that no one under the age of 21 could work in a saloon or barroom. Because much of the help for such establishments came from youth under 21, the laws severely constricted the labor pool for drinking establishments.

In 1914 Levy & Glosking reapplied for their usual state license. It allowed the company to compound and rectify as well as sell intoxicating liquors to be drunk off premises, in any quality not less than one-half gallon. To their surprise and consternation, the issuance of the license was challenged in court by the Law and Order Society. It alleged that the partners employed a minor in and about their store to handle liquor, contrary to law, and that the youth transferred whiskey from barrels to bottles on premises. As a result, the Society contended, the liquor was unsealed and the opportunity given to minors to imbibe. In effect, Levy & Glosking were being accused of running the equivalent of a saloon. The lawyer for the Society was Caleb E. Burchenal, who also was the attorney for the Delaware Anti-Saloon League.

Daniel O. Hastings
If the Delaware license had been denied, Levy & Glosking were finished. The partners fought back by hiring perhaps the most potent lawyer available in Delaware. He was Daniel O. Hastings, shown here. Hastings had served as Deputy Attorney General of Delaware from 1904 until 1909, Secretary of State from January 1909 to June 1909. He then resigned to accept an appointment as Associate Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court and served there until resigning in January 1911. He also had been Special Counsel for the Delaware General Assembly in 1911 and City Solicitor of Wilmington. Later Hastings would be elected to the United States Senate from Delaware. Without a a doubt Levy & Glosking had hired a Delaware legal powerhouse.

Hastings effectively made the case that Levy & Glosking were not, in fact, a saloon and that the law on minors had no application to them. Burchenal had no real answer. The judge agreed with Hastings and dismissed the argument of the Temperance forces. At the same time, however, no doubt feeling political heat from that cause, the judge suggested that the “spirit of the law” if not its letter militated against minors working anywhere liquor was involved. The judge concluded: “And we now caution against the employment of minors for such purpose,” hinting that in the future such a practice might result in refusing a license. Then he decreed that a license be granted once again to Levy & Glosking.

The victory was not to be long lasting for the co-owners. As National Prohibition was voted, Levy & Glosking were forced to terminate business in 1919. Almost immediately the Dover distillery premises was occupied by the Harrington & Bailey Apple Products Company, later to become an ice plant and cold storage warehouse. All the other buildings on the property were demolished by 1929.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Everett W. Wilson: Spirits of an American in Pekin, Illinois

When Everett Woodruff Wilson was born in Peoria in 1861 during the first year of the Civil War, patriotism for the United States was in the Midwest air. Born in England, his grandfather, Henry Wilson, had emigrated to the America early in the history of the Republic settling initially in Poughkeepsie, New York. In the 1830s, perhaps following the national push Westward, he took his family and headed to Peoria, Illinois.

That is where Everett’s father, John, was educated, grew up, married a local Peoria girl named Emily Woodruff and became a highly successful Peoria businessman. 

Eventually he occupied the presidency of the Cave Valley Land & Cattle Company, a large and wealthy organization doing business in southern Illinois, was the president of the Elk Grove Land & Cattle Company of Kansas, and the chief stockholder in the street railway company of Topeka, Kansas.

John Wilson also had an interest in making whiskey. A man named C.J.D. Rupert in 1861 had founded an early distillery in nearby Pekin, Illinois, and called it the Hamburg Distillery. Sometime during the 1870s, John bought out the owner and became president of the company. At the age of 18, apparently at his father’s behest, Everett left Peoria for Pekin to work in the Hamburg Distillery. The 1880 census found him there, listing his occupation as “bookkeeper.” A year later, he was managing the whole operation.

About 1885, John Wilson decided to take his distillery into an early attempt at a Midwest “Whiskey Trust,” an attempt to diminish competition and increase whiskey prices. The scheme failed in 1886 when some liquor producers balked at the restrictions. The New York Times headlined: “Whiskey Pool Gone to Smash.” The following year, John Wilson joined the somewhat more successful Distillery and Cattle Feeders Trust. He shut down the Hamburg Distillery in return for shares in the Trust.

Temporarily out of a job, Everett kept busy. No doubt with the financial backing of his father, in 1887 he became a co-founder of the German American Bank of Peoria, organized with capital of $100,000. He also was sent briefly to Topeka to look after his father’s investment in the street railway company. Everett also found time to marry. His bride in 1885 was Anna C. Wanschneider of Peoria. They would have three sons: John, born in 1886; Rowland, 1892, and Douglas, 1898.

At the same time Everett Wilson was immersing himself in local politics. In 1886, at the age of 26, he was elected as alderman of the First Ward of Pekin on the Republican ticket. He served until 1893 when he was elected mayor, a post he held for two years. A popular leader, he was elected again for the 1899-1900 mayoralty term. Wilson continued to be active in politics out of office and 1916 was a delegate to the Republican National Convention from Illinois. He also was a co-founder of the business organization that became the Pekin Chamber of Commerce.

Meanwhile, in 1891 the derelict Hamburg Distillery was destroyed by fire. One year later the plant of a new distillery was erected on the site. Everett Wilson was one of the incorporators of the new liquor company, one that boasted capitalization of $100,000. The plant covered six acres and the distillery had a capacity of mashing four thousand bushels of grain per day. It was chartered as the American Distilling Company and Everett Wilson became its first president. Shown here is the company logo and a drawing of the early facility.

The new distillery used a wide range of brand names, including "American Pride", "Cologne Springs", "English Dry Gin", "Hopedale Rye", "Juniper Berry Gin", "Longwood", "Meadwood", "Old American Rye", "Old Colony Gin", "Pekinil Gin", "Silver Run Bourbon", "Silver Run Gin", and "Three Star Spirits." American Pride was its flagship brand, with a picture of a comely woman on the label that also showed up on a tip tray. As shown here on a 1906 ad and a giveaway paperweight, Wilson also advertised his other brands vigorously. In 1908, American Distilling absorbed a conglomerate of three other distilleries and continued to add whiskey-making capacity.

The pink flyer shown here indicates that American Distilling now had a daily grain capacity of 6,000 bushels. The same flyer also emphasizes “free from all trusts and other combinations,” ignoring the Wilsons' earlier alignment with the by-now-failed Distillery and Cattle Feeders Trust. A post card from about 1910 shows the expansion that had occurred at American Distilling under Everett’s leadership. That prosperity also allowed him to move his growing family into a newly constructed mansion on South Fifth Street in Pekin, described by a contemporary as “one of the most beautiful in the city.” Shown above, it may also depict his wife Anna with one of their sons.

As Prohibition loomed, the firm made a lunge at being considered a medicinal product. It advertised: "If You Use Whiskey at all - American Pride IS WHAT YOU WANT! For Medicinal or Potable Purposes of Any Kind.” To an extent the ploy worked. During Prohibition, unlike most others, Wilson’s distillery changed its name to the American Commercial Alcohol Corporation and stayed open by producing industrial alcohol.

Before the end of Prohibition, Wilson and his associates sold the distillery. With Repeal came a new era in whiskey production. The emphasis now was on a New York sales office and marketing agents to bring the American Distilling’s revitalized and some new brands into the market.  Among the new offerings was "Sharkey Whiskey," celebrating a famous heavyweight fighter of the 1920s and 1930s.

Now in his ‘70s, Wilson watched from the sidelines as new management also was adding imported liquors to the rye and bourbon produced in Pekin. In 1938 Everett Wilson, the man who built American Distilling, died, age 77.  During his lifetime he had been called by a contemporary publication: “One of the most popular and highly esteemed men of the county.”

American Distilling’s plant survived a disastrous fire and explosion in 1954, one that killed three workers and injured a number of others. Through the years under multiple owners and name changes the Pekin distillery continued to produce alcohol for beverage, industrial and fuel applications. After closing briefly in 2009, it reopened in 2010 under ownership by the Illinois Corn Processing Co. The distillery that Everett Wilson built, the home of American Pride Bourbon, now was making ethanol.

Note:  The label from the "Sharkey" brand whiskey for American Distilling likely was issued in the mid-to-late 1930s.  The illustration is of Tom Sharkey, a heavy-weight boxer of an earlier era.  The image graciously was provided to me in 2016 by Karen Ehrman who found this interesting piece of whiskey history in her father's antique store, the label possibly used as a book mark.