Sunday, May 27, 2012

Thomas Moore Put Possum Hollow on the Map

You won’t find Possum Hollow, Pennsylvania, in your Rand-McNally Atlas or listed in Wikipedia, but it once was the name of a tiny cluster of buildings located in Allegheny County southwest of the town of Wampum near the Beaver County line.   It was there that Thomas Moore built his first distillery and produced a whiskey known as “Possum Hollow.”  The brand eventually found regionwide sales and memorialized the place after which it was named.

Born in 1818 in Mount Joy, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania,  Moore apparently had little formal education.  It is reported he began his working career at the age of eight, being employed in a local distillery as a go-fer.  He continued in the liquor trade until he was 17 learning the techniques of making and selling whiskey.  His interests then took him into coal mining, a major Pennsylvania industry.

With what seems like a characteristic restlessness,  Moore would alternate between whiskey and coal much of the rest of his life.  He also found time to marry.  His wife was Jane Wilson of Westmoreland County. They would go on to have seven children.   After a decade,  Moore sold his mining interests and bought a flour mill from his father in law.  It was located in Possum Hollow.  When the mill was destroyed by fire,  he built a distillery on the same grounds and from 1852 to 1860 produced Possum Hollow brand whiskey.  The firm later issued a highly fanciful saloon sign of a small distilling operation in the mountains beside a babbling brook calling it "Possum Hollow."

In 1859 Moore built a second distillery on First Avenue in Pittsburgh.  He operated it for several years and then turned over the operation to a son-in-law.  Eventually the building became a pickle factory for a start up company named Heinz.  About the same time, inexplicab ly, Moore sold the Possum Hollow facility.  By 1864, Moore, now very rich likely from his whiskey-related sales, was back in the coal business.  He bought two Pennsylvania anthracite mines and organized the Youghiogheny Hollow Coal Company,  capitalized at $500,000.  It became one of the largest mining operations in the country, producing on an average 100,000 tons of coal annually, valued at more than $600,000.

In 1866, once more interested in making whiskey, Moore bought back the Possum Hollow distillery, according to a Pennsylvania history.  He operated it until 1871, then tore it down and built an entirely new facility at Scotthaven, Westmoreland County.  He also looked north to Buffalo and about 1870 bought another distillery and attendant stock yards in Erie County that had been started about 1854.   One or more of his grown sons appears to have been in charge of that operation.

Suffering financial reverses as the the coal market tanked in 1877,  Moore once more engaged vigorously in the liquor trade.  In 1878 he settled in McKeesport,  purchased land and erected by far his largest distillery.   Shown here at a distance, it had the capacity of producing 40-50 barrels a day.  His warehouses could store 40,000 to 50,000 barrels.  About the same time Moore sold the Buffalo distillery that apparently had become increasingly unpopular with its neighbors in rapidly-growing Buffalo.

The McKeesport distillery produced a number of brands, including "Banner", "Mountain State", "Possum Hollow", and "Thos. Moore Possum Hollow Pure Rye Whiskey."  The last was the flagship brand, whose label bore the visage of Moore himself.  The firm also employed a distinctive pinch bottle,  shown here on a playing card, with the slogan, “Friends Everywhere.”  The pinched shape was replicated in giveaway salt and pepper shakers to saloons and restaurants.  Moore also feature giveaway shot glasses, including at least one version with his face illustrated. 
Moore was a staunch member of the Democratic Party and twice was elected to the Pennsylvania State Legislature.   He was a Mason and an Episcopalian,  remembered as an active member of St. Stephen's Church in McKeesport.  In 1889, Jane, his wife of 50 years, died.   Four years later,  at age 75 Moore remarried.  His new bride was Miss Elizabeth Heath,  a woman who was considerably younger since she outlived him by almost 50 years.

Moore himself died in 1898,  just short of 80 years old, recorded as the result of “inflammation of the bowels.”  He was buried in the family plot at the Versailles Cemetery in McKeesport,  Section E, Lot 124.   One of his obituaries noted that he had “hewed his way to fortune and died one of the wealthiest men of McKeesport.”  It noted particularly his work in both the coal and whiskey industries, noting that “as a distiller gained a reputation that extends through the length and breadth of the land.”

After his death Moores heirs, with C.P. Moore as president,
continued to operate the liquor business for a time. Within five years, however, they sold it to the Ruffdale-Dillinger distilling interests whose brands included “Hiram Green,” and “Tom Keene.”  Thos. Moore’s Possum Hollow brand was registered for trademark protection with the federal government in 1907.  My guess is that the tip tray with the nude and the slogan, “Take a Little Moore,” dates from after the founder’s death.  In October, 1910, the press recorded a major bankruptcy sale in which the land, buildings and equipment of the Moore McKeesport facility were sold off. The Possum Hollow brand, however, continued to be sold until the advent of National Prohibition.

Note:  Much of the factual material for this vignette and the picture of Thomas Moore are from a book entitled “Progressive Men of the Commonwealth.”  Published in 1900, it provided biographies of important Pennsylvania figures, most of them living at the time.   Moore was an exception, probably included because of his extraordinary career, going from child laborer to multimillionaire over a lifetime of almost 80 years.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

C.H. Ritter of Detroit and a Sense of Design

As evidenced by the elaborate logo he adopted for his firm,  as well as other artistic expressions,  C. H. Ritter, a Detroit whiskey dealer of note, had a sense of good design.  While other advertisers were indulging in Victorian scroll work,  Ritter went avant garde.  He chose to be identified in the mode of “art nouveau,” which was the artistic rage from the late 1800s until World War One.

Details of Ritter’s personal life are scanty, but he shows up in local business directories in 1879 as a young partner of M.H. Chamberlain,  a businessman who would go on to become a mayor of Detroit.   They ran a wholesale liquor and bottling outfit that featured a whiskey called “Silver Rye.”  Indications are they were bottling the products of the Burk Springs Distillery, located in Marion County, Kentucky.  (See my post on J. H. Kearns for more information on that facility.)

Sometime in the early 1880s the partners went separate ways.  Perhaps it was related to Chamberlain’s decision to pursue a political career.   Ritter took the Chamberlain Silver Rye brand name with him,  indicating that the split was an amicable one.  Shown here is a teapot the Ritter company issued to saloons, advertising the brand.

For the first few years of its existence C.H. Ritter & Co was located at 25 Monroe Avenue in downtown Detroit.  As the firm prospered and grew,  it incorporated in 1907 and shortly thereafter moved to a large three story building at 142-144 Jefferson Avenue.  Shown here, the company advertised itself as “wholesale liquor dealers” and billboards on the roof advertised two of its major brands --  “Westminster Rye Whiskey” and “Caravan Old Special Reserve Whiskey.”  Ritter registered both with the U.S. Patent Office in 1905.  

Ritter’s ad, shown here,  features all three brands as “Our Leaders.”  The ad displays the artistically designed labels that graced every bottle.  Note particularly the illustration of the teapot that appeared on the Silver Rye label.  A fourth brand from C.H. Ritter was “Mellow Monogram.”  Once again his sense of design was evident in selecting one of the Fulper Pottery “fancy jugs,” featuring gilded gothic letters and hand-painted flowers, to hold Mellow Monogram.  Similarly Ritter commissioned the prestigious Heisey Glass Company to provide his firm with an elaborate, multi-fluted shot glass.

Despite advertising all his brands,  Ritter appears to have put special emphasis on Westminster Rye.  He issued shot glasses advertising that whiskey, one of them with fancy lettering.   He also issued an attractive ceramic Westminster   “mini-mug”  shown here. Mini mugs were fairly common giveaway items to saloons and other favored customers.  They held wooden safety matches and featured a serrated base for striking a light.

Ritter was also noted for issuing a clever saloon sign for Westminster Rye.  Done by fine lithograph, the image was of a young man offering a drink to  a local farmer.  A closer look showed  a pig lying dead in the road, apparently struck by a roadster from which three passengers are watching. The title is “Settled Out of Court” and implies that a drink of Westminster Rye is so appealing that the farmer will let he motorist off the hook for the death of his hog.  Representing the dawning of the automotive age, Ritter’s sign appears to have been a favorite of the drinking crowd.

No amount of good design, however, could protect the firm from the woes of Prohibition.  The particular target of the “Dry” lobby, and financed by teetotaling Henry Ford,  Michigan  in 1915 was the first industrial Midwest State to pass a law banning alcohol completely, a full five years before National Prohibition.  Although plenty of booze flowed into the state from over the Canadian border and for a time from Ohio,  the effect on Michigan’s liquor industry was disastrous.   The doors of the establishment C. H. Ritter had founded were closed and the business disappeared from Detroit directories.

Note: Personal details about  Charles (C. H.) Ritter are scant.  The 1900 census found him living in the Ninth Ward of Detroit.  He said he had been born in Germany in 1844 of German parentage and had emigrated to the United States as a young man, settling in Detroit.  Although he said he was married, he was living with a woman named Daisy Ludlow, identified as his sister-in-law and housekeeper.  By 1913, although the liquor business still bore his name, Ritter was gone from the firm, either retired or deceased, and a longtime partner, Edwin A. Burch, was heading it.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Levi Price: Farmer-Distiller of Maryland

The production of whiskey before the American Revolution was insignificant.   Rum was the drink of choice for our rebellious forefathers.  But rum had to be imported from the Caribbean and was expensive.  What lay at hand in the USA were abundant fields of rye, wheat and corn.   Recognition spread that a good way to add value to a ton of grain was to turn it into gallons of whiskey.   Often the farmer who grew the crop also did the distilling.  Levi Price of Maryland, shown here, epitomizes that farmer-distiller.

Price was born on October 22, 1835, in Frederick County, Maryland,  in what was then the Urbana District, near the present community of Hyattstown.   His father was Elijah Price,  a well-known farmer who himself had been born in that locale.  His mother was Sarah Ann Wolfe.   There is little information on Levi Price’s early life and education but he showed early signs of being a canny businessman. 

In an article on the distiller in the Sept. 30, 1904, “The Citizen” newspaper of Frederick City,  the anonymous author claimed that when Price launched himself into business in 1858 at the age of 23 he had only 93 cents to his name.  His initial enterprise was to rehabilitate an old mill where he began a small flour milling operation.   Its financial success apparently allowed him to woo and win Laura Virginia McElfresh of Hyattstown.  Ms. McElfresh was related to an old and distinguished Virginia family with ties to Revolutionary War stalwarts.   She would bear him 10 children -- three sons and seven daughters.

Price’s milling venture proved so successful that in 1867 he had the financial strength to build a three story high distillery at the point where Bennett Creek crosses Green Valley Road.  Shown here, the site is still called “Price’s Ford.”  He seems to have succeeded rapidly in the whiskey trade. The 1904 newspaper states:  “Levi Price has undoubtedly engaged in a business which he is well suited for,  and long years of experience and an accurate knowledge of grain has helped make him what he is.”

In 1879 Price built the Green Valley Flouring Mills and began manufacturing a product he called “Fine Family Flour,”  a product that commanded a substantial regional market. For a time he operated a general merchandise store in   He also bought up surrounding acres,  probably to grow sufficient grain for his distillery and mill.  At his death he owned 525 acres of prime farm land.  But it was whiskey that made Levi rich.   His principal brand,  called “Pure Rye Double Copper Distilled Whiskey,”  not only was popular locally but had a regional and eventually earned a modest national reputation.
Price’s profitability may have resulted from some innovations he made in the distilling process itself.   He recognized that any form of adulteration led to objectionable tastes common in the newly made, “raw” whiskey of his day.   By using care in the cleanliness of his process and perhaps a “secret” method or two,  he apparently was able to manufacture a product that had the taste and smoothness of an aged whiskey while being newly distilled.   By eliminating most of the aging process,  he saved money and was able to sell his whiskey for less than the competition.

In 1878,  as sales rose and the production of his Maryland rye at an all-time high,  Price talked the county into constructing a road that ever since has borne the name of his distillery.   The road ran north to Ijamsville MD where a railroad station was located and south to Damascus in Montgomery County.  There it linked with other roads that led to Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.   Buyers from as far north as New York City could take the B&O  (now CSX) train to Ijamsville or Monrovia MD and reach the farm distillery by horse and buggy.

To cater to these travelers,  Price converted a cottage that stood near the distillery on Green Valley Road into the distillery office and an overnight guest house.  By the time the whiskey had been tasted and business transacted,  it often was too late for buyers to return to the evening train.  They were offered a place to stay at the rear of the cottage.  They also ate at the Price family table. 

The cottage, shown here in renovation,  which dates from the  1860s,  still stands.  It is known widely as “Thistle Hill” -- perhaps because of its stained glass windows  -- and is on the Maryland historical register.  It features an overly wide front door that may have been constructed to accommodate barrels of whiskey being rolled in and out.  Near the cottage are the ruins of a barn that was used to house the horses needed to transport the whiskey barrels to the railroad stations.  Still standing is Levi Price’s house, shown here, a large frame structure on the bluff overlooking the creek. Field stone slave quarters loom behind.  The Levi Price house, which has been restored at least twice,  also is on the Maryland historical register.

Perhaps compensating for his own lack of formal schooling, Price is reported to have invested heavily in his children’s education. None of them, however,  appear to have involved themselves in the distillery operations.  Preceded in death by his wife in 1902,  Price died in 1909 at the age of 74.   His progeny were not willing or able to continue the business and it was soon sold to another party -- Reuben Lichtenstein.

Lichtenstein was not a farmer-distiller.  Born in 1838 in Wolfernheim, Germany,  he came to the U.S. at the age of 14, settling in Virginia.  He joined the Confederate cause and served as an infantryman in the 19th Virginia.   After the war Lichtenstein moved to Cumberland, Maryland,  and opened a liquor business.  Like many other whiskey distributors and dealers,  he seems to have hankered to own a distillery.  When the Price operation came on the market shortly after Levi Price’s death,  Reuben purchased it,  along with the Levi Price house which he sold shortly thereafter.  

Evidence is that Lichtenstein directed the distillery from afar,  continuing to live in Cumberland.  Lichtenstein also is reported to have rebuilt and expanded the distillery.   His marketing materials named “Levi Price Pure Rye”  as his flagship brand and cited it as the product of the Lichtenstein Co., Distillers, Cumberland.  It is shown here on giveaway pen knife.  Also shown here is a paper labeled Levi Price quart brand whiskey that bears Lichtenstein’s name.  The label claims that the distillery was founded in 1840.   This clearly is a fabrication since Price would only have been five years old in that year. 

Although Reuben died at the age of 77 in 1916,  before the onset of Prohibition,  one or more of his five sons kept the operation going for the next four years.  Here the picture grows murky about the fate of the distillery.  Some locals say the family sold off its stored whiskey in the 1920s and ultimately the distillery was torn down.  A far more interesting fate is the one most widely believed by neighbors.  When Prohibition ended in 1934,  the story goes, the Lichtenstein boys attempted to put the distillery back in operation.   The move enraged “Drys” in nearby Hyattstown,  already smarting from Repeal.   They set a wagon full of straw on fire and rolled it downhill into the distillery.  It reputedly burned to the ground.

That is the account believed by local historian Edward Lee Knowles, who himself was a subsequent owner of the Levi Price house.   To a reporter in 1978 he showed how the earth around the distillery site was full of charred wood,  indicating a fire.   This version also appears in a publication of the Friends of Historic Hyattstown.  But even Knowles admitted that his search of local newspapers of that time revealed no mention of the distillery burning.  Was it hushed up?  As a result,  what happened to the farm distillery that Levi Price founded continues to be something of a mystery. 







Wednesday, May 16, 2012

J.T.S. Brown and his Grand Kentucky Clan


John Thompson Street Brown,  otherwise known as “J.T.S.,” was progenitor and part of a Brown whiskey-making Kentucky family that left a strong mark on the industry as the generations advanced.   Among them is reputed to be the first woman  in American history known to have had a management role in a major distilling operation.

Born in 1826,  J.T.S. was part of three generations of Browns in the Bluegrass State. His grandfather, William, had emigrated with a young wife, Hannah Street, from Virginia,  settling down as a planter and merchant. William's son, John, was a merchant, postmaster, and officer in the Confederate army who married twice.  J.T.S. was a product of the first marriage.  Knowledge is scant about his education, but he appears from an early age to have worked closely with his father in his mercantile business.

At age 26, experienced in commerce and trade,  J.T.S.  moved from rural Kentucky to Louisville,, his home for the remainder of his life.   There he entered into the wholesale liquor business with an old school chum named Joseph Allen.  He also met and fell in love with a 16-year-old girl named Emily Graham,  the daughter of a prominent local tobacco dealer.   Married in 1856, they would go on to have eight children over the next 13 years, six boys and two girls.

In 1857 Allen withdrew from the partnership and J.T.S. assumed full control.  His company expanded greatly during the Civil War as he provided liquor to thirsty troops and by 1864 he had amassed a considerable fortune.   Meanwhile in 1863 his half-brother, George Garvin Brown,  younger by 17 years,  had come to Louisville to go to school and was invited into the firm.   With help from a patron of George’s, named Chambers,  the company relocated to larger quarters at 322 Main Street in Louisville, at the heart of the city’s Whiskey Row.  The company became J.T.S. Brown and Bro.

The Browns reportedly purchased quality straight whiskeys from J.M. Atherton Co., (the Atherton and Mayfield distilleries), the Mellwood distillery in Louisville and J.B.Mattingly at St. Marys in Marion county. They blended these spirits and sold them in the form of barrel goods as "Sidroc Bourbon", "Atherton Bourbon", and "Mellwood Bourbon.”  In 1874, for reasons still unclear, the partnership ended.  Some accounts say that the half-brothers could not agree on the quality of whiskey to be sold, with George favoring a higher priced quality liquor, while J.T.S. was more interested in generating a wider customer base with cheaper whiskey.  George moved out to form his own company and whiskey dynasty, still extant as the Brown-Foreman Company.

Meanwhile J.T. S.’s boys were growing up and coming into the firm with their father.  The first three were the eldest, Graham; the next in the birth cohort, Davis, and J.T.S. Jr.  The firm name was changed to J.T.S. Brown and Sons.  Although Graham later would leave the firm,  younger brothers, Creel and Hewett would join.  Eventually the Browns moved their wholesale warehouse and bottling operations to nearby 105 Main Street,  shown right.  At the same time they purchased a large distillery of their own at McBrayer, near Lawrenceburg, on the Salt River in Anderson County. It is shown below:

At this distillery the Browns produced several brands of whiskey including "J. T. S. Brown", "Old Lebanon Club,” "Vine Spring Malt, “ and  “Old Prentice.”  The latter label appears to have been originated by prior owners of the facility and reputedly was named for a Kentucky Confederate firebrand politician by the name of “S. S. Prentiss.”   Whatever its origin,  the J.T.S. and his four boys made it their flagship brand and dated it back to 1855. 

They bottled it in label-under-glass quarts,  and featured it on giveaway items to special customers.  Those included, as shown here, back of the bar bottles, minis shaped like the Old Prentice bell trademark, and shot glasses.  They also advertised it with racially insensitive ads.

In 1904, Emily Brown, age 65, died, much mourned by her family and was buried in historic Cave Hill Cemetery where many of  Louisville’s rich and famous of yesteryear are interred.  About a year later,  J.T.S.., on his way home from work at the liquor store was stricken on a streetcar and died two weeks later at age 76.  He was buried next to Emily in the Brown family plot.

Without changing the name of the company, the Brown boys fully took over its management.  Davis became president,  Creel vice president,  J.T.S. Jr. secretary and Hewett treasurer.  The year of their father’s death they opened at new headquarters adjacent to the old at 107-109 West Main. 

They also built a new distillery across the road from their original complex at McBrayer.   Currently on the National Register of Historic Buildings,  it is considered a well-executed example of Mission Style architecture used for an industrial production facility.  Built in 1910-1912 when this style was popular nationally, it used a low pitched roof and large arched windows to provide the space and light needed.  Shown here in a postcard view, its interior was divided into two large processing areas,  fermentation on one side, and cooking/distilling on the other.

During Prohibition the family shut the business down.  In 1932 Davis Brown died, leaving his widow, Agnes Fidler Saddler Brown, shown here, with a management stake in the business, according to some sources.  She is credited with being the first woman in American history to have had a role in running a distillery, a business almost totally dominated by men at the time.   When Repeal came, however, it was Creel Brown’s son, Creel Jr., who revived the firm.   He ultimately sold the business in 1955.  The J.T.S. Brown brand of whiskey has survived down to the current day.  Its label pictures J.T.S., Creel Sr. and Creel Jr. -- just one part of the whiskey-making Brown Kentucky Clan.


Saturday, May 12, 2012

Florida’s Harry Metcalf Had a Case for the Courts

 Harry W. Metcalf,  a Florida pre-Prohibition liquor merchant, frequently had a case, but not of whiskey, for the courts of justice.  The Florida State Supreme Court building in Tallahassee, shown here, must have seemed like a second home to him.  He won, he lost, but he always seems to have prospered.

Metcalf was born at the tail end of the Civil War in 1864, probably in Florida, then a frontier area.  HIs early life is not recorded but by 1887, at the age of 23 he listed as running a saloon in Jacksonville on Orange Avenue between Pine and Church Streets.   The same directory three years later records him as operating a saloon and restaurant at 132 W. Forsyth.  An 1893 directory calls him a dealer in wines & liquors.  He also appears to have branched out into business in Orlando, running a saloon there as early as 1892.

Orlando was the scene of Metcalf’s first court fight.  In 1907 an election was held to determine if the sale of intoxicating liquors, wines and beers should be prohibited in Orange County.  The Commissioners certified that in the the election 592 votes had been cast against liquor sales and only 589 for them.   Given the several million people living in Orlando and the county today, it is hard to imagine the small numbers that participated in the vote.  His saloon in jeopardy, Metcalf took the Commissioners to court, charging that the election was rigged and the results should be voided.  In a 3-2 split decision, the Florida Supreme Court  agreed with him and nulled the vote.  His saloon stayed open.

Metcalf subsequently put his emphasis in Jacksonville, Duval County, one of only two Florida jurisdictions to buck the Prohibition tide.  According to Historian James B. Crooks  Duval didn't ban the sale of liquor for two reasons:  (1) Prohibition largely depended on support from white evangelical Protestants.  Jacksonville, on the other hand,  contained a relatively large number of Catholics, Jews, German Lutherans, and Episcopalians who often were opposed to banning alcohol.  (2) Money talked in the Gateway to Florida.  Prohibition met opposition from merchant mariners, hotelkeepers, restaurateurs, and other business people who dealt with trade or tourism.  One of them surely was our Harry.

He took advantage of the Jacksonville freedoms to build a large mail order business, sending whiskey into those many parts of the South that had voted dry but still could obtain liquor through the post office.  A flyer from The H. W. Metcalf Co., Inc., shows his mail order department at 1209-1219 Forsyth Street and his executive offices and retail outlet at the corner of Bay and Lee Streets.  The Forsyth building was conveniently located right across from the train station, shown here.  No evidence exists that Metcalf owned a distillery and the facility shown in the flyer likely was a flight of fancy.

Metcalf featured a number of brands, claiming a thousand, including some under his own label.  Prominent among those were “Springwood,” “Briar Cave Rye,” Crisco Corn Whiskey,” “Sikes Malt Whiskey,” and “Kentucky Spray,” for which he issued the corkscrew shown here.  In 1915,  his Forsyth Street establishment was the target of thieves who sawed through the iron bars of the warehouse and meticulously hauled away 1,500 quarts of Briar Cave Rye and nothing else.  They worked under the tumult caused in Jacksonville by an election night rally involving a band, fireworks and high wire artists.  The culprits were never caught.

The same year found Metcalf back in the Florida Supreme Court.   In 1913 he had taken a five year lease on space in the Terminal Hotel, located on Bay and Johnson.  There he ran a saloon and package liquor store.  The Florida Legislature, in another move toward Prohibition,  passed what became known as the Davis Package Act.  It decreed that a business selling liquor by the bottle could not on the same premises sell liquor by the drink.   With other affected whiskey men,  Metcalf fought the law right up to the State Supreme Court.  This time he lost; the law was declared valid. 

Ever the canny businessman,  Metcalf had included a provision in his lease for the hotel space that if such prohibition laws were enacted the lease could be nulled.  When the Davis Package Act was allowed to stand,  he broke the lease and was taken to court by the landlord.  When the lower court ruled for the landlord, Metcalf, now very familiar with the Florida Supreme Court,  appealed the case there and won.

Even as the state and national tides of Prohibition swept around him,  Metcalf stayed in business until 1919 and then shut down his business.  Over his 32 years in the liquor trade,  he had become very wealthy and began to invest in real estate.  One of his purchases was a citrus grove near Orlando,  growing grapefruit, tangerines, oranges and valencias.  In 1930 he also bought for $120,000 a premier office building in Orlando, shown below.  He renamed it the “Metcalf Building.” It currently is on the city’s historic walking tour.

Despite his wealth, however, Harry could not stay away from the Florida Supreme Court. In 1935,  he sued a fruit wholesaler for failing to abide by a contract to buy produce from his citrus grove.  After losing in the local court, he once more repaired to Tallahassee where the Florida Supreme Court justices rewarded him by once more finding in his favor. 

Metcalf’s “last hurrah” in the courts was in 1939.  He was 77 years old. He sued to void a deal in which he had sold some road bonds, then in default, to speculators in return for warehouse receipts representing 400 barrels of whiskey.  When the bonds suddenly became more valuable and were sold at a huge profit,  Metcalf claimed he had been cheated.  This time the Florida’s highest court upheld a lower court ruling that dismissed his complaint.   That was the last time he shows up in official records.

Personal details about Harry Metcalf are scanty. Much of what we know about him comes from court records.  There is no information about his family life, social activities, his movements between Jacksonville and Orlando, or when he died and where he is buried.  As information is obtained about him, it will be added to this vignette.  Who knows, some of it may be lying on a dusty shelf in a Florida courthouse.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Peter Iler: "The Restless Mind of a Capitalist"

Led by Warren Buffett,  Omaha, Nebraska, boasts that it has more millionaires per capita than any other city in America.   Peter E. Iler, an Omaha whiskey man, was an exemplar for the local money men to follow, a multimillionaire who built the Nation’s third largest pre-Prohibition distillery as well as financing other major business enterprises. Shown above in maturity, Iler had,  people said, “the restless mind of a capitalist.”

Iler was born in Wooster, Ohio, in 1840.  As a youth he and his brother, Joseph, moved to Tiffin, Ohio.   At the age of sixteen he left school to go to work.  Then accounts differ.  One version has him leaving Tiffin in the employ of an Indianapolis banker and soon being given management of several farms and a princely salary of $75 a month.  After becoming ill, he quit and returned to Tiffin to recuperate.  The another account has him never leaving Tiffin, employed in a bank, working with a cigar manufacturer and as a warehouse operator.

The stories converge about 1860 in Tiffin when Iler became a wagon peddler selling a bitters nostrum that he advertised "as a cure for dyspepsia and all diseases of the stomach and bowels." It cost a pricey one dollar a bottle.  With the success of his bitters,  Iler was on his way to being a capitalist and entrepreneur.  As one account says:  “Peter met with success and soon drove a splendid four-in-hand team and a beautiful wagon. He also took orders for all the wholesale merchants in Tiffin, doing in this way a large commission business. Mr. Iler branched out and established a general supply store, engaged in the manufacture of cigars, and ran a distillery and a general liquor store, all of these enterprises proving successful.”

In 1863 Peter married Mary A. Denzer,  a local girl.  The nuptials were held in Tiffin, where they lived and began their family.   The couple had four children,  William, May, Edith and Bessie.   In the matters of home and hearth, a contemporary biography said of him:  “Mr. Iler is a home man, taking great delight in his interesting family, and doing everything in his power to make home happy for them.”

Every capitalist needs capital and Iler achieved a bundle, apparently some of it through a fluke.  In the spring of 1865, he and his brother bought and prepaid for a shipment of bourbon from Kentucky. Through an unexplained stroke of luck, the federal tax on alcohol changed while the bourbon was in transit, which  increased the value of the shipment by a whopping $36,000, instantly making Iler a wealthy man.

Evincing his restless mind, Iler had decided that his fortune lay by going West.  About 1866 He moved to Omaha, Nebraska, which would be his home for at least the next 40 years.  About the same time, the small Willow Springs Distillery on the Council Bluffs side of the Missouri River was closed by the Federal Government for nonpayment of taxes.  Sensing an opportunity,  Iler with local partners bought the distillery and moved it across the river to Omaha, relocating the facility at 209 Hickory Street.  It was the first (legal) distillery in Nebraska.

With brother Joseph as his principal partner,  Iler subsequently set up sales offices, shown above, at 233 Farnam Street in Omaha, an address that first shows up in city directories in 1870.  He also began a steady expansion of the relocated Willow Springs Distillery.  By 1874 the firm, that advertised itself as "importers, compounders and wholesale dealers in wines, liquors and cigars,” was making shipments to both coasts. The same year the Ilers also became the Omaha representatives for Anheuser-Busch, which they continued for five years until the brewer moved into its own facility.

In the early 1880s a fire forced Iler to build new office quarters at 1112 Harney Street.  About the same time,  the firm moved the distillery operation from Hickory Street to a new location at Fourth and Pierce Streets.  By 1882, when the steel engraving shown above was done,  the facility had expanded to roughly 10 acres with multiple buildings.  Iler was turning out 6,000 to 7,000 gallons of alcohol a day or 1,250,000  gallons a year. It also was consuming 300,000 bushels of local grain amounting to $120,000 annually. About 225,000 bushels was corn, and the balance of 75,000 bushels was made up of other grains.  The distillery was estimated to produce 90 percent of Nebraska’s tax revenues.  When the labor riots of 1882 broke out in Omaha, the Governor dispatched the National Guard to protect Iler’s “cash cow” distillery.

The 1880s were a period of continuing expansion for Iler’s enterprise.  Sales of the Willow Springs Distillery and Iler & Co., continued to increase, reaching nearly $3,000,000. The cost of material used in the distillery during 1886 was $250,000, representing 510,000 bushels of grain. Over 10,000 tons of coal were consumed. Employment was given to 125 men, with an annual payroll of over $80,000.  Willow Springs had become the third largest distillery in the United States and paid Government taxes of more than $2,000,000 annually.

Iler used several brand names for his liquor, among them “Willow Springs,” shown here in an embossed quart, as well as “Golden Sheaf,”  “Winchester,” “Buck Bourbon Blend,” and “Iler’s Golden Gin.”  He issued giveaway shot glasses for these brands,  as well as watch fobs.  At the Trans-Mississippi Exposition of 1898, a successful World’s Fair held in Omaha,  Iler’s whiskeys and other spirits took two gold medals and four silver medals. He himself was awarded a gold medal,  similar to the one shown here, for his invention of an “apparatus for aging and purifying liquors.”

Ever restless for new investments,  Iler began fattening one thousand and six hundred head of cattle with the used mash from the distillery.  With partners he also was buying up farm land in the vicinity of Omaha,  totaling 1,875 acres.  This area became the nucleus for the creation of stockyards, packing houses and the town of South Omaha. Many of the same investors in 1886 formed and became directors of the Union Stockyards Bank.

Iler constantly was looking for cheaper sources of energy and invested in coal mining and exploration for natural gas in the vicinity of Omaha. He also one of the organizers of the Omaha Brick & Tile Company, of which he became the first and long-term president,  He built and owned the Iler Grand Hotel, shown here, at one time a leading hostelry of Omaha.  He was a prominent member of the Omaha Board of Trade.

After a time Iler apparently began to feel he was outgrowing Nebraska and once again looked Westward.  In 1889-1990 he  obtained options on 3,500 acres fronting on San Francisco Bay at San Bruno Point and incorporated the South San Francisco Land and Improvement Company.  He took on the job of being general manager for the project.  This move may have indicated a declining interest in distilling or perhaps a premonition of Prohibition.  Whatever the cause, in 1898 Iler sold the Willow Springs Distillery to a combine called the Standard Distilling and Distributing Company.  He may have had an initial financial interest in that outfit, continuing to be listed as president of Willow Springs until 1902.

In 1904, Mary,  his wife of 41 years,  died.  Peter lived on, active in business until about 1912 when he retired.  He was still living in Omaha in 1917, age 77.  The date and place of his death is something of a mystery.  His grave marker, shown here, is located in Omaha’s Prospect Hill Cemetery and holds two zinc plaques. His wife’s is inscribed, his is blank.  Was Peter not buried with her?  Or was it simply an oversight that his plaque was not engraved?   With Prohibition, the distillery he built stopped producing whiskey.  The company changed its manufacturing to near beer, soda pop and malt for use in home brewing, but subsequently went out of business.

Peter Iler was a capitalist fully worthy of the name.  His restless mind constantly was taking him into new enterprises and endeavors.  From Ohio to Nebraska to California he invested his money,  much of it gained from the whiskey trade, to make more money.  Truly, he was a worthy predecessor of Warren Buffet and other Omaha millionaires.