Thursday, February 28, 2013

P. Vidvard & Son Wrote Their Names in Cobalt and Stone

Peter Vidvard, an immigrant from France, and members of his family proved to be extraordinary entrepreneurs,  using the money from selling liquor to fund a number of notable enterprises in Oneida County in central New York State.  In the process Peter and son imprinted their names in stoneware and in stone.

The story begins in Nancy, France, where Peter Vidvard was born in 1821.  While details of his early life are sketchy,  it is known that he emigrated to the United States about 1843, settling in Utica, shown here as it looked at mid-century.  Then about 22 years old, Vidvard appears to have entered the retail grocery trade at a time when selling liquor was a principal profit center. Four years later, having saved a little capital, he started his own business, selling liquor and cigars, located at 29 and 31 John Street in Utica.  Later he issued a certificate worth 15 cents in trade noting that address.

About the same time he married a woman several years older than he was.  Her name was Catherine (nee Oster).  Like Peter she had been born in France and had come to America as a child with her family.  Her father was John Oster  a well known grocer who owned a landmark hotel in Deerfield Creek, a village adjacent to Utica.   Records indicate she apparently had an earlier marriage and had been widowed with two children before her marriage to Vidvard.  The couple would go on to have six children of their own,  four girls and two boys.

Peter Vidvard’s business success was rapid, with sales notable throughout Central New York.  As a sign of his prominence, in 1859 he was elected treasurer of the New York State Liquor Dealers Association.  He also brought family members into the business.  Both sons,  John, and, Jules (sometimes rendered Julius), were groomed from an early age to the whiskey trade, working as clerks in their father’s store.  He also employed his nephew,  Francis X. Oster,  as a  salesman traveling throughout much of New York State.  When his stepdaughter,  Josephine,  married an Irish immigrant named John Sheehan,  the son-in-law was brought into the firm.  In 1868 Peter took the step of making him a partner and changed the company name to Vidvard and Sheehan.  A bottle with that name is shown above.

Meanwhile, John Vidvard was demonstrating considerable talent as a businessman.  At the age of 21, with backing from his father’s “large command of capital,”  he started his own company in 1873 to manufacture and sell cotton pants, overalls,  and shirts. He also dealt in other dry goods sold at retail.   Two years later John took over an Oneida County brewery that had been destroyed by fire and rebuilt.  He changed the name to Vidvard Brewery but sold it just a few years later.

The year 1879 marked a major change in the Vidvard firm.  John Sheehan had departed the partnership in 1878 to start his own wholesale and retail drug company in Utica.  Almost immediately Peter made son Jules a full partner and changed the firm name to P. Vidvard & Son.   He marked this occasion by commissioning a special whiskey jug that displayed the new name and the date.

He ordered this stoneware containers from the famous White’s Utica pottery.  This ceramics factory had been founded  in 1839 by Noah White, formerly a barge pilot on the Erie Canal.   White saw that Utica was an ideal spot for a pottery.  The canal could be used to transport clay from New Jersey and return finished products to markets in New York City, Boston and Philadelphia.  His stoneware, as the crock shown here, often used hand-drawn cobalt designs.  Vidvard saw the benefit of having his fancy containers made right in town.  Note the similar decoration on the 1879 whiskey jug.   Other containers shown here, although unmarked, also show White’s Utica characteristic features.

Although the Vidvards continued to prosper, their success was not without its pitfalls.  In  1881 a local woman named Margaret Rawlins filed for civil damages against Peter Vidvard.   In court she testified that her husband, upon whom she and her children depended for support, went drinking at the bar of a Utica hotel called the “The Yorkville House.”  She claimed that he got drunk on liquor sold him there, fell from the loft of a barn on the premises, broke his arm and sustained other injuries that prevented him from working for more than six months.

Although Vidvard owned the hotel, he had leased it to a “Mrs. B” who operated it.  Ms. Rawlins obviously saw Peter, rather than the hotel management, as having the deep pockets to pay compensation.  The jury was sympathetic to her story and awarded her $150.  Vidvard appealed the verdict to the New York Supreme Court which ruled on the case in 1884.  The high court overturned the earlier verdict finding that there was no evidence that Vidvard had been responsible or negligent in any way for the accident.  It stated: “If the sale of three glasses of whiskey to the same person within a few minutes would authorize an award of exemplary damages against a tenant, it would not be in a case against a landlord without further proof.”  And there was none.

Happy as Peter must have been about the judgment, he was facing other difficulties.  His nephew,  Francis X. Oster,  in 1884 had quit his uncle’s employment and struck out independently.  Initially with partners, Oster started his own wholesale and retail liquor business in Utica, competing with P. Vidvard & Son.  More important,  Peter’s own health had been declining for the past several years.   In June 1885, he died, age 65 years, 9 months and 12 days old.  A member of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Utica, we can assume he was buried in the church cemetery at Webster and Eagle Streets, surrounded by grieving family and friends. Although written before his death, the following tribute in a tome called “A Historical, Statistical & Descriptive Review” of Oneida County might serve for Peter’s obituary: “We may fairly say that no one in this community is more highly respected and esteemed for his general upright dealing and amiable and generous disposition.”

The business of P. Vidvard & Son was carried on by Jules for a number of years after his father’s death.   White’s Utica Pottery, challenged by competition for markets, went out of business in 1910.  Thus all the containers shown here are at least 103 years old and possibly a decade or two older.

Lacking a picture of Peter Vidvard tombstone,  we do have his name carved in marble as one of the donors in 1870 to purchase a new bell for St. Mary’s Church.  It can be found at the lower right hand corner of the list of names on the tablet shown here.  Unlike the other people memorialized for their gift, Peter chose to advertise. The name inscribed is P. Vidvard & Son.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Hasterliks: Six Brothers and Whiskey Galore

There were six Hasterlik brothers,  all of whom spent some time in the liquor business in Chicago.  Their principal company, Hasterlik Bros., had a thirty-five year run and over time merchandised dozens of whiskey and other spirits brands.

The brothers were all born in Slatina, Bohemia, the sons of Joseph and Esther Hasterlik. In 1874, Ignatz at the age of 16, with his younger brother, Charles, only 14, with a third brother, Adolph,  emigrated to the United States heading straight for Chicago.  There they joined another brother, Simon, who had preceded them and was living with an aunt, Katherine Steiner.  Katherine’s husband appears already to have been in the liquor business and had taken Simon as a partner.

Not long after their arrival, Ignatz and Charles, shown here in maturity, pooled their meager capital and started their own small liquor store.   The business grew rapidly and as it did other members of the Hasterlik family over time arrived in Chicago.  They included Henry, who was blind, Samuel, the youngest,  a sister Babette, and last the parents, Joseph and Esther.

By 1886,  Ignatz and Charles had expanded their trade to wholesale liquors and wines, and advertised themselves as importers and wholesale dealers in bottlers supplies, manufacturers of cased liquors,  distiller/rectifiers of cordials and whiskeys and brewers of lagered beers.  As shown on a letterhead from that era, their address was a large building at 216 and 218 Randolph Street, Chicago.   Of this facility, the Chicago Times in 1892 reported:  This is among the leading houses in its line in the West. It carries the largest stock of the finest goods, at all times, the stock on hand seldom, if ever, falling below $400,000 in value, while the sales reach $1,500,000 a year. It occupies the entire five floors, 40 x 200 feet each, in the great building where their offices are located.

The Times noted that the Hasterliks' brewery, known as the Best Brewing Company of Chicago, was located at the corner of Hendron and Fletcher Streets and covered grounds 135 by 250 feet.  The brewery was under the direct management of Charles Hasterlik.  Brothers Simon and Adolph joined Hasterlik Bros. but eventually left the company,  apparently under good terms.  Simon continued in the liquor business on his own from 1892 until 1918.  Adolph appeared in Chicago directory listings running a saloon and alcohol retail sales but later left the whiskey trade to become an insurance agent.  In 1889 the youngest Hasterlik, Samuel, was made a partner in the liquor firm.

Hasterlik Brothers over time advertised some eighty brands of spirits.  Those included “German Nordhausen Kornschnapps,”  “Old Shamrock Irish Whiskey,” and “Thistle Dew Old Scotch Whiskey.”   The partners also featured a menu of tonic drinks. “Brazilian Quinine Bitters” would cure indigestion, dyspepsia and nervous debility.   “Balsam Tolu”  was good for such ailments as bronchitis, asthma and even tuberculosis.   Each of these remedies had a strong alcoholic content.

The flagship whiskey brand was “Daniel Brady Rye and Bourbon.”  Company advertising showed that  Daniel Brady whiskey and rye bottlings came from the Old Times Distillery (Kentucky) and the Penwick distillery (Pennsylvania), respectively.  Shown here is a saloon sign that portrays a Wild West scene, illustrating cowboys chasing one of their kind who is holding up a bottle of whiskey. The caption says:  “The Demand.” The next picture shows the cowboys enjoying a drink as of one their number slugs down booze straight from the bottle.  The sign also advertises other Hasterlik brands:  “Physicians and Surgeons Medical Rye,”  “Lakeside Club Rye & Bourbons,”  “Paul Revere Rye & Bourbon,”

A second giveaway sign to saloons advertised two additional Hasterlik brands, ”Queensbury Rye” and “Crab Blossom Rye.  Like the earlier advertisement this display featured men on horseback, but this time at a race track, and the drinks were being poured, not on the prairie, but in the judges’ stand.  Interestingly, the Hasterliks do not seem to have registered the trademark any one of their brands.

Meanwhile the Ignatz and Charles were having personal lives.  Ignatz, now in his forties was found by the 1900 census unmarried and living with his blind brother, Henry.  They each gave their occupation as “liquor wholesale.”   In 1906, at age 48, Ignatz abandoned bachelorhood to marry Lillian, a woman twenty years younger.   She had been born in Chicago of immigrant parents from Austria.  Ignatz and Lillian had one child, Therese, born the same year as their marriage.  Younger brother Charles had married much earlier, about 1883. His bride was Louise.  Born in France and an immigrant to Chicago she was only three years his junior.  This couple had one child, Clara, born in 1884.  The 1900 census found a bachelor brother, Samuel, age 34, living with the couple.

By this time the Hasterliks clearly had a dynasty going.  A 1906 directory of Chicago directorships painted the picture:   Ignatz was president, treasurer and director of Hasterlik Brothers and a vice-president and director of Fairmont Brewing and a director of the Best Brewing Company. Charles was president, manager and director of Best Brewing Company, a director of Hasterlik Brothers, and a director of the Fairmont Brewing Company of Cincinnati and the Economical Beer Brewing Co. of Chicago.  Henry, despite his visual handicap, had been tapped as a director of Hasterlik Brothers and all three breweries.  Samuel was a vice president of Hasterlik Brothers and Fairmont Brewing and a director of Best Brewing.  Simon, the eldest who operated his own liquor store now was vice-president of a Chicago brewery called Crown.  The sister, Babette, had married Ignatz Neumann, who was listed as was secretary of the Hasterliks' Best Brewery. Only Adolph, now selling insurance, was omitted from the directory.

In 1894, the Hasterliks decided their quarters on Randolph Street were too cramped. That year they moved to 271-273 Franklin Street and when that structure eventually proved inadequate, moved again in 1909 to 407-415 Aberdeen Street.  That building, shown here, was three stories and a half-block long.  It was the company home when Prohibition shut down all the Hasterlik alcohol-related enterprises in 1919.

I have not tried to trace the Hasterliks into the post-1920 period.  Their company and brands, like most others, did not survive the 14 years until Prohibition was repealed and liquor once again was legal.  My guess is that all the brothers had built sufficient fortunes by that time to survive the shock of the Dry Era.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A. P. Simms Was “In” and “Ousted” in Mississippi

A.P. Simms once was a big man in Natchez, Mississippi.  He owned a furniture shore.  He owned a meat market.   He owned a grocery store. He owned an express and telegraph company. He owned a saloon and a flourishing liquor business.  That profited him very little when, in 1909 he was, as a Mississippi court ruled in unusually strong terms, “perpetually banned from doing business in the state.” 

From indications, Simms was born Alpha P. Simms, likely in Arkansas.  For most of his early life, he seems to have avoided census-takers.  By the time Simms entered the public record in the late 1800’s he was already a thriving merchant in Natchez, Mississippi, with establishments on the town’s main commercial avenue,  Franklin Street, shown here as it looked in 1900.  He owned the A.P Simms Furniture Store, a large retail establishment that spread from 627 to 635 on Franklin. Simms’ meat market made news in Natchez when it burned in  1907.

This energetic merchant also was a family man.  From burial records and other sources, his wife was Mary Watkins, apparently known by a nickname “Cle.”  She was six years Simms junior and likely also Arkansas born.  Records indicate only one son, born in 1889 and given a name that indicates his father’s sly humor:  Jesse James Simms.

Simms big money maker was whiskey.  He ran his saloon in connection with a grocery store as attested by a drink token, selling whisky by the drink over the bar and bottled for retail customers.  He appears to have been a rectifier, not a distiller, a dealer who mixed liquor up in the back room and sold it in his own containers.  In Simms' case, and one of the reasons he is remembered, his whiskey was sold in a variety of stoneware jugs.  He must have kept potters working in the Mississippi Delta very busy turning out his containers.  Some are primitive, with rough exteriors and his name and "fine whiskey" stenciled in cobalt across the front. Others bear more sophisticated lettering and Albany slip brown tops on Bristol glaze white bodies.


Simms did not just practice his enterprise on the Natchez side of the Mississippi River.  He also ran a saloon on the west bank, at Vidalia, Louisiana. The cross river proximity of the town is shown below.  That liquor outlet got him in trouble with the authorities in Vidalia.  In 1900 he was sued by the town for the amount of  $750, the price of a retail saloon license.   Simms claimed he already had a license and did not need another.   He was, he said, conducting a “Jim Crow” saloon.  He was selling to whites at one bar and to African-Americans at another bar, separate from the first but in under the same roof.  The saloon was so constructed that the bartender could serve whites on one side and then step immediately around the corner to the colored bar and serve customers. His lawyer likened the arrangement to the Jim Crow sections on railway and trolley cars.

When the district court dismissed this argument and ruled for the town, Simms appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court.  That body contended that the Jim Crow argument held no water.  Louisiana law mandated, the court ruled, “that there be separate saloons, kept in separate buildings, one from the other, i.e. the white separated from the colored.”  The panel ordered Simms to buy another license and pay court costs.

A more drastic blow to Simms’ liquor business was to fall eight years later. The voters of  Mississippi with their strong ties to the Baptist Church in 1908 voted a complete ban on the sale of alcohol throughout the state.  Natchez, despite its reputation as a rip-roaring river town, was left high and very dry.  A. P. Simms was undaunted.  Forced to shut down his saloon and liquor retail operation,  he simply moved his business across the river to “wet”  Louisiana and set up shop.  A Simms jug dated 1909, shown here, helps tells the story.  Not only did Simms plan to sell whiskey in Louisiana,  but also to send it into an increasingly thirsty Mississippi.  Several state courts had ruled that the Interstate Commerce clause of the Constitution made mail order sales into “dry” areas legal until such time as the U.S. Congress decreed otherwise.

Although liquor dealers often sent their products into states where liquor was banned via existing parcel companies and railway express,  those conduits increasingly were being harassed by arrests and legal action from local and state authorities, despite the Interstate Commerce clause. As a result, many carriers were refusing to carry booze into dry areas. Simms, always the entrepreneur, sought to obviate that problem by establishing his own carrier in 1908.  He called it the “Simms Express & Telegraph Company.”  He clearly intended it to be a large operation, advertising for an electric generating plant with sufficient output to supply 250 large lights.   His intent appeared to be taking telegraphed orders for whiskey and shipping it through his Louisiana operation back into Mississippi,  delivering it via his own express company.

It did not take officials in the State of Mississippi long to determine that A.P. and the Simms Express and Telegraph Company were attempting to skirt Prohibition laws.  In 1909 they enjoined him from selling or delivering liquors in the state.  Simms, not one to buckle to the authorities, took the case to the Mississippi Supreme Court asking that the injunction be dissolved.  The court not only disagreed, it made the injunction permanent.   Simms was  enjoined “perpetually” from doing business in Mississippi,  his company was declared “ousted from the State” and he was required to pay hundreds of dollars in attorney fees, expert witnesses and all court costs. 

Simms was finished as a whiskey man in Mississippi but apparently continued his Louisiana saloons, white and Jim Crow, in Vidalia, as well as maintaining a wholesale liquor trade.  When Louisiana went dry with the imposition of  National Prohibition in 1920, he was forced to shut those operations down and moved to New Orleans where he ran what has been described as “cheap hotel or rooming house.”  When the fire marshall in 1923 ordered the building torn down, it elicited three lawsuits from Simms in the courts of Louisiana.  As usual, he lost and was assessed all court costs.

In 1927 at the age of 62,  A.P. Simms passed away.  Ousted perpetually in life from Mississippi by court order he returned there in death.  His monument can be found in the Zurhellen Section I of the Natchez City Cemetery where he lies next to his wife.  But the true monuments to this enterprising (but not always successful) whiskey man are the many and varied stoneware jugs he left behind.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Sonn Brothers: Jewish Cowboys in Manhattan?

In July 1888 the New York Times reported a court appearance in which one of New York’s “Finest” described how he, a cop policing his beat along Seventh Avenue in Manhattan,  saw a two men, both on horseback, charging down the busy central city street at what he  described as a “furious gallop.”  He gave chase and caught one of the men and arrested him but the other rider got away.  The culprit’s name was Henry Sonn, one half of Sonn Brothers, well known in the Big Apple as liquor merchants.

Was Henry Sonn trying out to be a cowboy?  Was his brother, Hyman Sonn, the horseman that got away?  Were the Sonn Brothers, in effect, in the way of becoming Jewish Cowboys in Manhattan?   It could be argued that the siblings exhibited many of  the positive characteristics attributed to  cowboys, namely, fearless against the odds, adventurous spirits, multi-talented and coming out winners in the end.

The Sonn brothers were far from the “manor born.”  Their father, Hess Sonn, was a emigrant from Bavaria whose occupation was given in the U.S. census as “peddler.”  Hyman was born overseas in 1851 and as a mere babe accompanied his father and mother when they emigrated to the United States the following year, settling in New York.  Henry Sonn was born in New York a year later.  Both received public education and were schooled religiously in their Jewish heritage.  When and how they entered commerce is obscure, but in 1875 a business directory lists the Sonn Brothers selling fish at at 119 Warren Street.  In succeeding years they were recorded in New York City directories as grocers, first at 181 Reade Street and subsequently at 83 North Moore Street.

As grocers, they also sold liquor and about the turn of the century, the brothers made a shift in their mercantile interests and established Sonn Bros. Company, wholesale and retail liquor dealers.  The 1900 census found them living on West 74th Street in Manhattan in adjacent townhouses.   Their store initially was located at 410 Washington Street, with a move to 145 Washington by 1906.  Shown above is a Sonn wall sign from a Washington Street location.

Hyman and Henry were not distillers, but rectifiers, taking supplies of “raw” whiskey, mixing them to taste and bottling them in flask sized and larger glass bottles embossed with their name.  Bottle diggers continue to find Sonn containers in privies and dumps in the New York area.  Unlike many wholesalers who featured a blizzard of brand names in hopes of snaring customers,  Sonn Bros. bucked the trend and essentially featured only two labels.

Their flagship brand was “Buckingham Rye,” whose trademark the firm registered with the Federal Patent and Trademark Office in 1906.  The label featured a shield with the brother’s logo on it.  The brothers may have revolted against industry wisdom by sticking to two brands, but they were in the mainstream of their trade in being generous with their giveaways to bars and restaurants stocking their brands.  If a saloonkeeper featured Buckingham Rye he could expect to be offered a colorful reverse glass sign for his establishment.   The Sonns also could supply him with shot glasses and a back of the bar bottle with attractive an ad for Buckingham Rye.  Nor did the brothers neglect their second brand, “Old Cabinet Rye.”  That whiskey could boast shot glasses, one fancy with a rosette design and another plain, as well as a back-of-the-bar bottle with a gilded label that featured Old Cabinet on one side and Sonn Bros. on the other.

As their liquor trade grew, the brothers expanded to offices in Philadelphia and Chicago.   As early as 1900 the Sonns also opened a thriving real estate business in New York City, demonstrating their many talents.  The 1900 census listed Henry as a realtor with no mention of the whiskey interests. The brothers also were prominent in Jewish philanthropic affairs, contributing considerable amounts of money to less fortunate members of their religious community.  For a time Hyman was active as a member of the Board of Jewish Charities of New York.

Through their multiple enterprises the brothers continued to grow prosperous.  That was made clear in a New York Times story headlined “Fire’s Havoc in Mansion.”  It recorded an early morning blaze that raged through the four story residence of Hyman Sonn. It was located at 29 West Seventy-second street, between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue.  The fire destroyed, the story said, “sumptuous decorations and many valuable works of art.”  Hyman and his entire household escaped to the street in their night clothes but were able to snatch $30,000 worth of jewels (worth at least 10 times that today)  from the flames.

Another disaster was on the horizon for the Sonns with the coming of National Prohibition in 1920.  Unlike other liquor dealers who were bankrupted by its advent,  the brothers had been provident in being able to fall back on their flourishing real estate business.  The 1921 Manhattan telephone directory no longer listed them as liquor dealers, but rather as "Sonn Bros. Import & Export Co.” at the same Washington Street  address.  In the Exporters' Encyclopedia, 17th Annual Edition, 1922, they were described as having  “Foreign Markets: Africa, South and Central America, Far East. / Goods specialized in: Machinery, chemicals, paper, textiles, general merchandise." The Sonn Bros. import/export business stayed at that address until approximately 1925. After 1925 Hyman and Henry seemed to have been engaged exclusively in real estate.

Oh yes,  we never settled on Henry Sonn riding roughshod down Seventh Street in downtown Manhattan. He was adamant in claiming he was not trying to emulate a cowboy. He told the judge that he was just learning to ride a horse, that he lost control of the animal while practicing with an instructor, and the horse on its own charged down the street with Henry hanging on for dear life.  The second rider clearly was not his brother, Hyman, but his unnamed riding instructor, who had fled police rather than be arrested.  As it turns out, the Sonns, who had many positive qualities expected of cowboys, were not emulating their Wild West riding style. The judge bought Henry’s story and dismissed the charges.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Dietrich Meschendorf : Whiskey Advisor to Presidents

Dietrich Meschendorf, known as “Dick” among his friends and colleagues, probably had never heard of whiskey until he left his native Germany as a youth.  Yet later as a Kentucky bourbon-maker he was recognized as an authority and provided advice to two American Presidents about whiskey.

Meschendorf, born in 1858, emigrated to America, according to census records, in 1874 when he was 16 years old.  His whereabouts for the next 15 years are shrouded in time but the assumption is that he gravitated to Kentucky and was engaged in the liquor trade and saved his money.  In 1889 he entered the public record as an investor and officer of the Old Times Distillery of Louisville.

That facility had been established in 1869 by Kentuckian John Roach, while Meschendorf was still a young boy in Germany.  Roach sold it to Anderson Biggs in 1878.  When Biggs died in 1889, his wife disapproved of the liquor business and quickly sought to divest it. According to reports Widow Biggs sold it for the first bid she got, a bargain basement $17,000.   Among the lucky purchasers was Meschendorf who became secretary and treasurer of the company.  Having the capacity to produce 350 gallons of whiskey a day,  the plant was located close to three train lines with switching capacity to every railroad reaching Louisville.  The new owners expanded the distillery significantly.  By 1893 it boasted five brick and iron clad warehouses, heated with steam, with the capacity to hold 65,000 barrels of aging product.

When the distillery president died in 1890, Meschendorf took over the management.    He was identified by a contemporary publication  as “...a young and pushing businessman.  And a self-made man deserving of success.”    After seven years running the Old Times Distillery with its “Old Times” brand,  the immigrant entrepreneur left that organization and bought another Louisville area distillery known as the Mayflower Distillery.   That facility had been found about 1880 as D.L. Graves & Company and was located at 242 Transit Street in Louisville.  Its flagship brand was “Mayflower Whiskey.”   In 1882 Graves sold his interest and the subsequent owner changed the name to the Mayflower Distillery. In 1892 after running the distillery for a decade,  the interim owner sold it to Meschendorf who changed the name once again.  He called it the Old Kentucky Distillery. 

Insurance underwriter records indicate that Meschendorf’s distillery was of frame construction. The property included three warehouses: Warehouse A -- brick with a metal or slate roof and located 46 ft east of the still. Warehouse B -- brick with a metal or slate roof, located 63 ft SW of the still. Warehouse C -- ironclad with a metal or slate roof, located 6 ft beyond warehouse A. There were cattle pens 115 feet northeast of the still-house.   Dietrich, who served as president and manager of the Old Kentucky Distillery for the rest of his life,  wasted no time in expanding further.  The tin sign that opens this post exhibits the facility at its height.

Meschendorf also maintained a Louisville sales office, first located on Broadway at the southeast corner of 28th Street.   Subsequent moves took the store to 205 West Main Street in 1897 and to 215 West Main in 1902, along Louisville’s famed “Whiskey Row.” It remained at that address until a final move to 111 Main occurred in 1909.  Meanwhile, Meschendorf was pursuing other whiskey opportunities.  In 1891 he purchased an interest in the Pleasure Park Ridge Distillery on the Dixie Highway in Louisville, becoming its vice president.  He also found time for a personal life, at 41, marrying a woman named Clara who was eleven years younger.  Clara was a native born Kentuckian of Irish ancestry.  They are not recorded having children.

In addition to his business acumen,  Meschendorf appears to have had exceptional marketing abilities. Through his Mayflower Distillery he featured a number of brands, “Kentucky Dew,” “Cherokee Spring” and “Old Kentucky”; later “Old Watermill,” “Normandy Rye,” and “Old Jefferson County.” His blends were “Woodbury,” “Old Stoney Fort,” “Royal Velvet,” and  “Dew Drops Malt.”  Old Kentucky trade cards and labels demonstrate a definite talent for merchandising his products.   The distillery’s flagship brand was Kentucky Dew, a straight whiskey that bore a distinctive label.  For it and other brands, Dietrich issued a series of giveaways for favored clients,  usually saloons, in the form of colorful signs, shot glasses and back of the bar bottles.

As he continued to build his Old Kentucky Distillery,  Meschendorf also was investing in other enterprises.  In 1904 he joined a member of the famous Medley family to buy the Daviess County Distilling Company and take over joint ownership. George Medley ran the operation.  Dietrich also has been reported having a financial interest in the Eminence Distillery in Jefferson County, Kentucky.   Moreover, like other Kentucky whiskey men, Meschendorf was interested in thoroughbred horses and owned the Waldeck Stud Farm near Louisville. His prize horse was consistent winner, Garry Herman.

Meanwhile the reputation of this German immigrant for knowing how to produce good, unadulterated whiskey had grown to a national reputation.  Years after his death a liquor-related publication would recall his strong emphasis on allowing only quality materials into his distillery right down to the number of hoops on the barrels in which his product aged.  A Louisville source called him, “one of the best in the whiskey trade in this city.”  Thus it was probably no surprise when Meschendorf was called before a special Executive Branch panel and a meeting with President Theodore Roosevelt to in connection with the Pure Food and Drug legislation of 1906.

Like other Kentucky distillers who abhorred the widespread adulteration of whiskey then rampant in the country, Meschendorf backed the Act, but he may well have broken with his colleagues on the vexing question of whether blended whiskey was deserving of the name of “whiskey” or only the straight kind.   Industry stalwarts like Col. E. B. Taylor argued strongly for the latter.  My hunch is that Meschendorf, who had a profitable line of blended spirits, may have had a different idea.  Because the issue was not solved in the Roosevelt Administration,  a new commission was empowered to look into the issue by President Taft.  Once again Meschendorf was summoned to Washington.  In the end, Taft found that “whiskey was whiskey” and the blended products of the Old Kentucky Distillery were as legitimate as its straight bourbon.

Meschendorf’s success also brought prosperity.  During the early 1900s he bought a home
in nearby Oldham County, still the wealthiest county in Kentucky and among the wealthiest in America.  One of its bucolic roadways is shown here. For decades Oldham had been popular as a residence for Louisville’s well-off businessmen and professionals. The 1910 census found Dietrich living there with Clara and two African-American servants.  His occupation was given simply as:  “Distiller.”

But Dietrich’s time was growing short.  Not long after he returned from advising President Taft in Washington, in the spring of 1911 his health took a turn for the worse.  Doctors provided little help and he decided that the climate of South Texas suited him better than Kentucky or other climes.   He died in San Antonio in November 1911.  His body was returned to Louisville where his funeral was held in the home of a brother-in-law, attended only by family and close friends.  He was  53 years old.

By dying when he did,  Meschendorf was spared seeing the destruction of many things he had helped build.  Just  a year later one of the biggest fire losses in the whiskey trade in many years occurred when one of the bonded warehouses of the Daviess County Distilling Company took fire and burned to the ground.  Twelve thousand barrels of whiskey were destroyed at an estimated value (in 1911 dollars) of $300,000.  The press account noted that although insurance would recompense some of the loss, the remainder would fall on the estate of Dietrich Meschendorf and his partner.  As for the Old Kentucky Distillery, following the founder’s demise, his subordinates took over management and ran the business until it was closed by Prohibition.

In 1923 existing stocks were removed from the Louisville distillery and the warehouses razed.  The fine brick bottling house that Meschendorf had built was kept unused during Prohibition, according to sources, and refitted for bottling after Repeal.  Two years later the distillery itself was heavily damaged by fire but the remaining portion was used for several years as a riding school.  In 1960 all the remaining structures were leveled to construct  an interstate highway.

Perhaps some will conclude that all the accomplishments of this German immigrant  in time were wiped away. I do not agree.  I prefer to speculate that Dietrich Meschendorf’s testimony about the meaning of “whiskey” was the one statement that particularly caught the attention of President Taft and led to his decision on the use of the word, a definition that has held to this very day.  

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Frank Lalley: A Connecticut Yankee “Goes Kentucky”

It often has been said that Kentucky’s major attractions are whiskey, horses and attractive women.   I have no information on the last named, but Frank E. Lalley,  a Connecticut  liquor dealer and entrepreneur, made Kentucky whiskey and Kentucky-bred horses, a major passion in his life.

It may be a stretch to call Lalley, a “Yankee,” because he was born to Irish immigrant parents  in 1859.  But his birthplace was Massachusetts and he grew up in New England,  eventually relocating to Connecticut. That should be sufficient pedigree to qualify as a Yankee.  Lalley settled in Bridgeport where in the early 1880s he opened a wholesale and retail liquor store.  He may also have operated as a “rectifier,” blending raw whiskeys to taste and bottling them under his own labels.

In Bridgeport in 1880, he also found a wife named Mary, who like himself was a child of Irish immigrants.  He was 21 years old, Mary was 22.  Together they would have four children,  Frank born in 1883, Mary in 1886, Walter in 1894 and Fred in 1985

Like other rectifiers,  Lalley seems to have been troubled by the need to keep a steady supply of  raw whiskey.  During the late 1800s there was a trend toward Eastern liquor interests either to buy distilleries in Kentucky or to contract for their entire annual output.  Whiskey dealers not in on the game could find themselves without needed supplies.  As Lalley looked for a supplier, his attention fell on the town of Cynthiana in Harrison Country, Kentucky.

That was the site of a distillery on the Licking River, shown here, that had been built right after the Civil War and sold to a banker named L. H. Van Hook.   The plant burned in 1869 but was immediately rebuilt. Insurance underwriter records show that the distillery was of frame construction with a metal or slate roof. The property was noted to include cattle in frame pens and three warehouses:  Warehouse No. 1 -- part free, built of brick with a metal or slate roof, located 40 ft north of the still.  Warehouse No. 2 -- adjoining No. 1 and of similar construction. Warehouse No. 3C -- iron-clad with a metal or slate roof, located 120 ft north of the still.

By 1882 the mashing capacity of the distillery was 300 barrels daily with an output of 3,000 barrels annually.  The three warehouses had only capacity for 7,500 barrels which necessitated rapid sell off of “young” whiskey, exactly the ingredient Lalley was looking for.   After a succession of owners in 1888 the Van Hook Distillery was sold to Felix S. Ashbrook, young member of a well-known Kentucky whiskey family.  He renamed the distillery for himself but kept the Van Hook whiskey brand.  In time,  possibly acceding to the blandishment of Eastern money,  he sold a major interest to Lalley and others in a combine.  Frank Lalley became president of the distillery, which continued to be managed by Ashbrook.  Under their direction the plant grew considerably.

With his whiskey supply more assured,  Lalley’s business seems to have prospered. His featured brands were “Brooklawn,” “Three Star”  and “Monogram.”  He put his liquor in elaborately embossed square bottles, as shown here, and issued shot glasses bear his labels to favor customers.  The 1910 U.S. Census found Lalley at the age of 51 living with Mary and all four of his children in an upscale Bridgeport neighborhood.  His occupation is given as “wholesale merchant and liquors.”   Son Frank was selling life insurance. The other children were either at home or in school.  The Lalleys could afford live-in three servants in their extensive household.

On his frequent trips to Kentucky,  Lalley caught “horse fever.”  He began to invest in equines for harness racing. Rather than own part or all of a horse farm, his strategy was to buy already tested racers, itself an expensive proposition.  His signal most important purchase was of a horse named Peter Manning,  shown here after a cigar was named for him.  Peter Manning was the World Champion trotter, having done the mile in 1.56 minutes.  Recognizing that people would want to see this horse personally,  Lalley put the horse to trotting exhibitions at dozens of county and state fairs.  The prize horse later was sold to the Hanover Shoe Farms where he remained an attraction.

The onset of Prohibition caused a major change in Lalley’s life. Not only did his liquor dealership shut down, the Harrison County Distillery was closed.  Over the next few years the whiskey stored there was shipped by rail to a central location where it was bottled and distributed to medical supply houses for “medicinal purposes.”  The distillery buildings were put to other uses.  Lalley was in his early 60s when these events occurred but vigorous enough to launch on another career.  He became a major force in the real estate market in Bridgeport, advertising widely in local newspapers.

As he aged, Lalley’s health declined.  He was stricken with cancer and began to spend his winters in Florida at the home of his daughter Mary.  In March of 1939 while living in Palm Beach, age 80, he fell and fractured his hip.  Not long after he died of complications. He was eulogized, one obituary said:  “...As a genial, modest man who enjoyed an extensive acquaintance among both business and horseman friends throughout the United States.”  In short, this Connecticut Yankee  “went Kentucky,”  fell in love with its whiskey and horses -- and was fondly remembered for both.