Tuesday, April 30, 2013

James Wolcott Was Tip Top with Tip Trays

Pre-Prohibition whiskey men be recognized for a lot of reasons,  some bad, some good.  A plethora of court cases can get someone known, as can violators of the 1906 Food and Drug laws.  On the positive side we remember those early liquor dealers who gave the public not only a good drink but an artistic merchandising approach.  In that context,  James E. Wolcott of Rochester, New York, and the liquor company bearing his name deserve to be remembered as superior for their contribution to artistic tip trays.  Wolcott was “tip top” with that saloon giveaway.

Wolcott was born in Rochester on April 20, 1850.  We have the unusual benefit of having him captured by the U.S. Census of that year as a one month old baby.  His father, George, was a 33-year-old liquor dealer in the New York town; his mother Caroline, five years younger.   A two-year-old brother, Henry, rounded out the family in 1850.  James attended the public schools of Rochester and also, according to a biography, spent time at Professor Satterlee’s secondary school.

As a kind of natural progression,  he entered his father’s liquor business at the age of 22.  That establishment had been founded in 1827 by E. Pherus of Rochester.  Within a few years George Wolcott and his brother bought out Pherus out. When the brother retired, George brought James into the business as a partner but after a few years, the father too retired and the son was left to run the organization.  In the meantime James was having a personal life.  In 1874 in Rochester, he married Isla J. Chase who like himself had been born in New York.  They would have three children,  Carolyn, George and Charles.

James Wolcott proved to have a real genius for merchandising his liquor.  In an 1877 Rochester business directory he described his firm as “Distillers, rectifiers, and wholesale dealers in pure double copper distilled old rye, bourbon and wheat whiskies....”  The address given was “East End of Clarissa Street Bridge.”  That was the company’s location during its entire 90 years of existence.  In the 1880 census, Wolcott described his occupation as “distiller.” More likely he was a rectifier,  blending a number of his own brands from raw whiskey obtained elsewhere.  Among his labels were “Wolcott’s 1827 Rye,” “Brookdale,” “Delaware,” “Malted Wheat Whiskey,” and “Old Candlelight Rye.” 

The flagship brand was “Cornhill Rye,” first listed as the company “specialty” in 1895.  It was a name with strong recognition for many Rochester residents.  Corn Hill was one of Rochester’s most historic districts and Clarissa Street , named after the daughter of an early land owner, one of the district’s well known avenues.   As early as 1810 freed black slaves were living in Western New York and Rochester’s first African-American neighborhood was located there.  Corn Hill is currently on the National Historical Register.

Where Wolcott really came to distinguish himself was in his saloon giveaways.  Tip trays, usually about  six inches in diameter,  had come into fashion for all sorts of businesses as the process of color lithography on metal became perfected in the United States.  For bars and restaurants, however, trays were a “natural.”  Recognizing their promise, J. E. Wolcott & Company advertised Cornhill Rye with a wide variety of these items.  Shown here are an array of trays, three with the pictures of comely women and others depicting a bottle, a stag and a mare and her colt.  The tray with the illustration of an Indian chief is perhaps the most interesting.  It appears not to have been produced by a lithographic process and looks almost hand painted.  The firm also gave away to favored customer shot glasses advertising Cornhill Whiskey and a tall glass for its 1827 Highball Blended Whiskey.

If making and selling whiskey was his occupation, raising and racing horses was Wolcott’s passion,  indicated by the horses on a tip tray and repeated illustrations of equines in his liquor ads.  Regularly owning one or two thoroughbreds,  Wolcott was a member of the Gentlemen’s Driver Association in Northern New York and regularly raced his steeds on the Rochester Raceway, in which he had a financial interest.  His biographer says that this whiskey man became a well-known figure in racing circles and it was bruted about “that any horse belonging  to James E. Wolcott was sufficient guarantee of its worth and highbred qualities.”  Walcott also was active as a Mason and attained the 32nd degree in the Scottish Rite.

His outside interests likely were the cause of Woltcott’s leaving his company’s management and ultimately its ownership.  About 1880 he had hired a Wisconsin-born clerk named  John F. Zimmer.  Zimmer had come to Rochester as a child, been educated there and got his start in business with J.E. Wolcott & Co.  He had risen through the ranks, been made a partner, and in 1900 entered into an ownership agreement with Walcott for the company.  Zimmer reorganized it, naming himself as president and Thomas J. Naylon as secretary.  He kept Wolcott’s name and location.  It has been suggested that some of his financing might have come from the New York & Kentucky Company, one element of the so-called “Whiskey Trust.”

After leaving the whiskey trade, Wolcott continued to be a major financial actor in Rochester.  He was a director of the Genesee Valley Trust Company and the Traders National Bank.  His biographer says of him:  “His opinions regarding financial and other business matters were considered sound and his ideas concerning management and experience were often received as conclusive.” 

Still a young 56 years old,  Wolcott was in Norfolk, Virginia, when he was stricken and died on November 24, 1906.  The cause of death was given as “apoplexy,”  a term not in general use today that once covered everything from strokes to heart attacks.   His funeral was held in St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, where he had been an active member, and he was buried in Rochester’s Mount Hope Cemetery while his grieving family stood by the graveside.  Shown here is Wolcott’s ivy covered headstone.

Wolcott posthumously earned a long biographical eulogy in the 1908 “History of Rochester and Monroe County” by William F. Peck.  Although Peck lavished on him many positive attributes, I believe the better tribute was presented shortly after his death as a resolution of the Vestry of St. Luke’s Church.  The resolution said of James Wolcott:  “Modest, kindly, firm and high-minded, the soul of honor and of courtesy in all his relationships and responsibilities, he illustrated in an eminent degree the qualities and the virtues of the Christian gentleman.”

The Wolcott Co. continued in business under Zimmer until 1917 when closed by the creeping paralysis caused by the coming of Prohibition throughout America.  As noted earlier,  the firm had survived 90 years at the same location, most of it under the Wolcott name.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Alexander "Sandy" Wood: Friend to the Famous

When Alexander, (“Sandy”) Wood died, his funeral was attended by former U.S. President Grover Cleveland, just one of the well known figures who were his buddies and fishing companions during his lifetime and who at his death came to pay tribute in Boston to the memory of this immigrant Scots whiskey man.

Wood, shown here in an undated photograph, was the son of Peter Wood and Janet (Jessie) Cleghorn and born in Kelso, Scotland,  in 1835.  At some point, with family members believed to include his mother and brother, he emigrated to New Brunswick, Canada, and settled in York County.   Alexander first appeared in public documents there in 1858 when he purchased some land in Manners Sutton Parish.

At the age of 32 in 1867 Wood moved to Boston.  Two years later he married Frances J. Sealy, the daughter of John and Elizabeth Sealy of Boston.  His wife,  nine years his junior, had emigrated with her parents from England.  The Woods would have four children.  During this period,  Alexander established a partnership with Marshall S. Pollard, a local businessman.  According to an 1872 Boston business directory,  under the name Wood, Pollard & Company, the two opened a cigar and grocery business at 204 Washington Street and a liquor distribution company at 100 & 102 Broadway. With the success of the latter,  the company moved to a larger building shown here at the corner of Friend and Causeway.

As did many grocers, Wood and Pollard featured their own brands, including coffees. On the liquor side, they were rectifiers,  that is, mixing up house blends of whisky from stocks furnished from Kentucky and other distilleries. For example, their firm is among those in an 1892 listing of companies being supplied by the Mayfield Distillery,  registered as #229 in the 5th District of Kentucky.  Wood, Pollard brand names included: "Cordova V. O. Rye,” "Elmwood,” "Kit Carson,” “A Rye,” "Nectar Gin,” "New Life Malt,” "Old Haynor,” "Oxford Rye,” "Snowdrop Gin,” "The Oxford, ", "Very Old Cabinet 1873, "W. P. & Co. Special Reserve Rye,” and "White Wheat Whiskey.” 

Drawing on the Yankee legacy,  the partners named their flagship brand “Lexington,”  specifically Lexington A.A.A. Rye, as shown here on a ceramic closure and on a labeled amber quart.  They also sold their whiskey in pint flasks and in clear “lady’s leg” bottles with a strong embossed name laterally across the surface.  They also imported a schnapps-like product from Schiedam, Netherlands,  and slapped their personalize label on it.  Like other Boston liquor dealers,  Wood believed in providing advertising giveaways to saloons and other favored customers.   For the former there were shot glasses;  for the latter a ceramic purple “nip” in the shape of a cabin.

Amid this growing success,  Alexander met with tragedy.  Within a decade of his marriage to Frances who bore him three children, she died.  The 1880 U.S. Census found him, a widower,  living in Boston with his widowed mother, age 75, and three minor children,  Frank 10;  Ada , 7, and Jessie, 5.   Perhaps seeking a mother for his kids Wood married again two years later.  His second wife was Antoinette C. Urann.  This union would produce three more children, Fanny A., Antoinette S. J., and Alexander H.

Throughout this time Wood was returning regularly to New Brunswick during summers to fish.   In 1873 he and friends had purchased from a Canadian land company salmon fishing waters on the Southwest Miramichi River in Stanley Parish.   A man with an engaging and outgoing personality,  Sandy became acquainted with some of the leading figures of the Boston and beyond and would bring them fishing on his salmon-teeming river in Canada.  Among them were the the famous actor, Joseph Jefferson,  the governor of Massachusetts, William E. Russell, and most important, a President of the United States, Grover Cleveland.   Joining up in Boston the distinguished group of anglers would take a train through New England and into Canada.

Tragedy was to strike Sandy Wood a second time.  In 1891 his wife, Antoinette, after giving birth to her third child, died suddenly.  The Boston Globe of Nov. 8 provided these insights:   “ Mrs. Wood was a young woman of remarkable strength and grace of character, and her untimely death takes from her husband and children a most devoted wife and mother. She leaves three children, one a baby born shortly before her own death, and three stepchildren, to whom she had greatly endeared herself, and by whom she will always be remembered with affectionate tenderness.”   Her memorial service was held in the family home in the Savin Hill district.  Alexander, even though once more left with minor children,  did not marry again.

For the next few years Wood continued to manage the prosperous enterprises that he had founded decades before, to look after his children, and to continue his fishing parties to New Brunswick.  In June 1899 he himself died.  His memorial service, once again held  at the family’s Savin Hill home, drew a celebrity crowd.  Among them were former President Cleveland,  Joseph Jefferson, and four members of the Jefferson family.   They saw their friend’s body, according to the Boston Globe, “encased in a handsome casket, rested in one of the parlors, surrounded by numerous beautiful floral pieces.”   One pillow of pinks was from his partner, Marshall Pollard.  A simple service was said by the Rev. Christopher R. Eliot and then this Scots whiskey man was laid to rest in Boston’s Forest Hills Cemetery.

Wood’s last will and testament provided some insights into his wealth and character.  He left to his son, Frederick,  the house this heir was living in. He willed $5,000 cash to each of his children and then stipulated a that everything else among his possessions be divided equally.  These included “pictures, jewelry, silver, books, wearing apparel, household furniture, horses, carriages, and provisions.”  For the younger children, Wood appointed guardians and trustees.  Interestedly,  Wood said nothing about the disposition of the firm.  The absence suggests that the business was destined to be Pollard’s.

The fate of the company is shrouded in time.  When Marshall Pollard died thirteen years later in July at Marblehead, Massachusetts, age 70, he was credited by the New York Times as still managing Wood, Pollard & Co., “wholesale and retail grocers of Boston.”  After Pollard death the company reincorporated in 1913.   A 1916 Boston Chamber of Commerce listing indicated that members of the Pollard family were running the company.  At the time of Nation Prohibition in 1919, the firm was forced to terminate its liquor business.

Notes:  Some of the images and information here was derived from a website maintained by and for the descendants of Peter and Jessie Wood, a site that includes considerable material on Alexander Wood.  Census data and Boston Globe obituaries also were helpful in filling out the picture of this enterprising Scots immigrant and his family.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Holbergs: Were Creditors Left Holding the Jug?

During the late 1800s and early 1900s a family named Holberg founded a whiskey dynasty that extended to at least three states but appeared to have found considerable financial problems at every turning.  A question remains:  Were their creditors satisfied or were they left as dry as the Holberg jugs shown here?

According to a descendant,  Abraham Holberg emigrated to the United States from Germany some time about the mid-19th Century with three grown sons, all named after heroes of the Torah:  Jacob, Joseph and Moses.   Jacob is said to have settled in Mississippi;  Joseph in Texas and Moses, the subject of this sketch, in Alabama.   The 1860 census found Moses living in Mobile.  Then 29 years of age he was married to Flora Laura Holberg, a woman ten years his junior who also was an immigrant from Germany.  Over time their union produced six children.
Moses gave his occupation as “merchant” to the census taker.  Although his company apparently first showed up in Mobile business directories only later, evidence points to his having founded Holberg Mercantile Company perhaps as early as the 1880s.  Almost from the beginning, Moses appears to have been in financial hot water.  The Mississippi Supreme Court recorded an 1882 case in which a man named Charles E. Levy successfully sued Moses in Noxubee, Mississippi,  receiving a judgment “in a large amount” against him.

This financial setback apparently did not deter Moses Holberg from pursuing his mercantile interests,  most of which involved selling liquor. The Holberg firm carried on a vigorous mail order trade targeting those growing numbers of localities in the South where liquor could only be purchased from the outside sources.   Moses sold it in a variety of ceramic containers,  including round and cone top jugs.   The underglaze labels featured the family name in script and the slogan “Ask Your Friend.”  Holberg Mercantile subsequently added Cincinnati, Ohio,  to its locations, although the firm did not appear in that city’s directories of the period.

As he got older, Moses took members of his family into the business.  When he died at age 59 in 1890, it is not clear who among his relatives assumed immediate charge of the company. It may have been a son, Henry C. Holberg.  Another son, Abraham S., named after his grandfather,  seems to have taken particularly to the liquor trade.   The 1900 census found him living with Henry and two sisters;  he was 19 and his occupation was given as “bookkeeper,” likely for Holberg Mercantile.

After Moses’ death,  change came to the company.  It began to use embossed glass bottles for its whiskey,  possibly because of their reduced shipping weight.  The firm also added a mineral water line to its products.   A letter to the “Carbonator and Bottler” publication by a Holberg employee reported that it was running “two Crowns and Hutchinson tables, also a Bishops & Babcock latest improved continuous machine.”  The firm also  featured a line of soft drinks including “Red Feather Ginger Ale.”

By 1906 Abraham had taken over running Holberg Mechantile and had opened an outlet in New Orleans.  The label of a ceramic jug shows the three locations.  New Orleans may have appealed because it was close to the State of Mississippi which was fast going dry.  Abe may also have had an eye on his native Alabama, also a state where Prohibition was a hot issue.  This Holberg also was having financial problems.  In 1909 the company was hauled into Alabama’s bankruptcy court by creditors and put into receivership.  During the process a U.S. District Court in New Orleans also moved against Holberg Mercantile on behalf of three Cincinnati creditors that included suppliers of both raw whiskey and glass bottles. 

Emerging from that bankruptcy was a new company, located at 105 Tchoupitoulas Street in New Orleans.   Abraham  called it  A.S. Holberg & Co.  The move to Louisiana was a calculated one.  A survey of social workers nationwide later identified New Orleans as the the “wettest” city in America.  Another Prohibition era report declared southern Louisiana to be 90 percent wet. The state never declared statewide Prohibition. Abe issued a shot glass with his New Orleans address, adding that the quality liquor was from “Holberg Himself.”  

Aggressive advertising, however, was not enough to keep Holberg out of bankruptcy court once again.  A 1915 Wine and Spirits Journal story reported that a petition had been filed in the United State District Court of New Orleans requesting that Abe’s firm be declared an involuntary bankrupt.  This suit was filed by some of the biggest names in the distilling industry, including Paul Jones & Company and D. Sachs & Sons, both major companies in Louisville. (See my posts on Jones, Sept. 2014, and Sachs, Oct. 2011).  My assumption is that Holberg had been receiving whiskey for his blends from these manufacturers and failed to pay them as promised.  This bankruptcy proved to be the company’s last.  The Holberg organization disappeared from New Orleans directories the following year.

Abraham S., married and still a young man, went on to other pursuits.  The 1940 census found him living in Birmingham, Alabama,  with his wife.  His occupation was given as manager of a clay products company.   Moses, with his wife, Flora, is buried in the Springhill Avenue Temple Cemetery in Mobile.  Their tombstones are shown here.  The full story of what lay behind the Holbergs serial bankruptcies have eluded my research.  Thus the question posed at the beginning of this post remains unanswered.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Marcello Triaca Believed in Super-Sizing

“Do you want to super-size your order?”  None of us escapes being asked that fast food question in the new Millennium.   In the whiskey trade, however,  supersizing was the norm in the 19th and even into the 20th Century,  kept alive by a liquor dealership founded by Marcello Triaca of Baltimore.

The practice began in the 18th Century when whiskey was dispensed  by merchants to customers who brought their own containers,  usually jugs,  to be filled.  In those days bigger was better.   It meant fewer trips to the store for replenishment.   So whiskey often was taken away in one,  two, three and more gallon jugs.  In the latter part of the 1800s, however,  whiskey merchandising changed.   Glass bottles began to replace stoneware jugs.   Containers got smaller.   Customers gravitated to quarts and flasks, even pints.  A few whiskey men,  however, continued to sell their products in “super-sized” quantities.  Among them was Marcello Triaca.

The Triaca Company first appeared in Baltimore directories in 1882 under the  full name of its founder.   Marcello Triaca was identified as a wine and liquor distributor,  whose store was located at 98 Light St. Wharf and One Camden.   By 1890 the firm address had changed to 300 Light Street and 5 W. Camden.  Triaca also was known as a Baltimore restaurant owner. Details about his life are difficult to come by;  he seems to have avoided the census takers.

Self-described as “importers and dealers,”  in liquors and wine,  the Triaca Company had a strong advertising presence and at least a regional and even a national market for its multitude of brands.   They included “Old Triaca Club Whiskey,”  “Special Reserve Celebrated Rye,”  “Old Shoreman,” “Old Pardex” and “Old Nestor.”  Gin brands were “Old Orchard” and “Tipperary Dry.”

The Triaca Company consistently featured its whiskey super-sized.  Gallon and two gallon jugs were the norm.  Shown here are an example of beehive gallon jug,  approximately 10 and 1/2 inches high,and a shoulder jug of about the same size.  Evidence that Marcello’s firm still was super-sizing before and into the 20th Century is evidenced by Triaca Company jugs shown here.  In a period when most dealers were putting their liquors into quart glass bottles, Triaca Company continued to advertise its brands in large stoneware containers.  Symbolic of its frequent use of jugs perhaps, the company sponsored a jug band that played to audiences in Baltimore and vicinity.  One observer said of the Triaca Jug Band that it had a
“remarkably unique sound.”
In the late 1890s Marcello Triaca appears to have sold his liquor dealership to two fellow Italians, brothers-in-law Charles Vincenti and Andrew Ciotti.  According to census data, Vincenti had emigrated to the U.S. in 1890 and Ciotti in 1898.  Marcello’s name was was dropped and the firm became Triaca’s Exchange, located at 312-318 Light Street.  Another name change occurred in 1906 when the organization became simply the Triaca Company.  About 1909 the firm moved to the southwest corner of Pratt and Light Sts.   Each location of the company was in the vicinity of the Baltimore wharves where steamboats regularly plied up and down the Chesapeake Bay and beyond, carrying passengers and consumer goods, including cargoes of whiskey.

The new owners also operated another another Maryland whiskey distributorship,  Ciotti & Vincenti Co., and advertised the Triaca brands products along with their own products.   Among these were “Old Troy Maryland Rye” and “Colgate”,  the latter a brand that Ciotti & Vincenti registered in 1907.  Shot glasses, shown here, tie the firms together.  The glass touts Colgate as the “best whiskey bottled expressly for family & medicinal use.”  It has the C&V monogram in the upper left of the glass and “The Triaca Company” on the bottom.

The shotglass may provide a clue as to where Triaca obtained its whiskey stocks for jugging and distribution.   Colgate also was a brand name used by the Federal Distilling Company of Colgate Station, Canton, Maryland.  It is likely that Ciotti & Vincenti came to own some or all of that source for the spirituous liquids being purveyed through the Triaca Company jugs. 

The Triaca liquor dealership avoided the great disaster to that befell many in the Baltimore whiskey trade:  The Great Fire of 1904.  From February 6 to 8 of that year, a major conflagration in the downtown and wharf area claimed 140 acres, some 70 blocks.  Destroyed were 1,526 buildings.  More than 2,500 business were burned out, including many of the city’s major liquor houses. Thus, it is common in Baltimore city directories to see major changes in locations for whiskey dealers in 1904 and 1905.   Yet the Triaca Co.  continued unabated at its address after the fire,  although the conflagration came dangerously close to its location.

The firm Marcello Triaca founded in 1882,  however, could not avoid the disaster that creeping Prohibition wrought on the whiskey industry in Baltimore and elsewhere.  Charles Vincenti made an attempt, apparently successful for a while, to circumvent the anti-alcohol laws.   Working through the Triaca Company and its employees, he hatched a scheme to bribe Federal officials charged with enforcing Wartime Prohibition during World War One.  He is said to have made a profit of $500,000 -- $5 million in today’s dollar -- from selling 95,000 gallons of illegal whiskey.  Could some of this illicit Colgate booze have been carried as shown here?

By August of 1920 the Feds had caught up with the perpetrators, arresting 50 people in a major roundup.  Vincenti ran off to the British Island of Bimini, where  he was captured by U.S. agents, causing something of a international incident.  After making headlines in U.S. newspapers for months, Vincenti finally was fined $10,000 and sentenced to prison, along with many of the others he had suborned.  By that time the Triaca Company was out of business.

Whiskey super-sizing also disappeared with Prohibition.  When Repeal came, selling hard liquor in a container of a gallon or more was forbidden.  The largest bottle liquor sold today is the 1.5 liter,  about 40 percent of a gallon.  Unless, of course, one ventures into the hills for a jug of moonshine.  There it still may come super-sized.

Note:  Material for this article comes from a variety of sources, including Baltimore city directories.   A key source was an article entitled “Maryland Rye:  A Whiskey the Nation Long Fancied -- But Now Has Let Vanish,” by the late Jim Bready that appeared in the Winter 1990 issue of the Maryland Historical Magazine.


Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Edward Smith Made It Big in Little Rhody

After leaving his native Ireland in his teens, Edward Smith spent the rest of his life in Rhode Island, the smallest state in the Union and affectionately called  by inhabitants “Little Rhody.”  Smith would find significant success there both in business and in politics.  In other words,  he made it big in Little Rhody.

Shown here about age 55, Smith was born in May 1842 in County Monaghan, Ireland.  He was the third son of Edward and Mary (Conlin) Smith.  Unlike most Irish immigrants, he came from a relatively wealthy family.  A biographer described his parentage at length:  “His father was a well-to-do farmer and tilled the same soil that his ancestors had cultivated for many generations before him. He was famed for his love of good horses, of which he had many fine specimens, was a man of fine physique, standing nearly 6 feet tall in height, broad shouldered and muscular, and was beloved by those who knew him for his sterling honesty and gentle disposition.”

Edward attended the local Irish schools until he was 15 and then left to work on his father’s farm. Two years of agricultural work and the likely recognition that his older brothers would inherit the land impelled him to seek a different life.   In 1859 at the age of 17 he arrived in Pawtucket,  Rhode Island.  His first few years were spent working in the engraving department of a calico print works in nearby East Greenwich.  He then apprenticed and learned the trade of a currier, someone that tans hides for a living.

By this time Smith had secured sufficient financial security to think about marriage.  In 1863 he wed Ann Helen Fullen of Pawtucket, a woman four years older than he.   They proved to have a stable marriage and sired four children, all boys, Edward S., born 1864; William F., 1866;  John P., 1869, and Joseph H., 1874.

After spending six years in the tanning trade,  Smith had saved sufficient funds to open a  grocery store in partnership with another Irishman named Tierney.  it was located at 68 Water Street in Pawtucket.  Operating as “Tierney & Smith,” the grocery, according a contemporary account, was from the start “the center of a very large and influential trade, both wholesale and retail.”  Its customer base extended throughout Rhode Island and into Massachusetts.

The partnership continued until 1877 when Smith bought out his partner.  He kept the original headquarters and opened a second store in downtown Pawtucket at 13 and 15 Main Street, the avenue shown here. The new outlet operated under the name “Edward Smith, Importer and Wholesale Dealer in Wines and Liquors.”   The Main Street premises were large and allowed Smith to accommodate the storage of a number of foreign and domestic wines, brandy and cognac,  and a wide range of liquors.  He stocked many local and imported beers and was the agent for the Frank Jones Brewing Company of Rhode Island and John R. Alley Ales and Porters. 

Smith’s most important spirits offerings were whiskeys.  According to accounts, he received shipments from both Pennsylvania and Kentucky.  Some he sold under distiller labels.  Other whiskeys he blended in his own facilities and put his label on them.  Smith’s Bourbon Whiskey was merchandised as “bottled expressly for family and medicinal use.”  It was sold in embossed quart glass bottles and flasks, as shown here.  But Smith also fancied putting his whiskey in jugs.  Particularly interesting is one that includes a horseshoe, a symbol of good luck.  It was made by F. T. Wright & Sons pottery of Taunton, Massachusetts.  While other Smith jugs lack illustrations, their simplicity of shape and design also is appealing.

Although a token for 25 cents off the purchase of five bottles is the only Smith giveaway I have found, Smith was gaining recognition as a successful and wealthy businessman.  Over time he was accounted a major stockholder in the Meadville Distilling Co., of Pennsylvania, probably to help insure himself a steady supply of whiskey.  After serving as an agent for the Alley Brewing Company, he also became an owner and director.  Smith worked with the fellow-Irishman John Magullion (see my post of September 2012) to found the American Brewing Company of Boston.

Meanwhile Smith also was pursuing a career in politics. One biographer claimed he had been a politician “from his youth up,”  having an active political career even before leaving Ireland.  From the time he became a citizen, he was an ardent member of the Democratic Party.  When Pawtucket was chartered as a Rhode Island city Smith was the first alderman elected from its Second Ward. He held the office for six consecutive years,1886 to 1892, and was elected president of the aldermanic board in 1890. In that post, according to a biographer, he “served as such with great satisfaction to his colleagues and credit to himself.”  He subsequently was elected alderman for a term in 1894.  Smith also was a delegate to the National Democratic Convention that  in 1884 nominated Grover  Cleveland for President. 

Smith may have ended his political career in 1894 because of tragedies that struck his family.  In December, 1895,  his eldest son, Edward,  died, at the age of 31. The following year his youngest son, Joseph, also succumbed, age 22.  The 1900 census found  Edward and his wife, Anne,  living in Pawtucket with two adult sons,  William, now 33, and John, 31.  Both had been groomed by their father for work in the whiskey business.  John, shown below in 1897, identified himself as a partner in the firm.  He clearly is a young dandy but a contemporary biography validated John’s business status, asserting “by his energy and ability has demonstrated his right to leadership.”

Smith died in September 1906 and was buried in Pawtucket's Mount St. Mary's Cemetery near his two younger sons.  The monument shown below was erected on the family plot, commemorating Edward and other family members.

As a final word about this resourceful Irishman, a quote from a Pawtucket biographer seems appropriate:  “Mr. Smith is...well-known to the citizens of this city, and has been the recipient of their confidence and esteem.” 

Note:  In addition to census material, the information for this post comes from two books: “Illustrated History of Pawtucket, Central Falls and Vicinity”  by Henry R. Caulfield, 1897, and “Industries and Wealth of the Principal Points in Rhode Island,”  A. F. Parsons Publishing Co., 1892.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Jere Blowe: A Black Whiskey Man in a “Jim Crow” Era

Vicksburg panorama 1863
Jere M. Blowe, an African-American, ran a saloon and liquor business in Vicksburg, Mississippi, during a period of history when the local newspaper opined:  “Don’t mess with with white supremacy;  it is loaded with determination, gunpowder and dynamite.” Yet Blowe managed to provide leadership in his community and, apparently against all reason, professed to be proud of the city in which he spent his life.

Blowe, shown here in maturity, was born in Mississippi in 1861, likely into slavery.  His parents almost certainly were slaves, his father originally from Virginia, his mother from North Carolina.  Reputedly his natal place was Vicksburg.  If so, he as a baby with his family lived through the siege of the city by Union forces led by General Ulysses S. Grant.   Black troops from Mississippi recruited by the Union were among the forces who occupied Vicksburg.

Briefly during the period of Reconstruction (1865-1877), blacks in Mississippi were given a measure of freedom equal to whites.  But as the Federal Government relented in its effort to seek equality,  a series of white-passed laws increasingly discriminated against the Negro population.  Growing up during Reconstruction, it is possible that Blowe was able to get a good public education, but he experienced the gradual erosion of rights for his people.

Of Jere’s early life we have little information.  By the late 1800s, he had established himself as a saloonkeeper and was operating a retail liquor store at 316 S. Washington Street.  He was assisted in this effort by his wife, Lulu (Chambers) Blowe, six years his junior and a school teacher.  Lulu was a three-generation Mississippian,  a descendent of slaves herself.  She and Jere both were considered “mulattos” by census takers.  They had one daughter, Ella, born in 1889.

In his book, “Dark Journey:  Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow,” Professor Neil R. McMillan says:  “With rare exceptions, the business of the race  were shoestring operations, small retail or personal service operations that teetered precariously between failure and extreme marginality... in 1899 [W.E.B.] Du Bois could find no black enterprise in the state with a capital investment of $10,000 or more.”  A photo shows a black business area in Vicksburg in Jim Crow times.

Blowe may have been one of those “rare exceptions.”  He could afford to sell his whiskey in ceramic jugs with his name proudly emblazoned.   These were very similar to jugs made for white Mississippi liquor houses.  While individually inexpensive, these containers had to be produced in quantity.   Blowe would have to have been capitalized sufficiently to pay for them. The second jug shown here is a particularly quality product.  He also could indulge in  whimsical containers for his whiskey, such as the pig bottle shown below.

With his business success, Blowe became a leader in black Vicksburg.  A 1908 publication called “The Leading Afro-Americans of Vicksburg, Miss.,” favored him with a photo and an article that keyed on his fraternal connections.  It describes him as an Odd Fellow, a Knight of Pythias, a United Woodman, and United Reformer. He was a officer and member of a number of black Masonic organizations, including the Knights Templar and the Shriners.  But his primary affiliation was as the historian of the Most Worshipful Stringer Lodge F. and A. M., a Masonic order introduced into Mississippi for blacks in 1867.  Blowe, who also had literary gifts, authored a book on the history of the organization that still can be found in libraries.  His picture conveys the image of a man at once serious and genial.

In addition,  Blowe had political ambitions.  For a time he reportedly served as an alderman, a position that seems to have had little power.   Blowe also was selected an alternate delegate to the GOP Convention of 1908, along with a fellow black Vicksburg saloonkeeper named Wesley Crayton.  It is likely that they shared a “Jim Crow” train car to travel to Chicago where the Coliseum awaited, patriotically decorated for the convention.  As McMillan puts it: “Although impotent in the state and local context, Mississippi’s blacks, like Republican functionaries in other parts of the South, took an important part in the nomination of Presidential candidates.

The 1908 convention nominated Secretary of War William Howard Taft of Ohio, who would go on the win the general election.   McMillan goes on to say that black delegates had a disproportionate influence on convention outcomes and “performed their function in a corruption atmosphere.”  Whatever his experience, Blowe could return to Mississippi, where he was largely powerless to affect local affairs,  knowing that the GOP platform that year vowed to “uphold the rights of African-Americans.”

That same year, 1908, Mississippi voters dealt all of the state’s saloons and retail liquor establishments a fatal stroke when they voted a complete ban on alcohol statewide. White and black, all such establishments were forced to shut down.  Blowe’s was among them.

The 1910 census found the Blowe family living with Lulu’s 68-year-old mother at her Vicksburg home.  Jere, still just age 45, was listed as working in the insurance business.  Both Lulu and daughter, Ella, were teaching school.  The rest of their lives are shrouded in time.  The family may be buried in Vicksburg’s Beulah Cemetery, where lie many of the city’s prominent African-American families.  The graveyard has fallen into disrepair, however, and the those restoring it are still in the process of making an inventory of gravestones.

We are left with the heartening memory of a whiskey man whose biographer called “an all around good fellow.”  He spent his life in Mississippi, termed by one author “the darkest section of the South for a colored man,” and did it during the height of the Jim Crow era. Yet when asked, he expressed his pride in the old “Historic City,” of Vicksburg and was recorded as never failing to boast about it.  Nonetheless, Jere Blowe  likely would be pleased to see how things have changed.  For example, a statute has been raised in Vicksburg to the Mississippi black Union soldiers and laborers who entered the city as victors in 1863.