The Walters brothers came from Liverpool, Pennsylvania, a small mining town about 23 miles from Harrisburg. Born in 1819, William was the eldest of eight children. Edwin was 14 years younger. Both were brought up with little education and had limited chances for financial success in Liverpool. Recognizing those limitations early, William by age 21 had decamped for Baltimore, a city that was booming economically. There he was able to apprentice with a civil engineer and work in the grain trade. Dealing in grain apparently was a short move to selling Baltimore rye whiskey. By 1847, age 28, Walters was able to open his own liquor company.
Shown here in an 1855 advertisement is his impressive five story building at 68 Exchange Place in Baltimore. By this time, younger brother Edwin had joined him as an employee in the enterprise. In the meantime, at age 26, William married Ellen Harper. The couple had three children, William Jr., who died in childhood, Henry born in 1848 and Jennie born in 1853. As his prosperity grew, William moved his family from quarters in downtown Baltimore to a mansion in the fashionable, suburban-like setting of 65 Mount Vernon Avenue (now 5 West Mount Vernon Place). A stereopticon view of the house shows it boasting a four story “Chinese” looking architecture. That may be Ellen Walters on the front porch in a white dress.
The Civil War brought a dilemma for William. Like many Marylanders, he was torn in his loyalties. Some of his friends had gone south to join the Confederates. Others had stayed and joined the Union Army. His distilling colleague, Outerbridge Horsey, had decamped for Europe. Packing up his family, William did the same, arriving in Paris in the summer of 1861. Meanwhile the William T. Walters Company continued generating profits, probably under the watchful eye of Edwin. Almost immediately the Walters began collecting European works of art, scouring the Continent from England to Italy for paintings, sculptures, ceramics and other object d’art. They and their money were eagerly welcome by a host of artists, dealers and exhibitors.
Then tragedy struck. While on a trip to London in November 1862, Ellen contracted pneumonia and with antibiotics still unknown, died quickly. She was only 40 and left two minor children. Even her death could not prompt William to return to the United States. Instead — it has been suggested to console himself — he threw his energies even more fervently into collecting. Only at the end of the Civil War in 1865 did Walters return to the U.S. with his children.
With characteristic vigor Walters resumed everyday management of his liquor business. He was not a distiller but “rectifying,” that is blending and compounding whiskeys purchased from Pennsylvania and Maryland distillers, using an upper floor of his Exchange Place building. Rectifying is an art and William and Edwin had mastered it. Among the firm’s proprietary brands were "Imperial Monongahela Rye,” "J. Martin Old Rye,” Superior Old Monongahela Rye,” "Superior Rose Gin,” "Tuscaloosa Monongahela Rye,” and "Very Fine Old Monongahela Rye.” Walters packaged many of these products in glass bottles bearing two slim panels and two larger panels. Embossed on one slim panel is “Walters & Co.” On the other, “Baltimore,” as shown here. In olive green, the bottles have been blown in a mold with a separately applied mouth, and much coveted by collectors for their rarity.
Not satisfied with collecting for his own pleasure, Walters wanted to bring art to the Baltimore public, at the time virtually bereft of viewing opportunities. Beginning in 1874, he opened his house every Wednesday in April and May, charging the public 50 cents admission, the proceeds donated to charity. These openings became an annual event. Meanwhile, William was turning his attention to other investments. Early on he had put money into East Coast railroads and subsequently was involved in the coal and iron industries. Walters managed a smelting operation in Pennsylvania said to have produced the first iron manufactured from mineral coal in the United States. He also had maritime interests. As these other activities took his attention, in 1882 William Walters dissolved his liquor company. In 1889, a city directory listed him under the heading “capitalist.”
Enter Edwin Walters. After spending years as William’s employee in 1870 he stepped out on his own as a whiskey dealer. Likely with some family financial backing, he created the Edwin Walters Company, with offices at 35 South Gay Street, shown above. Likely in an effort to insurehis own supply of whiskey Edwin bought the Maitland & Bryan’s Canton Distillery, claimed to be the largest of Baltimore’s three or four working distilleries. It was located in the Canton neighborhood in the southeastern section of the city at Smith’s Wharf. Edwin renamed the facility the “Orient Distilleries.” The photo below captures the Orient workforce, some sitting on barrels marked with the name. It is not clear if Edwin is among them.
Among brands Edwin Walters was selling were “Baker’s,” “Mountain Pure Rye,” “Walter’s Private Stock.” The flagship label was “Orient Rye.” Because the distillery had its own dock, barrels could easily be loaded and from the Port of Baltimore shipped to other parts of the country. According to Jim Bready, the guru of Baltimore whiskey, Orient Rye eventually was being sold in San Francisco and other points West. Edwin obviously had mastered the “art” of making whiskey.
When William Walters died in 1894, his passing was marked with long newspaper obituaries that discussed his career in railroads and other industries. Almost nothing was said about the 35 years he had owned one of the largest and most successful liquor concerns in Baltimore. At his death he bequeathed his entire collection to his son Henry, who also added to the artworks. The assemblage came to include everything from European master paintings and decorative arts to Greek and Roman antiquities and Far Eastern ceramics — a total of nearly 22,000 works of art. Henry Walters, true to his father’s interest in opening the collection to the public, created an art gallery on Charles Street at the edge of downtown Baltimore. The original gallery interior is shown here.
The whiskey business bearing the Walters name has long been gone, distillery and office shut down by National Prohibition. At his death in 1931, Henry Walters gave his gallery building and its contents to the City of Baltimore where it has become the Walters Art Museum. On October 26, 2014, that institution opened a special exhibit dedicated to its founders. Hence the headline: “From Rye to Raphael.” Walter’s beginnings in whiskey, albeit belatedly, are being acknowledged -- as they should be.
Note: Information for this post was obtained from multiple sources, principal among them the Walters Art Museum website and Ferdinand Meyer’s “Peachridge” site. Several illustrations also are from those sources.