Saturday, January 31, 2015

Finch to Painter to Pontefract Produced “The Golden Wedding”

Many have likened a business partnership to a marriage.  In that vein, Joseph S. Finch, John W. Painter and James G. Pontefract,  the distillers that gave America “Golden Wedding Rye Whiskey,”  shared a corporate marriage that lasted even more than the fifty years required to qualify for a golden wedding observance.

The man who founded and gave his name to the distilling dynasty was Joseph Finch, born in 1839 and raised in Pennsylvania.   Little is known of his early life but at 20 he married Elizabeth J. Moore, whose father, Thomas Moore, owned a distillery in Allegheny County in western Pennsylvania he called”Possum Hollow.” (See my vignette on Moore in May 2012.)  Finch went to work for Moore, probably at a second distillery the father-in-law had built on First Avenue in Pittsburgh.  Moore is recorded as having operated it for several years and then turned it over to a son-in-law, almost certainly Finch.   About 1864 Joseph struck out on his own, establishing a small distillery in Pittsburgh.  The modest operation was capable of mashing only 100 bushels of grain daily.  Involved in both distilling and selling the whiskey, Finch ran it almost as a one-man enterprise. 

Three years later, however, burgeoning business caused him in 1867 to add a partner, John W. Painter.  The same age as Finch, Painter had been born 1839 in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, the son of John Painter, a farmer.  His mother, Harriet (Parks), was the daughter of a prominent early settler and noted political figure in the Keystone State.  His parents were wealthy enough to give Painter educational opportunities at Beaver and Hayesville (Ohio) Colleges. The same year that he joined Finch, John married Isabella Cornell, 21, a woman of Scottish heritage from Westmoreland County. They would have one son, Robert, born in 1868.

Recognizing the need for expanded production, in 1868 Finch and Painter moved their operations to the corner of McKean Street and the Monongahela River where they erected an entirely new plant, seen above in a drawing.  Constructed with rugged bricks three-to-four thick, study wooden beams and heavy doors, the three-story distillery plainly was constructed for the ages. They called their business “Joseph S. Finch & Company.”   In federal revenue parlance it became Distillery No. 4 of the 23rd Pennsylvania District.  About the time of the move, the firm began to market its “Golden Wedding Rye Whiskey,” a brand name name that brought it national recognition.  Shown below left is an early label.
The partnership of Finch and Painter continued to prosper until 1884 when Joseph Finch, at the early age of 44, died. He was buried in Section 18, Lot 96 of Allegheny Cemetery near Pittsburgh.  Interred next to him was his wife Elizabeth who had died in 1877.  She was only 37 at her death. 

Enter James G. Pontefract, a somewhat younger man who brought fresh perspectives to the company.  He had been born in 1848 to parents who were native Pennsylvanians.  With an apparent background in the whiskey trade, and later identified with the “Old Overholt” distillery, Pontefract purchased Finch’s share of the enterprise and the new partners, cognizant of the reputation for quality the brand name had attained, kept Finch’s name on the business.  

Another canny step for the partners was trademarking in 1884 the names of their flagship brands:  “Finch’s Golden Wedding Whiskey, “Finch’s Golden Wedding Rye,” “Finch’s Golden Wedding,” and “Golden Wedding.”   They adopted new labels for their brands:  for their rye, one with a motif imitating the end of a whiskey barrel; for their whiskey,  they chose to depict two gents in evening clothes lifting glasses around a bottle of Golden Wedding. The labels, as shown here, continued to evolve over the years.

Just as the partnership of Finch and Painter had prospered, so too did Painter and Pontefract.  They continued to expand the physical plant and increased production to 1,000 bushels mashed per day and an output of whiskey averaging 4,000 gallons daily.  The storage capacity of their warehouses, both bonded and free, grew to 40,000 barrels and then to 60,000 barrels.  Said Bonfort’s liquor industry publication:  “No firm in the trade has seen more uniform prosperity or more steady growth….Though others have seen the time when customers, old and new, were hard to secure, it is undeniably true that Golden Wedding has never seen a time when a ready buyer could not be found…”  

Another element boosting the success of Painter and Pontefract was the quality and quantity of their giveaway items to favored customers, particularly saloonkeepers and bartenders.  The partners became known for the “reverse glass” saloon signs that they gifted, including two shown here.  They also issued shots glasses for their Golden Wedding brand, some with gilded lettering. 

Sometime in the late 1800s, Painter retired from distillery operations. The census later found him a retired widower, living with three adult children in Pittsburgh.   The whiskey operation was purchased by Pontefract as sole owner.  Federal records indicate that during this period some reincorporation occurred.  The Finch name was retained but the distillery listed as a “new firm.” Apparently in declining health, in 1905 Pontefract leased the distillery properties, including the bonded warehouses connected with it and all trademarks and trade names to Willis S. and R.G. Johnson.  In the deal the Johnsons also obtained all the stock on hand, including 8,122 barrels of whiskey.  

They soon trademarked Golden Wedding a second time under the newer and tighter patent laws.  Sometime in the 1910s the Johnsons ceased distilling.  The property was then sold to Sol Rosenbloom who in turn sold the distillery in 1920 to Lewis Rosensteil.  He was the founder of the Schenley Corporation who had acquired a number of distilleries, brand names, and a large stock of whiskey before and during National Prohibition.   With his purchase of the Finch properties, Rosensteil is reported to have obtained 500,000 gallons of Golden Wedding whiskey and a “concentration warehouse” permit from the Federal Government.  That permitted him to sell labeled Golden Wedding whiskey during Prohibition to customers with a physician’s prescription.  A “medicinal” bottle is shown here.  Able to keep the brand name before the public during the 13 “dry” years, in 1935 Schenley reintroduced the brand as a minimally-aged blend.  A post-Prohibition label is shown here, still with Finch’s name attached.  Later Golden Wedding would become a Canadian product and as late as 1987 was being sold as a low cost, low quality whiskey.  

The whiskey-making complex that Joseph Finch and his partners built fared better than “Golden Wedding.”  When distilling ceased the structure became the site for a variety of other Pittsburgh enterprises.  That changed in 2014 when developers saw an opportunity in the building’s sturdy construction and desirable location.  Described by the architect of the renovation as “a tank of a building,” the former distillery has undergone renovation to become a 31,100 square foot luxury condominium with one- and two-bedroom units, many with impressive views of the Monongahela River and the Pittsburgh skyline.  The owners appropriately call the condo development “Whiskey Barrel Flats.”  Thus is memorialized in Pittsburgh a business “marriage” that survived more than 50 years to give America one of its iconic whiskey brands.  Finch, Painter and Pontefract would be proud.  

Monday, January 26, 2015

J. T. Doores of Kentucky Led a Life in Four Acts

In the short space available here, it seems prudent to recreate the life of  J. T.  Doores, a whiskey man of Bowling Green, Kentucky, as a drama in four acts.  Such were the vicissitudes  of his lifetime that his years might easily be staged as a play:  Act One:  A Pledge;  Act Two:  Whiskey;  Act Three: Politics;  Act Four:  Bootlegging.
Taking the Pledge:  Born on a Logan County farm in 1870 to native Kentuckians, Doores — known to friends and family as “Tom,” — spent his early years learning the carpenter’s trade, eventually going to work for the Louisville & Nashville Railroad.  In 1893, age 23 and still unmarried, he joined fellow railroad workers in Bowling Green to hear a spellbinding preacher named Samuel Porter Jones, shown left, rail against the consumption of alcohol.  The entire city was said to be aroused to a fever pitch of “temperance” to such an extent that authorities closed every  barroom on the day of Jones’ sermon.  

So compelling was the revivalist’s message that Doores joined 125 of his L&N colleagues to sign a formal pledge never again, under any circumstances, to enter the barroom of any restaurant or hotel in town.  Moreover a violation would require the backslider to give each of the other pledgers his name card that would confess: “…Let it be known and said of us that we have sworn falsely and are not worthy of confidence in any business or social relations or transaction.”  Tough language, indeed.

Selling Whiskey:  Whatever motivations the young Tom Doores may have had in 1893, as he aged he seemingly forgot about his solemn pledge.  By the time of the 1900 U.S. Census seven years later, he had abandon carpentry for a much more lucrative occupation, recorded as a “liquor dealer.”  Calling his  business “J. T. Doores & Co., Distillers and Wholesale Liquor Dealers,” he located it on Bowling Green’s Main Street, shown above about 1900.  Doores featured several of his own whiskey brands, including “Old J.T.D. Doubled Fire Copper South Mash Whiskey,” and “Belle of Warren.”  He packaged his whiskey in ceramic jugs of many variations, as shown throughout this post.  At one point he commissioned the well known Uhl pottery company of Evansville, Indiana, to fashion a jug for him, shown right.  Doores also featured giveaway shot glasses and other items to favored customers.

His sales efforts were aimed directly at the numerous counties in Kentucky that through local option laws had gone “dry.”  The young man frequently would travel to those counties and tell residents that he could sell them liquor and instruct them how to obtain it within the law.  They could write or phone him and send the money in advance.  C.O.D. purchases from “wet” counties into “dry” had been banned by the Kentucky legislature in 1903.  Despite his precautions in 1905 Doores found himself hauled into the the Circuit Court of dry Barren County and convicted of violating the liquor laws.  When he appealed to a higher Kentucky court, Doores found no less than the state’s attorney general, N.B. Hayes, arguing the case against him.  

Hayes, later known for his stern enforcement of anti-black Jim Crow laws in Kentucky, was vitriolic in his attacks on Doores, dramaticly calling him a “walking blind tiger” (illegal saloon).  Hayes and a supporting cast of characters were worthy of scripting.  A local blacksmith named Emmett Williams testified that Tom Doores, whom he considered a friend, had come to his shop about a year earlier and may have dropped hints about selling him whiskey but, really, no deal had been struck. (But, oh yes, he did get some whiskey.)  The Barren County express agent, Brent Dickinson, noted that for two years Doores had been shipping whiskey though his office, “from 1 to 5, and sometimes 50 packages a day, some one-half gallon jugs and some five gallon packages.“   Yes, Dickinson had seen Doores around town, but no, he had no idea what he might have been doing there. When Appeals Court reversed the lower court judgment and supported Doores, only sour words came from of the disappointed Hayes about the whiskey dealer’s acquittal:  “Through the facile agency of the telephone and express company  [he] was not guilty of the offense charged.”

Doores recognized, however, that further trouble would come and took steps to avoid it.  He opened a branch office in Nashville, Tennessee, to be able to ship whiskey into Kentucky through interstate commerce.  That strategy was challenged in the courts in 1908 when a citizen of dry Cumberland County sent a check to Doores at Nashville, ordering a gallon of whiskey.  When the product was received at Burksville, Kentucky, it was seized and Doores was charged with an offense under the local option statute.  This time Doores v. Commonwealth went all the way to the Kentucky Supreme Court.  It ruled that Doores had a right to sell whiskey in Nashville and under the Interstate Commerce Clause of the Constitution was completely free to ship to his customer in Cumberland County.  The decision frequently was cited by the defense in similar cases around the U.S. 

Playing Politics:  Perhaps tiring of courtroom appearances or sensing an increase of
prohibitionary pressure in his own Warren County, Doores apparently disposed of his liquor dealership and by 1910 was listing his occupation as “real estate agent.”  In the interim he also had married.  She was Mary L., a woman 11 years Tom’s junior.  The 1910 census found them living at 725 State Street in Bowling Green with four children, two boys and two girls, and Tom’s 69-year-old mother.  Doores already had taken steps toward political prominence.  In 1904 he was elected as a Kentucky delegate to the 1904 Republican convention held in Chicago, one that nominated Teddy Roosevelt.  In 1908 he was an alternate to the convention that selected William Howard Taft.

By 1812, however, the Grand Old Party had been riven by a split between Roosevelt and Taft. By now Tom Doores not only was the Warren County Republican chairman, he also had been appointed by the Taft Administration as the postmaster of Bowling Green, a highly sought political appointment, one involving steadier pay than selling real estate.  After the 1912 GOP nominating convention in Chicago, the “muckrakers” of Colliers Magazine charged that a group of 23 Kentucky postmasters and assistant postmasters who also were county chairmen, Doores among them, had stolen the state’s nominating votes from Roosevelt.  The periodical named them and quoted their salaries.  At $2,700 a year, Doores was the highest paid.  Ultimately the split cost the GOP the White House as  Democrat Woodrow Wilson was elected.  Doores lost his postal job.  He made a bid for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1916 but inexplicably pulled out just before the election.

Arrested for Bootlegging:  Old habits die hard or perhaps Tom Doores had not ever completely divorced himself from the whiskey trade.  But now his Warren County like other localities in Kentucky had gone dry. In a crack down on what local law enforcement called “bootlegging,” police attention was drawn to Doores in December 1917.  He was arrested and hauled into court for having carried from Louisville to Bowling Green several gallon jugs and some pint flasks of whiskey, concealing them in four suitcases.  The authorities charged that the whiskey in his possession was to be sold.  His arrest made headlines throughout the American Midlands. The Cincinnati Enquirer opined:  “Doores probably is the most prominent man who yet has been arrested in Kentucky on a charge of peddling liquor into a dry burg.”

I have been unable to find the disposition of the charges against Doores.  In those days individuals with considerably less political clout, even if found guilty, often were left off with a slap on the wrist and a small fine.  We can assume that was the worst that might have befallen him.  Five years later, Doores — still a relatively young 52 years — died and was buried in Fairview Cemetery in Bowling Green.  As shown on his family gravestone here, his wife, Mary, lived another 44 years, being preceded in death by their two sons.
In his short life span Tom Doores had packed the occupations of carpenter, liquor dealer, real estate salesman, political activist, postmaster, Congressional candidate, and — some would say — bootlegger.  He also had occasioned precedent-setting court cases, helped forge a path nationwide for interstate sales of whiskey into dry counties, and assisted in deciding a pivotal Presidential nomination.  Those achievements alone should make him eligible for an “Academy Award,”  even if the full drama of his life has yet to be written.

Addendum:  The Old J.T.D shot glass is a late addition to this post.  The image was sent to me by Vaughn Viramontez of Wichita, Kansas who recently had acquired it and I am delighted to add it to the various Doores artifacts shown here.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

E. J. Curley Turned Boone’s Knoll into a Distilling Marvel

Above is a photo postcard of a Kentucky landmark that is clearly delineated as Boone’s Knoll.  It appears to be a rather unremarkable rocky outcropping covered with trees and foliage above the Kentucky River.  But look closely.  Behind the hill is a tall structure emitting smoke.  Those billows have emerged from Edward J. Curley’s distillery, the enterprise that brought Boone’s Knoll to national whiskey prominence.

Curley had been born in Massachusetts in 1837 of Irish immigrant parents.  Although little is known of his early years, my research indicates that he likely was a Union soldier during the Civil War.  The national register of those serving in that conflict records an Edward Curley as a private in Company E of the First Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Cavalry, a unit raised early in the war.  He would have been 23 years old, a prime age for recruits.

His military service may hold the answer to how Curley got to Kentucky.  Union Forces held Lexington and the areas around it.  In Jessamine County on the Kentucky River not far from Lexington, the Union had constructed an installation called Camp Nelson.  Its purpose was to recruit emancipated blacks and train them to become soldiers.  With the Massachusetts Regiment stationed in nearby Virginia, it would not have been unusual for Curley to have been seconded to this operation.  

In any case, almost immediately after the Confederate surrender, Curley with two partners founded a distillery in the immediate vicinity of Camp Nelson.  The military connection is strengthened by the fact that one of the partners was Dwight A. Aiken, a Michigan resident and captain in the Commissary Department of the Union Army.  Beginning in 1863 Aiken was stationed at Camp Nelson.  It is my speculation that Curley and Aiken met there and decided to go into whiskey distilling after the war with a third partner named Campbell.

The spot they chose for their operations was not far from the camp and an excellent site.  The area had been important in pioneer days because a break in the palisades gave access to a ford across the Kentucky River below the mouth of Hickman Creek.  According to historians the ford was a favorite crossing for Daniel Boone.  Thus the name "Boone’s Knoll."  In the late 1860s the trio built a distillery on one side of the river at the Knoll, as shown right.  It would be called the Blue Grass Distillery and recorded in Federal revenue annals as Distillery #3 of the Eighth Kentucky District.  They marketed their product as “Blue Grass Whiskey,”  a name identified in government documents as having first been used in commerce in 1867.

This plant was built of iron with oak racks.  All the timbers were oak, sawed in a mill on the premises. The warehouses were reported to incorporate the latest technologies for light, ventilation and fire prevention.  The original wooden still later was torn down and a copper kettle substituted to insure better quality control.  The company also provided its own cooperage on premises using the abundant oaks in the area to supply staves.  

By 1874 the trio had dissolved.  Aiken had moved to Lexington and leased an existing distillery which he operated as D.A. Aiken & Company, Distillers, until 1882 when a fire and financial problems shut him down.  Campbell just disappeared from the scene.  Curley was now sole proprietor of the Blue Grass Distillery.  Already he was finding a national audience for his whiskey.  In June 1872 a Sacramento, California, newspaper carried an ad placed by Curley’s local sales agent.  It extolled the limited capacity of the distillery, declaring that:  “…More attention is given to the quality than the quantity of liquor produced….”  Curley’s whiskey was made the old fashioned way, the ad continued, in recipe known only to the proprietor:  “The water used in its manufacture is of a peculiar nature, from a spring in the cliff of the Kentucky River.

About 1880 Curley decided to build a second distillery on the other side of the river, connected by a steel girder bridge.  It became Distillery #15 in Kentucky District Eight.   Shown here, Curley named it the “The Boone’s Knoll Distillery.”   He built the new plant on solid rock, which required blasting to set the structure.  The building, as seen above, was constructed of solid stone.  According to a contemporary account  “The mashing floor and fermenting room are admirably situated and the temperature of the latter does not vary 5 degrees from 72 degrees all year round. The piping and machinery are all new, and of the simplest and most efficient pattern”

The 1882 Bonfort’s Directory of wine and liquor producers in a lengthy article waxed poetic about the two facilities:  “The Blue Grass Distillery stands at the foot of a valley overlooked by a beautiful hill known to the countryside as Boone’s Knoll…In the spring the slopes on the other side of the river, which stretch away in terraces, vividly recalling the Roman amphitheater at Arles, are covered with fragrant wild flowers, which fill the air with perfume and make the little valley a perfect fairy-land.” 

Curley’s Boone’s Knoll Distillery also came in for praise: “This house is entitled to take its place among the  best distilleries in the world.  At the same time, Bonfort’s writer seemed to anguish at a decision the proprietor had made.   Curley was operating the two distilleries as a single entity.  The Blue Grass Distillery had a mashing capacity of 600 bushels of grain daily but never was oprtated up to its capacity, according to Bonfort’s.  The Boone’s Knoll facility added more capacity. bringing the total mashing capacity to 1,100 bushels a day and 100 barrels daily.  The publication reported that Curley, seeing a glut of whiskey coming to market, would make only enough whiskey the next year to fill his orders and nothing more.  While seemingly regretting the decision, Bonfort’s said:  “We should dislike to do anything to increase production, but probably no better investment could be made than 1883 sour mash.” 
For East Coast sales, Curley had turned over much of his limited production to the Froeb Company of New York City. (See my post on Charles Froeb in November 2012).  Responsible for the saloon sign of Daniel Boone above, Froeb advertised the Blue Grass Rye brand vigorously and may have taken a large portion of Curley’s production. He sold the whiskey in bottles and flask, as one shown here.  Froeb’s ads characterized the whiskey as “excellent in convalescence, as it is stimulating and not nauseating.  Its dryness is a prerequisite in diabetical maladies.

Despite these marketing efforts and endorsements in the trade press, something was going wrong for E.J. Curley & Co.  As with other distillers of that time a combination of repressive federal tax laws and a downturn in the U.S. economy resulted in financial difficulties.  In 1889 Curley’s horses and wagons reportedly were impounded for non-payment of taxes, in what must have been a crushing blow to the proprietor.  The same year Curley sold out to the so-called “Whiskey Trust,”  a investor group that sought to spike upward profits from Kentucky whiskey by scooping up distilleries and creating a quasi-monopoly.
In Curley’s place, the Trust installed a new manager, August C. Gutzeit, a Lexington wholesale liquor broker. Shown left is one of Gutzeit’s jugs.  Unlike many of the properties obtained by the Trust and closed down, the Boone Knoll sites were kept in operation producing Curley’s brands — and labels with his signature — for almost 20 years until shuttered completely by the advent of National Prohibition.  The Boone’s Knoll distillery subsequently was turned into a hotel.  Successor organizations to the Trust were allowed to sell Curley’s product as “medicinal” whiskey throughout the dry era, obtained by a prescription from doctors who in many cases were glad to oblige a thirst.  

After Repeal in 1934 the distillery buildings were converted back to their original purpose, operating as the Kentucky River Distillery, becoming RD #45.  The plant was sold again sometime in the 1960s to Norton Simon who operated it to produce Canada Dry soft drinks until  the 1970s.  At some point the Boone’s Knoll distillery burned and the warehouses were leased to Seagrams to house production from other Kentucky plants.  Still standing, the stone structures more recently are said to have been leased to the producers of “Wild Turkey” bourbon. 

Apparently never having married and putting all his energy into his whiskey enterprises, Edward Curley was only 52 when he was forced to sell out.  Somewhere along the line Curley gained the title “Colonel,” given to many as an honorary distinction in Kentucky.  Subsequent to 1900 he does not appear in Kentucky census records.  What his future life may have held is shrouded in the mists of time.  Curley clearly had constructed his distilleries for the long run;  even today the ruins remain visible from U.S. Route 27 at Boone’s Knoll.  They create a lonely memorial to the vision and enterprise of this transplanted Boston Irish whiskey man. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Charles Serasio Found Gold and Early Death in Lead

In September,1919, when Charles Serasio died at only 49 years of age from tuberculosis, the Lead (South Dakota) Daily Call newspaper cited him as a respected and popular resident of the the city.  The obituary did not mention the odyssey that brought Serasio to Lead and a premature death — nor addressed his success as a local saloonkeeper.

Serasio was born in 1870 in San Giorgio, Italy, shown above.  For years the climate and natural beauty on the Mediterranean made the town a strong magnet for tourists and it flourished.  Two eruptions from nearby Mount Vesuvius in 1855, however, severely damaged the economy and triggered a gradual emigration of the populace overseas in search of employment.  Among them were members of the extensive Serasio family (Charles himself was one of ten children) many of whom came to the United States.

After a period in his youth living with relatives in France, Serasio immigrated to these shores in 1886.  His first stop was Michigan, where he may have had relatives.  That is where he traded the bright Mediterranean sunshine for the darkness of the mines.  Near the present city of Calumet a rich copper-bearing section created in the Precambrian Age was discovered in 1864 and mining operations ensued.  Calumet became the leading copper producer in the world, for many years turning out more than half that metal mined in the United States. Until the 20th Century all copper mining was done underground by men like Serasio, who daily were breathing in the dust and gases created.

After working in Calumet for several years,  Serasio, perhaps seeking better prospects, moved west to Great Falls, Montana.  That town was the site of a processing plant for the giant Anaconda Copper Mine.  It had been founded in 1881 and rapidly had become one of the nation’s largest copper producers.  As a seasoned mine worker Serasio probably had no trouble finding employment there during a period that the Anaconda holdings were expanding rapidly.  Once again he was exposed to the heath hazards of the mining trade.

By 1897, he had left Great Falls and headed to South Dakota where the town of Lead had been founded in 1876 after the discovery of gold.  It was the site of the Homestake Mine, shown above, the largest, deepest (8,382 feet) and most productive gold mine in the Western Hemisphere.  Serasio went to work digging for gold in the miles of tunnels that honeycombed the earth below Lead.  Gold mining is among the worst for lung damage.  The gold miners of South Africa, for example, have the highest rates of tuberculosis inflection in the world, a rate seven times higher than the general population of South Africa, itself the country with the second highest TB rates in the world.

In Lead, Charles found a wife.  She was Mary Galetto, a woman five years his junior and like him of Italian heritage.  The couple would have four children, James, born in 1900; Anton (Tony) 1901;  Mary Catherine, 1905, and Josephine, 1904.  Whether it was family responsibilities or a growing recognition of respiratory problems, Serasio finally stepped out of the mines for good.  A 1909 Lead business directory listed him as owning a saloon at No. 4 on the aptly named Gold Street.  He had discovered that rather than digging for gold in the ground, it could be more easily made by selling whiskey to thirsty miners, such as those Homestead hands shown above.

Serasio proved to be highly successful as a publican.  Not only was he pushing liquor over the  the bar, he was selling it in “take home” quantities, using large ceramic jugs that promoted him as the proprietor and a “dealer in domestic and imported liquors, California and home made wines...a specialty.”  Shown here are two views of one of his jugs and the label of a second.  His advertising suggests that Serasio was mixing up his own whiskey in a back room for sale and also fixing up concoctions he called “home made” wine, South Dakota not being noted for its vineyards.  

Serasio constantly had to be looking over his shoulder for the forces of “Temperance.”   Prohibitionary laws in Dakota Territory had been passed as early as 1889 but lacked  enforcement provisions.  When the first South Dakota state legislature met in 1890 they passed an enforcement bill that also had minimal effect.  Thus by 1909, Serasio could still be listed as running a saloon but may have been emphasizing container sales since “package stores” under spurious licensing as drugstores in South Dakota could still sell spirits and call it “medicine.”

Whether it was the forces of prohibition or the need to breathe cleaner air, about 1917 Serasio shut down his Lead operations and with his family headed over the border to Sundance, Wyoming, about 50 miles away by road.  That state had no temperance laws and South Dakota residents regularly made treks there, so many of them that Wyoming border towns became known as “a perpetual oasis for thirsty Dakotans.”

Sundance, shown above about 1900, is nestled in the valley of the Bear Lodge Mountains in Northwestern Wyoming on the western edge of the Black Hills.  Established in 1875 as a trading post it was prospering in the wide open frontier of the times, including being very hospitable to saloons.  In 1889 a Dakotan named W. H. Blair after being forced to close his saloon in Rapid City, South Dakota, relocated to Sundance and operated there until selling out in 1917.  The new owner was Charles Serasio. He operated the drinking establishment for several years before moving back to Lead, possibly because his bad health made it impossible to carry on.

Not long after returning, Serasio died on September 11, 1919.  The undertaker and coroner, J. J. Mead, gave the official cause as “acute  pulmonary tuberculosis.”  Serasio’s life in the mines had caught up with him.  At 49 years old he left behind a widow and four minor children to mourn his passing.  His funeral had to be delayed because of the many Serasio relatives coming from around the country.  On the appointed day a Requiem Mass was said for Charles at the local Catholic church, a ceremony attended by a large crowd.  As the Lead Daily Call reported:  Interment was in municipal cemetery and the body was followed to its last resting place by a very large number. The Cristofor Colombo society, of which he had been a member, turned out in force, and led by the Knights of Pythias band, marched in the funeral procession to the cemetery.  Shown here is the saloonkeeper’s impressive marble gravestone in South Lead Cemetery.

Such was the final resting place of Charles Serasio who had paid the price of many who worked underground to extract the mineral wealth of America.  Nevertheless, by dint of intelligence and hard work he escaped the mines to operate successful and popular saloons and earn an accolade in his local newspaper as “one of the old time and respected citizens of Lead.”  That tribute to Serasio is one many of us might wish to have applied when we pass from this life.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Christian and the Xanders: Selling Spirits in Washington D.C.

For many years in the era before Congress in an act of utter hypocrisy in 1917 voted the District of Columbia “dry,”  the name Xander was a prominent one among the whiskey men of the Nation’s Capitol.  In the Xander clan, Christian was the stand out, conducting a highly successful liquor business as well as operating his own prize-winning winery.

 Xander was born in 1837 at Grossweier, a town in the state of Baden located  in southwestern Germany,  not far from the French border.  He was the son of an earlier Christian Xander and his wife Maria Jorger.  Of his early life, little is known but Xander may  have had an early exposure to wine making. 

About 1853 Christian, 16 years old, is recorded as having emigrated from Germany to the United States and settled in Washington, D.C.  He may have found early employment in one of the District’s proliferating liquor houses. He took time out of his business career to volunteer for service in the Union Army and is said to have been in several major battles.  In late December of 1864 at age 27, he married Caroline Blume (also given as Blum), also a German emigre’, at DC’s Concordia Lutheran Church.  She was eight years his junior.  They would have three children, Henry born in 1866, Mina born in 1868, and a second son who died in infancy.
Upon returning from the war he engaged in a partnership with the D.C.-born William Muehleisen in a wine and liquor store.  That coupling was dissolved about three years later and Xander set out on his own, opening a store on Massachusetts Avenue between Seventh and Eighth Streets NW. Throughout this period Christian was establishing himself as a respected local businessman.  By 1872 his wholesale liquor dealership was a recognized successful enterprise.  Moreover, Xander himself was sufficiently established as a merchant to act as an incorporator for the Boundary & Silver Springs Railway Company, a trolley system for the District of Columbia.  He was reputed, in contemporary accounts, to be a visionary businessman willing to invest to build the latest in transportation systems for his adopted city.

Needing a larger space for his expanding business Xander then moved to 909 Seventh Street, N.W., the building shown above, likely with Christian himself standing in the doorway.  The structure had been built to his specifications in a major DC commercial area. It was three floors, 25 by 150 feet each, with a warehouse two stories in height.  Although listed as a wholesaler, Xander did not employ traveling salesmen, but advertised widely, even in the “Negro” press, shown below, and cultivated a customer base in eight surrounding states.

He featured a number of national brands, advertising that his “Quality House” had 240 kinds of distilled spirits.  Among them were several of his own labels, indicating that in addition to selling from his address, he was also “rectifying” — that is, blending and compounding — whiskey in one of the several stories of his business.  Those brands included “Chr. Xander’s Family Brand,” “Old Private Stock,” “Old Reserve,” and “Gold Medal.”  In addition, his company featured a line of proprietary “medicinal” beverages, including stomach bitters, coca wine, and cordials.  His “Melliston Cordial” was advertised as a “Great Curative in Pulmonary Affections.”  Xander’s whiskeys were sold in glass bottles, as shown above, often with fancy labels describing their contents.

An 1894 publication said of Xander’s operation,  “His premises and vaults were built with the view to perfect depuration and maturing of wines and liquors, and his goods, sold direct and by retailers, are the accepted standards in hotels and private families. Mr. Xander's business policy is one of unwavering integrity, and his house stands in the first rank of reliable commercial firms.”

As Christian was prospering, other German-born Xanders had arrived in the United States, related to him, either as siblings or certainly as cousins.  They were Karl Xander, born 13 years after Christian, and Jacob, birth date unknown.  It it is highly likely that they initially worked for Christian in his enterprise.  By 1889 according to directory listings, both had struck out on their own.  Karl was running a liquor store at 439 K Street, N.W. and Jacob a wine and liquor store at 1315 Seventh St, N.W.  The Xander DC liquor empire was much noted by the local populace and by the Washington press.

What distinguished Christian from the other Xanders was his reputation as a wine maker.  In 1882 he had established his own winery and was calling himself “Chr. Xander, Wholesale Wine Merchant, ” as shown on the letterhead above.  The winery was located behind his sales offices at 630 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W.  A contemporary photograph shows a three story building with the sign “Xander…Vaults and Warehouse.”  Again, that may well be Christian himself standing in the doorway.

By 1883 Christian had achieved the reputation of producing the first wine ever made in the District of Columbia.  A decade later he was producing approximately 10,000 gallons of reds and clarets.  They were sweet wines and made from grapes grown in Virginia known as the Norton variety.   On September 23, 1900 an article appeared in The Washington Post announcing that Xander had been given a medal for his wines at the 1900 Paris Exposition.  The newspaper failed to mention, however, that it was only a bronze medal, something given to virtually any vintner who displayed at the Exhibition.

Christian heavily featured this award in his advertising, as well as subsequent medal wins.  His company also could be generous to those vintners for which Xander was the sole DC agent, including “Grand Imperial Champagne,” a beverage said to have won awards at the Chicago and Paris World’s Fairs and a gold medal at the Pan-American Exposition.

The Washington Post frequently waxed enthusiastic over Christian’s wine.  The following appeared on September 22, 1895:   Initiating fifteen years ago the city industry of wine making, aiming at quality at all cost, Chr. Xander has since developed a remarkable trade in what hundreds of families consider the most hygienic Virginia clarets and port. Of mellow taste, free from saltpetre, rich in iron, tartrates, tannin, and fruit acids, these wines respect brains and nerves, allow enormous dilution, are thus true temperance wines, and surprise those who know only vulgar Virginia trade wines.

With success came more local recognition for Christian.  He was a significant enough citizen to serve on one of the committees charged with organizing the inaugural ceremonies and parade for President Theodore Roosevelt in March of 1905.  

As Christian aged he took his son into the business.  Henry Xander was also a music teacher with a studio downtown, but spent his evenings working with his father in the family liquor and wine trade.  Henry, assisted by company vice president, F. Pohndorff, Sr., increasingly took over the management of the firm.  In 1908 Christian died at age 71.  He was interred in Prospect Hill Cemetery, an historic German-American burying ground, originally just for Lutheran dead, located on North Capital Street in the District.   His gravestone is shown here.

Meanwhile, the other Xanders continued to achieve success in the DC liquor trade.  Karl was reported doing a brisk business from his wholesale liquor store on K Street, said to be “one of the finest fitted and elaborately appointed places in the city.”   His house brands were “Southern Bouquet” and “Millvale” whiskeys.  According to a local history, this Xander was well known as “one of the most prominent German-Americans in the city and stands at the very pinnacle in commercial rectitude and in the esteem of the public.”  Jacob Xander, reputedly prospering in similar fashion on Seventh Street, also received accolades:  “He is wide awake, active and reputable businessman, and well known in mercantile circles.”

However high Karl’s pinnacle was, or wide awake Jacob may have been, nothing could stand before the force of prohibition sentiments in the U.S. Congress.  In 1917 the Xander liquor empire in the District of Columbia came tumbling down as legislation passed that turned DC ostensibly  “dry” until 1934.  A last word on Christian can be taken from an accolade penned in 1894 when this whiskey (and wine) man was still at the top of his game:  “Such is Mr. Xander’s reputation in this country through the trade, that his name on the parcels is a sufficient guarantee of their high quality and absolute purity and maturity.”  Years after Christian’s death his widow, Caroline, continued to donate Xander wine to one of the local charity hospitals.

Note:  Much of the material and several of the illustrations shown here are from the October 2009 issue of Prince William Reliquary, an article based on cited original sources.