Monday, April 27, 2015

For the Holtzermanns of Piqua, Bitters Were Mighty Sweet

That a major national alcoholic drink originated in tiny Piqua, Ohio, was in itself unusual.  Unusual too were the circumstances surrounding the Holtzermanns who made Piqua their home and, along with whiskey, produced the stomach bitters that made the family a fortune.

The central figure among this clan was Christoph August Holtzermann known by friends and family as August.  He was born in 1840 a Piquod — as residents of Piqua are referred to — from a German family with strong ties into the Prussian military.  His father was Jacob Daniel (J.D.) Holtzermann who had emigrated from Germany in the early 1800s and settled in this southwest Ohio town.  His mother was Johanna L. Dettmer.

Jacob’s reasons for selecting this location to settle down are unclear.  Piqua originally was a small crossroads hamlet with a combination of log frame houses, ma-and-pa shops, taverns, and small-scale industries.  The completion of the Miami & Erie Canal in 1837 allowed the shipment of goods more easily in and out of town and gave an initial economic boost.   The coming of the Columbus, Piqua and Indiana Railroad in 1856 again led to some increased commercial activity and the downtown shown above.

Both the 1850 and 1860 U.S. Census show Christoph Holtzermann living at home with his parents.  By 1863, however, he had taken a wife.  She was Elise Schletter, born in Germany, and the daughter of Friedrich Ludwig Schletter and Tibetha Gertrude Holtzermann.  Elise was his second cousin and possibly brought to America to marry him.  By the 1870 census, Christoph had established his own full household of Piquods.  Living with the Holtzermanns were their four children, Johanna, George, Louis and Jacob.  Also residing with them were Elise’s mother and her sisters Tibetha and Caroline.  Two domestics served the family.  

Holtzermann could well afford to sustain this many people.  His net worth according to the census was equivalent to $250,000 today.   In the early 1860s he had opened a small store at the corner of Main and Water Streets, shown above, advertising himself as a liquor merchant and druggist.  He named the company “J.D. Holtzermann & Sons.” The business was successful but unspectacular until 1867 when Christoph patented his formula for bitters.  He said the beverage was composed of sugar, orange peel, orange apple, oms root, galanga root, gentian root, calamus root, wormwood, ginger, cardamon seed, cassia, mace, nutmeg, clover and coriander seed.  Perhaps the most important ingredient, however, was pure alcoholic spirits. He called it “Holtzermann’s Stomach Bitters.”

Holtermann, working under the name of his father, was awarded a patent for this concoction in May 1867.  In his application he had claimed that:  “The nature of my invention consists in so compounding certain ingredients…as to produce a healthful, pleasant stomach bitters for dyspepsia, weakness of the stomach and bowels, and general debility.”
An illustration exists of the J.D. Holtzermann & Sons emporium, emphasizing it as “sole manufacturer of Holzermann’s celebrated stomach bitters, importers & wholesale dealers in liquor.”  Within its two stories, the company was rectifying and compounding a variety of spirits.  Increasingly whiskey men like Christoph were moving to bitters as their flagship brands.  They were trying to avoid paying extra taxes from Civil War imposed levies in whiskey by terming their products “bitters” and thus medicine rather than liquor.

Christoph advertised: “Holtzermann's Stomach Bitters For Sale Here! August Holtzermann Wholesale Dealer in Foreign and Domestic Liquors. Located on the Corner Of Main & Water Streets. Piqua, Ohio the large liquor house on the corner of Main and Water Streets, where are also manufactured the celebrated Holtzermann's Patent Stomach Bitters, which are very extensively sold through Western Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.”
Holtzermann initiated vigorous merchandising, initially with a log cabin theme appropriate to the earlier rustic town Piqua had been.  The theme was carried over to the bitters bottles fashioned to look like two story log structures with embossing of the name on the roof panels.  As shown here, these bottles came in various shades of amber.  Today they are are hotly collected. 
Christoph unfortunately had little time to enjoy his soaring fortunes.  In June 1875 he fell ill and never recovered, dying on July 6 of that year, only 34 years of age.  He was buried in Forest Hill Cemetery, Piqua.   His untimely death must have sent his business affairs into some chaos.  His eldest son, Louis, was still only nine years old and the second son, Jacob Daniel, was only six.  My assumption is that other family members guided the fortunes of the Holtzermann bitters empire until the boys reached maturity.  We know that both were required to work in the whiskey trade at an early age.  At the same time they were able to attend school and Louis is credited with receiving some “higher education” in Piqua.  Both apparently showed business abilities while still in their teens. 
As the sons took over business operations the shape of the Holtzermann’s Patent Stomach Bitters changed.  The log cabin bottle, while distinctive, likely was relatively expensive to produce.  About 1885, a new container was issued, one more like the other bitter bottles of the day.  Shown here, it was square with four panels,  embossed “Holtzermanns/ Stomach/ Bitters” on one panel and then on the opposite panel “J. D. Holtzermann & Co./ Piqua O.”  Even that bottle is said to be rare.

In 1887 when Louis was still just 23 and Jacob only 18, they apparently decided that Piqua was too small a place for their business ambitions and made a move to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where they opened a large department store on Cedar Avenue.  Among the goods featured there were the stomach bitters that had made them wealthy men at an early age.  The 1900 census found Louis, still a bachelor at 36, as the head of his own extended family.  Jacob, now 31 and unmarried, was living with him along with their mother, Elise, and a sister, Johanna, together with her husband and a baby girl.  One hired girl served the family.
A contemporary biography noted the quick success in Minneapolis of the “Holtzermann’ Chicago Store Company.”  “The firm has built up a large and flourishing business and have won respect and appreciation in the business world and in the community at large.”   Jacob Holtzermann would become a director of the South Side State Bank of Minneapolis, a director of the local Humane Society,  and a member of the Minneapolis Board of Corrections and Charities.  When a “blue-ribbon”  civic commission was created in Minneapolis in 1910 to advise on future city development, Jacob was one of 10 citizen leaders chosen.  The Holtzermann family was recorded as active with the local Evangelical Lutheran Church.

At some point, perhaps finding it difficult to keep businesses going in cities hundreds of miles apart, the Holtzermann brothers sold the rights to the Christoph’s formula and the bitters brand name to Ahrendt & Sons Company of Toledo, Ohio, a liquor dealership established about 1890.  Shown here is a Ahrendt-labeled “fifth” bottle of Holtzermann’s Patented Stomach Bitters.  Note the attempt to approximate the original log cabin bottle shape.  When Ahrendt went out of business in 1915 presumably the Holtzermann brand went with it.  Signaling Christoph’s success, the bitters he had invented had been on the American market for 75 years.

Note:  Two lengthy treatments of Holtzermann bitters with illustrations have preceded this one, one by Steve Sewell, the other by Ferdinand Meyer on his Peachridge site.  Both concentrated on the Holtzermann bottles.  While borrowing information and pictures from both, my purpose was to provide as much of the human side of this family as possible.  The post also has allowed me to remember Piqua, a town I visited from time to time as a newspaper reporter from nearby Springfield, Ohio.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Cooneys of Nashville and the Doom of a Texas Town

While researching pre-Prohibition whiskey men, sometimes a “back story” emerges that is so compelling as to turn the account in that direction.  So it was with the Cooneys, wholesale grocers and liquor dealers of Nashville, Tennessee.  Interested in the family for the many and varied whiskey jugs they produced, I stumbled on a story of murder, an alleged curse, and the demise of a Texas boom town.

The Cooney family were native-born Irish Tennesseans.  The father, John Cooney, was born in 1827 in Paris, Henry County.   Early in his career he had embraced the grocer’s trade and like many of his peers featured whiskey as a major product.  About 1855 John married a woman named Jennie Lougee, of French descent who originally was from New York.  They produced a family of four children.  The first three were boys — Charles, John L. and Stanley Torrence — and the youngest a girl, Jennie, named after her mother.   
The 1880 census found the Cooneys living in Nashville in an extended family. John was listed as the head of the household, occupation “grocer.”   His son John L. was there with his wife, Lula, and  a one-year old child.  Charles and Stanley were still single and living at home.  Both Stanley and John were working for their father in the grocery.  Charles was a pharmacist.  Rounding out the household was Maria Lougee, the 85-year-old mother of Jennie. A single maid served the family.

Attention turns now from Tennessee to Texas.  
In Travis County in December 1867,  Mary Isabelle Wheeler was born into a prominent Texas family as the daughter of Maggie H. and John Gill Wheeler.  Wheeler was a pioneer storekeeper in Manor, a town about 12 miles from Austin. His brother would serve five years as Lt. Governor of Texas and be a candidate for governor.   Early on Mary showed talent as an artist and unusual for girls in those days, her parents decided to give her the best possible education.  Accordingly as a teenager she was sent to the Columbia Female Institute in Columbia, Tennessee,  an Episcopalian “finishing school,” only a short buggy ride from Nashville.

It was there that she met Stanley Cooney and they fell in love.  In 1888 the couple married.  Mary was 21 and her husband 28.  After a year of living with Stanley in Nashville,  Mary became homesick for her family.   She persuaded her spouse to relocate to the Lone Star State and open a business there.  The town they selected was New Birmingham, a newly minted community in East Texas built around local iron ore operations. It was a boom town that quickly had grown to more than 3,000 residents boasting a business district of 15 blocks, with such amenities as a bottling works, an electric power plant, some 400 homes, and 32 mercantile houses.   Beginning about 1888 one of those businesses belonged to Stanley Cooney.  He and Mary settled down to make New Birmingham their home. 

With its two furnaces capable of recovering 50 tons of ore daily, New Birmingham seemed destined to become a major Texas city, a community with seemingly unlimited potential.  The Southern Hotel, shown above, was the center of town social life.  As one observer has written:  Its first register, beginning March 28, 1889, and closing Feb. 9, 1890, recorded guests from twenty-eight states, including Jay Gould of railroad fame and Grover Cleveland, recently come from the presidential chair.…Financiers, who had risked their millions in the attempted development of Cherokee County's iron ore were frequently registered.

No millionaire was more closely associated with “The Iron City,” as it was called, than General William Harrison Hamman, shown here.  A native of Virginia, Hamman was a lawyer and an entrepreneur.  After attending the University of Virginia in the early 1850s, he joined the Virginia militia, becoming a captain by 1856.  In 1858 he moved to Owensville, Roberts County, Texas to practice law.  When the Civil War broke out he enlisted as a private in the famed Hood’s Texas Brigade, rising to the rank of brigadier general by the end of the conflict.

After the war Hamman tried his hand at prospecting for oil, building railroads and developing transportation infrastructure. In 1871 he married Ella Virginia Laudermilk, whose sister was the wife of the iron works owner.  By 1890 Hamman was a dominant figure in the New Birmingham Iron and Land Company, vigorously promoting the town and its future.   

How the general and young Stanley Cooney chanced to be acquainted has gone unrecorded.   In July 1890, an event occurred recorded by one newspaper as “Frightful Tragedy in New Birmingham, Tex.”  Despite being described as usually  “notably quiet and gentlemanly in his demeanor,” Cooney was neither when he encountered Hamman.   Blinded by anger, he used both barrels of his gun to shoot the former Confederate down in the street.   The Tennessean’s motive was said to be that Hamman had defamed the character of his wife.  Some whispered, however, that it was Ella Virginia who had traduced Mary.

Caught with the smoking gun still in his hand, young Stanley waived a preliminary hearing, was arrested and sent to jail.  When word of this killing reached Nashville,  John Cooney and another family member immediately left for Texas to help his boy.  A Nashville paper opined:  “The news of yesterday was a great shock to them and the universal opinion is that he must have been justifiable in what he did.”  Those sentiments did not translate to Texas.  Despite able legal assistance, young Cooney was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to prison.  Meanwhile Hamman was buried in the Owensville Cemetery in nearby Calvert, Texas.

After the general’s murder, New Birmingham suffered its own death blows in quick succession.  The panic of 1893 brought the building of railroads to a halt, iron prices dropped precipitously, the town’s major ore plant exploded without funds to rebuild it, and state laws prevented anyone outside from buying land there.  According to local legend, the fatal blow occurred in 1892 with the news that Cooney — likely with help from Mary’s politically potent Wheeler family — had been pardoned and released from jail.
The news appears to have unhinged the Widow Hamman.  “In a fit of outrage and grief,” as it is told, she ran through the streets screaming to the Heavens to “leave no stick or stone standing” in the town.  As New Birmingham slowly died, many saw her diatribe as an omen or perhaps a curse.  With no guests, the Southern Hotel was occupied for years only by a custodian.  It burned to the ground in 1926.   New Birmingham, the boom town had become a doomed town.  It eventually became a ghost town as vegetation swallowed up the site.  Today it is remembered only by a State of Texas roadside marker.

After his pardon, Stanley spared no time in getting back to Tennessee.  The 1910 census found him and Mary back Nashville with the rest of the Cooneys.  He was working at the family grocery just as if nothing had happened.  Mary was launched on her career as an Impressionist landscape artist.  Even today her paintings are sold by Southwestern art galleries for hundreds of dollars.  

As followers of this post know, I believe there is a tale to be told behind every pre-Prohibition bottle or jug.  Seldom, however, does the narrative turn out to be as dramatic as the one related here.   When the name on the jug is “Cooney,” clearly the back story can be well worth pursuing. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Albert Friedrich Was “Horn King of San Antonio”

The distinguished looking man here was known to his contemporaries as “The Horn King of San Antonio.”  The title would not have bothered him at all since he had built his thriving Buckhorn Saloon business there by displaying of hundreds of antlers and cattle horns — a fixation from his youth.  They proved to be “horns of plenty” for him before and even after prohibition in Texas shut down his liquor business. 

His father, Wenzel Friedrich, and mother, Agnes Urbanenck, were both immigrants from Bavaria, Germany.  Albert Friedrich was the youngest of their five sons, born in 1964 in San Antonio, the town in which he would live his entire life.  With the emphasis German emigres put on education, we can assume that Albert got as much good schooling as was available in Texas at that time.   Even as a teenager he is said to have been “hooked” on horns.  A contributing factor may have his father’s reputation as an award-winning furniture maker, specializing — strange as it may seem — in chairs made from cattle horns, as shown here.  His clients are said to have included Queen Victoria, Otto von Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm I.

Whatever the impetus, by age 17 Friedrich was well on his way to a large collection of antlers and horns, some acquired through his own hunting trips.  By the time he was 26 years old Albert was working behind the bar at the Southern Hotel in San Antonio, a popular watering hole for cattlemen.  About 1871 he opened his own small saloon across the street from the hotel.   Some reports say he called this place, “Buckhorn Saloon,”  but others are not sure.

All are agreed that at this Dolorosa Street location, he began to decorate his establishment with deer antlers and cow horns.   With the cowboys, hunters, trappers, traders and other members of the public who frequented his place, Friedrich made a deal.  Bring him a horn specimen and a drink was on the house.   About 1890 he is also said to have purchased the head of a seventy-eight point buck for $100, worth more than $2,000 today.

During this period, Albert met the woman he would marry; she was Emilie Helen Derr, like him, a native born Texan.  The 1880 U.S. Census found her at age 16 living with her parents, Henry and Wilhela Derr.  Her father was a baker.  About 1890 or 1891 Albert and Emilie wed.  Although their union produced no children, Emilie had artistic abilities.  The two hatched an idea to provide free drinks to those bringing them rattlesnake rattles.  The effort was a success and the accumulating of rattles allowed Emilie to fashion the deer figure shown above, still another decoration for the Buckthorn Saloon.  Friedrich also was using bar tokens as a way of enticing customers in the door.  Appropriately two shown below have antlered animals on them. 

In 1896 Friedrich  moved to larger quarters in a building on the corner of Soledad and West Houston Streets.   There in a saloon he definitely called “The Buckhorn,” he installed his assemblage on what appears to be every surface available.  Shown here, above and below, are images of what Friedrich’s saloon looked like.  The photo on top shows the cigar counter, a fixture in most saloons, a well as a glimpse of the bar.  That feature is shown to better effect on the postcard below.  In the midst of the proliferating horns and antlers stands Albert himself, the genial publican, erect in front of an appropriately gold cash register. 

Throughout this period, the fame of Albert’s Buckthorn Saloon traveled widely.  In 1898 when Col. Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders were stationed in San Antonio preparing to go to Cuba during the Spanish-American War, they visited the drinking establishment.  Friedrich’s father is said later to have made a chair for Roosevelt.  Will Rogers, the American humorist, also is reputed to have had a drink there. 

In addition to a proliferation of horns, customers also could 
view other mementoes of the “Old West’ collected by Friedrich.  One writer described it as “this massive assemblage of Texas-style stuff.”  It included dead animals and animal parts from around the world, including a stuffed baby giraffe.  There was a bottle cap collection and a large Indian chief silhouette imprinted in a piece of metal with a .22 caliber rifle.  Friedrich also owned a famous firearm, a shotgun belonging to the notorious Western killer, John Wesley Hardin, and allegedly used by him to kill Jack Helm, the sheriff of DeWitt County, Texas.  Hardin himself was gunned down in an El Paso saloon in August 1895.

The coming of Prohibition to Texas in 1919 rung down the curtain on the fabulous Buckthorn Saloon — but not on Friedrich.  He always had had other drinking spas trying to “horn in” on his trademark, chief among them Billie Keilman’s Horn Palace, which also featured an antler motif.   When it closed in 1920, Friedrich bought Keilman’s massive collection and added it to his own.   In 1922 he relocated his business to 400 West Houston Street and opened it as a museum and curio store, catering to tourists. The result is shown above on a souvenir postcard. Initially Friedrich called it Albert’s Curio Store and eventually, after opening a restaurant on the site, the Buckhorn Curio Store and Cafe. 

Albert died in November 1928 at the age of 64.  He was buried in Section F, Plot 3, Row, of San Antonio’s City Cemetery No. 1.  Not long after his death, Emilie Friedrich created her own particular curiosity.  On what was known as “Algo Diferente Ranch” on the outskirts of San Antonio,  she ordered the construction of a summer home.  Shown here in a postcard view, her “mansion” was built about 1930, ostensibly by a Mexican architect.  It was made of rough-hewn native stone and sat in the midst of a large wooded tract.  Today Emilie’s house stands only as a crumbling hulk, the centerpiece of what is known as San Antonio’s “Las Ruinas” Park.

Albert Friedrich’s horns and Texas memorabilia have fared better.  After Repeal, the 400West Houston Street location reopened as the Buckhorn Saloon and for a time provided vaudeville entertainment.   Fast forward to 1956 when the Lone Star Brewing Company bought the collection and opened the Lone Star Buckhorn Hall of Horns, shown here.  When Lone Star sold out to Stroh’s Beer and brewing operations moved to Longview, Texas, the granddaughter of Albert Friedrich, Mary Friedrich Rogers, and her husband Wallace Rogers bought the collection.  In December 1998, the new Buckhorn Saloon and Museum was born on Houston Street, not far from the original 1881 location and just blocks from the Alamo.  The attraction can be seen above right, a number of horns projecting from the windows. 

 Other displays have been added over the years to the legendary collection that Albert Friedrich put together and the Buckhorn Saloon and Museum remains a vaunted San Antonio “Texas Style” tourist destination.   Albert, looking on from those wide open spaces up yonder, must be mighty proud.


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

“Peerless” Henry Kraver and His Once and Future Whiskey

When the descendants of past whiskey men decide in this day and age to rekindle the fires of family distilleries, literally or figuratively, it is an occasion for celebration.  The legacy of Henry Kraver, once one of the Nation’s leading distillers and the originator of the noted “Peerless” brand whiskey,”  is being kept alive in Henderson, Kentucky, by a great-grandson and a great-great grandson.  

Before dealing with the new Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co., however, let’s look at its origins and at Henry Kraver himself. Shown here in maturity, he was born in Poland about 1859 and emigrated to the United States, presumably with family members, in 1867.  They settled in New York City.  By 1885, the 26-year-old immigrant boy had moved to Henderson, Kentucky.   His first job there was working at the Mann Brothers department store.  His ability and ambition were quickly recognized by the brothers.  With their financial help, he opened a saloon and by 1888 was building the Kraver Tobacco House.

Kraver had selected a promising town in which to pursue his business interests.  About eight years before his arrival the Louisville & Nashville train line connected Henderson by rail with Louisville and St. Louis.  Town industries were stimulated, including tobacco marketing,  buggy manufacturing, and whiskey making.  Among the distilleries was one founded by Elijah W. Worsham and a partner in 1881.  As shown on a jug here, the company featured a brand of whiskey called “Peerless.”  At its peak in the 1880s Worsham was producing between 300 and 400 barrels a year. 

Troubled by financial difficulties and the eventual death of its founder, E.W. Worsham Distilling was sold in 1889 to the rising Henderson business star, Henry Kraver.  What he purchased, according to insurance underwriter records, was a frame distillery with a metal or shingle roof and a single frame warehouse with similar roofing.  According to a Wine and Spirits Bulletin story, Kraver also bought a considerable quantity of old whiskey then in storage in Hamburg, Germany. It likely had been shipped earlier from the U.S. to avoid taxes.

Almost immediately Kraver began to install new machinery at the distillery and erect additional warehouses to store his Old Kentucky Peerless Whiskey.  The enhanced facility is shown here in an illustration.  With the enactment of the Bottle-in-Bond Act, he was able to use these warehouses as federally bonded storage.  Kraver also took early steps — well appreciated by his neighbors — for installing “slop drying” equipment.  For years the plant had been emitting foul odors in its vicinity from the spent mash (“slop”) that was used to feed cattle on the premises.  With the new machinery, those waste materials were being dried and shipped to Germany for feed.  Moreover, the cows and their attendant odors were eliminated from the site.

In December 1889 Kraver suffered a setback when one of the boilers exploded at the distillery, killing a worker named Walter Rout.  According to the suit filed by his family for $10,000 ($250,000 today) in damages, Rout “was so scalded and mangled by steam and debris from the explosion that he died from the injuries [four months later].”  Other workers injured in the blast also sued Kraver.  He apparently was able to settle those suits as he continued vigorously to grow his business.

Kraver was marketing heavily throughout the Midwest and even beyond, including in big cities like Chicago and St. Louis. The Henderson Gleaner newspaper, noting that the distillery was the largest consumer of corn and grain in Kentucky, declared:  “‘Peerless’ brand of whiskey is known and shipped to all parts of the country, and the reputation of it is such that the demand is constantly increasing and each year more is used than in the previous year.”   By 1900, production of Peerless Whiskey had risen from eight to two hundred barrels a day.  Kraver also established a large wholesale house from which he claimed to be supplying 42 of the 50 saloons in Henderson with liquor, using both ceramic jugs and labeled bottles.  The company also sold other barroom supplies.  

Meanwhile Henry had been having a personal life.  The 1900 census captured him, living on Water Street in Henderson, with his wife of 10 years, Ida, a woman who had been born in Tennessee.  Henry was 42; Ida was 29.  With them in their home were two children, Alfred, 9; and Helen, 3.  Kraver’s occupation was given as “distiller.”  For this census, with information apparently given by another family member, his birthplace was recorded as New York.   The 1930 census, for which Henry apparently was the respondent, recorded his birthplace as Poland, likely the western region adjacent to, and often occupied by, Germany.
Kraver rapidly made a reputation for himself in business and civic circles.  When an ordinance was passed in Henderson in 1894 forbidding sales of alcohol on Sunday,  Henry attracted widespread notice by renting a house and securing a liquor license on the Indiana side of the Ohio River.  Thereafter he ran a bar there full blast on Sundays and employed a steamer to make no-charge quick trips to and fro from Kentucky.   His work as community leader brought him local praise.  The Henderson Gleaner said of him:  “Henry Kraver is one of Henderson’s most progressive and earnest businessmen and no movement is ever inaugurated but what he supports it liberally.  This is not only true of business enterprise, but he is equally liberal in all charitable works….”

For the first 19 years of his operation, Kraver continued to operate under the name of the Worsham Distilling Co.  That changed in 1907.  With capitalization of $100,000 (equivalent today of $2.5 million), he incorporated as “The Kentucky Peerless Distilling Company.”  By 1913 Kentucky Peerless was employing almost 50 workers and was producing 10,000 barrels of whiskey a year.  The market for Kraver’s Peerless clearly was being stoked both by the quality of his whiskey and his vigorous merchandising techniques.  
His company was notable for giveaway items presented to saloons and other establishments carrying his whiskey.  Among the most notable were a glass back-of-the bar-bottle with attractive white lettering applied — a stand out behind any bartender.  Kraver also supplied corkscrews with his advertising on the sheath and, possibly for retail customers, mini-jugs with a slug or two of Peerless whiskey inside.

One of Kraver’s highly unusual gifted items to saloons was a cast iron face of an African-American youth wearing a floppy hat.  The legend below reads:  “Bred in Old Ky…Peerless and Me.”  I believe it is a bottle opener, meant to be affixed on a flat wooden surface with screws through ear holes in the metal.  Then beverage caps could be opened on the mouth and teeth of the figure.  Devising this giveaway may have been related to Kraver’s buying the Henderson Brewing Company, a brewery that enjoyed shipping access to the Ohio River.  As he had with Peerless whiskey, Kraver moved quickly to increase production of Henderson beer.

By 1917, despite prohibitionary forces drying up liquor markets, the Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co. was running full out.  It produced 23,000 barrels of whiskey daily and had an additional 63,000 barrels in storage. Then came World War One.  The U.S. Government restricted use of grain for whisky as part of the war effort.  Kraver patriotically complied and halted his production.  After wartime restrictions eased it was only a short time until National Prohibition was enforced.  Kraver was forced to shut down his distillery and close up the brewery. 

Through the early 1920s Peerless whiskey was kept in storage in Henry’s bonded warehouses under the watchful eye and armed guards of the federal government.  Because of rampant thefts from disbursed storage, in 1923 U.S. Army troops transported 6,000 barrels of Kraver’s whiskey from Henderson to a more secure “concentration” warehouse in Owensboro.  There Peerless could be accessed as medicine with a doctor’s prescription.

A relatively young 53 years when Prohibition was imposed, Henry, shown above with his wife, had considerable other resources to fall back on.  In 1910 the family had moved to 639 Main Street.  Now in an historical district of Henderson it is a two story T-shaped frame dwelling, notable for its ornamented gables and windows.  That is where the 1930 census found the family, with son Alfred, now 38, still in residence.  Kraver gave his occupation as “retired” but was far from it.  Early in the Great Depression he had invested in and was served as first president of the First National Bank of Henderson, an institution that survived under that name until 1993.  He also had the foresight to buy a vacated department store and renovate it as a theater for vaudeville and the movies.  The Kraver Theater survived until 1976.

Kraver’s wife Ida died in 1935.  Two years later in October Henry was on a visit to Chicago when he fell from a second story balcony at the Palmer House Hotel.  One leg was badly injured and ultimately required amputation.  Complications set in and Henry died in January 1938 at the age of 78.  He was buried beside Ida with a single gravestone,  shown here.

Fast forward 76 years.  In 2014 a Henderson native named Corky Taylor and his son Carson announced that they were relaunching the Kentucky Peerless distillery in Henderson.  Kraver was Taylor’s “father’s mother’s father.”  These descendants announced that the new facility initially would sell an un-aged “white lightening,” to be follow by a Peerless label whiskey aged four years,  and eventually a premium six-to-eight-year-old bourbon named for Kraver himself.  As shown here, when “Barrel No. 1” rolled out in March of this year, the Taylors were there to give it a ceremonial “bang to the bung.”

This revival of one of Kentucky’s most revered brands is truly a reason to cheer and raise a glass.  Noting what was said of Henry Kraver in the Henderson Gleaner almost a century ago, those same sentiments should be be extended to his great-grandson, Corky Taylor:  “He is a large tax payer and entitled to all the success he can get.”

Note:  Much of the information included in this vignette was obtained from the Taylors' Kentucky Peerless Whiskey website.  It contains a timeline of Kraver’s accomplishments as well as other interesting information and illustrations, some of the latter used for this post.  Newspaper stories, journal articles and census returns provided additional material.  

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Five Jacks and Three Michelsons = A Winning Hand

The Michelson brothers, all immigrants from Germany,  settled in two cities, Cincinnati, Ohio, and Austin, Texas, and made selling whiskey a prime objective.  Their national brand was Five Jacks — illustrated by four playing cards and a donkey — that proved to be a winning hand in the wholesale liquor game and allowed them to rake in the chips for thirty-two years.

The eldest brother was Morris, born in 1839.  Five years later came the birth of Abraham  and 10 years after that Isador.  Isador, however, was the first to immigrate to the United States in 1872, choosing to live in Cincinnati.   Morris followed him in 1880.  At an undetermined later date Abraham came to America.  This third Michelson brother settled in Austin where, according to reports, he initially was engaged in the produce trade.

In 1886,  Isador founded a liquor wholesale business that initially was known as “I. Michelson & Bro.”, located at 129-131 Sycamore Street in Cincinnati.   The brother, I surmise, was Morris.  As an early company letterhead above indicates, they termed themselves “distillers” and advertised Hoffman House and Bouquet Whiskeys.  Not really distillers, the Michelsons were at most “rectifiers,”  that is, mixing and compound whiskey from supplies obtained from nearby Kentucky distilleries. 
Their brands were:  "Bonanza King,” "Lord Bacon,” "Old Curtis,”  "Old Morris 1878 Brand,” ”Red Polled,” “Roseberry,” "The Hoffman House Bouquet,”, "Uncle Tom Gin” “Elkhead Buchu & Gin,” and “Five Jacks Whiskey.”    Five Jacks was far and away the Michelson’s flagship brand.  The Michelsons sold it wholesale in barrels and retailed it in glass bottles and in ceramic jugs with an elaborate underglaze label of playing cards and a donkey, shown here.   

Eventually the name of the firm was changed to include the third brother,  as “I. Michelson and Bros.”  Abraham initially may have been working as an agent for his brothers in Texas, doing business from the Board of Trade Building.  About 1894, Abraham exited the firm, apparently with family approval, and opened his own wholesale liquor dealership at 325 and 327 Congress Avenue in Austin.  He featured many of the same brands as the Cincinnati Michelsons.  As a wholesaler, he probably marketed to the many swinging door establishment in that Texas town, including John Neff’s “Iron Front Saloon” [the subject of a September 2014 post].

Meanwhile all three brothers were having personal lives.  According to 1900 Census records.  Isador had married in 1880.  His wife Bertha also was German-born. The family would have six children, of whom five lived to adulthood.  After living the bachelor life for many years, Morris married in 1888 at the age of 49.  His wife, Sarah, was 24 years his junior.  The couple was recorded as having five children, all sons.    Meanwhile in Texas Abraham married a woman named Henrietta.  Their family would include three children.

The Michelson brothers were gaining a national market for their whiskey blends, particularly Five Jacks, often using humor to sell it.  Their advertising was vigorous and as shown here in a trade card sometimes, on the outer edge of good taste — but humorous.  The card depicted the “Dam” family, including such luminaries as “Old Man Dam,”  “Giva Dam,”  “Wilby Dam,” “U. B. Dam,” “Billy B. Dam,” “The Dam Kid,” all the way down to “The Dam Dog.”  Plus “The Old Lady,” apparently Mrs. Dam.  The dog is shown sucking out of a bottle with the notation that “…it is a Dam shame to laugh and let the Dam Dog feed on good old “Five Jacks” whiskey.”  Unlike many trade cards that were generic in nature, this one had to be designed by the Michelsons, using a very creative cartoonist.

The brothers also were giving away advertising items to favored customers, including shot glasses and well-decorated back-of-the-bar bottles,  As shown here, most of those artifacts advertised their Five Jacks brand.   As Isador’s sons grew to maturity he took them into the liquor business.  The 1910 census indicated that Sigmund Michelson was employed as a salesman and Edwin was bookkeeper and cashier.   

Meanwhile, Abraham was prospering in Austin.  He had been able to move into a new building, shown below, that was two-stories, 46 by 100 feet in dimension, containing his stock of liquors and foreign and domestic wines.  He appears to have been receiving whiskeys from his brothers, as well as from sources in Kentucky and Pennsylvania.  He was also selling cigars that bore the “Hoffman House” imprint.   A. Michelson Co. employed two traveling salesmen.   A contemporary publication called the firm: “…A concern whose reputation is beyond question and is eminently reliable.”  Of Abraham himself,  it said:  “Mr. A. Michelson is a well known and popular resident of this city and a businessman of the highest standing.”

Abraham died in December 1903 at the age of 58, the cause of death recorded as diabetes.  His funeral was held at his residence at 910 West Sixth Street in Austin, attended, according to a press account, by a large number of friends and relatives.  The latter included his wife, Henrietta, and their grown children.  Burial was in the Oakwood Cemetery in Austin.  In 1915 Henrietta would join him in Section 1, B11, Lot 10.  Abraham’s grave marker is shown here.
Of the fates of the other Michelsons, my research has revealed little.  As late as 1914 Morris was identified with the firm in Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce records.  I. Michelson & Bros. continued to be listed in local business directories until 1918, despite Ohio voting “dry” in 1916.  This may indicate that the company was send whiskey supplies out of state to areas where sales of alcohol were still allowed.  The location of Morris’ and Isador’s graves as yet have not been recorded on relevant websites.

While laying down five jacks in a Texas card game might well get a player shot during an earlier day, the Michelson had turned four face cards and a jackass into a national brand and prosperity by dint of their creativity and a distinctly humorous approach to marketing.  In a very real sense they paved the way for the jocular labels that so frequently appear on wine and beer in our own time, assuredly to make the bottles stand out on dealer shelves.