Monday, February 29, 2016

The D’Agostinos Spread Big Bottles Across America

Once upon a time during National Prohibition a family from Atlantic City succeeded in building eighty giant wine bottles across America, two of them shown here. They were the D’Agostinos, father, mother, and son, whose successful ventures into liquor, wine and tonics is remembered best by those huge concrete and plaster monuments, hailed by some as “architectural treasures,” with four bottles in New Jersey protected as historic landmarks. 

The progenitor of this American “Stonehenge” was Matteo D’Agostino.  Shown right, he was born in the Messina Province of the Island of Sicily, Italy, in 1871, into the family of Andrea D’Agostino.  At the age of 15 in 1886, Matteo emigrated to the United States settling in the vicinity of Atlantic City where he likely had relatives.  Five years later his future wife, Maria, came to this country.  Born the same year in Messina, she likely had known Matteo in the Old Country.  They married in 1992, the same year Matteo became a naturalized citizen.  Over the next fourteen years the couple would have seven children. Four of them appeared to have died in infancy or when very young.  Their second-born in 1895 was John Andrew, the son who one day would help spread D’Agostino bottles from coast to coast.

Matteo first appeared in local business directories in 1904 as the proprietor of the D’Agostino Hotel at 2230 Arctic Avenue in Atlantic City, an address that shortly after also became the headquarters of  D’Agostino’s Wines and Liquors.  The Sicilian immigrant had selected an excellent location for both a hostelry and alcohol sales.  Atlantic City, the boardwalk shown above, was at the pinnacle of its popularity as a tourist town, attractive for its ocean beach, its gambling, and its reputation for being “wide open” for all kinds of activities. both licit and not so.
D’Agostino appears to have featured only a single proprietary brand of whiskey, one he called “Atlantic County Club.”  He never bothered to trademark the label, but issued both a standard shot glass and a tonic shaped glass, shown left, advertising the brand.  

He also marketed a spiritous tonic called “Ferro-China Bisleri,” a reputed health giving beverage that had originated in Italy.  Its slogan translated from the Italian was “You want good health?  Drink Ferro-China Bisleri.”  This hype did not impress Food and Drug officials when in 1914 they seized 24 bottles of D’Agostino’s Bisleri bitters in New Jersey and condemned them.  The government claimed that they had been spiked with wood alcohol, a poison that can cause blindness and sometimes death.  The spiking appears to have been done by the Philadelphia supplier — not the D’Agostinos.

In time John D’Agostino had joined his father in the liquor trade.  The son proved to be an even more astute businessman than his father, particularly in the way of cultivating important friends, reputedly including Mafia figures.  His most important connection was to Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, the Atlantic City political figure and racketeer.  From 1914 to 1941 Johnson was the undisputed “boss” of the Republican political machine that controlled Atlantic City and its government.

It was likely with Johnson’s help — and almost certainly his approval — that the D’Agostinos with John in the forefront bought the Renault Winery in Atlantic City in 1919.  The winery dated from 1864, founded by Louis Renault who found the climate and soils around Atlantic City similar to his native France. Under his tutelage, the winery won prizes for its wine and became the largest distributor of champagne in the U.S.  

When the D’Agostinos took over the winery National Prohibition was immanent, a prospect that did not daunt the family.  Exploiting a loophole in the laws and with undoubted political influence, they were able to get a government permit to operate throughout the fourteen “dry” years, allowed to produce wines for “religious and medicinal” purposes.  Renault Wine Tonic at 40 proof became their chief product and was sold in drug stores nationwide.  All one needed was a doctor’s prescription.  The label “warned” not to chill the tonic as it would turn into wine.

The winery purchase took John D’Agostino on several business trips to France, one of them to the little village where Louis Renault was born.  In the town square where it had stood for 100 years was a giant concrete champagne bottle.  It gave John an idea:  Why not replicate such a bottle in the United States?  Not just in Atlantic City but 80 such bottles, advertising Renault from sea to shining sea.  For the job, he reached back to Italy and an artisan named Luigi Portaluppi.

Assisted by his son, Portaluppi began to work his way across America building giant concrete bottles as he went.  He would fashion a hollow base of chicken wire or mesh and cover it with a mixture of Portland cement, stone, sand and water.  The outside was plastered and painted with the Renault logo.  By the end of the 1930s, when champagne and other wine once again were legal, the Italian immigrant had reached Fresno, California, built the 80th bottle — and stopped.

Although these totems proved to be an attention getting way of advertising, they also created problems for the D’Agostinos.  When they contracted for the space with landowners, those individuals were expected to maintain the bottles, including paint when needed.  If, as inevitably happened, some giants were allowed to go into disrepair, the family ceased to pay any compensation.  Angry landowners were known to cover the advertising with plastic or even paint them over.

Nevertheless, the Renault Winery continued to thrive.  Meanwhile "Nucky"Johnson had been fined and sent to jail for tax evasion.  He was paroled after four years but his power in Atlantic City was at an end.  Indicating just how much the D’Agostinos owned Johnson, he and his young, former model wife were both hired to work for Renault, "Nucky" as a salesman.  The winery itself had become a major New Jersey tourist attraction, bringing thousands of visitors annually to the state.  Prosperity allowed the D’Agostinos to move to a large home on Atlantic City’s Bartram Street.  The house, shown here, was second from the beach.

Matteo and Maria, who had seen several children die young, suffered a even greater blow in 1948 when John D’Agostino was killed in an auto accident in Atlantic City.  A local newspaper reported: “It was one of the largest funeral corteges ever seen in the County and was attended by people in all walks of life. The pallbearers were a group of leading businessmen and politicians of Atlantic City with many high in the political and business life of the County acting as honorary pallbearers.”  After a funeral Mass at a local Catholic Church, as his aged parents looked on, John was buried in Oak Grove Cemetery of Atlantic County.

While Matteo was recorded as running a hotel in Atlantic City in the 1950 U.S. Census, his wife, Maria, is reputed to have taken the reins of management for the winery after John’s death.  Shown here, she would live until 1972, dying at the age of 101.  Her husband had preceded her in death, passing away in 1956, age 85.  The couple lie under a granite headstone that also covers the children they lost early, as well as John Andrew.

Since the passing of the D’Agostinos’ the giant Renault bottles have taken on an iconic status.  The State of New Jersey has declared the four that remain there to be protected historic landmarks.  D’Agostino’s bottles continue to stand in other parts of America, including Fresno, although the Atlantic City winery long since has been in other hands.  

Dr. Cecil Munsey, a now-deceased guru of the bottle collecting community, has declared them architectural treasures.  "Unfortunately, I don't think we'll ever go back to having giant champagne bottles or this kind of thing in general because cities no longer allow for such things in the building codes," Munsey has said, adding: "We are left to be fascinated with the examples we still have.”  

To those sentiments I would just note that these giant sculptures also remind us of the D’Agostinos whose hard work, foresight and — yes, political pull — made these memorable objects possible.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Winsteads: Kentucky Royalty in “Silk Velvet”

Col. A. S. Winstead named his flagship sour mash whiskey “Silk Velvet” because he asserted it was the smoothest whiskey on the market.  While that claim might be open to debate, there is no disputing that the brand, although in limited production, found a considerable customer base, allowing two generations of the Winstead family of Henderson, Kentucky, to live their lives as "whiskey barons."

Aaron Shelby Winstead was born in December, 1829, in Kentucky.  His father was Stephen Hall Winstead, 47, and his mother, Sarah Barnett, 31, both immigrants from North Carolina.  Aaron was one of eight children, with three brothers and four sisters.  During his early years, he apparently was involved in farming as had been his fore-bearers.  From the 1850 census it would appear that his father had died and Winstead was working the land. 

In 1856 at the age of 26, he married a woman with the unusual name of America T. Worsham of Daviess County, Kentucky, and his life took a new turn.  America was the twenty-one year old daughter of Elijah W. Worsham, a noted Kentucky whiskey-maker who had a distillery in Henderson, Kentucky, on the Ohio River across from Indiana.  

Winstead went to work for Worsham and from his father-in-law learned to make good whiskey.  When the Civil War broke out he registered in Kentucky under the Union’s draft process.  Although he was 35 and eligible for service he was married with two young children and in 1863 was given a Class 2 rating.  I can find no evidence he was ever called to serve, although for much of his life he was referred to as Colonel Winstead.  My assumption is that he was a “Kentucky Colonel,” a honor bestowed by the state’s governor on privileged citizens like whiskey barons.

In the summer or fall of 1880 Winstead exited Worsham’s employ and struck out on his own.  His motivation may have been his growing financial responsibilities, namely the births of three additional children.  Joining with a local named Bona Hill, he purchased the grounds and buildings of the Henderson Car Works, a manufacturer of railroad cars that had moved to a new and larger factory.  Under the name “Hill and Winstead.” the buildings were remodeled and repaired to create a distillery.  A small plant, the initial capacity was 20 barrels a day, although initially the operation seldom ran beyond half capacity. 

The first run of whiskey was made in the winter of 1880. The partners reveled in their success in making a quality product right from the start.  After tasting an initial batch Winstead was moved to say that they had created the smoothest whiskey on the market.  He promptly named it “Silk Velvet.”  It soon found a ready regional market.  Silk Velvet appears to have been the Colonel’s only brand.  He packaged it primarily in ceramic jugs, both quarts and smaller sizes.  Winstead seemingly had difficulties obtaining adequate containers;  the local press reported in 1904 that he was contemplating opening a pottery factory in Henderson.

By the mid-1880s the distillery was mashing 125 bushels a day and had two warehouses.  According to insurance records, the distillery was of brick and frame construction, with two frame warehouses.  One was 100 feet south of the still with a metal or slate roof and another was 275 feet southeast with a shingle roof. The mash residue from the distillery was being fed to cattle that apparently were housed on the grounds. With the success of their Silk Velvet brand, Winstead by the early 1890s was able to increase the mashing capacity to 250 bushels and a bonded warehouse was added.  The expanded distillery is shown above.

Inexplicably, by 1900 the mashing capacity had dropped back to about 130 bushels of grain daily.  The warehouses held some 4,000 barrels of aging whiskey. In 1906 the mashing numbers dropped further to just over 100 bushels daily.  At that point the warehouses held 5,000 barrels of whiskey.  Such reductions in production might be laid to any of several causes — a surfeit of whiskey in Kentucky with subsequent low prices, difficulty in obtaining adequate grain supplies, or perhaps a decision by the Colonel to emphasize the quality of Silk Velvet over quantity.

At some point Bona Hill departed the company and it became simply A.S. Winstead, recorded on the letterhead that opens this post.  Although Winstead does not appear to have gone national with his advertising, like some distillers he provided advertising shot glasses to saloonkeepers, bartenders and others using his whiskey.  Shown here, one touted Silk Velvet as The Finest Hand Made Sour Mash Whiskey in the World.”   Despite Col. Winstead’s emphasis on regional sales, word on the quality of his liquor made its way to other parts of the country.  Shown above is a jug of Silk Velvet that was sold by a B. F. Watson, a Texas liquor dealer. 

As A.S. Winstead aged, he brought his son, Elijah Worsham (E.W.) Winstead into the business, gradually turning the distillery over to him.  The Colonel died at the advanced age of 82 in June 1912, the cause given as “paralysis.”  His occupation was given as “retired distiller.”  He was buried in Henderson’s Fernwood Cemetery, with his gravestone shown here.

Although some reports have Elijah operating the distillery only briefly after his father’s death, the better evidence is that, having changed the name of the firm to “E.W. Winstead,” he continued to turn out Silk Velvet.  Additional proof of this continued production is a shot glass advertising that brand and bearing E.W.’s name.  Other evidence is a 1915 advertisement in which Silk Velvet is extolled as “Kentucky’s finest product, pure and undefiled.”  The ad also indicates that Winstead’s company had expanded its marketing range to points east of the Rocky Mountains and would pre-pay express orders received from such locations.

With the enactment of the Webb-Kenyon Act by Congress opportunities for mail order sales eventually dried up for the company and Elijah likely shut its doors sometime later in the decade.  E.W. Winstead died at the relatively young age of 52 in 1920 and was buried with his father and other family members at Fernwood Cemetery at the Winstead monument shown here.

Although the Colonel calling his whiskey “Silk Velvet” apparently was a spur of the moment decision, his and his son’s successful merchandising of the brand bespeaks the hard work of decades.  Although they never bothered to trademark the name, Silk Velvet provided the Winsteads with royal trappings  appropriate to Kentucky whiskey barons.  

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Who Was “Old Joel”? —David Feltenstein Knew

The nattily dressed young man shown above is David Feltenstein, a well-known and prosperous whiskey man in St. Joseph, Missouri.  In his hand is a bottle of his flagship brand, one he called “Old Joel,” whose label included the portrait of an elderly bearded gentleman.   Who was Old Joel?   Feltenstein knew, but few customers did.

Feltenstein had not always known the affluence he attained as a successful wholesale, retail, and mail order liquor dealer.  He was born about 1873 in New York City of Russian Jewish immigrant parents.  The family lived in on Manhattan’s lower East Side, the dwelling place for many newly arrived in America with little money.  Like many Jewish arrivals, David’s father was a peddler, selling merchandise on the street and going door to door.  Shown below is a Jewish peddler making a sale on a New York sidewalk.

From a 21st Century prospective, idea of peddling seems curious, if not downright demeaning,  Nevertheless, it was a normal way of life for many Jews from Russia and Central Europe.  The men who immigrated to America took up peddling almost as a matter of course, says one author, adding:  “A distinctive way of making a living, peddling required that the man–since in the United States women nearly never engaged in it—knock on doors, go up to the homes of each one of his customers, cross their thresholds, communicate with them in their own language and develop a pleasant enough manner to convince them to buy something. It necessitated that the would-be peddler learn enough of the local language or languages to be able to communicate with women and men often very different from him.”

The 1880 U.S.Census found the Feltensteins living in an apartment at 30 Essex Street, one of the avenues that defined the boundaries of the Lower East Side.  Their building likely resembled the tenements shown here.  The father and mother, both 43 years old, were raising a large family on a peddler’s income.  The oldest child was Betsy at 18 years, followed by Sarah,10.  Then came four boys, Isaac, 8;  David, 7;  Alexander, 6;  and Moses, 4. There also was an elder son, Abraham, and two children, Jacob and Hannah, born after 1880.  As he grew up, David almost certainly learned the value of hard work from his father, as well as frugality and personality traits to convince customers “to buy something.”  His father’s name, as you may have guessed, was Joel.

With his boyhood spent in what many considered the slums,  Feltenstein had only limited education, telling a census taker that he had left school to go to work after the eight grade. When he was about 20 years old David moved to St. Joseph, Missouri.  He likely made the move at the suggestion of Feltenstein relatives who already lived in the Missouri River town, a “jumping off point” for many heading West.  In St. Joseph at the age of 23 Feltenstein found a bride in Rae, also given as “Ray,”  herself the offspring of Russian Jewish parents.  She was 18 when they married.  The 1900 census found them living in St. Joseph’s Third Ward with one son, Harry, 2 years old.  Feltenstein’s occupation was given as “Merchant, D.S.,” likely meaning “distilled spirits.”

Exactly when Feltenstein founded his liquor dealership cannot be determined, but his business first showed up in St. Joseph directories in 1902, located at 315-319 Edmond Street.  That would be his location for the life of the company. In addition to naming his flagship whiskey “Old Joel,”  David demonstrated other ways of saluting his heritage.  Outside his establishment he kept a cart similar to those that peddlers would push though the streets of New York, crying out their wares.  The sides of the cart advertised “Old Joel Whiskey.”  Note too that outside his store Feltenstein had a line of barrels on the sidewalk, reminiscent of peddlers spreading out their products for passersby.
Feltenstein advertised his whiskey vigorously.  An 1910 ad emphasized that he packaged his brands in gallon glass jars.  These had been made possible by the invention of the Mike Owens bottling machine not long before.   He offered two brands, “Old Joel” at $4 a gallon and a cheaper “house” brand rye for $3.  He also was advertising as “The Old Reliable Mail Order Liquor House,” taking advantage of the many states and localities that had gone “dry” but could still receive interstate express deliveries of liquor.  In addition to his “Old Joel” proprietary label, Feltenstein offered a number of nationally known brands, like “Old McBrayer” “Guckenheimer Rye,” and “Old Oscar Pepper.”  A buyer ordering four quarts of liquor would receive it prepaid express.

Like other whiskey dealers of his time, Feltenstein issued giveaway items to favored customers like saloon owners and bartenders.  Two shot glasses shown here prominently advertised “Old Joel.”  Interestingly, the glasses indicated that D. Feltenstein was the “distributor” of the brand.  This reference may indicate that the company was not doing its own rectifying and bottling but relying on outside sources.  It also is interesting that Feltenstein never trademarked his “Old Joel” brand.
As Feltenstein’s wealth increased, so did his family size. In the 1910 census when he was 37, David and Rae’s children had increased to three, joining Harry, now 12, was Gerald, 8, and Edward, 3.  Their father determined to build them a new home.  Designed by Architect Rudolph Meyer, it was a two story brick and stone dwelling in the designated “Prairie Style.”  At the beginning of the 20th century, Frank Lloyd Wright had introduced this distinct new architecture, expressing the flat, sweeping prairie of the Midwest, created to meet Wright's objectives of a simplicity and integrity that combined comfort, utility and beauty,  Shown here and still standing, Feltenstein’s Missouri house was an excellent example of the style.  Moreover, it was a far cry from the tenement residence David had known as a boy.

Although Missouri did not ban alcohol sales until National Prohibition in 1920, as the 20th Century progressed, Feltenstein experienced the dwindling of his customer base.  Beginning 1913 the Webb-Kenyon Act eventually had cut off his ability to send mail-order booze into “dry” states and localities. Nevertheless,  he kept his liquor business going until 1918, then apparently went from “wet goods” into dry goods — selling ready-to-wear clothing and household items.  His liquor store later was torn down to create a bank parking lot.

Feltenstein died at the age of 68 in November 1941, listed on his death certificate as “retired merchant.”  The cause given was heart disease and an upper respiratory infection.  He was buried at the Ashland Mausoleum in St. Joseph.  His life literally had been one that went from rags to riches — but he never forgot the roots of his success.  The face and the name of his immigrant peddler father was ever with him on his bottles, his advertising and the large sign that graced his establishment.  They reminded David Feltenstein daily of his hard-scrabble childhood in a New York tenement ghetto and a father whose efforts made it possible for him and his family to live the American Dream.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Caspar Berry: A Whiskey Man “In the Hands of His Friends”

On May 1, 1903, Caspar Berry walked into Boston’s famous Parker House Hotel, shown above, and headed to a banquet room, apparently completely unaware of what was to happen.  He had been told he was there to attend a small dinner party.  As The Cambridge [Mass.] Daily News headlined, however, the Swiss immigrant found himself “in the  hands of his friends.”  Berry, shown right, was the guest of honor that night, celebrating the 25th anniversary of his business career as a successful Bean Town whiskey dealer.

It was an honor that Berry hardly could have dreamed of earlier in life.  He was born in Switzerland in 1846, the son of Mattias and Anna Mathis Berry.  At the age of 26, likely seeking better opportunities in the United States, he emigrated here in 1876, settling in Boston.  My assumption is that Berry served a short apprenticeship with one of the wholesale liquor firms in Boston, learning the trade. 

His company claimed establishment in 1878,  two years after his arrival.  At the banquet, according to the press, Berry said of his beginnings:  “I started in business about 25 years ago, in about as small a way as any man could, but I made it a principle never to work on another man’s capital.”

Starting modestly but energetically, Berry soon grew his firm into a major Boston liquor wholesaler that by 1894 was located in five-story building at 84-88 Leverett.  He called his enterprise “C. Berry & Co, Importers, Agents, and Wholesale Dealers in Foreign and Domestic Wines and Liquors.”  He also was using one of the upper floors of his establishment to “rectify” whiskey, that is, mixing and blending raw whiskeys received by the barrel from distilleries to achieve desired taste, smoothness, and color.  Rectifying was an art and Berry clearly had mastered it. 

In addition to selling his whisky wholesale generically in ceramic jugs, Berry featured a number of proprietary brands.  They included:  "2 Always In Front,” ”Ashland Club,” “Intervale,” “Golden Buck,” “Kurnwood,” "Old Berrywood,” and "Red Arrow.”  He trademarked Ashland Club, Intervale, and Red Arrow whiskeys in 1914.  

Berry’s flagship whiskey was Diamond
Wedding, trademarked in 1906, a brand name that he appears to have purchased from S.A. Sloman when the latter left the liquor business [see my post on Sloman, March 2015].  Berry inherited the clientele
Sloman, through an expensive advertising campaign, had acquired in his efforts to turn Diamond Wedding into a national brand.  Although Berry advertised the label, as shown here, he seemingly was more content with a Northeast regional customer base.

Berry packaged Diamond Wedding in both quarts and flasks for retail customers.  It was sold in glass containers, with paper labels and heavily embossed bottles that carried his name and the name of the whiskey.   As other whiskey wholesalers of his time,  Berry also had a range of giveaway advertising items for his customers.  He provided saloons offering his whiskeys a reverse glass sign, shown above, that colorfully advertised Diamond Wedding Whiskey.   Other Berry giveaways were shot glasses with a pitch for his brands.

Berry was characteristically modest about his accomplishments in the whiskey trade. His success, he told the banquet-goers, had several causes.  “I had a good wife as a partner, and an honest accountant, and I have been blessed with good health.  I have always endeavored to treat my customers fairly and also my employees.  

Berry’s mention of his wife, is interesting, since his first wife, Elsbeth “Lizzie” Doherty, had passed away in 1896, leaving him to live as widower with two unmarried adult daughters.  At the age of 57 in 1897, he would marry again.  She was Emily Schuebeler, the daughter of Louis F. and Minette Kaufhold Schuebeler and Swiss-born like Berry.  With two wives, it is difficult to determine if Caspar was crediting Lizzie or Emily with his business success.

At the 1903 banquet, the commendations for Berry came thick and fast.  The congressman for the district, the Hon. William S. McNary, told the assembly that he had known of Caspar Berry long before meeting him in person, having heard of him spoken of in the highest terms.  McNary intoned:  “It is customary in this country to hear of successful men in business, but no man is more fitting of a testimony like this than a honorable businessman.”  My assumption is that McNary was a drinking man.

Other encomiums to Berry were forthcoming.  The toastmaster,  Boston City Clerk E. J. Donovan, told the crowd:  “You do not honor him because because he has made a few dollars but because he has been honest to his fellow men.  He has been not only an honor to his own country but to America, also.  There is a good representation present of what the bone and sinew of the American people are.”   
Those present that night included many from the alcohol trade, including representatives of Empire Distilling, Rex Distilling, Massachusetts Brewing, Genessee Brewing, Boston Beer Co., and the California Wine Assn.  The assemblage saw Berry presented with a Masonic charm, studded with five large diamonds, hanging on a double gold watch chain, something valued in today’s dollar at about $7,500.

Immediately following the press report of Berry’s festivities, however, was a brief news note that held portents for the future of the liquor trade.  It recorded that one John T. Shea — obviously not invited to Caspar's party — the very day of the ceremony had been elected recording secretary at a meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Saloon League.

Over the ensuing years, the League would grow increasingly strong, culminating in the imposition of National Prohibition in 1920.  Berry may have felt the anti-liquor tide rising even earlier.  The last business directory listing for his company was in 1916.  He died in 1919 at the age of 73 and was interred in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, a place where many prominent Bostonians are buried.

During the years following the 1903 Parker House celebration Caspar Berry must have thought back frequently and pleasantly on the tributes, among them being termed a “thorough gentleman,” and an “honest and whole-souled man”  — accolades we all would cherish.   


Friday, February 12, 2016

Sam Dillinger “Hauled and Delivered” — Good Pennsylvania Rye

  For several years before the Civil War Samuel Dillinger drove a large Conestoga wagon pulled by six horses across the Allegheny Mountains on the Nation Pike, transporting merchandise between Baltimore and Pittsburgh.  It was an arduous journey but Sam was an expert on hauling and delivering.  After settling down in Pennsylvania, he became the second largest distiller in the state, hauling out fifty newly-filled whiskey barrels every day from his distillery to store in his warehouses and then delivering a quality aged rye to his customers.

Shown right in maturity, Sam was born in Westmoreland County in October 1810, the eldest child of Daniel and Mary (Myers) Dillinger, and bought up on a farm.  His father had emigrated from eastern Pennsylvania and evidence exist that the family was of Swiss Mennonite origins.  The name Dillinger was pronounced “Dilling-Grrr” not  “Dillon-Jerr” like that of the notorious gangster.   With only a limited education, as a young man Sam apparently had several occupations, including trading in cattle and horses, and as a wagoneer cross the Appalacians.  Seemingly more important was a stint working at a grist mill and distillery where Dillinger learned how to make rye whiskey and also, it is thought, something about marketing it.

In 1831 Dillinger married Sarah Loucks, related to the famous Overholt distilling family, and soon their wedding after they purchased and located on what became known as “Home Farm” near Alverton, Pennsylvania, shown above.  Sarah  was accounted a woman whose “energy, faithfulness and frugality”  were a definite asset to Sam.  The couple would go on to have a family of ten children, seven girls and three boys.  

Perhaps it was the financial requirements of a rapidly growing family that caused Dillinger to expand his enterprises.  In 1850 he purchased a grist mill in nearby West Bethany and soon added a distillery, shown here.  This he operated with success to a regional clientele for some thirty years, bring his sons into the business as they matured.  

In 1881 the West Bethany distillery was destroyed by fire.  When he rebuilt, it was nearby at a locality known as Ruff’s Dale.  By this time Sam had been joined by sons Daniel and Samuel Jr.  Shown above, this distillery was operated as “Samuel Dillinger & Sons.”   It became one of the best known in Pennsylvania, second in production only to the Gibson Distillery [see my post on Gibson, July 2014].  

In time the distillery had a mashing capacity of five hundred bushels of grain daily, producing 50 barrels of whiskey, and six warehouses with a combined storage capacity of 55,000 barrels.   The Dillingers also operated several bottling operations for their retail sales.  The family name appeared proudly on ever flask and quart of their flagship Pennsylvania Straight Rye Whiskey.

Meanwhile, Sam had been expanding further. With growing prosperity he purchased additional farmland adjoining Home Farm until he owned more than 600 contiguous acres, all of it on top of rich fields of coke coal.  That spurred him in 1872 to erect a number of coke ovens, eventually said to total more than 100.  One author has opined: “Dillinger and Sons are therefore entitled to rank among the pioneer coke producers of Pennsylvania.  Sam also was one of the founders of the Southwest Pennsylvania Railway in 1872 and served as a director for years.  

Denied book learning himself, Dillinger was portrayed as an “untiring worker” for the “free” public school system and he served for years on the county school board.   In addition, he did contract work to build school houses, churches, and other local buildings.  Affiliated with the Democratic Party, Dillinger opposed slavery, but as a Mennonite and a pacifist, was opposed to the Civil War believing that, as a biographer has noted, “…That slavery would terminate its existence by the education of the people to the fact that it was wrong and that this course would better prepare the slaves for their freedom.”  

Marked by extraordinary vigor throughout his life, at age 79 Dillinger in 1889 very suddenly was felled by a paralyzing stroke and never regained consciousness.  With his large family including children and grandchildren grouped around his grave, he was interred in the Mennonite Cemetery at Alverton.  His monument, shown here, was inscribed “Erected to the Memories of an Honest Man and Constant Friend.”

Dillinger’s sons, Daniel and Samuel Jr. continued to operate the highly successful  distillery their father had founded until they were forced to close by National Prohibition in 1919.  At some point during America’s fourteen year “dry” period, the family sold out to the Rosenbloom family who earlier had operated a liquor dealership on Pittsburgh’s North Side.  The Dillingers had known the Rosenblooms for a long time, providing whiskey for their rectifying operation.   As shown here on a post-Prohibition label, the Rosenblooms kept the Dillinger name on their whiskey but now it had become a “blend.”  They also changed the name of the company name to “Ruffdale Distilling Company”  The distillery later would change ownership several times before terminating business about 1966.  Sam Dillinger’s whiskey-making, begun in the 1850s had extended down into the 1960s — a run of more than a century.

Summing up the life of this extraordinary distiller, a biographer echoed the sentiments found on Dillinger’s tombstone:   “He was an honest man, and never feared to express the convictions of his conscience. He was a constant friend and neighbor, and was ever ready and willing to lend a helping hand to the weak and erring or downtrodden.”  Sam also proved without a doubt that a former wagoneer also could “haul and deliver” quality Pennsylvania rye whiskey.

Note: Much of the material for this article and of the quoted material above comes from an article written posthumously about Dillinger for the 1906 publication, History of Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, Volume 2, edited by John Boucher for the Lewis Publishing Company, New York.