Friday, October 28, 2016

The Muehleisens of Washington, D.C., Knew Liquid Assets

The Muehleisen, William Sr. and William Jr., father and son, were proprietors of one of Washington, D.C., best known and most prosperous liquor businesses. Then Congress in a fit of political correctness voted the District  “dry” and the son gravitated to running one of the more unusual banking institutions in the history of the Nation’s Capital.

William Muehleisen Sr. was born in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1840 or 1841, sources differ.  The name means “mill iron.”  At the age of 15, in 1855 he emigrated to the United States, settling in the District of Columbia.  According to a biographer, he “engaged in the liquor business in early life,” likely working for one of the local wholesale houses.

About 1867, in the wake of the Civil War, Muehleisen Sr. struck out on his own, establishing himself as an importer and dealer in foreign and domestic wines and liquors at 918 Fifth Street, NW.  During the conflict the Nation’s Capitol had swelled with population as the war effort brought tens of thousands of newcomers to the area.  Muehleisen’s business flourished under peacetime conditions.  He also linked with Christian Xander to open a wine-oriented store on Massachusetts Avenue between Seventh and Eighth Streets N.W., a partnership that was dissolved after three years. [See my post on Xander, January 2014.]

During this period William Sr. was pursuing a personal life.  About 1867 he married Louisa, who like himself was a immigrant.  She had come to the United States from Germany with family members in 1860 as a 12-year-old girl and was under 20 when they married, seven years younger than her husband. Over the next 15 years they would have five children, two boys and three girls.  The eldest they named William Jr., born in 1868 in the District.

Through ensuing years Muehleisen Sr. continued to prosper in the liquor trade, eventually outgrowing his first store and in 1897 building a new one next door at 916 Fifth Street N.W.. This was a three-story brick structure measuring 22 by 90 feet with a cellar extending its entire length, reported to feature the latest in lighting and ventilation equipment.  The first floor held Muehleisen’s salesrooms and offices, the upper floors stored his stock of “bourbon and rye whiskies, foreign and domestic wines, and mineral waters, including the most popular brands of each.”  By this time, his son, William Jr., had been brought into the business.

In addition to selling nationally known liquors, the Muehleisens were “rectifying” their own brands of rye and sour mash whiskey, that is, blending raw whiskeys to achieve particular taste and color.  In contrast to others in the trade who hid their rectifying, the Muehleisens trumpeted the fact in their ads.  Their flagship proprietary brand was “Oakmont,” a label trademarked in 1901.  As shown here, they packaged some whiskey in “coffin” shaped amber bottles with the family monogram embossed on the front.

Just two years after moving into the new company quarters, William Sr. died and was buried in Washington’s Prospect Hill Cemetery. “Historical Sketches of the Capital City of Our Country” (1887) said of Muehleisen Sr:  “His long experience and practical sense has placed him prominently among the successful business men of Washington.”

Willliam Jr. now was at the controls of Wm. Muehleisen Company.  The 1900 Census found him, now 31 years old and still single, living with his widowed mother and a sister, Caroline.  Also with them, age 20, was J. Alwin Muehleisen, a brother who was working for William Jr. as the liquor store bookkeeper.

It is worth taking a closer look at the the Oakmont bottles shown above. To a certain extend they can be dated by the message contained on the labels.  One I consider likely to be the earliest indicates that the whiskey therein had been bottled under the personal supervision of the Muehleisens.  They warn if the seal is broken, its “purity” might be in jeopardy.  With the passage of the Food and Drug Act of 1906 the message was altered to add that the whiskey was guaranteed under the Act.

Many rectifiers were making that assertion, a claim being challenged by Kentucky bourbon distillers and, more importantly, by the federal officials who were responsible for enforcing the Act.  The third bottle marks another change.  Gone is the reference to the Food and Drug Act and in its place “Contents One Pint” another requirement being enforced on liquor bottlers.   My guess is that selling whiskey in Washington, D.C. and co-existing in town with food and drug authorities, Muehleisen Jr. was reacting to official pressures.

On the personal side, William Jr. continued to live with his mother until she died in 1913.  Louisa’s death notice indicated that she had been active in the D.C. community as a board director of the German Orphans Asylum and president of the Ladies Aid Society of the First Reformed Church, obviously a denomination not opposed to alcohol.  William Jr. continued to be a bachelor until at the age of 53 in 1922 he married Adelaide, a woman born in Kentucky of native Kentuckians, who was eleven years his junior.

Muehleisen Jr. bought Adelaide a mansion in a row of mansions on North Sixteenth Street in Washington.   By this time he had left the liquor trade, a wealthy man, forced out by the District-wide 1917 ban on alcohol.  His transition from liquor to liquidity seems to have been an effortless one. He founded a bank.  A 1921 D.C. business directory listed him as president of the Mount Vernon Savings Bank, located in the International Machinists Building at 9th St.  and Mount Vernon Place, N.W.  Shown below, the building later was demolished.

As related in an historical account of D.C. banks, Muehleisen’s financial institution was an unusual one, aimed at a special group of customers, in this case the working class.  It is regarded as the first bank in the U.S. in which a labor union owned a large bloc of the stock, apparently purchased from Muehleisen Jr.  Known as a “labor bank,” its original purpose was to secure a larger return on worker money than other banks were providing.  Mount Vernon Saving Bank paid three percent on savings and four percent on certificates of deposit.  Eventually the rationale of the institution was expanded to protecting the gains of organized labor and helping friendly employers during a strike.  The bank also worked closely with credit unions, holding their deposits and extending them loans.

Even after relinquishing the presidency of Mount Vernon Savings, Muehleisen Jr. stayed on as a director, listed as late as 1828 as among their number.  The coming of the Great Depression, however, had a negative effect on this unusual financial institution as many small borrowers were forced to default on loans.  The bank went out of business in the early 1930s.  William Muehleisen Jr. died in his mansion home on Sixteen Street in September 1942.  He was buried with his father and other family members in Prospect Hill Cemetery.  The Muehleisen monument is shown here.  

While combining liquor sales and banking was not completely unknown in the pre-Prohibition era, Washington, D.C., was particularly fertile grounds for both occupations, with whiskey and money flowing freely.  That environment allowed the two Muehleisens to make the most of their liquid assets for three quarters of a century.

Note:  All the photographs of bottles included in this article are through the courtesy of Dr. Richard Lilienthal, a premier collector of Washington area bottles.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Dants “Permeated” Kentucky Distilling

Families in the development of American whiskey were nowhere more important than in Kentucky — and in Kentucky no family name was more renowned than Dant.  As one author accurately has said:   The Dant family permeated the Kentucky bourbon industry.”  The Dant saga needs a book to do it justice.  As a result, I will be featuring only three of its members, the founding father and two of his sons.

Joseph Washington Dant The progenitor of the the Dant family was J. W. Dant, born in May 1820 in Loretto, Marion County, into a farm family.  The little that is known of Joseph’s early life is that he received some elementary education and that his first occupation was as a blacksmith.

At the age of about sixteen in Joseph apparently decided that making whiskey held more promise than beating hot iron.  In 1836 he founded his first distillery in Marion County on Walnut Ridge Farm, a site located ten miles west of Loretto.  When the Louisville and Nashville (L & N) Railroad made it a stop, it became known as Dant Station. 

Joseph’s first still was hewn from a log, a primitive method used by pioneers in Kentucky when they did not have the money for a copper kettle.  The process used logs of of about ten feet in length.  The timber would be split, hollowed out, and a copper tube inserted;  then the two halves would be joined.  The hollowed areas would be filled with fermented mash and steam would be fed through the piping for the initial distillation.  A second distillation would follow.  The process was called “making it on a log” or “running it on a log.”   Although crude, this method could result in good whiskey in the right hands — and Joseph had them.

In February 1849 he married Ann Catherine Ballard, a woman of 19 who was ten years his junior.  The couple would have ten children, seven boys and three girls.  The eldest, of whom we will hear more later, was J. Bernard Dant, born in 1850.  The chart below shows the Dant family lineage involved with distilling in Kentucky.

The Dant family has related a story about Joseph early on producing more whiskey than local consumption could absorb so he determined to expand his territory.  He would cart barrels of whiskey by wagon to the Beech Fork River, build a raft, and float it down the Mississippi to New Orleans.  Dant himself is reputed to have accompanied three of those shipments, walking back to Kentucky from Louisiana, a distance of more than 600 miles  By the third trip, it is said, he was able to afford a mule and rode back.

As the years progressed, the reputation of Dant's whiskey grew.  Joseph produced much of his own grain for the distiller on his 196 acre farm and eventually established his own cooperage, building barrels onsite.  By 1870 he had sufficient resources to build a state of the art distillery.  A unique aspect of the operation was that it was built to take advantage of gravity.  The mash tub was much higher than the fermenters and with the aid of a very large pipe, Joseph was able to fill his tubs without the need for pumping.  The flow was said to be intense.  Gravity also was employed in the bottling process as whiskey was filtered by gravity to a tank and then to the bottling line.

According to insurance underwriters records, Dant’s facility was of frame construction with with a shingle roof.  It had a single warehouse, built of brick with a metal or slate roof, located 225 feet west of the still.  After passage of the Bottled-in-Bonding Act, the warehouse became bonded. By that time it held 3,300 barrels of aging whiskey and the distillery was mashing about 200 bushels a day, equivalent to a twenty barrel output.  Downwind about 100 feet were cattle pens where livestock was being fed the spent mash.  A photo shows Dant Station as it looked in the late 1800s.  With railroad tracks adjacent, a siding gave easy access to load barrels on freight cars for customers nationwide.  As shown here on an advertising flyer, the whiskey was sold under the J. W. Dant name and the slogan, “The Kind I Have Always Used.”

Sometime during the 1880s, Joseph retired from directing the distillery, turning the management over to a son, Wallace, joined later by a younger brother, George.  Under their leadership the company incorporated in 1897, with George as the largest shareholder.  The founding father died in February 1902 and was buried in St. Francis Cemetery, Marion County.  The Dant family monument is shown here.  J. W. Dant company would survive and prosper until the coming of National Prohibition.  Under the guidance of George Dant and other family members, the distillery was resurrected after Repeal, operating for seven years until being sold in 1941.  The facility shut down for good in 1951.

Joseph Bernard Dant —  The eldest child of Joseph and Anne Dant, Bernard Dant, as he was called throughout his life, began his career in distilling working for his father while still in his teen years.   Although he continued to be associated with the J. W. Dant Co. for a number of years, about 1882 he moved from Dant Station to Gethsemane Station about 10 miles down the L & N. line and built his own distillery.   Shown below, insurance records indicate that the facility was of frame construction.  The property included two warehouses, both ironclad and located adjacent to each other.  
Listed as Registered Distillery No. 240, District 5, Bernard called it “Cold Spring Distillery.”  Its claim to fame was for creating “Yellowstone Whiskey”.  Bernard is given credit for its popularity but the brand did not appear bearing the Dant name, rather under the label of Taylor & William, Inc.  This was a Louisville wholesale liquor house established in 1865.  In 1871 a Taylor sales manager visited the newly opened Yellowstone National Park and noting the enthusiasm over its natural wonders, decided to name a brand of whiskey after it.  

Later J. T. Williams joined the firm and it became Taylor & Williams.  Because the company had no distillery of its own it was dependent on getting adequate supplies for the increasingly popular Yellowstone brand.  As a result, Taylor & Williams in the 1880s contracted with Dant and his Cold Spring Distillery to produce and bottle it and other company proprietary labels.

Meanwhile, Bernard was having a personal life.  About 1875 he married Nancy Ellen Ferriell, a Kentucky native.  They would have a family of six sons, two of whom died in young adulthood,  and two daughters.  Meanwhile this Dant’s reputation as a master distiller was redounding through Kentucky and beyond.  In 1900 he moved to Louisville and became president of Taylor & Williams.  In 1903 the company incorporated with Bernard at the helm and his eldest son, Sam J. Dant, as the treasurer.  Eventually each of Bernard's surviving sons would be involved in the distilling industry.

With National Prohibition, the Cold Spring Distillery shut down and Taylor & Williams closed.  Bernard, known as “The Grand Old Man”  of Kentucky whiskey, lived long enough to see Repeal, when the family dismantled the distillery at Gethsemane, created Yellowstone, Inc., as a distilling company,  and built a new facility in Jefferson County.  Bernard was listed as vice president of that firm.  

Bernard Dant died several years later at 89 years, accounted by the Louisville Courier Journal as “the oldest active distiller in the country.”   His wife Nancy Ellen had proceeded him in death two years earlier.  With his brothers and sisters, children, thirteen grandchildren and four great-grandchildren gathered at the graveside, he was interred next to Nancy in Louisville’s Calvary Catholic Cemetery.  

John Procter Dant —  John P. was the third of J. W. Gant’s sons, born in 1856.  Like his brother, Bernard, John early on went to work for his father at the Dant Station distillery.  As indicated by his letterhead below, in 1890 John struck out on his own, buying a distillery that may have been established as early as 1855.  It was known as RD #174, District 5, and located in a town then called Chicago, now St. Francis, Kentucky.  Dant called it the “Old Danton Distillery” after his flagship brand.  

Insurance records compiled in 1892 indicate that the distillery was of frame construction and included two bonded warehouses.  Both warehouses were frame and located adjacent to one another about 90 feet from the distillery.  The illustration on the letterhead confirms those records.  Note that a rail line is shown serving the plant.  John employed a nephew, Thad Dant, as his distiller.  After operating the facility for several years, he sold out and moved to Louisville where he started a wholesale liquor house.

Meanwhile John also was having a personal life.  About 1884 he married Ann Josephine Smith, born in Marion County, the daughter of William Henry and Rosella Lancaster Smith, both native Kentuckians.  The Dants would have a family of four, according to records.  Their first son named after Joseph William Dant sadly died in infancy.  Then came two daughters and in 1890 a second son, John Jr.

John Dant was very successful as a liquor wholesaler, operating from his address at 909 Broadway as the “Pioneer Bottling House” and featuring “Old Dant Sour Mash Whiskey.”  His store featured a large jug bearing his name.  As shown here, John also favored ceramic jugs for his products.  Those came in a variety of formats including an Albany glaze with an underglaze transfer and a “scratch” jug.  

He also featured a number of giveaways to special customers, including his “Old Ballard” brand on a shot glass and a decorative calendar advertising Old Danton Whiskey.  From 1909 to 1913 he also maintained a liquor outlet in New Albany, Indiana.

John Dant’s Louisville operation came to a halt in 1919 with the imposition of National Prohibition.  Perhaps sensing that the “dry” era would be relatively short, he bided his time.   Soon after Repeal at the age of 68 he built a new distillery at Meadowlawn in South Jefferson County.  He called it the John P. Dant Distillery (RD #39) and leased the Grosscurth Distillery (RD #26) located in Anchorage, Jefferson County.  Both operations were incorporated as the Meadowlawn Distillery Company, with John P. Senior as president and John P. Junior as vice-president, treasurer and distiller.  The total mashing capacity was a hefty 471 bushels a day and six warehouses had the capacity to hold 7,500 barrels of aging whiskey.  Among his post-Prohibition brands were “Old Boone,” “Distiller’s Choice,” and “Old 1889.”   

Described in his obituary as a “veteran Kentucky distiller and a member of a family long identified with the industry,”  John P. Dant died at his Louisville home at the age of 89 in April 1944.  His wife, Ann, had preceded him by 16 years.  After a funeral service at Christ the King Catholic Church, John was interred next to Ann in Louisville’s Calvary Cemetery.  Management of his distilleries was taken over by his son, who sold off the remaining family interest in 1950.

This post has profiled just three of the many Dants involved in Kentucky whiskey.  As noted earlier, it would take a book to do full justice to all involved family members in the years since J. W. in 1836 began distilling, thus insuring that the Dant name would become an integral part of American whiskey history.

Note:  The information for this post has come from a wide variety of sources.  A principle reference on J. W. Dant was from a newspaper obituary, unattributed as to source, to be found online.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Henry W. Gillett: First to Rectify, First to Court — First to Jail?

Henry Wheeler Gillett is recorded as a Kansas man of “firsts” in several accounts.  According to the Leavenworth Daily Commercial of Dec. 31, 1871:  “Mr. Gillett rectified the first barrel of whiskey ever taken through that process in Kansas….”  Later he was reported to be the first liquor merchant in the state to be hauled into court in 1875 as a result of Prohibition pressures.   Finally, in 1891 Gillett was the first man sentenced to jail in what the Topeka Weekly Capital termed a “crusade against liquor dealers.

Henry began life more than 1,000 miles from Kansas. The youngest of five children, he was born in 1832 in Clarksville, New York, the son of Anson W. and Olive Brown Gillett.  By the age of 19, he had left New York for Ohio, settling in Lucas County not far from Toledo.  There in 1851 he found a bride in Rebecca Rose Peters, an 18-year-old who had been born in Pennsylvania.  When they wed, she was living with a farm family near Waterville, Ohio, likely a nanny for a two-year-old.  Henry and Rebecca’s first child, Helen, would be born in Waterville in 1855.  Although I have been unable to find a record of his Ohio employment, my guess is that Gillett was engaged in mercantile pursuits, likely involving whiskey.                                                                                                                       
                                                                                                                                                                                                    By 1859 Gillett and his family were recorded living in Leavenworth, Kansas, where he had opened a small wholesale liquor house.  After the passage by Congress of the Kansas-Nebraska Act people began to stream into the newly-formed territory looking for farmland and other venues of opportunity.  Many of them were from Ohio and other Midwest states.  The territory soon would be known as “bleeding Kansas” because of clashes between pro- and anti-slavery forces that roiled the population before and during the Civil War.  Leavenworth, just  few miles north of Kansas City, Missouri, was a particular hotbed of confrontation.

Despite the tumult, Gillett apparently found a ready market for whiskey.  Shown here is an 1865 ad for H. W. Gillett & Co., located at 54 Main Street, between Delware and Shawnee Streets in Leavenworth.  He billed his company as “Wholesale Dealers in Native and Imported Wines, Liquors, Cigars, etc, of the Very Best Quality.”  The illustration advertised fancy 1800 French brandy.  The Civil War proved to be a boon to Gillett’s sales.  According to a newspaper account:   “At some time during the war his annual sales amounted to considerable more than a quarter of a million dollars.”   That would be equivalent to more than $6 million today.

Initially Gillett took a local partner,  A. C. Wilder, a Union Army veteran who later represented Kansas in the U.S. Congress.   When Wilder departed from the firm, Gillett carried on successfully as a single proprietor and needing more space for his expanding operations moved in 1868 to 209 Delaware Avenue.  Shown here as it looks today, the building was said to be in one of the finest blocks in the city.   The structure offered plenty of room for Gillett to engage in the “recifying” his own whiskey,  that is, buying it in barrels, mixing and blending it for taste and color, and bottling it as his own proprietary labels.  Reputed to be the first ever in Kansas to undertake the process, Gillett remained a rectifier throughout his career in the liquor trade.  Said the Leavenworth newspaper:  “He has been very prosperous, deservedly so…”

This prosperity found itself demonstrated in the mansion Henry built at 319 North Broadway for his wife and family in 1867.  Known as the Gillett House, now on the National Register of Historic Places, the two story Italianate style home was the first of several in Leavenworth to feature cast iron decoration. Those features included ornate bracketed cornices with elaborate cast iron lintels.  The windows were embellished by fleur-de-lis crests.  Henry lived there with wife Rebecca Rose, their one daughter, and servants.

Even then the storm clouds of Prohibition were gathering over the Kansas.  Shown here is one of hundreds of “dry” town meetings, in a territory that rapidly became a national center of activity for the Temperance Movement.  Gillett was an early target of “dry” forces.  In 1875 after a Topeka resident named Haug placed an order for whiskey with him in Leavenworth, Henry was arrested under a law that forbid anyone from selling liquor “without taking out and having a license as grocer, dram shopkeeper, or tavern keeper.”  Gillett had no license in Topeka.  The Kansas Supreme Court reasoned, however, that the sale had taken place in Leavenworth and Gillett had a license there, ruling in his favor.  It was said to be the first instance of the Court intruding into Kansas liquor affairs.  Many such intrusions would follow.

Although Gillett won his case, the experience may have suggested to him the wisdom of an occupational change.  By 1877, he had taken on two new partners, Robert Armstrong and E. F. Kellogg. They changed the company name to “Gillett, Armstrong & Kellogg.”  By the following year his name was erased from the firm entirely, as he sold out to the pair.  Two letterheads shown here reflect this transition.  By that time Henry was involved in a range of other pursuits.  Among them he was an investor and director of the Kansas Central Railroad Co.  Its objective was to build a railroad and telegraph line to the Kansas-Colorado border, more than 400 miles west.  He also was a director of the State Penitentiary in Leavenworth and had an interest in a corporation known as the Kansas Manufacturing Company.

Meanwhile the firm Gillett had founded and sold would prove to have a short remaining life span.  By 1880 Kansas voters had approved an amendment to the state constitution prohibiting all manufacture and sale of “intoxicating liquors” throughout the state.  The liquor house was forced to shut down.   Whiskey continued to flow in Kansas, however, as the courts made it virtually impossible to punish offenders.  Called “jointists,” saloonkeepers and liquor dealers operated openly.  To be convicted a specific defendant had to be named, with proof of at least two sales documented with the time, place and witnesses.  But evidence was inadmissible from anyone, called a ”spotter,” who engaged in a sale just to obtain an arrest.  

Here the record on Henry Gillett becomes hazy.  Some accounts suggest that he might have lost much of his wealth during the 1880s.  The Kansas Central Railroad stumbled financially and went bankrupt.  Gillett sold his mansion home in 1890. Was he obliged to by economic necessity?  Did he then re-engage in the liquor trade?  Some evidence exists that he did.  Annual cash sales for the average Kansas jointist were estimated at $885,600 (equiv. to $21 million today).  Proceeds like that would have been tempting.   Moreover, liquor supplies were easily accessible from neighboring “wet” Missouri.

In July 1891 the Topeka Weekly Capital ran an article datelined Atchison, Kansas, headlined “Harrassing the Jointists.”  It described a crusade by local officials against liquor dealers.  One jointist had eluded the sheriff and headed for Nebraska.  Another had stolen all the papers involved in the case and fled to parts unknown.  Not so fortunate was a liquor dealer named Henry Gillett who had been fined $200 and sentenced to jail for two months.  Was this our Henry Gillett?  I can find no other in Kansas who fits the name and profile.  Given the loose application of the “dry” laws, another “first” for Henry seems possible.  

A year later, in April 1892, Gillett died.  He was 60 years old.  The cause given at the time was “dropsy,” the swelling of soft tissues due to the accumulation of excess water, often a sign of congestive heart failure.  He was interred at Mount Muncie Cemetery in Leavenworth County, shown here, a burial grounds for which he once had served as a director. 

During his lifetime, Gillett was credited with at least two whiskey “firsts” in Kansas — rectifying and court appearance.
Was he also the first to go to jail because of liquor?   I would rather remember Gillett as he was characterized in a Leavenworth newspaper article: “…He is one of our most popular and estimable citizens.”

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Isaac Obey Sold Whiskey in Tall Timber Country

The pattern is a fairly familiar one.  An individual emigrates to the United States looking for a better life, finding initial employment laboring in mines or on the railroad or in the lumber industry.  Then, seeing his fellow workers spending heavily for whiskey, he decides that his true future lies with selling liquor.  That is the story of Isaac Obey of Bay City, Michigan.

Isaac was born in Montreal, Canada, about 1851 into a French-speaking family.  As soon as he reached sixteen, an age when many boys struck out to find their fortune, he headed for the United States, settling in Bay City, Michigan, about 1868.  Incorporated in 1865, Bay City had grown up adjacent to Lake Huron because of its strategic location on a deep water port adjacent to relatively untapped forest lands.  Rapid economic growth was taking place during this period, with lumbering, milling and shipbuilding thriving.  Arriving when he did, Obey found ready employment in a lumber mill.  A early map of the city above shows the many sawmills along the Saginaw River.

Obey labored in the timber trade four years, saving his money and biding his time.  Early on he recognized the buying power represented by his fellow workers.  A photograph from a single Bay City mill suggests the numbers involved.  Although the workers were not getting as rich as the Michigan lumber barons, a significant portion of their wages was going for strong drink.

In 1872, Obey made his move, opening a saloon and liquor store at the corner of Water and Twenty-third Street.  His enterprise appears quickly to have been a success and in 1878 he moved to larger quarters at the corner of Washington and Third Streets, dealing both in liquor and cigars.  He also was reported running a livery business.  About the same time he married Emma, a woman who had been born in Michigan of Canadian immigrant parents.   The 1880 census found them living in Bay City with three daughters, Adelia (aka “Delia”) age 3;  Blanch, 2; and Agnes, four months.  Later two sons would follow.
Obey’s liquor house continued to flourish at its Third Street address.  A photograph apparently taken in the 1890s, shows a display of barrels in front of the store.  According to a sign someone (Isaac himself?) is holding, the total amount of whiskey on display is a whopping 5,056 gallons.   Obey’s saloon and liquor store also appears to have held a bowling alley.  

The 1890s were a period of entrepreneurial expansion for Obey. The 1891 Bay City directory lists him as operating a second “wholesale and retail liquors” store at 408 Fifth Avenue with a partner named Almedee M. Shilaire (also given as Amedec M. Shillaire).  The partners also were engaged in a bottling facility at 1112 Washington Avenue.  By 1895, Obey had left his Third Street address for a new location on Saginaw Street, the avenue shown here. The 1897 Bay City directory recorded Isaac operating both the saloon at 408 Fifth Avenue and a second drinking establishment with Shilaire at 104 Third Street. 

In 1898, Isaac’s wife of 22 years, Emma, died.  With her husband and children gathered around her gravesite, she was interred in Bay City’s St. Patrick’s Cemetery.  The family seems to have been highly cohesive.  The 1910 census found the widower Obey living at  813 Saginaw Street with his daughters, Delia, now married to Napoleon Casault, and Blanch, and his 21-year-old son, Athanasius.  Both the young man and Casault were working for Obey in his liquor business.
In time Obey took his eldest boy into management and changed the company name to Obey & Son.  In addition to selling his whiskey by the barrel, Obey was retailing it in ceramic jugs.  As shown here, these were containers with Albany slip tops and Bristol glaze bodies with at least two varieties of underglaze labels.

Obey continued his ventures into the realm of spirits.  A 1904 directory listed him as the co-proprietor of the California Wine House, located at 406-408 Fifth Avenue in partnership with John B. Duchaine, a firm known as Obey & Duchaine.  Meanwhile he remained at 813 Saginaw as the principal of Obey & Sons.  The new name reflected that both of his boys, Athanasius and Victor, now were involved in the business. 

Isaac Obey died at the age of 61 in 1914 and was buried next to his wife at St. Patrick’s Cemetery.  Their gravestones are shown here.  Although his sons continued to guide the enterprises he had created, the forces of Prohibition, led by Detroit automaker Henry Ford, were pressing Michigan to become the first Northern industrial state to go “dry.”  In 1917 they succeeded and Obey family businesses associated with alcohol were shut down.

During Isaac’s lifetime a History of Bay County (1883) said of him:  “Mr. Obey does a good business and stands well as a citizen.”   It might have added that this French-Canadian immigrant with a strong entrepreneurial spirit had helped Bay City grow from a sawdust-blown village into a thriving city approaching 32,000 residents, albeit one with lots of whiskey flowing.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Thomas Oates and Packaging with Style

Sometimes a pre-Prohibition whiskey man is remembered by future generations, not for what he contributed to society,  but by collectors for the unusual bottles or jugs in which he packaged his liquor.   So it is with Thomas J. Oates, an Irish immigrant who issued several distinctive whiskey jugs from his 104th Street headquarters in Manhattan.

The artifact that principally has captured collectors is an elaborate transfer-printed jug that describes a scene in a mountain setting, presumably in Ireland since the picture is surrounded in shamrocks.  A stream rushes by on the right side, flowing under a bridge on which a horse-drawn wagon has passed on its trek to a building of stone and wood that houses a distillery.  The name of Oates’ whiskey, “Old Mountain Dew” stands on top.

I have isolated the distillery in order better to read the signs.  The taller building at left reads:  “Old Mountain Dew Distillery, Established 1865, Thomas Oates & Co.”   The the roof of the lower structure reads “Thomas Oates & Co, Sales Room, No. 224 East 224th St., New York.” Oates may have had to redesign this label over time.  

A second almost identical jug differs in minor design changes.  The one shown left, for example, has quite different looking trees surrounding the distillery.  Both jugs on the back have the same message:  “Thos. Oates & Co., Established 1865, New York.”

A third version is a ceramic that is tapered at the sides and is slightly smaller than the first two shown here.  It has a transferred label multi-color label that has been adapted to this shape and thus has slightly different proportions.

A side view shows the cluster of clovers and a shamrock that Oates claimed as a trademark.  It was a useless gesture, however, since he failed to register the symbol and name with the Federal Patent and Trademark Office.  Two other Mountain Dew whiskeys were on the market at the time, one from the Mountain Distilling Company of Cincinnati and “Mountain Dew Corn” from the Wolff Distilling Company of Louisville, Kentucky.

Oates jugs have no pottery marks on the base and might have been manufactured for the New Yorker in Scotland or England where potteries had developed the art of elaborate transfer printing on pottery, including in multi-colors.   Two or three American ceramics companies had mastered those techniques but my assessment is that the jugs above probably were made in the Old World.

That is where Oates himself hailed from.  He was born in Ireland in September 1864, although records differ slightly, and came to the United States in 1874, according to census data.  At that point he would have been 10 years old so almost certainly arrived with other family members.  Upon being processed at Ellis Island, he never after strayed far from New York, New York.

My surmise is that after receiving some education in this country, he early went to work in one of the many liquor emporiums dotting the Manhattan landscape.  Oates’ jugs claim the establishment date for his firm as 1865, just one year after his birth and nine years before his arrival on these shores.  It was not unusual, however, for a whiskey dealer to claim such if he had bought an existing firm with an earlier date of origin.  Assuming this was the path taken by Oates, establishing exact dates for Thomas Oates & Co. is difficult.  

Moreover, despite the bucolic country scene suggested by his jugs, Oates was creating his whiskey in a five story building in Manhattan.  He was a “rectifier,” that is buying raw product from distillers, then blending it and adding other ingredients in order to achieve a certain taste and color.  Located at 224 104th Street, the building is shown here as it looks today.  A Mexican market now operates when once Oates sold Mountain Dew and other liquors.  He and his family lived next door at No. 225.  

Thomas married about 1894, when he was 30 years old.  His wife was Mary Broderick, the daughter of Irish immigrants who was born in New York City.  At the time of their marriage, Mary appears to have been only 17.  The 1900 Census found the couple living in Manhattan with two children, Evelyn age 4 and Thomas age 2.  Living with them was an Edmund Oates, age 14, recorded by the census taker as Oates’ son.  Since Edmund was too old to be Mary’s son, his origins are not clear.  By the time of the 1905 New York State census, the Oates family had added two more children, Marion and James.

In the 1900 and later census records, Oates’ occupation was listed as “liquor dealer.”  New York City directories first listed his firm in 1902.  In 1903 the fire department was called to his wine and liquor store to put out a fire, damage undisclosed.  By 1911, Oates had moved his residence to 172 104th Street, still not far way from his business.  At that time it was common for liquor dealers to live in the vicinity of their stores, the better to keep an eye on things.
As shown above, Oates also designed a second jug for his Mountain Dew brand whiskey.  This one featured a centrally located Shamrock and the errant claim that it had been trademarked.  Given the quality of the transfer printing and a limit of two colors, this ceramic likely was made in the U.S.A.   He also put his whiskey into glass bottles.  A “coffin” flask is shown here bearing his name and other information in the embossing.  Originally this bottle would have had a paper label.  

When Oates finally shut down his enterprise is unclear. He died in 1914 at the age of 70 and with him, apparently, his liquor house and Mountain Dew as a whiskey brand. The coming of National Prohibition in 1919 would have terminated the business in any case.  What is left to us today and for the future is a series of extraordinary Oates-created whiskey containers.