Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Franklin & Baer: How Whiskey Civilized Deadwood

They wore fedoras, not ten gallon hats.  They packed pencils, not six-guns.  Yet Jewish whiskey merchants Ben Baer and Harris Franklin had considerably more to do with the taming of Deadwood, Dakota Territory, than those with the big hats and guns and even those who wore a badge.

Shown above as the the town looked about the time the partners arrived, Deadwood was settled illegally in the 1870s on land that had been granted to Indian tribes in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie.  That agreement was quickly forgotten in 1874 when gold was discovered, triggering the Black Hills gold rush. A new and rowdy town sprung up, one that rapidly gained a population of 5,000.  Murders were common in Deadwood — among them Wild Bill Hickok’s — and justice episodic and far from impartial.

That was the environment that greeted Baer and Franklin when they arrived about 1876.  Neither may have been surprised.  The older was Baer, born in Paris, France in 1846.  He had arrived in the U.S. about 1871 at the age of 17, ultimately settling in Yankton, Dakota Territory, itself frontier town near the Iowa border.  Shown right, Baer became involved in the liquor trade in Yankton.

It likely was the draw of the boomtown Deadwood, that drew Baer to travel 400 miles west across Dakota in August 1876.  According to historical sources, he carried with him “a plentiful supply of alcoholic spirits” to slake the thirst of the miners and cowmen.  Unlike the Oklahoma Territory, liquor was legal in the Dakotas as long as no sales occurred on Sunday.

Harris Franklin, born “Finkelstein,” in 1849 was from an area in contention between Poland and Russia in Central Europe,  There are conflicting dates about when he arrived in the United States but in any case, he must have come with family because he would have been too young to have traveled on his own.  Shown left, Franklin ultimately settled in Burlington, Iowa, where he was engaged in business.  In 1870 he married Anna Marie Steiner there.  A year later their only child, Nathan, was born.

Gold also seems to have motivated Franklin to make the move to Deadwood.  He apparently had accrued considerable land and other holdings in Iowa.  He sold off everything and with his small family traveled more than 825 miles west to Deadwood, subsequently buying the Golden Reward Mine outside of town. It would prove to be a lucrative investment.

Franklin’s partner in the mine was Ben Baer who earlier had experienced his own stroke of luck.  A Deadwood history described it:  “One of his friends at the poker table had his money tied up in cattle.  Ben had won every pot; however, money was scarce due to a drought that left cattlemen with starving herds, so Ben had to accept his winnings in emaciated cattle.  The next morning he awoke to a pouring rain that continued for weeks, ending the drought and bringing fresh grass to the pastures.   To everyone’s surprise, his herd flourished.”  Baer sold the cattle and with the proceeds joined Franklin in buying the mine. The photo above shows Ben, seated center, recreating the poker scene for friends.

About 1885, Franklin also joined Baer in his Deadwood wholesale liquor business. Shown above is a letterhead dated in November of that year that advertises “Ben Baer, Wholesale Dealer in Fine Liquors and Cigars.”  Overprinted on the document is the name, Franklin & Baer. 

Located on Main Street the store was two floors with a false front and a front door wide enough to allow barrels of whiskey, wine and other liquor to be rolled out to waiting wagons.  They would be transported to one of the many Deadwood saloons for decanting and serving.  Before long Franklin & Baer were the largest liquor wholesalers in the region with an annual trade approaching $125,000 annually, equivalent to more than $3 million today.
Their success in mining and whiskey emboldened the partners to engage in other enterprises designed to bring civilization to town.  In 1878  they formed and owned their own financial institution, the First National Bank of Deadwood.  That bank, left, became noted for having printed almost $2 million worth of national currency over a period of 58 years. 

They also dabbled in railroads, spearheading the Whitewood and Wyoming Railroad Company with a prospective route of 50 miles from Deadwood to the Wyoming state line with four branches totaling an additional 30 miles.  I can find no evidence, however,  that that this line ever was brought to fruition. With a third partner, as indicated by a bar token, Franklin and Baer also opened a saloon in Sturgis, D. T., a hamlet about 15 miles west of Deadwood.

Amid all his business dealings, Baer at 36 years old found time for romance.  In March 1884 married Ida Florsheim in St. Joseph, Missouri, the bride’s home town.  They would have a family of five children;  Ira Ben, born in 1888;  Helen, 1890; Jerome and Fernand, 1892, and Edwin, 1898.  A year later Ida tragically died, leaving Ben with a household of children under 12.  At some point his wife’s sister and her husband came to live with the family, likely to help look after the youngsters.

Franklin’s growing fortune from whiskey and other investments eventually  steered him into construction.  Between 1883 and 1890 Harris and Anna purchased four parcels of land on which to build a mansion.  In 1891 they commissioned Simeon D. Eisendrath, an architect from Chicago, to design their home in the popular Queen Anne Victorian style.  One local newspaper reported: “When completed the residence will equal in point of beauty anything of its kind west of Omaha.”  Shown here, the Franklins’ house was centrally heated, had hot and cold running water, was lighted by electricity, boasted a telephone, and servants were summoned by electronic bells.  Today it is a National Historic Landmark.

Ambitious as this building project might seem, it was overshadowed by Franklin’s commitment to build an upscale hotel in Deadwood.  For years business leaders had been attempting to construct one without success.  One abandoned  foundation ended as a temporary swimming pool for local children.  Not until the whiskey dealer offered to match any contribution dollar-for-dollar in 1902 that construction began in earnest;  the hotel, finished a year later, was named for him.  Sadly, by this time Anna Franklin’s health had faltered and she died in 1902,   never to see the marvel of modernity called the Franklin Hotel. Shown here, half of its 80 rooms had private baths, a novelty at the time.  Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, Buffalo Bill Cody, Babe Ruth and world heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan were among the hotel’s guests in its heyday.

In ensuing years the partners continue to thrive as Deadwood was transformed from a mining and cattle town to a regional economic center.  With Prohibition forces strong in South Dakota, however, Franklin & Baer were forced to shut down their wholesale liquor house about 1916.   Nor could the bar at the Franklin Hotel ever again sell alcohol.

In July 1921, Ben Baer died in St. Paul, Minnesota, where at the age of 75 he may have moved to be closer to his children and grandchildren.  He was buried at Mount Zion Temple Cemetery in St. Paul.  Baer was followed to the grave two years later by Harris Franklin who continued to live in Deadwood.  He was buried beside Anna in the Mount Moriah Cemetery there.   The headstones of both men are shown here.

Franklin and Baer were foremost among businessmen, many of them Jewish, who during four decades transformed Deadwood from a rowdy and dangerous frontier outpost into a modern American city.  In his book, “Deadwood:  The Gold Years,” author Watson Parker observed:  “If the gold brought money, the merchants brought stability….The miners brought in money, and spent it, and called for goods and culture;  the merchants and businessmen mined the miners, and seem to have made the better thing of it.”

Note:  Some of the information for this post and several of the illustrations are from the book, “Jewish Pioneers of the Black Hills Gold Rush,” a volume in the “Images of America” series.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Joseph Mersman and “The Whiskey Merchant’s Diary”

 Foreword:  It is likely that the world would never have heard of Joseph J. Mersman if Dr.  Linda A. Fisher, a public health physician, had not been doing research for a lecture on the 1849 St. Louis cholera epidemic and came across Mersman’s diary account at the Missouri Historical Society where it had laid “undiscovered” for years.  She found the whiskey merchant’s story intriguing and eventually edited it with annotations and put it into book form, published in 2007 by the Ohio University Press.   As a result, the day to day activities and thoughts of the German-born St. Louis rectifier and liquor house owner have enjoyed a wider audience.

In July 1824 Joseph, shown right, was born in Borringhausen, a small town in the German Duchy of Oldenburg,  the son of Friedrich and Catharina Maria (Polhschneider) Messmann.   When he was eight an older sister and brother emigrated to the United States.  The next year his mother died and Friedrich packed up Joseph and three other children and sailed from Bremen to Baltimore.  They settled in a German settlement in Northwestern Ohio today called Minster.   What little education Mersman received in the U.S. he achieved there, but by by the age of 13 had his first job, working as a water boy on the Miami and Ohio Canal.

About that time the family had moved to a much larger Germanic town, Cincinnati.  There Joseph at age 15 was introduced to the liquor trade, working as an apprentice with Edmund Dexter, a wholesaler who taught him how to rectify whiskey and other elements of the business. Dexter is shown left.  [See my post on Dexter, November 2015.]  About this time the family began using “Mersman” as their surname.

In November 1847 when he was about 23 years old Joseph Mersman began his diary, documenting his work in the whiskey house and other aspects of his daily life.  Shown below is a sample of his handwriting and a transcription.  He often described the day to day fluctuations in the amount of Dexter’s liquor trade.  On November 19th, for example, Mersman noted that while business was slow in the store he had “plenty to do” because Dexter was conducting a vigorous mail order business and shipping extensively.  Several weeks later he reported:  “Business very good, our Commercial transactions cannot but prove to be very satisfactory to Mr. Dexter.”

In January 1849 Mersman completed his apprenticeship with Edmund Dexter.  From his elder he had become practiced in keeping records, so important to keeping federal inspectors happy, as well as managing inventory, salesmanship, and supervising employees.  So comfortable was Dexter with the young German immigrant that the owner had trusted him to run the business while he took a seven week vacation on the East Coast.  Mersman knew full well the profits that could be made in the liquor trade..  

Now free to strike out on his own, Mersman had saved his money for just such an opportunity.  He soon moved to St. Louis, Missouri, and at 25 years of age established a whiskey and tobacco business with John C. Nulsen.  Nulsen, shown right in middle age, was the younger brother of the partner of Mersman’s older brother in a Cincinnati tobacco firm.  This suggests that family money may have helped the younger siblings get established as “Nulsen & Mersman Co.”

Mersman’s arrival in the Missouri city could hardly have come at a worse time.  Shown above from a Mississippi levee view, St. Louis was racked with community-wide cholera outbreaks in 1849 and again in 1853.   Rather than flee the city as many did, Joseph stayed and recorded the terrible effects of the epidemic.  A map of downtown St. Louis locates Nulsen & Mersman (E) amidst landmarks and the cholera hospitals.

Despite these trials, the company did well.  St. Louis boasted hundreds of saloons and other establishments selling alcohol that a wholesale house could supply.  A continuing concern for Mersman was low water in the Mississippi River that made it difficult to receive shipments of whiskey.  Believing that a substantial rain event had raised the river, he risked a major purchase:  “…So I bot 146 Bbls whiskey 17 1/4 (cents).  There cannot be a loss at this figure.”  Assuming 40 gallons in each barrel, he spent about $6.90 per barrel or a total of $1,036.  Shortly thereafter he became discouraged when the price of raw whiskey fell slightly.  Given his ability to sell a quart bottle of rectified whiskey for as much as 80 cents, however, he likely still made money.

In 1850, Mersman found a wife in the person of Claudine Creuzbauer, a sister of  John Nulsen’s wife.  An immigrant from Baden, Germany, she was 21 when they married in 1851;  Joseph was 26.  Their first child, a boy they named Joseph, was born 13 months later.  A touching photograph of mother and son is shown here.  The couple would go on to have eight children.  In his diary Mersman recorded his enjoyment of his growing family, noting that he was becoming “quite domesticated.”  He ensconced his them in a large home on Chouteau Avenue, St. Louis, shown below.   

In March 1855, Mersman abandoned his diary only to take it up again in 1862 after the outbreak of the Civil War.  Despite Missouri being a hotbed of Confederate sentiment and conflict,  Nulsen & Mersman thrived.  Having signed loyalty oaths to the Union, the partners were able to obtain lucrative contracts with the Union Army to provide whiskey for the troops.  In 1863, according to Dr. Fisher, each partner netted $20,000, the equivalent today of about a half million dollars.  An 1863 ad touted three Nulsen and Mersman brands, “Copper Distilled”  “Superior Double Rectified,” and “Celebrated Congress Whiskey.”

Merman’s sentiments lay with the North and for a time he served as quartermaster of a “home guard” unit stationed in St. Louis.  The war years also brought sorrow.  Joseph penned two entries in 1864 — one on the death in Cincinnati of his father, Friedrich, where he rued his inability to travel to the funeral, and a second just five months later when his sixth child, a boy, died shortly after birth.  That was Mersman’s last diary entry.

As time had worn on, Mersman was moving away from the liquor trade and into other pursuits.  In February 1864 with a group of other, mostly German, businessmen he helped form the Fourth National Bank of St. Louis, capitalized at $160,000 — equivalent to $4 million today.  Indicating the place he had now achieved in the city’s business circles, Mersman was elected the first president of the bank.  The next year he became a naturalized citizen.

Even as his long climb up the economic ladder was reaching the real prosperity, Mersman began to develop eye problems, possibly a secondary symptom of the syphilis he had contracted as a youth.  He resigned from the presidency of the Fourth National Bank and gradually reduced his involvement in Nulsen & Mersman.  In 1867 after 28 years in the liquor trade he and his partner dissolved their company.  In 1868 and 1869, city directories have Peper, Rassfield & Co. at the same location running a wholesale liquor business.  By 1872 Nulsen was back on the scene, initially with Rassfield, and after 1876 as a sole proprietor.

Meanwhile, Mersman was being characterized as a “capitalist,” that is, an investor in enterprises.  A major investment was with Nulsen’s son-in-law who used the funds to expand his St. Louis-based grain businesses.  As a result Joseph became a partner in the firm Orthwein & Mersman.  He retired from that company in 1880.  By that time, according to the federal census that year, Mersman eyesight had declined to the point that he was recorded as blind.  He lived another 12 years, dying in St. Louis in March of 1892, of “paralysis.”  Dr. Fisher believes it may have been another indication of advanced syphilis.  Mersman was buried at the Hillcrest Abbey Crematory and Mausoleum in the columbarium shown above.

Dr. Fisher sees Mersman’s diary as “a record of a man transforming himself from an impoverished, unschooled newcomer into a successful, skilled merchant…a path many took in the mid-nineteenth century.”  All that is true but seen from a slightly different perspective, his story also demonstrates how the liquor trade in particular hastened the economic and social rise of immigrants who understood — as Joseph Mersman clearly did — the riches to be made.

Note:  Dr. Fisher’s 378-page book provides considerably more material than simply the Mersman diary entries. She has done an impressive amount of research designed to put this whiskey man into the perspective of his times and provides biographical detail and insights not found in the pages of the diary.   

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Complicated Life of a Montana Whiskey Man


In writing about her Montana ancestor, a descendant headlined an article “Franklin James Pierce — A Complicated Man.”  That was an accurate assessment of a saloon keeper and “Green Arbor” liquor dealer whose labyrinthine ways and tangled fortunes might best be narrated as a series of four “complications” to be explored.

Complication #1 — His Name:  Franklin James Pierce was not his real name.  He was born James P. Harshaw in 1866 in Fannon County, Texas, where his father was a rancher.   When James was only nine years old he witnessed the cold-blooded killing of his father by four men who had vowed revenge after he had testified against them in court as cattle rustlers.  According to family lore, the boy was holding his father’s hand when the shots rang out.  

His mother having died earlier, his father had married again, a woman named Mary Helena Pierce.   Although the boy was fond of his stepmother, her father was alleged to have horsewhipped him, resulting in his leaving home at age 13.  With a brother, John, he went to Forth Worth, Texas, where for a time the two ran a gambling wheel in a carnival.   Although John returned to Texas, James, shown right, entrained north to Montana, settling for a time in Anaconda, a copper mining boom town. 

About the same time, he decided to change his name to Franklin J. Pierce, identical to an undistinguished dead President who held the office from 1853-1857, before James Harshaw was born.  He may have selected “Pierce” as a last name from his stepmother but why “Franklin J.”?   My own theory is that because Montana was heavily Democratic in those days and Pierce a Democrat, Pierce/Harshaw may have seen social advantage in the name.

Complication #2 — Marriages:  An Ancestry.com family history has copies of three Pierce marriage certificates issued in the decade from 1890 to 1900.  When he was 24, working as a waiter in Butte, Frank met an Irish immigrant girl named Julia O’Neil by whom he fathered a son.  He subsequently wedded her.  After a relatively short marriage, they divorced and she returned to Ireland with the boy.

Eventually Pierce moved to Missoula, Montana, where he owned and managed the Gem Theatre, a vaudeville house that featured, among others, Mrs. Samoya, a master of “black art,”  the Mohring sisters who sang and danced, and, as announced in the Missoula newspaper:  “Joe Crotty, the American boy, a celebrated clog dancer.  He does the act on a pedestal and is said to rank among the very best.”  

Pierce met and fell in love with 21-year-old entertainer named Lulu Inman, originally from Kansas City, who was performing at the Gem.  They were married on New Years Day 1898.  Lulu rapidly became restless “off the circuit” in Missoula, Montana.  When the chance came to join the Rentz-Santley Novelty & Burlesque Company on the road, she left town and Pierce.  The local newspaper headlined:  “She Refused to Live with Him; Missoula Man Looking for Divorce from His Spouse on the Ground of Desertion.

Before long, however,  Frank found true love in the person of Mary Helena Murphy, born into a New Orleans immigrant Irish family.  She also was a performer at the Gem.  In June 1900 the couple were married by an Episcopal priest at Holy Spirit Church in Missoula.   This marriage was destined to last and produce ten children.  A photo from Missoula taken about 1910 shows Frank and Mary (standing) with five of their brood.  They named the two oldest girls “Missoula” and “Montana”

Complication #3:  Misfortunes in Missoula:  For a time after his marriage events seem to go well for Pierce. While having little formal education he was said to have had good business sense.  While continuing to run the Gem Theater, he opened a fancy restaurant on Missoula’s Front Street that he called “Ye Olde Inn.”  Advertised as “the most elegantly appointed cafe in Montana,” the establishment featured a “ladies orchestra” in the evening.   The local paper enthused:  “Ye Olde Inn is one of the most elegant hostelries in the West and a place of which the Garden City [Missoula] can be proud.”

Pierce’s restaurant also appears to have harbored a semi-clandestine casino.  Gambling was illegal in Montana but generally overlooked by authorities.  When a patron complained that he had lost $95 at a roulette wheel in Pierce’s establishment, however, officials were obliged to act.  The owner was arrested and hauled into court.  Although Pierce appears to have escaped serious consequences, his life as a restauranteur posed other challenges.  

“Ye Olde Inn” experienced two fires he believed to be started by disgruntled employees.  After the second blaze, the insurance company refused to pay off.  By now Pierce was over-extended financially.  According to a descendant:  “Frank had planned on a railroad station locating to Missoula, MT where he could make his fortune.  Instead, the railroad settled on Spokane Washington so his ‘gamble’ did not pay off.”  As a likely result Pierce did not have the money to rebuild “Ye Olde Inn.”  Possibly angry at what had befallen him in Missoula, in 1912 he sold the Gem Theater and real estate holdings there and moved his family to Butte.

Complication #4:  Booze in Butte:  Now firmly middle aged, as shown right, Pierce in effect was being forced to start over — this time with a large and still growing family to feed and clothe.  This time he looked to liquor for an income.

Having owned a restaurant he was well aware that alcohol was by far the most profitable item on any menu.  With the money he had made from his Missoula sales he opened a saloon in Butte, located at 124 Montana Avenue.  

He was began retailing whiskey, buying stock by the barrel and decanting it into half-pint and pint flasks for take-away clientele.  Pierce could buy pre-printed labels to slap on the bottles to give them a personalized appearance, as on "Green Arbor Whiskey" shown above. Frank also moved his family into a large house at 1015 West Silver Street, shown here as it looks today.

Pierce plied the liquor trade despite a major looming complication.  Despite harboring hard-drinking ranchers, cowboys and miners, the West rapidly was filling with folks who sought quieter times and gentility.  By 1912 many of them had become advocates for Prohibition as one by one states beyond the Mississippi River chose a “dry” path.  Montana was no exception. Although a majority of voters in Butte was opposed, in an 1916 referendum the state voted itself dry — but was not in a hurry to impose the ban on alcohol.  The law did not take effect until January 1919.

Before the deadline, Pierce shut down his saloon and in the 1920 census was listed as the proprietor of a soft drink parlor at 11 South Montana, down the street from his old saloon.  As shown here, the building still stands.  Given the hard-drinking reputation of Butte, it should be no surprise that bootlegging flourished.  Pierce became part of it.  While his establishment served soft drinks it also served as a cover for the harder stuff.  One of his descendants, noting the difficulties Pierce faced during those years, has related:  “…He reportedly had to pay a lot of bribes to make the local officials look the other way so he could serve alcohol.

The stress may have taken a toll on Pierce’s health.  Shown here is a photo of Frank with his dog, taken in 1923.  At the time he was only 56 years old with his youngest child only age five, but he looks like a much older man.  Three years later he died in December 1926, the cause given as heart disease. His body was return to Missoula for burial in a family plot.  Shown below, his marker sits on Grave 2, Lot 7, Block 032, of the Missoula Cemetery

Summarizing the persona of a man like Franklin J. Pierce is difficult. From all accounts he was a loving husband to Mary Helena and a good father to his children.  His obituary in the Butte Miner newspaper identified him as a “well-known businessman of Butte” but did not go into details.  Another observer has suggested:  “He rubbed shoulders with respected citizens in the community. He entertained a lot of people during his lifetime….”  For all that, the record remains mixed.  During his lifetime Pierce also was involved in activities such as illegal gambling, illicit liquor sales, and bribes to local officials.  “He took risks,”  one descendant has observed.  True enough and they complicated his life.

Note:  This vignette would not have been possible without the wealth of material found in ancestry.com from the Bumala/Yearian family tree.   Although their relationship to Pierce is not explained, they have assembled multiple photos, public documents and several biographical narratives.  Most of the information and a majority of the photos in this post originated there. It was while tracking the origins of Green Arbor whiskey bottles that I came upon the site.  Pierce’s story was too rich to ignore.  


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Tracking Max Selliger in His Climb to Whiskey Glory

I am no handwriting expert but looking at Max Selliger’s signature above, particularly noting the curlicues on the capital letters, it seems to exude confidence.   He was 30 years old at the time, in the midst of his climb up the Kentucky distilling ladder, beginning as a poorly paid clerk and ending as the sole proprietor of two major Louisville distilleries, maintaining offices in the heart of the city’s “Whiskey Row,” and selling his bourbon coast to coast.

Selliger was born in Louisville in 1852, the son of Caroline and Samuel Selliger. His father ran a millinery store.  Max was provided an elementary and some secondary education in local schools but by the age of 18 was recorded working as a clerk, possibly in his father’s shop.  Given the importance that making and selling whiskey had assumed in Louisville during that era, selling women’s hats may have seemed like a dead end to an ambitious youth like Max.  By 1872 he had gone to work for Barkhouse Bros. & Co., wholesale liquor dealers located at 69 Main Street near Third Road.

The brothers, Julius and Louis Barkhouse, were relative newcomers to the Louisville whiskey scene, but ambitious.  Originally they were wholesalers and “rectifiers” — that is, blending whiskey to achieve smoothness, taste and color.  They must have seen promise in the 20-year-old Selliger and made him their bookkeeper.  It was a post of considerable trust because Max would have been responsible for making the entries on whiskey purchases and rectifications as required by Federal law.  Carelessness or mistakes could result in court action and potential confiscation of stocks and equipment.

By 1876 Barkhouse brothers had determined, as many rectifiers did, that in order to assure whiskey for blending, it was advantageous to own their own distillery.  Accordingly in 1876 they built a plant at 278-300 Story Avenue, near Ohio Street.  They released Selliger from his desk-bound job and green eyeshade to become a salesman for what they now called the Kentucky Distilling Company.  Max made the rounds of Louisville area saloons hawking such brands as “Beargrass,” “Gold Dust” and “Kentucky Pride.”

After three years on this job, Selliger left the Barkhouses to team with Nathan Hofheimer, who came from an established Louisville whiskey clan, including Ernest and Sigmund Hofheimer who owned a wholesale whiskey business on Main Street.  Nathan also was kin to the Cincinnati-based Hofheimer Bros., who owned the White Mills distillery in Louisville.  

The new company, Hofheimer & Selliger, was located at 8 Main Street below First St.  Likely helped by their important connections, from the beginning the partners were successful.  “This wholesale liquor company had exclusive control of many of Kentucky’s finest bourbons,” according to the Encyclopedia of Louisville (2001).  Those brands included “Crystal Springs,”  “G. W. S. Mellwood,” and “Glencoe.”  [For further information on Glencoe, see my post of July 10, 2012.]

Meanwhile another scion of a well-known local whiskey family was fulfilling his ambitions in the liquor trade.  He was George H. Moore, who in 1865 had returned to Louisville from a Union prison camp at Johnson’s Island, Ohio, where he had been interned after being captured in the battle of Allatoona, Georgia.  He went to work in the whiskey operation of his uncle, Jesse Moore.  Beginning in 1881, likely with Jesse’s financial help, George built the Astor Distillery, shown above, located in Louisville between Lexington (later Breckenridge) and Arbegust Streets.  Subsequently Moore built a second plant immediately adjacent, shown below, and called it the Belmont Distillery.

Insurance records show the Astor and Belmont Distilleries adjacent at the site.  Each of the stills was of brick construction as were four shared warehouses with fireproof metal or slate roofs.  Warehouse A, located 40 feet east of the stills was used for Astor storage and Warehouse B, located 45 feet northeast, likely was assigned to Belmont.  Warehouses C and D sat south of the stills.  The Astor made a sweet mash whiskey called “Astor” and the Belmont was producing “Belmont” and “Nutwood,” both sour mash bourbons.

City directories for 1881-1883 indicate that while maintaining their wholesale liquor business, Selliger early on joined George Moore’s distillery company as treasurer and Hofheimer became corporate secretary.  This cozy arrangement proceeded until 1884, when Max left Hofheimer to join Moore full-time in a new firm, one they called Moore and Selliger.  Considered one of the wealthiest men in Louisville and seventeen years older than Selliger, Moore must have seen considerable talent in the younger man to take him as a partner.  With this move Max had made the jump from rectifier — always viewed as second class to actual distillers in Kentucky — to part ownership of two major facilities.

As he was climbing the ladder to whiskey success, Max had remained a bachelor.   Now as a bonafide distiller, in 1882 at the age of 30, he married Nannie Rosenthal, Kentucky-born of German immigrant parents, a woman several years younger than he.  They may have taken a honeymoon abroad because Selliger applied for a passport that same year.  The document provides a description of Max as a young man:  Five feet, eight inches tall; blue eyes;  black hair; long face, and dark complexion.  Over time the couple would have a family of two girls, Leah and Jessie.

Moore & Selliger Co. packaged its whiskeys in clear glass bottles, sized from half-pint and pint flasks to “fifths” and full quarts.  They all carried paper labels.  The Belmont brand displayed a particularly well-designed label involving a large bell and the statement that: “This Whiskey Was Mashed in Little Tubs and Distilled in the Old Fashioned Hand Made Sour Mash Press.”   The partners early saw the benefits of registering their trademarks with the federal government, patenting Astor in 1888, Belmont in 1889 and Nutwood in 1894. .

During the twelve years from 1882 to 1896 the company flourished under the two men.  By the mid -1890s the Astor Distillery was consuming 725 bushels a day to produce sweet-mash whiskey and the Belmont Distillery 760 bushels for sour-mash.  Warehouse capacity had been expanded to 42,000 barrels.  The plants employed a large work staff.  A fire in the Belmont mash room in 1891 that caused $1,000 damage was quickly repaired and whisky-making resumed.

 As he aged, George Moore’s heath deteriorated markedly. After taking breakfast with his family in January 1896 he died quietly, sitting in an armchair. The verdict was a heart attack.  Now the former clerk was running both distilleries as the sole proprietor.  He promptly changed the name to the Max Selliger Company.  In a climb of 26 years at last he had reached the pinnacle of success, recognized as a true Kentucky “whiskey baron.”  For the next 24 years Selliger continued to manage both distilleries, establishing his three major whiskeys as national brands.  After trademark reforms by Congress in 1904, within two years he had registered his Astor, Belmont, and Nutwood brands a second time.

Once in full charge of the whiskey-making Selliger stepped up his merchandising, providing an attractive reverse glass sign and shot glasses to saloons and restaurants using his liquor.   As a result of this intense marketing he developed a wide market for his whiskey as attested by a letterhead from Denver that includes the Belmont logo and by a shot glass from a California saloon. 

Shut down by the advent of National Prohibition in 1920,  Max continued to be listed as a distiller in the federal census of that year.  By the 1930 census, however, he was recorded as “ex-distiller” and “financier.”  In 1933 as Repeal was imminent, Selliger, now 81 years old and with no son to take over the business, sold his idled distilleries and brands to a group that also bought the Bernheim Distilleries.  Eventually, as shown below, Schenley picked up the Belmont name and motif.

In 1936 Max and Nannie Selliger were still listed in Louisville directories, living at 1022 South Third Street.  With them was their unmarried daughter, Jessie.  The Max Selliger company was still extant, now with a hired manager.  As he relaxed in virtual retirement, Max must have thought frequently about the timely career moves he had made, decisions that had seen him rise from clerk to whiskey nobility — and smiled.  In April 1938 while on a visit to Philadelphia, at the age of 86, Selliger was stricken with a heart attack and died.  His body was returned to Louisville for interment, with Nannie, Jessie and a granddaughter among the mourners.

Note: In February of this year three unopened “fifth” bottles of Selliger’s Belmont whiskey were sold at auction.  The label identified all three as having been distilled in 1902 and aged for eight years at the Louisville facility.  Although a small part of the contents had evaporated from each bottle, as shown right, most of the whiskey still remained and would be considered potable.  The three bottles were knocked down at prices ranging from $1,230 to $1,476 — each sip an expensive one.  Max Selliger would be proud.