Sunday, October 29, 2017

Whiskey Men Dealing with “The Whiskey Ring”

Foreword: The Whiskey Ring was a plot of the 1870s involving diversion of liquor tax revenues hatched in St. Louis but also organized in other cities. Distillers and liquor wholesalers paid off government officials, and those officials helped the distillers evade federal taxes on the whiskey they produced and sold.  The perpetrators stole millions. Secretary of the Treasury Bristow broke the politically powerful ring, using secret agents to conduct a series of raids across the country on May 10, 1875. Ultimately, 110 convictions were made and over $3 million in taxes were recovered. This post summarizes the story of four whiskey men whose lives were affected by their involvement with the Ring.

In 1872 Gordon Byron Bingham of Patoka, Indiana, patented an upright tank for holding liquor that he claimed was aimed at preventing “fraud on the revenue.”  Just three years later, as a distiller, Bingham, shown right, was implicated and convicted as a participant in the “Whiskey Ring,” whose sole purpose was to defraud the revenue.  As a result, Bingham ruined himself and the small town of Patoka was thrown “on the downgrade of the stream of time….”

Shown right is the metal tank that Bingham patented in February 1872 to allow federal officers “…an easy means of determining at all times, the exact proof and quantity of the spirits within the tank.”   Ironically it was not long after receiving his patent that Bingham became entangled in “The Whiskey Ring” involving his distilleries in St. Louis and Patoka, near Evansville, Indiana.

After being caught in the Bristow raid,  Bingham initially attempted to stonewall judicial officials but faced with the threat of imprisonment for contempt of court he caved in, withdrawing his claim to his confiscated distillery and whiskey and pleading guilty to all government charges.  More important Gordon became the first and chief witness for the government against other Ring participants, including General James Veatch, the local collector of internal revenue.

Given a hero’s welcome upon his return to Patoka, a hamlet where he provided much of the income with his distillery, the press excoriated Bingham as a man who had committed “…the meanest, most rascally and most mischievous swindling ever practiced in this State.”  Disgraced, headed for jail, and seemingly beset on all sides,  Bingham within a matter of days was dead, passing on January 10, 1876, at the age of 49.  His obituary suggested that, faced with the prospect of the penitentiary, he developed "a form of mania" that rapidly undermined his health.

With its distillery gone, Patoka — an Indian name meaning “log on the bottom” — went into serious decline.  In the early 1880s the following was written about the town, shown here as it looks today:  “Distilleries first made her prosperous, then crooked whiskey sheared her golden locks, nipped her pristine vigor, made her prematurely gray and hurled her on the downgrade of the stream of time from which she is not likely soon to recover….”

When he found that Chicago distillers who had joined the Ring were selling their whiskey much more cheaply than he could, Milwaukee’s Jacob Nunnemacher, a immigrant from Switzerland, soon figured out that the Chicagoans were not paying the tax but bribing the revenue agents sent to collect it.  Unwisely, Nunnemacher, shown right, joined them in the corrupt scheme.

As his bookkeeper put it later:  “He didn’t mind paying a fine now and then or a little protection money to the revenue agents and those higher up.  Everybody was doing it.”  Shown in an artist’s drawing below, Nunnemacher’s distillery was in a rural area south of Milwaukee called Town of Lake.  The site held his Italianate mansion, the whiskey-making plant, and pens for cattle who were being fattened on the spent mash from the distillery.

Caught in the 1875 raid, but loudly protesting his innocence,  Jacob demanded an early trial. That occurred in March of 1876.   The government claimed that he had conspired to manufacture and remove illicit spirits from the distillery.  Although found innocent of three charges, on a fourth, conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government,  Nunnemacher was convicted and sent to prison for six months. 

He spent only two months in jail.  Nunnemacher’s friends, influential Republicans, petitioned President Ulysses S. Grant for a pardon, which he swiftly granted.  Nevertheless, accord to contemporary accounts, the experience broke Jacob physically and mentally.  Only 57 years old, he died the same year as his release from prison. The distillery he founded also went out of business. The buildings were allowed to deteriorate, as one shown here, and ultimately were razed. 

John H. Garnhart was a whiskey man and inventor whose most intense and enduring activity, however, may have been re-inventing himself, changing occupations and locations frequently, and known by at least three names during a foreshortened lifetime of only fifty years.  This talent helped him escape the fates of Bingham and Nunnemacher.

Beginning in 1859 after a move from Denver.  Garnhart was hip deep in the St. Louis liquor trade.  He marketed a highly alcoholic bitters product and patented the bottle, shown right. In 1868 he trademarked a label for a brand of whiskey bearing his name.  Shown here, the anchor design almost certainly was his personal handiwork.  

Seemingly always operating on the edge of propriety Garnhart has been linked with the Whiskey Ring but early on in the conspiracy seems to have sensed that things might go wrong.  He brought in two partners to run his liquor company and gave them full responsibility for its management and finances.  Then he moved to Madison, Wisconsin, living in a mansion home shown in an artist’s rending here.  There he marketed a reaper he had invented, a venture than eventually failed.   In 1874, after a short illness, Garnhart died.

His death may have saved him from a prison term or at least profound embarrassment.  A month later, a new Secretary of Treasury, Benjamin Bristow, took office who set the trap for the St. Louis racketeers and sprang it in May, 1875.  Garnhart’s company was among those where barrels of illicit whiskey and office ledgers were seized.  The two men then operating it were among those arrested in the raid.  Convicted, they were slapped with a large fine and a prison term of one year in the Cole County, Missouri, jail.

The name George T. Stagg on a bottle of whiskey for many years has been a familiar sight in virtually every liquor store in America.  Beyond the name and the brand was a Kentucky-born man, shown here, whose life might be characterized as having achieved his fame amidst a series of trials that he not only surmounted but that actually contributed to his rise to wealth and fame.  Among them was his “blowing the whistle” on the Whiskey Ring.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, Stagg moved with his growing family to St. Louis, where the pre-war shoe salesman met a wealthy local businessman named James Gregory.  Gregory was impressed with the 30-something’s highly-developed sense of organization, meticulousness in keeping records, and leadership qualities.  Together they established a firm they called “Gregory & Stagg, Commercial Merchants and Distillers Agents.”  It meant that Stagg was busy selling Kentucky whiskey in markets throughout the United States.

Stagg’s work brought him in contact with distillers and whiskey rectifiers of St. Louis and other Midwest cities, some of whom were participating in the Whiskey Ring.  He quickly became aware of the scheme and its defrauding of the Federal government of its liquor tax revenues.  Instead of collaborating with the Ring, he alerted honest officials about what was going on and helped precipitate the 1875 raids.

Like many “whistle-blowers”  Stagg himself came under scrutiny from individuals skeptical about his motives, particularly Republicans allied with the Grant Administration.   A suspicious House of Representatives Committee in May 1876 held extensive hearings on the scandal.  An Federal Internal Revenue officer was questioned extensively about Stagg’s role in the affair, with the implication that the whiskey salesman might have been in cahoots with the culprits.

The officer, Elverton R. Chapman, vehemently fended off those innuendoes, testifying that Stagg had tipped him off about illegal whiskey being dumped in a local warehouse and then shipped to New Orleans, and, moreover, had told him whom to call as witnesses.  Chapman asserted:  “The most valuable assistance that we got in St. Louis was from Mr. George T. Stagg, of the firm of Gregory & Stagg,, commission-merchants in St. Louis.  Mr. Stagg is entitled to more credit for the exposure of the St. Louis whiskey ring than any other man that lives.”  This ringing endorsement not only fended off Congressional criticism, it marked another rung in the Stagg’s climb toward whiskey fame.

The Whiskey Ring offered the same choices to each of the four men profiled here.  Bingham and Nunnemacher chose to play ball with the criminals and it cost them both dearly.  While apparently profiting from the fraud Garnhart sidestepped the scheme and, after his death, others “look the rap.”  In contrast to those three, Stagg stood up for honest dealing and helped to bring down the perpetrators.  It helped earn him an honored place in whiskey history. To quote “The Shadow” of radio fame:  “The weed of crime bears bitter fruit.  Crime does not pay.”

Note:  Each of these whiskey men have been profiled at greater length on this blog —  Bingham on April 15, 2017;  Nunnemacher, June 12, 2012;  Garnhart July 20, 2015;  Stagg, April 30, 2016.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Beggs: Stalwarts of Indiana Distilling

The Beggs family, father and sons, beginning in Ohio in 1852 and ending only with National Prohibition in 1920, were involved with operating no fewer than nine distilleries in Indiana.   The last Beggs facility, the Commercial Distillery of Terre Haute,  was accounted the largest in the United States at the time and boasted the capacity to produce 60,000 gallons of whiskey daily.

The man who founded this distilling dynamo was John Beggs, born in 1832 in Feramanagh, Northern Ireland, the son of a manufacturer.  When he was eleven years old, the family emigrated to the United States and settled in Cincinnati.  John was given a secondary school education there but early found employment in a distillery in New Richmond, Ohio, a town twenty miles east and south of Cincinnati on the Ohio River.

In 1852, John Beggs at the age of 20 decided he knew enough about distilling to open his own plant in New Richmond.  It would be his first of many distilleries but the last in Ohio.  The following year he sold his plant at New Richmond and moved to Metamora Township in Franklin County, Indiana, seventy miles north and west of Cincinnati.  There he established his first Hoosier distillery, dabbled in real estate and engaged in the timber trade.  A Metamora whiskey warehouse still stands, shown here.

While in Metamora and now 21, John married Rebecca Lewis in 1853.  A woman several years older than he, she was the daughter of Isabel and Mathew Lewis.  The couple would have eight children, seven of whom would live to maturity — four girls and three boys — John E., Harry W. and Thomas G.  Each of the sons eventually would follow in the distilling footsteps of their father.

After six years working in Metamora, Beggs relocated his family twelve miles west to the town of Laurel.   The move may have been occasioned by his growing interest and influence in Democratic politics.  In 1870 he was elected to the Indiana State Senate, representing Franklin and Union Counties in the upper house of the legislature.

In 1872 John sold off his Metamora distillery and other property, purchasing the plant of the Shelby Distilling Company at Shelbyville, Indiana. Meanwhile his eldest son, John Edward “Ed” Beggs was learning how to make whiskey, working at distilleries in Ohio, Illinois and Kentucky.  The Beggs family continued to live in Laurel until 1879 when John moved the family to Shelbyville.  Shown here, Ed Beggs in 1881 went to work for his father at the Shelbyville plant and a year later had been advanced to superintendent.

Meanwhile, in 1881 Rebecca at the age of 52 died and was interred at Forest Hill Cemetery in Shelbyville.  Not long after this heart-breaking event, a raging fire destroyed the Shelby plant.  The Beggs immediately rebuilt a larger, more modern structure.  True to his pattern of regular relocations, John Beggs three years later moved again, this time 125 miles west to Terre Haute, Indiana.  While continuing to operate the Shelbyville facility he purchased a major interest in the Wabash Distilling Company, serving as treasurer.   With a partner he also purchased the Terre Haute Brewing Company and became its general manager.

Still only 50 years old, John Beggs was ready for new ventures and when the so-called “Whiskey Trust” was being formed in 1886, he was an eager participant, closing down his Shelbyville plant and working to increase whiskey prices by reducing the number of small distilleries.  As the Trust evolved, Begg’s reputation increased.  When the Trust ultimately was reconstituted as the Distilling and Cattle Feeding Company, operating a number of individual Midwest plants, he was tapped for an executive position.  In 1894 John Beggs resigned his position with the Wabash Distilling Company and moved to Peoria where he became a vice president for that monopolistic enterprise.

Meanwhile in Terre Haute, his sons were on the move.  In 1884 Ed Beggs had teamed with Herman Hulman, a prosperous local who owned the McGregor Distillery, then possibly the largest whiskey producer in Indiana. [See my post on Hulman January 23, 2012.]  Together the partners in 1884 launched a wholesale liquor house called Hulman & Beggs, located at Ninth and Cherry Streets, shown above. 

The structure also was illustrated on a etched shot glass issued for the company.  Their flagship whiskey was “White Seal,” advertised by a provocative saloon sign designed by artist Herm Michalairski, as shown below.  The partnership of Beggs and Hulman appears to have been short lived, as each went soon went on to separate activities.

Although Harry Beggs had spent his youth in Shelbyville, he too came to Terre Haute about 1887, initially associating with a lumber company owned by his father and later becoming a buyer for the Majestic Distilling Company, a Beggs property being run by brother Ed.  From that beginning Harry later was cast as the president of the Old Vincennes Distilling Company, a family liquor enterprise in a small city about 60 miles south of Terre Haute.  He made a permanent home there.  Federal records show Harry withdrawing whiskey from a bonded warehouse in Vincennes virtually up until National Prohibition.

Meanwhile back in Terre Haute, Ed Beggs in 1903 was busy creating a new distillery.  Called The Commercial Distilling Company, it would be the largest whiskey-making enterprises in Indiana.  Capitalized at $400,000 ($10 million equivalent today), the corporate membership represented eight of the most powerful distillers and wholesalers of America, including Bernheim Brothers, Freiberg & Workum, Westheimer & Sons, and S. Grabfelder, all of them profiled on this blog.

Property was purchased in Terre Haute at 501 Prairieton Avenue for a plant that would have the capacity of mashing 8,000 bushels a day, using only the latest and most improved machinery and processes.  The company created a railroad spur to the distillery and erected pens capable of holding 3,000 head of cattle.  Artists' illustrations of the plant are shown here above and immediately below. This post ends with a photo of the distillery as it looked about 1920.

While some saw the distillery as an effort to weaken the Whiskey Trust, the partners denied that allegation, claiming that the distillery would supply only its members and that:  “There can be no war, and any cutting of prices will only affect those who do the cutting and their customers, as the Commercial Company…will not have anything for sale in the spirit line.”  Such statements ignored the fact that rectifier members of Commercial Distilling had been paying inflated prices from the Trust for raw whiskey and no longer would be its customers.

Despite his father having been associated with the Trust, Ed Beggs was chosen as the president and general manager of the new corporation.  J. Walter Freiberg was vice president and I. W. Bernheim, secretary-treasurer.  In his efforts, Ed was assisted by his brother Thomas.  Coming to Terre Haute in 1891, this Beggs had learned the distilling trade under his father’s direction and in time had become superintendent  of another family property, the Indiana Distilling Company at Terre Haute.  When the Commercial Distilling Company was organized, Thomas became superintendent.

In their managerial capacities the Begg brothers were responsible personally for supervising the erection of the distillery buildings, said to have gone over and carefully studied every aspect of the plans.  In 1905 The Wine and Spirits Journal described the facility in detail, concluding:  “No person can visit the plant and make an investigation of it without being profoundly impressed with its excellence in every material point.  If there is a single improvement that can be made that will add to its excellence or safety or to its capability for turning out the best product at the lowest price, it is probable that the very gentlemanly manager [i.e. Ed Beggs]  will be willing to pay roundly for the suggestion.”  An artist’s drawing of the distillery for a postcard above shows its sprawling extent. 

As the Commercial Distillery was getting off the ground, the founding father, John Beggs, was being laid below ground.  As he approached his 76th year, Beggs had contracted influenza in March, 1904.  When he failed to recover he was taken to a hospital in Chicago for treatment.  Ultimately his kidneys failed and he was returned to Chicago’s Lexington Hotel for his final hours.  His children were summoned and were at his bedside when their father expired.  The press took note that among them were his three sons “who are prominent distillers in Terre Haute, Ind.”  After a funeral service in Shelbyville, John Beggs was laid to rest in Forest Hill Cemetery next to his late wife, Rebecca.  A monument marks the spot.

Following their father’s death, the three Beggs sons continued to be engaged in the whiskey trade.  The Commercial Distillery under direction of Ed and Thomas flourished becoming not only the largest distillery in Indiana but perhaps the largest in America.  Taking advertising advantage of the discover of radium by the Curies in 1902, the brothers called their flagship liquors “Radium Spirits” including bourbon, rye, and even gin.  Their advertising hailed these as “the brightest, purest, sweetest.”  Federal records show Ed Beggs running the Commercial Distillery until 1918.  Over in Vincennes, Harry Beggs was recorded distilling to the end in 1920.

Meanwhile John’s boys were having personal lives.  Ed Beggs had married in 1853, his wife the former Catherine “Kate” Webb of Shelbyville, the daughter of Robert and Clara Webb, natives of Virginia.  They would have a family of four, a girl and three boys, one of whom died in infancy. When Kate died prematurely at the age of 35 her sister, Stella, a kindergarten teacher,  stepped in to help care for the children.  Thomas’ wife was Nelle W. Beggs.  No children were recorded.  Harry Beggs may never have married.

Ed Beggs in 1918 was the first to die at age 57 and chose to be buried in Highland Lawn Cemetery in Terre Haute.  He was followed in 1838, by Harry Beggs, age 52, who was interred in Mount Calvary Cemetery in Vincennes.  Thomas Beggs lived considerably longer, dying in 1950 at the age of 84 and was buried in Terre Haute’s Calvary Cemetery.   By that time the distilleries of the Beggs family dynasty were just a distant memory.

For more than two-thirds of a century, however,  the Beggs family virtually had dominated the production of whiskey in Indiana.  They founded distilleries, bought and ran existing ones, and invested in others, for a total of ten. Moreover, through his participation in the Whiskey Trust John Beggs had helped dictate the fate of many more in the Midwest.  Stalwarts of Indiana distilling, theirs truly was a family affair.

Note:  Much of the information for this post was derived from the 1908 volume “Greater Terre Haute and Vigo County:  Closing of the First Century’s History of City and County” by C. C. Oakley.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Baer Brothers & a Tale of Two Cities


From 1850 to the 1920s, the Jewish population in the western United States grew from a handful to about 300,000.  Jews migrated West for many reasons, principally to improve their social and economic status at a time in that region when anti-Semitic prejudice was virtually nonexistent.  

Among them were the Baer brothers, Isaac and Adolph.  Originally from Baden, Germany, Isaac was born in 1852 and emigrated in 1869 to the U.S. when he was 23, landing in New York City.  He was joined in 1873 by Adolph, three years younger, shown right.  Together the brothers decided to go West, stopping first in Pueblo, Colorado, and working there before heading 160 miles further west to Leadville, Colorado.  By 1879 they had established a wholesale liquor house, a line of business that Jewish pioneers frequently had entered.

Leadville was a boom town.  The discovery of silver had spurred a population growth to about 30,000, many of them prosperous from the strike.  The number of saloons in town catering to miners and cowboys grew apace.  Wholesaling liquor was a lucrative enterprise.  The brothers sited their business on Harrison Avenue, a major commercial street, moving several times before fetching up at 503 Harrison on the ground floor of a hotel next to courthouse, as shown here.

Meanwhile the brothers were having personal lives.  In March, 1881, Isaac married Hattie Kahn in Leadville and the newlyweds look up residence at 125 West Eight Street, a modest brown timbered house that stands today in the historic district.  Two years later they moved to 308 East Fourth Street, another modest dwelling.  

In October 1883, Adolph married.  His wife was 20-year-old Matilda A. Ettinger, an immigrant from Germany.  Initially they lived above the Baer liquor store.  In 1884 he was able to move the family to a home away from the business at 315 West Eighth Street.  A photograph showed Adolph and Matilda in the parlor of their new home.

Selling whiskey and cigars was not the Baer brothers’ sole preoccupation.  Almost immediately they became active socially, religiously and politically.  In 1880 Isaac, drawing on his national origin, was involved in the founding of the Turn Vereins, a German social and athletic organization.  He was active in constructing of a building for the group at Fourth and Pine Streets.  

Isaac also was active in the new synagogue that initially held its services in a converted Masonic Temple above a clothing store on East Chestnut Street. In 1884 he was a member of the building committee for the construction of a free-standing Temple Israel.  He also was superintendent of the Sabbath School in which youngsters could learn about their faith. By this time about 300 Jews were resident in Leadville, some of them needing assistance from their fellow religionists. Adolph became president of the Hebrew Benevolent Society of Leadville, responsible for Jewish charitable causes and the Hebrew cemetery.  Sadly, he and Mathilda would bury two of their newborn children there. Adolph also was one of the founders of a local chapter of B’nai B’rith and its first vice president.

The Baers were active politically, strenuously backing the construction of a road from Leadville to Aspen, where they had another outlet.  Adolph supported local candidates and county officials, contributing generously to campaigns. In 1888 Isaac helped post bond for a councilman accused of murder. Their business was prospering allowing the brothers to join a consortium of “public spirited citizens” to buy a hostelry at 701 Harrison Avenue for $50,000 and operate it as the Vendome Hotel, shown above. Business leaders, recognizing the Baers’ entrepreneurship, elected Adolph to the board of directors of the newly formed Leadville Board of Trade.

In ensuing years other Baer relatives would join the brothers.  In 1890 a Joseph Baer is recorded as clerking for Baer Bros.  A nephew named Theodore, after immigrating from Germany, surfaced in 1894 as a bookkeeper for the firm, Meanwhile things were changing in Leadville.  The late 1880s had brought labor unrest among miners leading to strikes and bloodshed.  The final blow fell 1893 after the Federal switch from a bimetallic (silver and gold) standard to just gold.

Meanwhile changes were occurring at the Baer Brothers Mercantile Co.  Isaac, who had been president of the firm, relinquished the post circa 1889 and moved out of Leadville.  Expanding their business interests, the brothers had bought thousands of acres near Meeker, Colorado, and established the K-T Ranch — one of the largest in Colorado.  With Adolph as a minority partner, Isaac settled into the role of rancher with Hattie and their children, Ruth and Ezra.

Adolph became Baer Bros. president and Theodore took his place as secretary-treasurer.  The younger brother continued to pilot the liquor house until 1910 and then sold out to a local merchant named Muller who issued a whiskey jug marking the transaction.

Now began the second phase of the saga as the Baer Bros. liquor house fetched up in another Western town,  this time Salt Lake City.  As Leadville was declining, the Utah town was booming.  Between 1900 and 1930, the city’s population tripled.  Not only had it been designated the state capital, important copper finds in 1905 had spurred mining.  By 1907 oil had been discovered nearby and wells were multiplying.  Thirsty miners and oil workers were accommodated with liquor in myriad Salt Lake saloons — the official Mormon ban on drinking notwithstanding.

As shown above, the Baers advertised boldly, featuring stacks of barrels of its flagship brand, “Old Caribou Whiskey,” in front of its premises at 245 State Street.  In 1907 Adolph was president with Jacob A. Kahn, likely a relative of Isaac’s wife, as vice president and manager.  By 1914 another relative, Ernest O. Baer, had joined as secretary-treasurer.  During this period Isaac, while having a financial interest in the liquor house, lived on the ranch and nephew Theodore, now married, remained in Leadville.

 In Utah Baer Bros. advertised as “Jobbers and Importers of Liquors and Wines.”  The firm also was rectifying whiskey, that is, blending it to achieve particular color and taste.   It bottled Old Caribou in several sizes, from quarts down to pint flasks.  While not trademarking any of their labels, Baer Bros. also featured other proprietary brands.  Among them were “Amity Pure Old Whiskey” and “Metropole Special Whiskey,” bottled specifically for the hotel bar at 39 East Broadway.

Time was running out for Baer Bros. Mercantile in Utah as prohibitionary forces closed in. In 1917 the state imposed a complete ban on the sale of alcohol.  The liquor house was forced to shut down.  Both brothers died not long afterward.
Isaac, Hattie, and their chauffeur were killed by a train while crossing a railroad track in 1920.  The couple were buried in Denver’s Congregation Emanuel Cemetery.   

Adolph was dead by 1922 — the exact date and place of burial so far have escaped my research.  After his death, a local publication had this to say:  “A strong and very true man was Adolph Baer.  A stalwart man of affairs everywhere, he filled his place and performed his work with honor and tireless energy, till his call came.”  The same might have been said of Isaac.

During their lifetimes, the Baer brothers had been important part of the frontier Jewish experience.  Having been accepted by the people of Colorado and Utah, they contributed in a major way to the financial and social stability of the states and communities in which they dwelled.  Their story is an significant element in understanding “how the West was won.”

Note:  This article and the first four photos of were drawn largely from information on a website of the Temple Israel Museum entitled “Frontier Jewish Leadville.”  The museum is located at 201 West 4th Street in Leadville in a restored synagogue.  It is open daily from 10:30 AM to 6 PM.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

How Potts & Potts Picked Their Spots

Frank M. and Henry Potts can be identified with six different liquor houses located in cities in three states — Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky.   While the pressures of prohibitionary laws occasioned some of their moves, so too may have discord within the Potts relationship.

Frank was the elder, Henry’s uncle.  He was born in Troup County, Georgia, in 1836 of parents who had immigrated from England.  His father, Moses, a farmer, died when Frank was only eleven.   Not long after, the youth appears to have left his home.  The 1850 census found him living in a county about 65 miles from Atlanta.  Unusual for a boy of 14, he was recorded with property worth $1,200 ($30,000 today), perhaps an inheritance from his father.

Early Potts-Thompson jug
Incised name on jug
By the time of the 1860 census, Frank Potts was living in Brazoria, Texas, with the family of a planter named Overton.  Also listed as a planter, by this time his worth had grown to almost $10,000 ($250,000).  I suspect that some of this value might have been in slaves.  Frank seems not to have served in the Confederate Army, perhaps having married by that time and begun a family.   The 1870 census found him in Montgomery, Alabama, again listed as a planter.  With him are two sons, ages six and eight, but no wife, suggesting he was a widower.

Sometime during the 1870s, Frank moved to Atlanta and changed his career course.  In 1875 he married Irene Kennin of Montgomery, Alabama, a woman 20 years younger.   In the 1800 census, Frank, now 45, had spawned a family of five sons, ranging in age from 18 to nine months.  His occupation was listed as “liquor dealer.”
Living with the family was Henry Potts, Frank’s nephew, his occupation given as “commercial drummer,”  likely a traveling salesman for the Potts liquor interests.  Henry was 23, having been born in Alabama in 1858.  As shown above in an 1881 advertisement, the company was called “Frank M. Potts Wholesale Liquors,” located at 19 East Alabama Street in Atlanta.

During the same period, Frank formed another liquor business with Joseph Thompson at 7-13 Decatur Street called “Potts-Thompson Liquor Co.”  Potts was president;  Thompson was secretary-treasurer.  Henry Potts joined his uncle when in 1887 the pair sought to establish a Potts liquor firm in Chattanooga, Tennessee.   A city directory placed their store at 220 West Ninth Street and, as a sign of their prosperity, recorded them both staying at the Stanton House, shown here. It was Chattanooga’s premier hostelry, billed as “the most elegant hotel in the South.”  This foray into Tennessee appears to have been short-lived and directory entries for F. M. Potts Co. ended in 1888.

About the same time, the partnership with Thompson was severed.  The latter continued to operate at a new address under his own name until 1906.  Meanwhile the Pottses were continuing to operate under the Potts-Thompson name.  Henry  joined the firm as the secretary-treasurer replacing Thompson.  This firm was selling whiskey to the many Atlanta saloons in distinctive blue and white ceramic jugs of several sizes.  Although claiming to be distillers the Pottses were, in fact, “rectifiers,” that is, blending whiskeys on their premises.  Among their proprietary brands was “Stone Mountain," as shown below.”

In 1887 another family liquor house emerged.  Called “Potts & Potts, it was located at 24 and later 32 Peachtree Street, a major Atlanta commercial avenue, as shown above.  Also a rectifying operation, this Potts enterprise used the brand name “Manhattan Club.”  Henry’s participation in these several liquor enterprises increased his wealth considerably.  The 1900 census found him living with his wife and two children in a home with six servants, including a coachman, bell boy, chambermaid, gardener and cook.

As Frank aged, an evident rift emerged between himself and his nephew.  In 1905 the board of directors of Potts-Thompson that included Henry and two others voted a resolution that merged the offices of president and secretary-treasurer effectively forcing out the elder Potts.  Frank continued, however, to hold the lease on the Decatur Street store, renting it to the liquor house at $500 a month.  When Henry sought to break the lease and move out after Georgia went completely dry in 1908, his uncle sued him and won — but posthumously.

In early January 1910, Frank Potts had died at the age of 75.  With his wife and sons gathered at his graveside, the planter turned wholesale liquor dealer was interred in Section 5 of Atlanta’s Westview Cemetery.  The local press hailed him as a longtime active citizen and president of the Homossassa Fishing Club, a group of Atlanta businessmen who maintained an elaborate fishing destination 400 miles distant in Homossassa, Florida, shown here. 

Meanwhile, Henry Potts, ignoring the apparent earlier failure there, moved Potts-Thompson to Chattanooga.  Liquor interests from all over the South were moving there on the premise the city would never go dry and that its excellent railroad access to all parts of the country would prove profitable.  Potts’ liquor house first was located on Market Street and later on Main.  As the “dry” forces picked up momentum in Tennessee as they had in Georgia, Henry decided to double down on his moves.  In 1909 a Covington, Kentucky, publication reported: “The Potts-Thompson Liquor Co. distributors and wholesale liquor dealers are now preparing to remove to this city, and are now negotiating for property in Chattanooga…This concern will also remove its entire equipment and business here.”

That last assertion was not fulfilled. Even though the company opened in Covington, the Potts-Thompson is recorded as still in business in Chattanooga until Tennessee voted statewide prohibition in 1915. The Covington location provided a haven, albeit short-lived, for Henry and Potts-Thompson.  The company issued a shot glass there for special customers hailing itself as “The House of Quality.”   With the prospect of National Prohibition, however, Potts-Thompson shut its doors.   Henry Potts retuned to Atlanta and sold insurance.  He died in January, 1941, and is buried in Westview Cemetery, not far from his Uncle Frank.

Over a period of roughly 40 years, Frank and Henry Potts had been responsible for founding and operating six different liquor houses that bore their names, three in Atlanta, two in Chattanooga and one in Covington.  Although they ultimately were unable to outmaneuver the forces of Prohibition, theirs had been a singular accomplishment of longevity under highly adverse conditions.