Friday, April 27, 2018

John Low — Rising High in War and Peace

During the Civil War, John S. Low of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, advanced from corporal to captain over the course of three years of heavy combat only to return home, his heroism apparently forgotten, to menial jobs and near penury.  Once more through personal exertion, Low rose significantly in income and local business esteem, in large part by producing a popular whiskey he called “Elk’s Pride.”

Within a week of President Lincoln’s call for 75,000 men to serve for three months at the outset of the conflict, Low, 25 years old, joined a Carlisle troop called the Sumner Rifles and was given the rank of corporal.  His unit ultimately became Company C of the 9th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, performing garrison duties in Delaware and West Virginia.  When its term of service ended the company returned to Harrisburg to be mustered out.

Anticipating its end, Low enrolled again at Carlisle and in August 1862, his leadership skills being recognized, he was enlisted in Harrisburg as 2nd lieutenant of Company G, 130th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.  Within a month Low was engaged in hot combat at Antietam, West Virginia, one of the costliest battles of the Civil War.  A monument to the 130th stands today on the Antietam battlefield near the “Bloody Lane” where many Union soldiers fell.

This was just the first fierce fighting for the 130th Pennsylvania as it participated at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December 1862 and at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863.   Meanwhile, Low was being promoted to 1st lieutenant in August 1862 and then to captain in February 1863.  By the time the 130th was mustered out after Chancellorsville, the regiment had lost 92 men during service, four officers and 56 enlisted men killed or fatally wounded;  32 enlisted had died of disease.  Once back in Carlisle, Low headed a home guard company.

None of Low’s Civil War heroics seemed to translate into prosperity.  John had been married with at least two children when he went off to war.  His wife was the former Rebecca Humes, a Carlisle resident and a girl of 19 when they married.  Over the next few years the couple would have five more children.  A history of the First Presbyterian Church reported that Rebecca had six of their children baptized on one day in June 1869.

The 1870 census found the family living in Carlisle on Sassafras Street with their seven children, the oldest 13, the youngest, John S. Low Jr., eleven months.  Low’s occupation was listed as “produce dealer.”  This enterprise may have failed since a subsequent directory gave his occupation as “mechanic.”  The same directory listed Low’s taxable assessment at just $100 — among the lowest amount recored.  In the 1880 census Low’s occupation was listed as “huckster,” defined as a person selling items from a push cart or stall.  He seems to have been distant from from the prestige and prosperity that greeted many Union Civil War officers upon their return home.

But Low’s fortunes were about to change.  His reputation and income appear to have risen significantly sometime in the 1880s when he established a liquor wholesale house and bottling facility.  He featured a proprietary brand that he marketed as:  “A Whiskey Without a Headache.”  It was “Elk’s Pride.”  Shown here is a ceramic mini-jug “on the square” advertising the liquor.  

Low also sold his whiskey in glass bottles.  Shown here are two views of a Elk’s Pride flask, blown in a mold with an applied lip.  It is large at 9 1/2 tall by 4 1/2 inches wide and 2 1/2 inches deep and probably held a quart of whiskey.  It is considered rare and is sought by collectors because of its heavy embossing involving a stag elk’s head.

Elk’s Head Whiskey appears to have been a blend, likely a mixture of rye whiskeys obtained from Pennsylvania distilleries and “rectified” by Low or one of his employees to achieve desired color, taste and smoothness.  This operation likely occurred in the large building occupied by Low’s operation.  Shown here, the structure was located in the first block of North Pitt Street in Carlisle.  Its size also allowed Low and his son, John S. Low Jr., who eventually had joined his father in the business, to expand from whiskey into beer and soft drinks.

An advertisement indicates that Low’s company wasacting as the local distributor for several important breweries, including Pabst beer from Milwaukee and Bartholomay beer from Rochester, New York, two very popular brands of the times.  The Lows apparently were able to bottle those and other brands of beer.  They embossed their bottles, found in clear and amber, with “Registered,” the company name, and Carlisle.

The Lows also were bottling soft drinks sold under their name, often using  Hutchinson patent bottles.  Charles G. Hutchinson had invented and patented the Hutchinson Patent Stopper in 1879 as a replacement for cork bottle stoppers that commonly were being used to cap soda water bottles. His invention employed a wire spring attached to a rubber seal. Production of these stoppers was discontinued after 1912.  Seen here with Low’s embossing, Hutchinsons, as they were called, featured a bulbous top.  

Over a period of less than two decades, John S. Low had made the move upward in Carlisle business circles from being recorded as a “huckster” to owning of one of the city’s largest manufacturing enterprises.   

In 1891, at the relatively young age of 55, John Low died.  Although he had not joined the Presbyterian Church with the rest of his family, his funeral service was conducted by its pastor. A later parish history opined:  “He may not have been a church member since he had a wholesale and liquor bottling business.”  Low was buried with military honors in Grave 31, Section C, of Carlisle’s Ashland Cemetery.  His widow, Rebecca, joined him there twenty months later.  Their monument is shown here.

Dates and places of John Low’s battles and his rise in the ranks during the Civil War have been amply documented by historians of that period.  Unfortunately, details are scanty of how Low after the war was able to lift himself and his family from what appear to be low-level occupations and near-poverty conditions to a place near the center of Carlisle commercial life.  I am hopeful that one of his descendants will see this post and comment here, bringing some of those details to light.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Alexandria’s Aherns: Ascending Amid Anguish -- and Elation

During the early days of the Civil War, Union forces invaded and occupied  Alexandria, adjacent to the Nation’s Capitol but part of the secessionist state of Virginia.  According a history, these events “forever changed the social, cultural and economic fabric of the old seaport town.”  They certainly changed the lives of John Ahern and his family.  In the 1860 census Ahern, an Irish immigrant, was listed as a laborer with a net worth of $50.  By 1870 he was an Alexandria grocer and liquor dealer worth $4,000.

The transformation can be laid to the changes made in the commercial life of the town shown above before the war. The city boasted 96 firms and 12,653 inhabitants. It was a center of the slave trade.  During the conflict two of every three Alexandria residents, leaving behind their homes and businesses, had fled to the South, many to Richmond, one hundred miles away and the capital of the Confederacy.  With a huge influx of soldiers, for a time chaos reigned in Alexandria. Murder and other crimes were rampant; drunkeness common; citizens feared to venture into the streets:  “…A condition of things perhaps never in the history of this country to be found in any other city,” according to one authorMany felt the anguish.

In time, under martial law, the situation stabilized.  During the war Alexandria was transformed into a huge logistical supply center for Federal troops fighting in Virginia, with thousands of Union troops stationed there.   Hordes of black “contrabands”  — former slaves who escaped into Union lines — helped swell the population, elated by being free from slavery and earning a day’s wage.  Entrepreneurs, both legitimate and shady, descended on the city from all parts of the North.  Alexandrians remaining who failed to swear obedience to the United States were not allowed to engage in business.  Although many of the city’s Irish had joined the rebels,  Ahern was willing to take the oath of allegiance and agree to abide by the military rules.

Ahern’s rise in the city also was a lift to his family.   About 1853 when he was 35 years old, John had married another Irish immigrant named Margaret, a woman seven years younger than he.  The couple had produced three children by the time of the war, a girl, Mary, born in 1843;  Michael, 1847, and John P. (sometimes called Patrick), 1850.  

The postwar period proved no better for Alexandria.  According to a local history:  “Following the end of the Civil War, Alexandria found itself in a state of physical, mental and economic depression. With the withdrawal of most of the troops, little commerce remained. Hundreds of returning Confederate soldiers, many missing limbs, faced the daunting prospect of beginning life anew after their homes and businesses had been confiscated, and their former way of life swept away by the conflict.”

Nevertheless, Ahern persisted.  He advertised his store as “Wholesale and Retail Dealers in Groceries and Liquors.”  His location was at a particularly advantageous intersection of three major streets — a triangular building where Prince, West and Commerce Streets come together.  A Sanborn fire map shows the site, with the address of 1319 Prince Street.  The building still stands at that location.  In time both his sons came to work in his establishment.

During the war restrictions on sales of alcohol discouraged saloons in Alexandria but after the conflict they blossomed.  Ahern found a ready market for his wholesale whiskey, received in barrels from Pennsylvania and Maryland distilleries and decanted into gallon-sized ceramic containers.  Some jugs were all white in a Bristol glaze with others boasted Albany slip on the top and neck.  Those included both cone tops and domes. The remnant of a paper label from the back of one of these jugs clearly identifies the contents as “whiskey.”  Another portion suggests it was advertised as “pure.”

For decades John Ahern guided the fortunes of his enterprise, with his sons — both unmarried — to assist him.   During the 1880s major efforts were made to ban alcohol in Alexandria. Prohibition legislation was a dominant issue of Alexandria elections. A local Temperance Society argued that if saloons were outlawed, an influx of families would migrate to Alexandria to escape the awful consequences of alcohol.  Probably to Ahern’s relief, the effort was turned back in the 1881 election when anti-prohibition Democrats were elected in a landslide. The Alexandria Gazette of May 7, 1881, noted:  “As soon as the polls closed...bon fires were lighted all over the city and there was great rejoicing over the victory. Men on the streets declared that Alexandria had rid herself of another ism…."

The city would stayed “wet” for another three decades, much to the benefit of the Aherns.  They advertised widely that: “We hold largely in United States bonded warehouse and carry in stock various brands of the best pure rye and malt whiskies.

The founding father lived through the most of that decade, ceding management of John Ahern & Co. gradually to sons Michael and John Patrick.  John Ahern died  on April 25, 1889, at the age of 80 and was buried in  Alexandria’s National Cemetery.  His gravestone is shown here.

Michael and John P. carried on the business into the late 1910s, selling liquor until the state of Virginia went dry in 1916 after a statewide referendum in which Alexandria voted overwhelmingly wet.   

The bachelor brothers resided in a splendid home at 915 Prince Street in Alexandria’s Historic District, shown above.  Living with them was a younger cousin, Katherine Ahern, who kept house for them.  John Patrick died in February 1917 at the age of 65.  Michael followed in 1920, age 73.  The brothers were buried with a single headstone adjacent to their father’s grave in the National Cemetery.

The ascendancy of the Ahern family as Alexandria businessmen had been directly affected by the Civil War as John Ahern moved from being a laborer with a meager income to becoming a wealthy merchant selling fancy groceries and, most profitable of all, liquor.   Amidst a city often in turmoil and always in flux — anguish for some, elation for others — the Aherns had not just prevailed, but prospered.

Note:  The photos of the Ahern jugs are through the courtesy of two Virginia bottle collectors, Richard Lillienthal and Peter Rydquist, colleagues from the Potomac Bottle Club, now sadly defunct. The material on Alexandria during and after the Civil War is from a variety of sources.

Special Note:  This is marks the 600th vignette on this site devoted to pre-Prohibition whiskey men — distillers, distributors, dealers and saloon keepers.  It is particularly appropriate that this story is sited in Alexandria, my home city for the past 45 years.  One recent innovation is my condensing three or four earlier posts around a central theme every fourth upload.  Those topics range from whiskey men as inventors, to Civil War soldiers, friends of Presidents, and other subjects.  Those topical posts will continue in the future.

Since it was inaugurated in 2011, the blog as of this writing has had 597,212  look-ins.  While chiefly from the U.S., they have come from all parts of the world.  The blog currently registers 160 followers, for whom I am profoundly grateful.  I continue to find interesting whiskey men about whom to write and, as long as the good stories hold out, have set a goal of reaching 700 posts in the months ahead.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Sauer-McShane Served Notorious Women of the West

A photo of the Sauer-McShane Mercantile in Central City, Colorado, shows a number of men lounging on the sidewalk in front of the building.  Some of them undoubtedly were waiting for the women who frequented one of the fanciest stores west of Denver.  Otto Sauer and John McShane, merchants and liquor dealers, had their own pioneer stories, but nothing to match the notoriety of two  female customers, legendary women known as “Baby Doe” and “Poker Alice.”

Shown here, Baby Doe, a.k.a. Elizabeth McCourt Tabor (1854-1935), was born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.  After divorcing a neer-do-well husband named Doe, she moved to Leadville, Colorado, where she met Horace Tabor, a wealthy silver magnate and future U.S senator almost twice her age.  He promptly divorced his wife of 25 years, married the beautiful Elizabeth, and set off a major scandal in Colorado.  Baby Doe, as she became known in media coverage nationwide, had plenty of money to spend with Sauer-McShane until Tabor lost all of his in the Panic of 1893. At the end of her days she was rendered destitute.

Alice Ivers was Irish, born in England, whose parents moved to Virginia when she was twelve.  While she was still in her late teens her parent moved to Leadville, Colorado, and she soon found a husband.  When he was killed in a mining accident, she was in difficult financial straits and turned to playing cards for a living.  Shown here, Ivers used her good looks to distract men at the poker table. She always had the newest fashion dresses, some bought from Sauer-McShane.  She was also very good at counting cards and winning big pots, which helped her become known throughout the West and earn the name “Poker Alice.”

Otto Sauer and John Mcshane wrote their own legends, opening the first general store in a Colorado mining town that was virtually nothing but an assemblage of wooden shacks, and eventually made their enterprise a retail giant.  Sauer (1838-1915) was the original mastermind of the mercantile, founded under the name of Sessler & Sauer but subsequent run solely by Sauer, shown left.  A biography noted that “Mr. Sauer is a man considerable wealth, the greater part acquired by close attention to this concern.”

In 1882 Sauer sold a majority share of the company to McShane,  a Pennsylvania-born son of a wagoneer, born about 1835.  As a youth he had relocated first to Iowa, then to Kansas, and from there emigrated to Colorado. In Gilpin County he engaged in gold mining and came to own a part of the renowned Gunnell mine, shown here.  After achieving considerable wealth McShane gained political attention and was elected to the Colorado territorial legislature in 1875.  Later he would serve on the Central City School Board. 

The partners recognized that an immense amount of money from gold, silver and other metals was being unearthed and available in that part of Colorado.  Area mines annually were producing the current equivalent of $75,000,000, mostly in gold.  Men of wealth often had wives or mistresses that they wanted dressed in the best finery, as exemplified in the photo above at Sauer-McShane. The women are wearing tea or floor length dresses, laced shoes with heels, straw or fabric hats with elaborate decoration and bows, gloves, and brooches.  While such fashionable garb might have been available in Denver, that city was over the mountains.  Sauer-McShane could provide haute couture close to home and the male partner’s cash box.

We can imagine one or both proprietors greeting Baby Doe Tabor at the entrance of the store, aware of wealth she represented.  Then they would turn her over to their best millinery and dress salesperson.  They also knew the value of selling liquor in their mercantile company.  From the mine owners to those who “moiled for gold,” thirst for alcohol was virtually unanimous.   Sauer-McShane could fill that bill as well.  A gallon ceramic jug shown here suggests that the partners were getting shipments of whiskey by the barrel via the railroad, decanting it into their own containers and selling it to saloons and over-the-counter customers.

McShane became particularly known for his business savvy.  Beginning in 1868, according to his biography, he was “actively identified with the mercantile interests of Gilpin County….”  The implication was that McShane first had been employed by Sauer and then bought into the company that under the Irishman’s management had become “extraordinarily successful.”

The local newspaper reported that in 1894 the company had shown an increase in sales of $20,000 over 1893. “They have increased their storage capacity for receiving goods in car-load lots, and the present year will be better enabled than ever before to please their customers.”   That additional storage capacity likely was a new warehouse the partners had constructed.  It still stands today, bearing their name, and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
By 1895, the company was doing the current equivalent of $5,000,000 in sales annually.  This wealth allowed the partners to branch out into other endeavors.  Sauer became a founding director of the first National Bank of Central City, accounted one of the most successful financial institutions in Colorado.  Later McShane joined as a stockholder, director and vice president.  

At the age of 77 Otto Sauer died in 1915 and was buried in the Block 23, Lot 12, Section 3, of the Fairmont Cemetery in Denver.  John McShane followed in 1920 at the age of 85 and is buried nearby.  Their gravestones are seen here.

Both men were outlived by their famous customers — both Elizabeth Tabor and Alice Ivers lived into the 1930s, and in a sense beyond.  Baby Doe’s rags-to-riches and back to rags again story not only made her a well-known figure in her own day, but inspired other treatments.  “The Ballad of Baby Doe” is a 1956 opera by American composer Douglas Moore that continues to be popular with American audiences.  She also was the subject of an 1932 Hollywood motion picture.  Called “Silver Dollar,” it starred Edwin G. Robinson as Tabor and Bebe Daniels as  Elizabeth.   The story of Poker Alice has inspired several short stories and a 2014 prize-winning song, “The Ballad of Poker Alice Ivers.”

Note:  Much of the material on McShane and Sauers, including quotes, was taken from History of the State of Colorado, Volume IV, by Frank Hall published by the Rocky Mountain Historical Company, published in 1895.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Whiskey Men Fighting for the North

Foreword:  The Civil War that raged between 1861 and 1865 was a defining event in American history.  An increase in alcoholic consumption among the public during and after the conflict has been attributed to it.  The war also has been credited with spurring the temperance movement in the country that ultimately led to National Prohibition in 1920.  Many who fought on both sides had an interest in the liquor trade.  Often their stories are compelling.  This post on Yankee combatants features four men who in the post-war period found success in the liquor trade. 

No author in America was more famous in the late 19th Century than Lew Wallace, best known as the author of the novel, “Ben Hur" and shown above.  Wallace forever enshrined James R. Ross as the ideal Indiana soldier by penning a biography that extolled his military record in the Civil War and after.  Ross’ career as a successful liquor dealer in Indianapolis, by contrast, was kept almost totally secret. 

With Indiana-born Ross among them, the fancy-dressed 11th Indiana Regiment was sent to join Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s expedition into Tennessee and saw hot combat at Fort Henry, Fort Donelson and Shiloh.  During this period Lew Wallace was raised to brigadier general and Ross promoted to captain of Company C.  Ross subsequently transferred to Wallace’s staff which seems to have cemented the bond between the two men.  An 1862 magazine illustration of Wallace in battle shows him among aides.  One of them likely was Ross.

After the war, Ross entered the liquor trade, eventually moving to Indianapolis.  There in 1877, he and two partners formed a company called James R. Ross & Co., Wines  & Liquors,  located at 184-188 South Meridian Street, the primary north-south street in the city.  He was hailed during his lifetime as: “Bro. Ross has reflected credit upon every position he has ever filled; as a soldier, he was brave, as a citizen exemplary.”  After Ross’s death in 1900, Wallace published a tribute to him entitled, “An Ideal Indiana Soldier.”  The famous author made no mention that Ross had been a liquor dealer for much of his life.

The unsmiling, almost angry, visage shown below is that of Jeremiah “Jere” Rohrer, an officer of the 127th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment in the Civil War, a post-war civic leader, and the leading liquor dealer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  A wartime biography of Rohrer noted that:  “While he sometimes assumed a stern look, he had a big and kind heart, which was always throbbing in unison with his command.”  Whether in battle or in booze, Jeremiah clearly was a force to be reckoned with.  

Major Rohrer and the 127th Pennsylvania would see plenty of hot action.  The regiment sustained multiple deaths and woundings.  Its first major battle was the December 1862 Fredericksburg campaign that proved disastrous for the men in blue.  In his diary,  Jeremiah wrote of “the tremendous and unavailing slaughter, with its frightful loss of brave Union solders….”  The next major conflict for the 127th was the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, once again a bloody Union defeat.  In this confrontation Rohrer was commended for rendering gallant service.  A month later, with his enlistment ended, Rohrer was honorably discharged.  He did not re-enlist. 

Rohrer almost immediately moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and in April 1864 opened a liquor dealership there.  Initially he located the business at 35 North Queen Street but soon found his volume of sales required larger quarters and about 1881 moved to Centre Square, later renamed Penn Square.  The square would be the home of his liquor business for the next 38 years.  It was a entirely fitting location for Rohrer; it was the site of Lancaster’s Soldiers and Sailors Monument, a memorial dedicated in 1874 to pay tribute to the city’s Union soldiers killed during the Civil War.

Lancaster's Penn Square with Monument

The life of Frank G. Tullidge was unalterably changed by his service in the Union Army during the Civil War during which he was engaged in many major battles.  In his early 20s Frank overcame his mother’s opposition and in 1861 enlisted for three years in the 8th Regiment of the Indiana Volunteer Infantry.  Tullidge was made a lieutenant and second in command of his company.  In that role he saw action at many major battles, including Chickamaugua, Missionary Ridge, Kennesaw Mountain and the siege of Atlanta. Eventually he was promoted to captain and released from command to join the staff of General George Henry Thomas as an inspector.

Upon the war’s end, Tullidge moved to Cincinnati. He may have been drawn there by another former soldier, William H. Richardson. Together about 1868 they founded a liquor business under the name Richardson & Tullidge.  The partnership, although it encompassed three moves in Cincinnati, lasted only eight years. In 1876 Richardson departed and Tullidge renamed the firm Frank G. Tullidge & Co. and advertised as a wholesaler and distiller.

Tullidge prospered in part by providing fancy giveaway items to his saloon customers, including a large framed picture of a lightly clad aristocratic damsel being attended by a half-nude slave girl. It was styled to hang in a bar and bore his name at the bottom.  

Throughout his career, Tullidge continued to be involved in Civil War veterans affairs. When Civil War General Andrew Hickenlooper died in Cincinnati in 1904, the press recorded that Frank was among the generals, colonels and other high-ranking officers who acted as pallbearers. As a mere captain, Tullidge must have earned his place escorting the hero’s casket because of his prominence among local veterans.  

As he looked back on his life, Kentucky whiskey man Wiley Searcy probably fixed on the  years of his service in the Union Army during the Civil War as perhaps the most memorable times of his life.  Few soldiers on either side saw as much action as Searcy did, in the process rising from a lowly private to the rank of captain.  

Kentucky citizens were torn between North and South in their loyalties.  For unrecorded reasons, the Searcys chose the Union side. Wiley, age 19,  joined Company  E of the 21st Kentucky Infantry, serving as a private in the ranks.  Searcy saw action in several battles, including Perryville in October 1862, shown here.  During that period Searcy advanced to sergeant.  Early the following year he was discharged from his infantry unit and accepted a commission to become a 2nd lieutenant in Company L of the 9th Kentucky Cavalry.   With this unit Wiley rode in pursuit of Col. John Hunt Morgan and his cavalry raiders.  There were skirmishes at Marrowbone and Burkesville, Kentucky;  Buffington Island, and, at last, the capture of Morgan at New Lisbon, Ohio, on July 26, 1863.  Several months later,  his enlistment period apparently over, Searcy was discharged and went home. 

Still restless for action, in March 1864 he enlisted again and helped to raise a troop designated as Company G of the 30th Kentucky Mounted Infantry.  This time he was elected by the men and served as the company commander with the rank of captain. The company saw action in central Kentucky,  southwestern Virginia and eastern Tennessee, fighting many pitched battles.   According to his 1917 obituary,  Searcy had two horses shot from under him in one afternoon.   In October 1864 during the second battle of Saltville, Virginia,  Searcy was severely wounded.  When he had sufficiently recovered,  he rejoined his unit and as an officer saw action against guerrillas (called “bushwhackers”) in Central Kentucky until the regiment was mustered out at the close of the war.  

After returning home, Searcy in 1886 is recorded as having purchased a distillery, shown above, that had been established in Anderson County in 1818 by Joe Peyton, widely known as “Old Joe.”  Under Searcy’s leadership, the distillery flourished. He added structures and boasted two bonded warehouses and a third “free” (not under the Bottled-in-Bond Act) warehouse. Federal revenue records indicate his active inputs of raw whiskey into the bonded warehouses and subsequent withdrawal of aged liquor.   At one point the former soldier called the facility the Zeno Distillery Company but after 1898 dropped that name in favor of The Wiley Searcy Distillery.  After running the distillery successfully for decades, a fire in 1909 and advancing age caused him to sell it in 1911 and retire.

One thread connects all four of these men:  All were advanced from lower ranks  to captain during the Civil War, a position of considerable responsibility requiring intelligence and leadership qualities.  Perhaps these qualities offer a clue into their later successes in the whiskey trade.

Note:  More complete biographies of each of these men are available in posts on this blog:  James Ross, Sept. 23, 2916;  Jeremiah Rohrer, Oct. 16, 2015;  Frank Tullidge, Nov. 18, 2011; and Wiley Searcy, June 22, 2013.