Sunday, May 27, 2018

James McNeely Fostered Liquor and Railroads

Railroads were a distinct boon to the American liquor industry.   They allowed distillers to bring grain and other supplies virtually to their doorstep, distributors to obtain whiskey supplies from far away places, and dealers to specialize in mail order sales.   James Dowd McNeely of St. Joseph, Missouri, was a liquor wholesaler who took railroads a giant step further — he helped build them.

Nothing in McNeely’s early years indicated his abilities in the transportation sector.  He was born in Ireland in April 1831 and came to the United States as a youth. In 1855 he settled in St. Joseph, Missouri, a “jumping off” place for settlers heading west.  Warned about the unlikely prospect of resupplying along the way,  these pioneers often bought their provisions for the journey in St. Joseph. 

Sensing an opportunity, McNeely opened a wholesale grocery that provided, he advertised, both “staple and fancy groceries” to retail grocers and trail suppliers that served the populace on their way west.  He also advertised as always having on hand “a general assortment of outfitting goods for the mines.”  NcNeely's enterprise thrived.  The 1870 census set his total worth at $40,000, equivalent today to almost $1 million.  The photograph above of McNeely’s store at the corner of  Fifth and Messanie Streets shows a staff of at least thirty-five.

Key commodities for McNeely were wines and liquors.  He was importing them to St. Joseph in barrels from a variety of sources and then decanting them into smaller containers of ceramic and glass.  Shown here is a large stoneware jug, likely holding three gallons of whiskey on which J. D. McNeely is identified as a wholesale liquor dealer.  Those would have been provided to saloons and stores that would in turn sell the contents in smaller quantities.  He also provided customers with liquor and wine in embossed glass jugs, as shown below.

About 1861 when he was 30, James married an 18 year old girl from St. Joseph, named Ellen Tracy.  Like him she was of Irish descent.  The 1870 census found the couple at home in Ward Four with their three children, Annie L., 8; James E., 6; and Mary D, 3. and a female servant.  In time there would be three more children, William A., born in 1874;  John E., 1886; and Arthur T.,1888.

McNeely’s commercial success propelled him into the top ranks of St. Joseph business circles. In 1871 he reportedly was chosen as one of the thirteen board of directors of the St. Joseph Bridge Building Company  for constructing the city’s first railroad bridge across the Missouri River.  Completed in May 1873 the original bridge had six piers and a total length of 1,345 feet.  A St. Joseph & Denver City train was the first to cross.  The span was a toll bridge, the cost of construction and maintenance offset by payments from the railroads.  Shown above is an early photo of the Missouri River bridge with its elegant tollhouse.

Experience on this project may have sparked McNeely’s interest in expanding from groceries and liquor into railroading.  St. Joseph was a rail hub with as many as twenty-one lines serving the city.  A fever to create additional railroads gripped the region.  In 1877 McNeely joined a group of businessmen in creating a new line called the St. Joseph and Des Moines Railroad.  The whiskey man and grocer appears to have been a leader in the construction process for this railway.

While information about the line is scanty, the company operated for 24 years before being swallowed up in January 1901 into the giant Burlington Railroad that eventually amalgamated some 173 separate rail corporations.  Shown here is a Burlington engine of the era.

By this time, McNeeley, identified as a “railroad contractor” by The Railway Age, a trade paper, also had been working with the Chicago, Kansas & Nebraska Railway Company.  That line had been formed in 1885 with a $25 million loan from the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad in exchange for nearly all of the CK&N’s stock.  With McNeeley’s assistance the line had put down 1,388 miles of track by 1888 but failed to make its interest payments to the CRI&P and was taken over in June 1891. 

Throughout this period McNeeley continued to sell liquor and groceries at his store.  His wealth now grown considerably, in 1890 he commissioned a local architectural firm to construct a mansion home for Ellen and his children.  Situated on a steep slope below the ridge line of the Missouri River bluffs, the house, shown above, was multiple-gabled with a slate roof.  Made largely of red sandstone, it resembled a medieval castle with its towers.  Below the towers is a massive front porch with two entrances, the one at left large enough to allow a horse and carriage to enter.

 The interior was equally extravagant, featuring eight elegant fireplaces of unusual designs adorned with polycromed tiles and carved lintels with lions and other motifs.  One can imagine the excitement of the McNeelys as they moved into these palatial surroundings.  Family members would occupy the house for a half century before selling it. Later it functioned as a retirement home.

James McNeely unfortunately had less than a decade to enjoy his mansion.  In August 1899 at the age of 68,  he suddenly died there. According to a local newspaper McNeely’s passing “shocked” many of his fellow citizens since he was not known to be ill.  He was buried in St. Joseph’s Mount Olivet Cemetery at the imposing monument shown here.   An obituary noted that McNeely had amassed a fortune in the mercantile business and contracting but did not mention his liquor sales.  Instead it asserted:  “He was one of the most prominent railroad builders in the west.”

Note:  While I have been able to document several instances of James McNeely’s involvement with railroads, the obituary statement above suggests that there is more to be known.  My hope is that a descendant will read this post and be able to provide more information about McNeely’s role in railway expansion in Missouri and beyond. 

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Whiskey Men and Horse Racing

Foreword:   The affinity of whiskey men for horses and racing should come as no surprise to anyone.   With Kentucky as the center of the Nation’s liquor industry, as well as the famous producer of thoroughbreds, the attraction was  natural.  As the distillery ad above proclaimed, while the German might tout “wine, women and song,” the Kentuckian prefers “women, horses and whiskey.”  Featured here are four men, two of them from Kentucky and two Easterners, who used their wealth to indulge in what has been called, “the Sport of Kings.”

Thomas Jefferson (“Tom”) Megibben in 1847 went to work at the age of 16, finding work in a distillery that set the course for the rest of his life.  By the time of his death he had controlled multiple Kentucky distilleries and still had a financial interest in at least six.  Paramount among them was the Edgewater Distillery, located four miles southwest of Cynthiana in Harrison County.   At 200 acres it not only held Megibben’s distillery but a working farm, growing grain for his highly regarded whiskey and harboring a wide range of livestock, including horses, as shown on an artist’s drawing.

In addition to being the largest landowner in Harrison County, Megibben was a man of abundant energy, much of which he invested in horse racing.  In 1872 he bought his first thoroughbred and eventually ran a stable of fifty race horses and a hundred trotters and pacers.   He was president of the Kentucky Trotting Horse Breeders Association from 1873 to 1882.

Megibben’s steeds competed twice in the Kentucky Derby.   In 1882 his horse “Newbury” finished out of the money and in 1884 “Audrain” managed a third place.  The distiller is also remembered for having founded the Latonia Race Track in Covington, Kentucky, six miles south of Cincinnati.  Opened in 1883, it once was regarded as among the top sites in the nation for thoroughbred horse racing and drew more than 100,000 visitors annually.  Shown here, for more than a half century the track was host to many of the most famous horses in America before closing in 1939.

To breed fast horses and sell good bourbon were twin passions in the life of “Kentucky Colonel” James J. (“Jim”) Douglas.  Born in Kentucky in 1846, Douglas early in life engaged in the Louisville whiskey trade. In 1886 after years of apprenticeship to other whiskey men, Douglas struck out on his own.  He created a wholesale liquor business in Louisville and called his firm, J.J. Douglas  Company.

As his liquor dealership grew and prospered, Douglas became a rich man.  When asked his occupation by a census taker in 1900,  he replied, probably with tongue-in-cheek, “capitalist.”   Moreover, his interests were growing away from the liquor business and toward horses.   Called “an ardent racing fan,” in 1895 he developed and owned a trotting track known as Douglas Park.  Later the racetrack expanded to thoroughbred racing and competed directly with Churchill Downs, eventually becoming the home of the Kentucky Handicap.

Turning over the management of his liquor house to others, in 1896 Douglas moved from Louisville to the nearby hamlet of Middletown and a 300-acre horse farm. His estate, which came to be called “Douglas Place,” proved to be an excellent location to raise thoroughbreds.  His horse barns are shown here.  Douglas imported fine Irish stallions provide stud services.  Among them was a renowned racer named “Eothan.”  When Eothan died after siring such champions as “Requital”  and “Other Crack,”  his demise made headlines in the New York Times.  Douglas re-named his stables as the Eothan Stock Farm.  The annals of Kentucky horses are replete with his sale of thoroughbreds.   It was during this period that Douglas was designated a “Kentucky Colonel” by the governor.

After Douglas died in 1917 at the age of 71, control of his racetrack was taken by rival Churchill Downs that operated the facility until 1958.  Over time his horse farm went through several owners. Douglas’ home eventually was demolished and the farm developed into a residential subdivision known today as “Douglass Hills.”  

Born in 1859, Frank E. Lalley,  a Connecticut  liquor dealer and entrepreneur of Irish descent, became obsessed with Kentucky whiskey and Kentucky-bred horses.  Needing a steady supply of liquor for his “rectifying” operation in Bridgeport, about 1890 he bought a major interest in the Van Hook Distillery near Cynthiana and became its president.  Residing in Bridgeport with his family but making frequent trips to Kentucky, Lalley caught “horse fever.”

Lalley began to invest heavily in equines for harness racing. Rather than own part or all of a horse farm, his strategy was to buy already tested racers, an expensive proposition.  His signal most important purchase was of a horse named “Peter Manning,” a World Champion trotter.  Shown here is a photo of Peter Manning trotting home first in a photo from the Sept. 8, 1920 edition of the Horse Review. 

Peter Manning, had only two losses in thirty four races and his world record set in Lexington, Kentucky in 1922 remained unchallenged for fifteen years.   Recognizing that people would want to see this champion “up close and personal,”  Lalley put the horse on display at trotting exhibitions at dozens of county and state fairs.  With the onset of Prohibition, his Bridgeport liquor house was forced to close as did the Van Hook Distillery.  Lalley became a real estate dealer and sold Peter Manning to the Hanover Shoe Farms. The prize horse remained so great an attraction that the company was able to sell his name and image to a tobacco company for a line of cigars.

Brought to America as a toddler aboard an Irish famine ship, by dint of personal exertion, not family name or inherited wealth, James Hanley in 2007 was judged worthy of inclusion in the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame.  Beginning in the liquor trade, expanding to brewing and other enterprises, Hanley carved out a brilliant career as an entrepreneur and horseman — including owning the fastest thoroughbred pacer in America, one he allegedly fed whiskey to induce speed.

Becoming wealthy initially through the sale of his flagship brand of whiskey, “Woodford Club Rye,” Hanley like many Irish was passionate about horse racing and became nationally known as the owner and trainer of successful race horses.  One of them, a pacer named “Prince Alert,” held the world record for running the half mile in 1.57 minutes at the Empire City Track in Yonkers, New York.  Hanley issued a paperweight with a photo of the horse to mark the occasion.  

Not everyone was as impressed with the horse as Hanley.  While calling Prince Alert “a handsome bay gelding of more than ordinary interest,”  Chicago Tribune racing scribe Henry Ten Eyck White in 1903 went on to describe the pacer as a “hop horse,” one that did his best when he was under the influence of stimulants.  “…Horsemen are well aware that some of his best miles…have been paced with a jorum of coffee and whiskey taken just before the start.”  In those days apparently it was legal to administer that kind of toddy, likely made with Hanley’s own Woodford Club.

These four whiskey men all invested heavily of their time, talent and treasure in odd-toed ungulate mammals belonging to the taxonomic family Equidae.  In requiting their passion for horses, all four were deeply involved in the racing scene, three had horse farms and produced thoroughbreds, two founded horse racing tracks, two owned champion trotter/pacers, and one raced his horses, although unsuccessfully, in the Kentucky Derby.  Their investment in “the sport of kings,” would not have been possible, however, except for the wealth each had reaped in the liquor trade.

Note:  The whiskey men treated here each also has a longer biography on this blog.  The references are:  Tom Megibben, September 26, 2015;  Jim Douglas, March 22, 2013;  Frank Lalley, February 2, 2013; and James Hanley,  August 22, 2017.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Levy & Lewin: The Humanitarian and the Impresario

In 1859, a time of significant unrest in Germany, two Jewish boys, Lesser Levy and Albert Lewin, were born.  Each emigrated to the United States, settling in Denver where their fortunes would intertwine in a liquor business known as the Levy & Lewin Mercantile Company.  With diverging personal interests, each man earned a measure of local fame:  One was recognized as a humanitarian; the other, as a showman.

The early history of both men is shrouded in time.  Levy was just a baby when he was brought to America by his parents.  By the time he was 21, he was living in Denver where he became a naturalized citizen.  Lewin’s origins are even more opaque.  The two men may have been related by blood or marriage.  I assume each served some time employed in one of the established saloons or liquor stores in Colorado.

The duo surfaced with their mercantile enterprise about 1897, located at 1322-1326 Seventeenth Street.  Lesser Levy was president;  Albert Lewin was secretary-treasurer.  Within a short time, apparently needing more space for their operation, they moved to the large building shown here on the corner of Sixteenth and Larimer Streets, the latter one of Denver’s iconic avenues.  

The partners’ facilities were large enough to permit them to buy whiskey by the barrel from distillers located a distance away and transport it to Denver via the several railroads serving the city.  Then they emptied the barrels into ceramic jugs for sale to local retail outlets like saloons and restaurants.  Some carried the message “Yours Money’s Worth.”  Other jugs warned against reusing the jug, reuse being a common practice to mislead the public about the contents.

Levy & Lewin Mercantile’s advertising also indicated an interest in retail trade. Company ads emphasized liquor and wine “for home use” and stressed low prices.  The partners also sold a variety of beers, ales, stouts, and “malt tonics.” The last, shown here as “Liquid Bread,”  often was recommended for children despite  containing five percent or more alcohol.  

Information is scant on Levy’s personal life.  There is no record of marriage to be found.  When he applied for a passport in 1890, however, his physical description  at 31 years was recorded.  He was a only five feet - five inches tall, with dark blonde hair, brown eyes and a round face.   Lewin, by contrast, had married about 1884, when he was 25 years old.  His wife, Mary, also was a German immigrant.  The couple would have nine children, seven daughters and two sons.  The 1910 census found the family living in Denver’s Tenth Ward with Mary’s mother, Johanna Levy, a housemaid and a cook.

The two men also were linked in their joint ownership of the Little Ellen Gold Mine, located in Leadville Colorado, a hundred miles northeast of Denver.  Levy was president of the company and Lewin, secretary-treasurer.  In 1896 the Colorado  Commissioner of Mines put the value of their mine at the equivalent today of $25 million.  Although the business interests of the two men indicates their closeness, they differed sharply in their outside interests.  

In 1899 a wave of Romanian Jews, victims of harsh laws, fled to New York.  The U.S. Jewish community immediately made efforts to aid these refugees settle into American society, find them employment, and disperse them to other parts of the country to relieve the burden on East Coast relief agencies. Obviously moved by pictures of the homeless Romanians, Lesser Levy served as the chairman and leader of the Denver relief organization from 1901 to 1907.  In this way he helped re-settle 2,791 Jewish refugees in Colorado.

Levy also volunteered for the Local Board of Managers for the National Jewish Hospital for Consumptives in Denver.  The need was felt for such a hospital where the mile high altitude and clear air was seen as therapeutic for those suffering from tuberculosis.  At the time, no medical institution in Denver would admit penniless consumptives, and many poor victims of the disease lived and died on the city's streets. Organized in 1890, the hospital project took nine years to realize.  Financial support came nationwide and some of Denver’s best physicians donated their services.  Patients arrived from all across the country, many of them non-Jews.  The hospital motto, as shown on the postcard view above, was:  “For the poor only—None who enter pay—None who can pay may enter.”   Levy was among those welcoming the first patients.

Albert Lewin’s interests took a different direction.  In March 1907 he joined a group of investors that incorporated the Lakeside Realty and Amusement Company to create a large amusement park adjacent to Denver.  Managed by Lewin, Lakeside also incorporated as a municipality in order to be free of Denver’s restrictive laws on the sale and serving of alcohol.  An employee of Levy & Lewin Mercantile was elected mayor. 

Lewin became a darling of the Denver press.   When the 100,000 lights in the park were turned on for a test, the whiskey man was quoted.  The Denver Republican also reported that Lewin had successfully tested the motors on all the park rides.  When the park opened the same paper declared that the Lakeside management had given the people of Colorado “the greatest and finest amusement park ever attempted West of Chicago.”  Shown above, it was, indeed, a spectacular scene.

Two years after his success at Lakeside, Lewin looked for a new challenge.  He found it in an earlier amusement park built west of the Mississippi River near Denver. It was called Manhattan Beach.  After it burned in 1908, Lewin headed an investment group that rebuilt it, adding a roller coaster, shown here, an over-the-water dance pavilion, and new theater.  Renamed “Luna Park,”  venture was not as successful as Lakeside.

As the 20th Century moved on, the forces of Prohibition made themselves felt in Colorado.  The state banned alcohol production and sales in 1916, four years before National Prohibition.  Even before the ban, Levy and Lewin had shut down their liquor mercantile as they pursued their separate interests.  Lesser Levy died in 1919 at the age of 60.  Albert Levin lived to see National Prohibition enacted dying in 1924, at age 65.  Both men are buried in Congregation Emanuel Cemetery in Fairmount, Colorado, adjacent to Denver.  Their gravestones are shown here.

Born the same year in the same country and with their careers in the liquor business closely intertwined, each partner left his mark quite differently in Colorado.  Levy’s reputation was as a humanitarian whose work toward creating a tuberculosis hospital benefited thousands of patients. Today it is considered one of the Nation’s leading pulmonary medical facilities.  Lewin is remembered as the impresario and showman who created Lakeside Amusement Park. For over a century Lakeside has remained a favorite place of relaxation and enjoyment for generations of Coloradans.  

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Distillery Even Prohibition Couldn’t Kill

Shown above is a stone building that was constructed as a Baltimore distillery in the mid-1800s that has been in continual operation ever since, initially making whiskey and more recently vinegar.  Under the management of members of the Cummings family, the structure once was the largest producer of Maryland whiskey and its flagship was the iconic “Melvale Rye.”

Before the Cummings came on the scene, this location in Baltimore as early as 1806 was the site of a merchant flour mill, employing the waters of Jones Falls, a 17.9 mile stream running through the city.  The mill was operated by a series of owners until it came into the hands of the Gambrill family about 1830.  In addition to milling grain, they are reported to have operated a sawmill and milled cotton at the site.

For the next three decades the Gambrills operated there until the location became important during the Civil War because the property held a railroad station, dam and strategic bridge.  In 1861 Union troops marched in and garrisoned it.  Southern sympathizers, the Gambrills were unhappy with the occupation and in 1862 sold the property to William Denmead. During the war the name “Melvale” was first attached to the area. 

Denmead, with his son, Aquilla, expanded the use of the property.  Sometime between 1862 and 1872, according to the Maryland Historical Trust, they built as a distillery the stone building shown above.  It was an Italian rubblestone structure with segmentally arched window openings and architecturally distinguished by a cupola centrally located on the ridge line of the roof.

Over the next few years the facility was developed by adding two warehouses, a boiler shed and a dwelling, likely for the distillery manager.   An advertisement published in the Baltimore American in April,1880, mentions the valuable machinery on site, including a "Davis Disintegrator for grinding bones.”  Distilleries often used animal bones as a filter in making whiskey.

After running the distillery they called Melvale for about two decades, the Denmeads separated the plant and two acres of the grounds from their farm and sold it to a group of locals in which John Cummings was the lead figure.  A Baltimore commission merchant, Cummings by that time was 50 years old and married.  The 1880 census found him and his wife, Ellen (nee Gorman), living with their seven children, four boys and three girls.  Residing with them was a nephew of Cummings.  Their second son, William, at 17 already was working with his father and soon would be moving into a management position at the distillery. Under Cummings family ownership, the Melvale Distillery was further expanded, adding warehouses and outbuildings, as shown above in a artist’s rending of the site. 

The owners advertised widely in Maryland newspapers.  Melvale Pure Rye Whiskey, was described in a 1914 ad as "Manufactured whiskey distilled from the highest grade rye. Its pronounced high flavor, character and bouquet make it most desirable for medicinal and other purposes."  

In addition to their Melvale Brand, the Cummings featured “Lake Roland Whiskey,” named for a 100-acre, now defunct, reservoir in Baltimore County that in turn was named for Roland Run, a nearby stream that fed the lake.  They packaged their liquor in amber glass containers varying in sizes from flasks to quart bottles, as seen here.  

A closeup of a label, unfortunately damaged, reveals an artful picture of the distillery and the company logo.   When the Bottle in Bond Act was passed by Congress in 1897 the label was revised and overprinted in red to indicate that Melvale Rye was being produced under the terms of that legislation.  That same year, the Cummings, father and son, joined a syndicate of local whiskey men to take over the Orient Distilleries, renaming the facility the Canton Distilleries.

This move indicates the Cummings’ need for more whiskey supplies, despite their distillery having one of the largest mashing capacities of any in Maryland.  Records of the Maryland State Tax Commissioner document the growth of production over the next dozen years.  In 1897 the Commissioner reported that the taxable value of Melvale distilled spirits for the year was $168,196.  By 1905 that number had more than doubled, to $373, 316.  The trend continued through 1902 when the taxable value reached $446,880.  Aided by exceptionally good railroad access, Melvale Distillery had become the largest whiskey producer in Maryland.

By this time, John Cummings had died.  He passed away in 1900 at the age of 74 and was interred in Baltimore’s Green Mount Cemetery next to his late wife, Ellen, who had died in 1891.   William B. Cummings, having worked at the distillery since he was a youth, took the reins of management.  His young brother, Alexander joined him as the company secretary-treasurer.   Melvale Distillery continued to thrive, moving beyond Maryland to sales in other nearby states.  The company’s back-of-the-bar bottles are found throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.

A measure of the brand’s prestige was the number of copy-cat whiskey names that emerged on the market, including “Melville,” “Melwood,” “Mell-Wood,” and “Melbrook,” as other liquor dealers apparently tried to cash in by causing confusion among consumers.  Despite the fact that the Cummings brothers had trademarked “Melvale” in 1902, an illustration here shows a label from Melvale Rye marketed by F. W. Hunt & Co. of Boston prior to 1920.  It is clearly an infringement of Cummings’ trademark.

Likely more troublesome to the owners was the onrush of prohibition as states and localities increasingly were voting “dry.”  Although Maryland refused to ban alcohol production and sales, it was helpless against the amendment to the Constitution that in 1920 ushered in National Prohibition.  Historians have suggested that Melvale was designated a bonded warehouse by the government at the beginning of the dry era and that the Cummings brothers were allowed to stay open for several years to produce grain alcohol for government purposes.

The family sold the distillery in 1925. In 1928 the plant was purchased from that owner by William A. Boykin Jr.  His firm,  American Cider and Vinegar Co., operated the facility until 1956 when the Boykin family sold it to Standard Brands, Inc., that has continued to operate it to produce vinegar.  Although it no longer makes whiskey, the Melvale Distillery — unless there has been a recent change — is still operating.  The stone building is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Although Melvale Rye was not revived for many years after Repeal, the brand name has re-emerged recently, the product of the New Liberty Distillery, a “boutique” whiskey-maker located in Philadelphia.  On its website, the distillery claims:  “Our Melvale Straight Rye’s mash bill is 51% rye and 49% malted barley to capture the bright and grassy flavor and softer finish of the old Maryland rye brands…This medium body spirit is true to its roots….”   Assuming that is true, those Melvale roots are sunk 150 years deep in whiskey history  — with a stone building in Baltimore to prove it.