Saturday, December 15, 2018

Donato Laraia: From Child Fiddler to Financier

Said to have begun at six years old, Donato Laraia, a poor Italian immigrant boy, earned money for his family by playing the violin on horse-drawn trolleys.   When Laraia died more than 55 years later, he was hailed by the local press as “one of the foremost bankers” of Connecticut.  His obituary also noted his many years as a successful Hartford saloonkeeper.

Donato Antionio Laraia was born on March 23, 1867, in Corleto Perticara, Potenza, Italy, the son of Biagio and Brigetta Demna LaRaia.  As a youngster of five he was brought to the U.S. by his father in 1872, settling in Hartford, Connecticut a year later.  One of the first Italians to come to the city and speaking little English, Biagio found it difficult to find work and feed his family.  Like the child shown here, having demonstrated early musical talent on the violin, Donato went to work playing for pocket change on the Wethersfield trolley route.  The photo below shows a horse car of that very line.

Liraia’s teenage years found him employed on a section gang of the Valley Railroad.  Eventually, as his obituary related:  “His just and complacent disposition brought him to the front as foreman.”  He subsequently left railroading for a factory job at a Hartford foundry.  About the age of 21, Liraia decided on a career change.  He had saved sufficient money from his labors to open a saloon in a building at Front and Morgan Streets, the intersection shown here, located in the heart of Hartford’s Italian district.  Confronted with intense competition, Liraia's “just and complacent disposition” proved to be good qualities for a saloonkeeper and he rapidly succeeded.

The Laraias forged a pathway for large numbers of Italians to immigrate to Hartford early in the 20th Century.  Initially the influx was construction workers recruited to build the Bulkeley Bridge, a major highway span over the Connecticut River.  As the Hartford Courant put it in a 1978 story, the Italians then stayed “to build streets, houses, and the many public works projects that a burgeoning Hartford needed.” Most settled on the East Side in the vicinity of Front and Morgan.  Laraia’s saloon would stay at that location for its entire 30 years, until forced by to shut down by National Prohibition in 1919.

Like many publicans, Laraia also sold liquor at wholesale and retail from his establishment.  Shown here is a gallon jug that he was using to supply his customers, including restaurants and other saloons.  He was receiving whiskey by the barrel from Pennsylvania and Maryland, as well as wine from New York, and decanting the contents into smaller containers for wholesale.  This meant his making friendly customers of other saloonkeepers and liquor dealers.  Over time Front Street was home to as many as 25 saloons, 18% of the Hartford total, and 10% of its liquor stores.  Laraia was well positioned to serve them.

At the same time Laraia was branching out.  With his brother Nicola, he opened a second saloon in New Britain, Connecticut, eighteen miles from Hartford.  During this period, the brothers were listed in city directories doing business under the French-sounding name of “LeRoy.”  As a result, some descendants have speculated that they changed their names.  If anything, this was a short-lived gambit and they soon reverted to Laraia.  Donato subsequently let Nicola run the New Britain saloon by himself and the younger brother issued his own whiskey jug.

Among Laraia’s customers for his liquor and wine likely was his future father-in-law, Frank D. Nezzo, known within the Italian community as the “mayor” because of his willingness to intervene with government authorities on their behalf.  Nezzo also ran an unlicensed drinking establishment at 82 Morgan Street that often brought him in conflict with authorities, who charged him with “keeping liquor with intent to sell and keeping a place…having a reputation where liquors are sold.

Hauled into police court by a sheriff after a raid in which two barrels of claret were discovered in the cellar and a bottle of wine and glasses were found behind a counter, Nezzo explained in court why he had so much wine around:  “I used to drink much beer years ago and by and by I had a big belly….Now I drink wine and I have no belly and I feel much better.”  The judge bought his story, discounted the notion that his place had “a bad reputation,” and acquitted him.

On Thanksgiving Day about the year 1895, circa the age of 28, Donato married Nezzo’s daughter, Lucy, a woman at least a decade younger.  They would have three children, Brighetta, born in 1896;  Laura, 1899, and Francis Biaggio, 1905.  The couple is shown here on passport photos from 1923.  Despite their age difference, Laraia had made a wise choice.  Not only did Lucy have a penchant for business, but moreover when her father, “Mayor” Nezzo,died, Laraia inherited his private banking business.  Although Donato had been running a steamship ticket agency from his saloon, he was a novice in the banking business.  With Lucy’s help, however, he enlarged and successfully carried on his father-in-law’s financial house.  

Laraia’s banking clients were reported to include many Italian and other immigrant residents of Hartford’s East Side as well as “great numbers” throughout Connecticut. Continuing success meant a move in 1910 to larger quarters at Charles and Morgan Street.  In his obituary, the Courant opined that Laraia regarded his business as a sacred trust.  As a result when offered a chance to invest in speculative automobile stocks, he wisely had declined:  “Should I venture the savings which my clients have entrusted to me?”

Laraia also was known for community activities.  He was appointed a street commissioner and served for three years, known for his battle to retain the building restrictions on Washington Street, shown left, in order to preserve its wooded vistas.  His own spacious home on West Raymond Street, shown below, was itself heavily treed.  Laraia was the first president of the Young Italian-American Association and a member of several fraternal groups, including the Redmen, Foresters of America, Eagles, Elks and the City Club.

With friends, the saloonkeeper/banker purchased twenty-five wooded acres fronting on an eight acre pond in the Silver Lane district of East Hartford.  There they built a cottage where he and close associates could gather, share a meal, drink, talk and play cards.  At the age of 61, during such an social evening in August 1828, Donato complained of feeling ill.  Alarmed, his friends placed him in a car to take him home, but he died of heart failure along the way.  

Laraia’s wake was held at his home as his wife, three grown children, a foster child, and two brothers looked on.  The funeral was at his parish church, St. Anthony’s, with burial at St. Benedict’s Cemetery.   Shown here is the impressive Liraia monument, adjacent to his gravestone.  His obituary in the Hartford Courant reminded readers that the saloonkeeper as a child had played the violin on a city trolley, headlining: “Laraia’s Life Tale of Rise Against Odds.  Indeed so!

Note:  The principal source of information about Donato Laraia for this post was his obituary in the August 11, 1828, Hartford Courant.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Irvin S. Cobb: The Paducah Whiskey Man

Once he was among America’s top celebrities:  Author of 60 books , a writer compared favorably with Mark Twain,  he was the country’s highest paid journalist; a star of radio,  motion pictures, and the lecture circuit.  He hosted the Academy Awards in 1935.   He received the French Legion of Honor and two honorary doctorates.  A bridge over the Ohio River,  parks,  a major hotel, and a brand of cigars all were named for him.  Yet today,  75 years after his death, almost no one knows who Irvin S. Cobb was or what he did.  Importantly, as we shall see, Cobb deserves to be remembered as a stellar opponent of National Prohibition and a true whiskey man.

Irvin Shrewsbury Cobb was born in 1876 at his grandfather’s house in Paducah, Kentucky, shown here.  Because of the death of that grandfather and the alcoholism of his father, at the age of 16 he was forced to quit school to support his mother and siblings.  His native intelligence was soon apparent.   By the age of 19 he was the youngest newspaper editor in America, working for the Paducah Evening News.   

Cobb then went to work for the Louisville Evening News where his interest in whiskey first surfaced as the title of a humorous column he began to write called “Kentucky Sour Mash.”   Elated by the success of the column,  and encouraged by his wife,  Cobb headed out to New York City to make his mark.

In the Big Apple, after several false starts,  Cobb landed a job with the New York World, and within months was writing a nationally syndicated column, one that eventually boasted a readership of millions of Americans.  His popularity was enormous. In 1920 while covering the Democratic Presidential Convention, Cobb received votes for President from the Kentucky and Washington delegations. 

His fame spread to Hollywood where beginning in 1915 he starred in silent and later talking movies.  Among them was “Steamboat ‘Round the Bend,” a scene with liquor barrel and jug shown here.   Cobb also was a screenwriter for more than a dozen motion pictures.   

At the height of his reputation and popularity in 1920, National Prohibition was enacted.   Although later Cobb would claim to be only a light drinker, fellow journalist O.O. McIntyre once said of him:  “He belonged to that illustrious period when clean-minded newspapermen drank their rye drunk like gentlemen and took over the lines of the cab driver for a spin up Broadway as a red sun bleared an eye over Manhattan.” 

As a native Kentuckian,  Cobb was steeped in the lore of whiskey making.  He once wrote: “While I was growing up, through boyhood,  through my youth and on to manhood, I had the example of whiskey-drinking all about me.  Many of our oldest and most respected families owned and operated distilleries.  Some of them had been distillers for generations past;  they were proud of the purity of their product.  Men of all stations of life drank freely and with no sense of shame in their drinking....There were decanters on the sideboard; there were jimmy-johns in the cellar; and down at the place on the corner twenty standard varieties of bottled Bourbons and ryes were to be handed at an exceedingly moderate price.  Bar-rail instep, which is a fallen arch reversed, was a common complaint among us.”

National Prohibition also fell hard on Cobb.  At first he dealt with it humorously,  writing that:  “Since Prohibition came in and a hiccup became a mark of affluence instead of a social error, as formerly, and a loaded flank is a sign of hospitality rather than of menace,  things may have changed.” And again:  “Booze is a bad thing for some people and much too good for many of the others.”

That jocular attitude had vanished by 1929 when Cobb wrote the only American novel devoted to the whiskey industry.  Called “Red Likker,” his book tells the story of an old Kentucky family that founded a distillery called “Bird and Son” in the wake of the Civil War.  It traces the history of this operation up to the time of Prohibition when it is forced to close.   Ultimately the distillery is destroyed by fire and the family is reduced to running a crossroads grocery store.

Central to the novel is Cobb’s polemic against Prohibition.  Colonel Bird, the fictional founder of the distillery, argues with his sister, Juanita, a teetotaler and Prohibitionist,  at great length about the pros and cons of permitting the sale of alcoholic beverages.  The Colonel ultimately triumphs:   When the Volstead Act reduces the 42% alcohol in Juanita’s patent medicine,  she is shown to be an alcoholic.  She revives only when the Colonel pours her a shot of Kentucky bourbon. 

Not only did Cobb inveigh against Prohibition in his literary works,  he also made it a personal crusade.  In 1919 a white-haired former U.S. Navy officer and lawyer named Capt. William H. Slayton founded an organization called the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA).   Impelled neither by financial interests in the liquor industry nor by political ambition,  Slayton based his opposition on what he viewed as a misuse of national government power over U.S. citizens.   With this highly-principled approach he was able to attract a number of prominent Americans to the standard of the AAPA.  Among them was Irvin Cobb.  

Cobb became chairman of the Authors and Artists Committee of the AAPA.  The committee,  under his vigorous leadership, ultimately boasted 361 members including some of the leading figures of the day.   As chairman,  he released statements to the press blaming Prohibition for increased crime, alcoholism and disrespect for the law.  “If Prohibition is a noble experiment,”  he said in one, “then the San Francisco fire and the Galveston flood should be listed among the noble experiments of our national history.”   

Espousing the anti-Prohibition cause seems only to have enhanced Cobb’s popularity.  On April 30, 1929, the Irvin Cobb Hotel, the largest and most opulent of its kind in Western Kentucky, had its grand opening in his home town of Paducah.  He attended the ceremony.  Several months later a bridge across Ohio River also was named for him.  The New York Times on July 29, 1929, reported that Cobb had given his name to “a cigar, a dahlia, a Missouri corn cob pipe, a race horse, a bass bait, a hunting shirt, an Oregon canyon, a Texas street and a pointer dog.” 

When Prohibition finally ended in 1934,   Slayton, and Cobb were credited for their efforts.  Although many forces combined, the AAPA was a key element because of the strength of its arguments and the many influentials among its members.   The first night liquor became legal, Cobb reportedly went to a hotel bar that once again had begun pouring, pulled out a $20 bill and hollered,  “Drinks for everyone!”

Immediately after Repeal the whiskey trade was concerned that the buying public no longer knew how to make mixed drinks.  A raft of drink booklets resulted.   When the newly revived Frankfort Distilleries, maker of “Paul Jones Straight Whiskey,” needed a someone to author a “recipe book” for cocktails containing its spirituous products, Cobb was chosen for the assignment.   According to the distillery,  the author of “Red Likker” had brought to American literature “the best story of whiskey-making ever written.”

Cobb did not let his sponsors down.  The 52-page booklet is an eloquent testimony to the wonders of American whiskey and particularly to the brands produced by the distillery, including Paul Jones Bourbon.  Others were brand names the company had bought from defunct competitors.  The centerpiece of the drink book shows several of these whiskeys.  It also contained line drawings of black men serving whites that today would be considered racial stereotyping.

In “Irvin S. Cobb’s Own Recipe Book,” the author claimed, perhaps fancifully, that his ancestor,  one Deacon Henry Cobb,  an immigrant from Ireland,  was the first English-speaking resident in North America commissioned in 1636 to “draw spirits.”  He suggested that Deacon Cobb “was the pioneer licensed publican and victualer of all the glad New World.”   Two centuries later, Cobb  added, his great grandfather went west to Kentucky and founded “Squire Cobb Tavern,” along the Cumberland River in Kentucky, a business which he reputedly abandoned one jump ahead of the sheriff.

Cobb’s decline in popularity was as a rapid as his rise to celebrity had been.  A 1937 movie he scripted was a critical and popular flop.  Increasingly he began to espouse conservative causes and to write demeaningly about African Americans.   In 1941 his national column, that had run continuously since 1922, was canceled.   In failing health throughout the early 1940s Cobb, at age 68, died on  March 10, 1944.  He was buried in Paducah’s Oak Grove Cemetery.  The inscription on his stone says simply “Irvin Shewsbury Cobb,  1876-1944, “Back Home.”

Although once compared by critic H.L. Mencken to Mark Twain (Mencken quickly regretted it), Cobb’s literary reputation faded rapidly.  None of his books are currently in print, though many are available through used book outlets.  His style today seems highly dated and out of step with contemporary writing.   In the 74 years since his death he largely has been forgotten. Nevertheless, Irvin S. Cobb can be remembered as a true whiskey man, honored for his role in ending Prohibition, the “Great Experiment” that had become a great disaster.
Notes: The material for this article is drawn from a number of sources.  Principal among them was Cobb’s only book-length biography,  entitled “Irvin S. Cobb”  by Anita Lawson (Bowling Green State University Popular Press,  Ohio,  1984).  Cobb’s whiskey novel, “Red Likker,” was published by Cosmopolitan Book Corporation (New York, 1929).


Monday, December 3, 2018

Whiskey Men Who Began as Draymen

Foreword:  Although the word “drayman” today usually describes only brewery deliverymen, historically a drayman was the driver of a dray, a low, flat-bed wagon without sides, pulled by horses or mules, that transported a range of goods, including barrels of whiskey.  Some individuals who came to own major distilleries and liquor houses began their careers in the whiskey trade by driving a dray. The stories of four of them follow.

William McRoberts, an immigrant from Ireland who settled in Cincinnati about 1853, landed a job as a drayman for a local wholesale liquor house known as Boyle, Miller & Company.  In this role McRoberts became a cog in the “Underground Railroad,” smuggling escaping slaves to freedom in the North and safety in Canada.  A key to freedom was escaping the borders of slave states; crossing the Ohio River was a major objective.  Ohio was the closest state to Canada with only about 250 miles from the Kentucky border to Lake Erie and safety.

People who guided slaves from place to place were called “conductors.”  McRoberts was a conductor with excellent opportunities.   Among his duties was traveling by horse and wagon over the Ohio River to distilleries in Kentucky and bringing barrels of whiskey back to Cincinnati.  On his return McRoberts would halt his team at an isolated spot and another conductor would help him load a slave, or perhaps two, into whiskey barrels that he would cart back across the river and offload at the distillery. After dark the escapees would be spirited north to another “station” on the way to Canada.

My assumption is that the distillery owners were aware of the scheme and approved.  All were taking a risk. If discovered, the distillery would have had its wagon, horses and cargo confiscated.  McRoberts would have faced fines, jail, and possible physical harm.  Never caught, the Irishman eventually took over Boyle Miller, and rose to become a notable American distiller.  Crushed in a train accident, McRoberts died in January 1876 at the age of 52.

Another Irish immigrant who rose from hauling whiskey barrels to running his own distillery was Arthur McGinnis of Baltimore.   McGinnis’ intelligence and “go getter” attitude as a drayman brought him to the attention of John B. Brown, the owner of a successful liquor outfit Brown had founded in 1869.  

After hiring McGinnis as a driver in the mid-1880’s Brown brought him inside and taught him the liquor business. By 1895 the name of the firm had become Brown, McGinnis & Company.  McGinnis’s three sons -- John, James and Patrick -- all became involved in the business. Brown’s name eventually disappeared entirely and the A. McGinnis Company of Baltimore emerged. 

McGinnis reorganized the company and invested $5,000. With the new infusion of funds McGinnis built a distillery adjacent to the Western Maryland Railroad at a place located four miles from Westminster, Maryland, that came to be known as McGinnis Siding,  McGinnis corporate offices remained in Baltimore, first at 208 Lexington Av. and then in the American Building downtown, shown here.   After Arthur died in 1905 his sons carried on the distillery.  

Being a drayman for a wholesale liquor dealer in the late 1800s was a highly difficult and taxing job. He was required to manage a team of horses hauling a large wagon filled with barrels of whiskey and heavy crates that he usually was required to load and unload by himself.  Benjamin F. Hollenbach was such a driver and he ultimately drove himself into the ownership of the Reading, Pennsylvania, whiskey house for which he labored. 

Born in Pennsylvania and given only an elementary education, Hollenbach was seventeen when he arrived in Reading and was hired as a driver by George W. Hughes who owned a wholesale liquor business founded in 1869.  Hughes saw potential in young Benjamin as someone who handled his responsibilities with a maturity that belied his age.  Before long he brought the youth into the store as a clerk.  

Two years later Hughes died and his son-in-law R. H. Jones took over management of the firm.  Not long after, however, Jones also died.   Hughes’ widow was left with a business to run and she turned to the trusted clerk.  Still in his early 20’s,  Ben Hollenbach took over running the firm.   For four years he managed the liquor dealership for the widow under Hughes name.  As the company prospered Ben saved his money and in 1900, with a partner, he bought her out and became the co-owner and senior partner.  The business now became Hollenbach & Dietrich and the flagship brand, "Social Rye."

The company proved to be a highly prosperous enterprise.   A contemporary account noted the following:   “The firm...does a large business, handling nothing but the finest wines and whiskies, and they are the proprietors of the well known ‘Social Rye,’ handled by the trade all over the country.”  At the time of his death in 1915 Hollenbach had become recognized throughout the region for his business acumen and his leadership in fraternal and social organizations. 

Born on a farm in 1850 in Wayland, New York, John Rauberhad limited formal education.  Farm life apparently had little or no appeal and at sixteen in 1866 he gravitated the fifty miles to Rochester.  There Rauber found work as a drayman for the Rau Brewery.  According to a biographer:  “Active and diligent he won the esteem of his employers and gained promotion from time to time with a corresponding increase of wage that at length enabled him to save a sufficient amount to engage in business on his own account.” 

With the arrival of his brother, Peter, in Rochester the two youths almost immediately launched a liquor house called P. F. Rauber & Bro.  According to a 1918 History of Rochester and Monroe County:  “From the beginning the new enterprise proved a profitable one — a fact which was due to the excellence of their product and also to the fact that they were ever found reliable and trustworthy in business transactions.”  

After 18 years as co-owner of the Rauber liquor house in April 1896 Peter died at the early age of 38, leaving a young widow and three minor children.  With his brother's death, John Rauber became the sole proprietor of the liquor firm and changed its name to his own.  He lived only an additional sixteen months, dying in August 1897 at the age of 47. His eldest son took over management of the business.

With John Rauber’s death came warm tributes in his memory.  The former drayman was hailed as an individual who had made many friends in both the business and social world and was particularly known as a benefactor of the children of Rochester.  One encomium ended:  “In matters of citizenship he was progressive and public spirited and gave active support to many measures for the public good. It is thus that the community lost a citizen it had learned to value.” 

With only limited education and few resources each of these men began their careers driving a horse and wagon. By dint of intelligence and hard work each rose to prominence because of their leadership in the liquor trade.  While managing successful enterprises, these former draymen also played significant roles in their communities and were acknowledged for their positive influence on their times.

Note:  More complete profiles of each of these four whiskey men can be found elsewhere on this website:  William McRoberts, November 19, 2016; Arthur McGinnis, August 25, 2011; Benjamin Hollenbach, March 18, 2013; and John Rauber, February 12, 2017.