Thursday, June 27, 2019

The Tragic Demise of V.E. Shields, Whiskey Man

On Friday, May 7, 1915, during World War One, a German U-Boat torpedoed the Cunard ocean liner RMS Lusitania eleven miles off the coast of Ireland.  The vessel caught fire and sank in eighteen minutes.  Only 723 passengers and crew survived.  Killed were 1,198 passengers and crew, including 128 Americans. Among them was Victor E. Shields, a prominent Cincinnati liquor dealer, and his wife Retta.

Shown here is the passport photo of Shields as he prepared to board the Lusitania in New York.  He gave his occupation as “merchant” never mentioning liquor and said his purpose was “commercial business” with his destinations being England, France and Italy.  In truth, it was also a pleasure trip with his wife of 19 years.  It was the first time either had ever seen Europe and traveling there first class in one of world’s most luxurious liners must have been exciting and full of anticipation for the couple.  They were just hours from docking in England when disaster struck.

Forty-five years earlier Victor had been born in Charleston, West Virginia, the son of Fredericka (nee Scheldesheim) and Joseph Shields.  When he was only a toddler, his father moved the family to Cincinnati, where Victor was joined by a brother, Percy, in 1874 and a sister, Rosa, in 1877.  About 1873 his father with a partner set up a Cincinnati wine and spirits company called Shields, May & Co., located at 17 Sycamore Street.

The liquor house featured a number of brands, including "Fountain Run Still,” “Gincocktail,”  "Gold Finch,” "Hunter's Own Bourbon.” "Jefferson Pure Old Rye,” "May Bloom Pure Copper.” "Old Wheat.” “Shields' Mountain Rye,” and “Shields’ Maryland.”  Of these the company trademarked only three, May Bloom in 1874 and Hunter’s Own and Jefferson Pure Old Rye in 1875.

Beginning about 1878, Joseph Shields was operating without a partner and also advertising his services as a “whiskey broker and distiller’s agent,” located at 97 Main Street in Cincinnati.  For the next two decades he would operate a successful liquor business.  When his son Victor was grew into manhood, Joseph did not immediately take him into the firm, but secured his apprenticeship as a traveling salesman with the Turner-Look Company, another Cincinnati liquor outfit.  [See my post on this firm, December 4, 2917.]

In 1896, Victor wed Retta Cohen in Hamilton, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati.  He was 26, she was 24.  Their marriage would be childless.  About the same time as his marriage, he joined his father’s liquor firm, taking over the business when Joseph decided to invest his time and money in other enterprises, subsequently founding the Shields Oil & Gas Company.  Victor lost little time in renaming the organization V.E. Shields & Company, eventually moving from Main Street to 117-121 East Pearl, as shown on his letterhead.

The younger Shields had his own set of brands, many likely “rectified” (blended) from Kentucky distilled whiskies readily available in Cincinnati, just across the Ohio River, or from upriver in Pennsylvania.  His labels included "Buck Eye Club,” "Cream of Pennsylvania,” “Elmwood.”, "First Premium,” "Lehigh Rye,” “Pilot,” "Shields Maryland XXXX,” and "White Squadron.”  He packaged his whiskey in glass bottles, ranging from flasks to quarts.  There is no evidence Victor trademarked any of his brands, except a claim for the bottle design shown below right. 

Like many liquor dealers, Shields rewarded the saloon, restaurants and hotels featuring his products, as well as regular retail customers, with give away items.  Two of his were mini ceramic jugs, each of them holding a swallow or two of whiskey.  Brands they advertised included Lehigh Club and Maryland XXX, both rye whiskeys.  For twenty years Victor manage his liquor business with great success, its profitability likely leading to the fateful decision to venture abroad with his wife.

The sudden deaths of his son and daughter-in-law seemingly dealt a crushing blow to Joseph Shields, now 81.  He had been involved in the couple’s planning for the trip, writing a letter of endorsement to accompany their passport application.  Moreover, death also had come to the family only a year earlier when his second son, Percy, 40 years old, had died.  Still an officer of the Shields liquor firm, Joseph shut it down after some fifty years in business. Less than a year after the sinking of the Lusitania, perhaps burdened with sorrow, Joseph himself died in 1916 at age 82 and was buried in the family plot.

The story does not end there.  International law dictated that the heirs of any citizens of non-belligerent countries killed in warfare must be compensated.  Although German authorities initially rejected that responsibility, after World War One a defeated Germany provided the U.S. with a large settlement to be divided up among families of the dead.  The Joint U.S.-German Commission designated to make the payments was petitioned by the Shields’ estate for compensation.  The prospect of “blood” money, however, set Victor’s next of kin at odds with Retta’s.  The Commission in its 1924 judgment described their conflicting appeals:

It is urged that as Mr. Shields was two years older than his wife, she would, but for the wrongful act of Germany in sinking the Lusitania, have probably survived him and would then under his will have inherited his entire estate…and that her next of kin would have ultimately benefitted thereby.

“On the other hand, Mr. Shields’ next of kin urge that his ‘wife having perished with him on the Lusitania, there is no room for doubt that if he had survived,’ he, being then without wife or children, would have been generous in his contributions to them.”

In making its decision, the Commission noted the wealth of the couple.  Victor had an annual income equivalent today to about $200,000 year and left an estate equivalent to $2.8 million.  On the same scale, Retta’s estate was worth an additional $600,000. The Commission noted that because none of the claimants had suffered losses as a result of the deaths of the Shields [and in fact already had benefited from their inheritances] their claims furnished “no sound basis on which to rest a award.”  The relatives got nary a pfennig of Lusitania compensation. 

It is unclear whether the bodies of Victor and Retta were recovered.  Not long before he died, Joseph Shields arranged for gravestones for Victor and Retta to be installed at the Walnut Hills Cemetery in Hamilton County.  Shown above, they remain a reminder of the Shields’ personal tragedy, one among many, that ultimately led to U.S. participation in World War One.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Michael Kane and a Rocky Road to California Gold

Burned out of his home and business by the massive Pittsburgh fire of 1845,  Ireland-born Michael Kane traveled a long, rough, and sometimes discouraging road to California to find gold.  Kane found it eventually, not in the ground, but by operating a San Francisco liquor business.

Michael Kane was born in County Londonderry (Derry), Ireland, in March, 1817, the names of his parents unrecorded.   With other family members, while still a teenager, he emigrated to America, settling in Pittsburgh.  The Kanes may have been a clan of carpenters in Ireland and arriving in the U.S. several members, including Michael, took up the cabinet-making trade.  Teaming with a cousin, he eventually established a business that apparently was successful enough to warrant a factory and warehouse.

About 1840 Michael also felt confident enough about the future to marry.  His bride was a woman named Margaret whose origins differ in the records, some naming her as born in Maryland, others Virginia.  Even the year of her birth is variable, her gravestone indicates 1819 but census records have it as late as 1823.  Over the next six years, four of their seven children would be born.

At dawn April 1845, the lives of the Kane family would change forever.  Beginning in a girl’s unwatched flame that was heating wash water, the fire spread quickly, destroying 10,000 buildings in Pittsburgh, leaving 12,000 people homeless and doing an estimated $9,000,000 in damage.  A contemporary drawing caught the inferno.   Among the smoldering ruins were the Kane home and business.  How the family coped has gone unrecorded but in the process, Michael’s reputation for leadership grew in the community.

On January 24, 1848, gold was discovered by at Sutter's Mill in Coloma, California.  The California Gold Rush began.  In the fall of 1848, Kane, an immigrant who seemingly had a knack for impressing the Pittsburgh political and social elites, formed a joint venture of local young men, many the sons of the wealthy, for the purpose of traveling to California to mine for gold. One of many such outfits that sprung up around the U.S. for that purpose, Kane called it the Pittsburg & California Enterprise Company.  Each participant in the wagon train paid $260 (equivalent to about $5,700 today) to provide funds for wagons, mule teams and provisions.  

One author has described members as being “gold seekers joined together more as ambitious businessmen than as carefree adventurers.”  At the age of 31, Kane was elected president of the company.  Recognizing that their overland trek faced many dangers, primarily from Indian attacks, the company also was organized as a protective military unit.  Chosen to lead the wagon train was Colonel Samuel W. Black, shown right.  He was a Pittsburgh native who two years earlier was hailed as a hero during the Mexican War when he helped save the garrison at Puebla from a Santa Anna siege.  

On March 16, 1849, the company left Pittsburgh and by chartered steamboat traversed the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri Rivers to land two weeks later at St. Joseph, Missouri, the “jumping off point” for many west-bound wagon trains. Collecting the mules they had purchased, on May 4 the men left St. Joseph, the beginning of a nearly 1,700 mile overland journey.  In the word of one historian,”Bidding adieu to civilization, they started across the almost interminable wilds by what was called the Fremont route…”

Although the original plan was to travel as one group, 310 participants proved unwieldy and soon the company divided into smaller units.  The trekkers under Kane’s leadership had a relatively uneventful crossing, except for challenges to the mules in crossing a waterless stretch pioneers called “Forty Mile Desert,” in the Lohontan Valley of Nevada.  On August 22, 1849, 110 days after leaving Missouri, Kane and his group reached Placerville, California, then called “Hangtown” for its many “necktie parties.”  It was the rowdy hub of the region’s mining operations.

The trip had cost Kane more than he anticipated.  He had loaned other members of the company some $2,500 for the journey, loans he forgave after seeing the hard conditions in California.  That fall and winter, he staked a claim in an area known as “Mud Springs” (now El Dorado) four miles south of Placerville.  That and subsequent digs seemingly were unsatisfactory as ensuing months found Kane moving from place to place.  By winter 1851, however, he was digging for gold near a California town called “Rough and Ready” and making $10 a day (equivalent to $220).

By that summer Kane had accrued sufficient cash to think about going home.  He returned by ship in summer 1851, reacquainting himself with wife Margaret and his children.  The sojourn resulted in two more births.  But California was in Michael’s blood.  By spring 1853, Kane was in San Francisco, having been come by way of Panama as appointed United States Mail Agent for the trip, indicating political connections.  It was a patronage position.

There to greet Kane in San Francisco was an old Pennsylvania friend, John White Geary, the city’s first mayor, elected in 1850. Shown here, Geary had distinguish himself for bravery in the Mexican War.  Earlier he had urged Kane to buy land in San Francisco but after looking around the town, according to a biographer, “…He returned to his friend, disgusted with the appearance of the place”  and refused.  Geary warned him that he would regret the decision some day.

Now Kane apparently had changed his mind about San Francisco.  Likely with Geary’s support, the San Francisco Collector of Customs, Richard P. Hammond, shown left, appointed him to the plum job of Inspector of Customs.  Like Geary, Hammond was a Mexican War hero, rewarded by President Polk for his service.  Kane served a term as inspector, likely working from the building shown below.  He then was promoted to Government Storekeeper, another patronage job, responsible for buying, receiving, storing and issuing supplies, materials and equipment for U.S. agencies in the region.

At some point during this period of U.S. government service, Kane sent for his wife and family to join him.  They found a home at 611 Eddy Street.  There Michael and Margaret’s last child, a daughter, was born in 1858.  With Lincoln’s election in 1860 the days of a Democrat in the White House came to an end.  Political positions were tenuous. Kane made a strategic decision to move into the whiskey trade. 

During the early 1860s Kane bought a one-third interest in an established liquor house that bore the names of his partners, James Hunter and Thomas Wand.  The firm as it prospered moved to larger quarters along San Francisco’s Front Street.  When Hunter died about 1870 the remaining two partners bought his share and the firm became Wand, Kane & Company.  Two years later Wand sold out and Kane, now thoroughly familiar with the liquor business, brought in a new partner, a fellow Irishman named Fergus O’Leary.  The company became Kane, O’Leary & Company.

Soon after, the partners made a move to a more upscale location at 221 and 223 Bush Street in San Francisco’ financial district.  Shown right, it was located on the ground floor of the Brooklyn Hotel, accounted one of the city’s most popular and successful.  The photo shown here of the store, dating from 1880, shows the barrels and crates of whiskey kept on the sidewalk as advertising.  Kane may be among the several well-dressed gentlemen at the doorway.

There Michael and his partner offered up a number of brands, including "Morning Glory,” "Old Cabinet,” "Old Judge,” "Old Kentucky Club,” and “Paragon,”  “Double Refined Old Bourbon,” “Hunter’s Wheat Whisky,”  “Kentucky Farm Bourbon,” and “Copper Double Distilled Rye.”  These were packaged in glass bottles, usually amber in color and in sizes varying from quarts to pints and half-pints. 

Kane, O’Leary became known for the quality of its lithographed trade cards and labels, such as the languorous lady advertising their Morning Glory Bourbon. Indicating Michael’s continuing interest in politics, the company issued a two special labels for the 1880 presidential race between Republican James A. Garfield and Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock.   Both had served with distinction as Union generals in the Civil War and the election was close, each of them winning 19 states.  The electoral vote went to Garfield, 214 to 155  — an outcome Kane would not have enjoyed, although Hancock won California.

After a decade of lucrative business selling whiskey, Kane knew he had found a new way to strike gold but at age 65 decided he had money enough to retire.  In January 1882  he sold out to two local merchants, Myer J. Newmark and Max Gruenberg, who changed the name of the liquor house to their own.

Of Kane’s late years, a biographer in 1892 noted:  “He has a fine, comfortable home in Alameda…where he is surrounded with a happy family and all the comforts of a quiet life.”   Indicative of his wealth, Kane had purchased a dwelling built by Senator Nathan Porter, on Railroad Avenue, at the time considered the finest residence in Alameda.  He continued to be active in the Pioneer Society of San Francisco, an organization of early settlers, and served two terms as a director.  Kane also found time to travel, sailing to Europe and later attending the 1884 World’s Fair in New Orleans.

It was in Alameda, across San Francisco Bay south of Oakland, that Michael Kane died in November 1899 at the age of 82.  He was buried in Oakland’s St. Mary’s Cemetery.  His long-suffering but devoted wife, Margaret, erected a monument at his gravesite “Sacred to the memory of my much beloved husband…R.I.P.”  She would join him there seven years later.  Other family members are buried nearby.

In Ireland men from County Derry are celebrated in song and story for their bravery.  Michael Kane clearly lived up to the Derry tradition.  It took unusual fortitude to look past the destruction of his Pittsburgh home and fire, to trek 1,700 miles across the dangerous American West, to dig the earth searching for gold in a lawless land, and even to admit changing his mind on the future of San Francisco.  We are left these whisky flasks as reminders of Kane’s extraordinary life story of persistence and courage.

Note:  Although information for this post was gathered from numerous sources, a key document was  a publication entitled “Bay of San Francisco: The Metropolis of the Pacific Coast and its Suburban Cities, A History,” (no author given) published by The Lewis Publishing Company, 1892.  It contains an extensive biographical article on Michael Kane, but unfortunately no picture.

Reaching Post #700 & the Way Forward


“History is the essence of innumerable biographies” — Thomas Carlyle

The post that follows marks the 700th on this blog devoted to what I have chosen to call “Pre-Prohibition Whiskey Men,” that is, the distillers,“rectifiers” (i.e. blenders), wholesale and retail liquor dealers, saloonkeepers and others who played a role in that national industry before January 1,1920.  

As noted on April 6, 2011, when I began this blog, making and selling whiskey from the very founding of the United States was a major occupation. George Washington, we know, was an important early distiller. The men who over time built and maintained this industry often had interesting and notable careers. In addition to their histories are the artifacts they have left behind in many forms, items that often are avidly collected today.

At this writing the site has had more than 784,000 page views.  They have come primarily from the United States but daily from other countries such as the United Kingdom, Italy, Russia, Ireland and Germany.  I also have received hundreds of comments, the overwhelming majority of them positive, from descendants of individuals profiled, collectors of bottles and other whiskey memorabilia, and professional and amateur historians.  I try to respond to all messages.

A source of particular pride is the 232 individuals who have signed on as followers of this blog.  Starting out with a handful of friends and relatives, the numbers have grown beyond my wildest imagining.  I am grateful to these individual for their expression of interest and support. 

As each 100th milestone has been reached, I have reassessed the prospect of continuing to write.  My decision is based on whether sufficient good stories of whiskey men remain to be told.  The post that follows here is indicative of rich histories that heretofore have been untapped.  Despite being in my 84th year, my plan is to continue to 800 posts — and hope be around to reassess once again.  

My practice has been to present a new post every four days.  That I expect to continue.  Although the great majority of the vignettes are about individual whiskey men or families, in recent months every fourth post has been a summary of three or four previous posts in order to explore commonalities of experience among those in the liquor trade.  Those also will continue. 

Finally, I want to bring attention to a new activity begun this year.  Under the umbrella phrase “Wet” Enterprise my intention is to bundle substantial numbers of posts in order to illuminate even larger historical element of the liquor trade.   The first topic is Western saloons and saloonkeepers. It can be accessed via Google as “Wet” Enterprise:  Selected Saloons of the Old West.  If the blog proves successful it may be followed by others that feature numbers of notable whiskey men (and women) considered on criteria including geography, gender,  ethnic origin, and religious affiliation.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Introducing the Roddewigs of Davenport

As twenty-year-old Ferdinand P. Roddewig, shown right in maturity, endured a 64-day ship’s crossing from Germany to New Orleans he scarcely could have envisioned his future in America.  It would include combat service in the Civil War, starting a cigar factory in Missouri, recognition as a leading Iowa businessman, a run for mayor of Davenport, and founding a hugely successful liquor house that, with his sons, endured for more than six decades. 

Ferdinand was born in Westphalia, Prussia, in June 1828, the son of Charlotte and Frederick Roddewig, clerk of courts in the large city of Biedefield.  His parents had a “mixed marriage”: Charlotte was a Catholic, Frederick a Lutheran.  One of eight children from their union, Ferdinand was educated in German public schools until the age of 15 when he went to work in a local wholesale linen store.  Five years later he decided to leave for America aboard the Bremen Barque Erhard, a combination sailing and steam ship, shown below.

The ship stopped at ports along the Atlantic coast, arriving nine weeks later in New Orleans.  The manifest records Roddewig coming alone, his luggage as “one chest, one trunk” and his occupation “trader.”  He initially found employment in a cigar factory.  Learning the craft and saving his money, he moved to St. Louis, with its heavy German population, where he opened his own cigar factory in 1851.

In 1853, Roddewig returned to Germany to see his parents, a visit that appears to have sparked the 25-year-old bachelor to thoughts of marriage.  Upon his return he hied to Sheboygan, Wisconsin, where he wooed and won Henriette (known as “Metta”) Koehler, 23, the daughter of Ferdinand and Ernestena Koehler.  Shown here,  Metta had been born in Biedefeld and it is possible the couple knew each other growing up.

After their marriage, the couple returned to St. Louis where Ferdinand resumed running his cigar factory.   In 1855, perhaps wanting a location closer to Metta’s family,  Roddewig disposed of his cigar business and moved his family east to Davenport, Iowa, a heavily German-American city.  There he opened a grocery and liquor store at 413-415 Harrison Street in a double frame house, described as an enterprise with a modest beginning that grew year by year.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861 and President Lincoln asked for volunteers, Roddewig  immediately answered the call of his adopted country.  Although he had a successful business, a wife and three children, and was 33 years old, Ferdinand joined the 1st Iowa Voluntary Infantry Regiment as an enlisted man and was mustered in on May 14,1861.  Made up entirely by men from Davenport and the surrounding Scott County,  the following August the regiment was engaged in the first battle of the Trans-Mississippi Theater near Springfield, Missouri, a place called Wilson’s Creek.  An artist’s depiction of the battle is  shown below.

Union forces were defeated and the commanding general was killed.  The 1st Iowa lost one officer and 19 soldiers in the battle.  Roddewig emerged unscathed but when the regiment was mustered out after the required 90 days of service, he seemingly had enough of hot combat and did not re-enlist.

Ferdinand returned to Davenport, his family and his business.  As it flourished, he increasingly emphasized liquor sales and in 1869 eliminated groceries to concentrate on wine and whiskey.  A 1922 article in the Davenport Democrat & Leader newspaper credited his success and recognition in the community to his being “…the embodiment of good fellowship and sound business principles, and he was a valued member in the prominent social circles.”  Roddewig was a member of the German Turnverein, the Harmonia singing society, the Shooters Association, the GAR, and eventually accounted “the oldest wholesale liquor man in the city.”

So popular was Roddewig that although considered an independent in politics, he was drafted by the Democratic Party in 1881 to run for mayor of Davenport. Praising his selection, the Quad City Times reported that: “…His nomination was made without his knowledge, but his acceptance of it, as a duty, will be a matter of course.”  Shown here is a flyer for a rally for “Roddewig and the Whole Democratic Ticket.”  Note that the rally was to be held in the German Turner Hall. “This is no 1st of April joke,”  the flyer asserted, “but means business.”  In heavily Republican Davenport, however, Roddewig lost.

As he aged, Roddewig brought his sons — Peter and Ferdinand Jr. — to work at the liquor house.   With their father’s training they were able to relieve him of a variety of management burdens.  Roddewig was still fully in charge, however, when in December 1885 he suddenly was stricken and died at age 57.  He was buried in Davenport’s Oakdale Memorial Gardens next to Metta who had pass ten years earlier, only 45 years old.  The monument that marks their graves is shown here.

Peter and Ferdinand Roddewig lost no time taking over the reins of management, changing the company name to “Ferd. Roddenwig’s Sons.”  They also financed a new headquarters on Harrison Street for their establishment called the Roddewig Block.  An 1887 brochure from the city of Davenport, hailed “the fine premises, so centrally located, have no superior in the west.”  The main floor, where the liquor and wine were stocked, was 32 by 152 with a 15 foot high ceiling.  The cellar allowed for more storage as did a warehouse in the rear.   That was completely filled with wine and liquors, said the brochure, enabling the Roddewigs “to fill the largest wholesale orders.”   

The brothers also opened a store across the Mississippi River in Rock lsland, Illinois, likely as a hedge against the growing movement toward statewide prohibition in Iowa.  During their tenure they issued multiple shot glasses, most of them advertising the company flagship brand, “Uneeda Whiskey.”  The glasses are shown throughout this post.

Under the second generation of Roddewig management, the liquor house continued to flourish.  According to the Davenport Democrat & Leader:   “The gentlemen are popular and respected citizens, noted for their honorable methods and sterling integrity, and worthily maintain the lead as importers of wines and liquors, controlling, as they do, the best class of trade in this city and all through the state.” 

The elder brother,  Peter Roddewig lived at 713 1/2 West Third Street with his wife Minnie. They had one son, Harry.   Peter died in 1905 at the early age of 46 and was buried in Davenport’s Fairmont Cemetery.  After his death Ferdinand Jr., shown here, carried on with the liquor house.  He and his wife Annie (nee Martzahn) raised their family of five, four boys and a girl, while living above the liquor store.   Ferdinand Jr. also was an officer with the Davenport Paving Brick and Tile Company and an incorporator of the  Downs Hotel, later called the Saratoga. 

With the coming of Iowa statewide prohibition in 1918, two years in advance of National Prohibition, the remaining Roddewig was forced to shut down sales of wine and liquor and close the doors permanently on the business his immigrant father had begun in 1855.  In the 1920 census Ferdinand Jr., age 55, gave his occupation as “merchant - retired.”  He died nine years later and was buried in Fairmont Cemetery not far from his brother.   Over its 63 years in existence the Roddewigs’ liquor house had survived the Civil War, political defeat, and several national financial “panics.”  It could not outlast the forces of Prohibition.

Note:  This post is drawn from four major sources: 1) History of Scott County, Iowa (1882) Chicago: Interstate Publishing Co.; 2)  First Album of the City of Davenport, Iowa (1887); 3) Newspaper article, Davenport Democrat & Leader, June 25, 1922, and 4) Davenport Iowa History, posted October 7, 2017.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Whiskey Men Who Became Midwest Millionaires

Foreword:  During the 18th Century, more than a few distillers, whiskey rectifiers and wholesale dealers found that the profits made in making and selling liquor could be used profitably in other productive enterprises.  By canny investing some became “captains of industry” and exceedingly wealthy.  The Midwest, experiencing boom times after the Civil War, presented a particularly favorable economic climate.  Presented here briefly are three stories involving whiskey men in Illinois and Indiana.  

The Herget Brothers, John and George, enhanced the economy of Pekin, Illinois, through their enterprise and investments encompassing a variety of enterprises.  At the center of their local business conglomerate was making and selling whiskey.   A 1910 history of Illinois described the Hergets this way:   “The members of the family stand high in the social circles of the city, and are universally respected for worth and nobility of character.” 

The Hergets immigrated to the United States from Germany as young men, eventually settling in Pekin.  Shown here, John on left, about 1860 they opened a grocery store that specialized in liquor.  

Seeing whiskey as good investment, in the fall of 1888 the brothers built the Star Distillery in Pekin and two years later opened a second facility they called Crescent Distillery. Later selling both, with the proceeds they then erected the Globe Distillery, at the time the largest whiskey-making plant in Pekin, having the capacity to mashing 5,000 bushels of grain daily.

During the late 1890s the brothers shut down their grocery and liquor enterprises actively to pursue other business interests.  John was involved with the Pekin Steam Cooperage Company, Pekin Gas and Electric Light Company., Turner-Hudnut Grain firm, Globe Cattle Company, Farmer’s National Bank, a beet sugar factory, and was a large landowner in Tazewell County.  George was a major investor in the founding of the Illinois Sugar Refining Company; the Globe Cattle Company, and the Pekin Stave and Barrel Manufacturing Company, of which he was president. In 1905, with sons Henry and William, he founded the Herget & Sons Bank, shown right.  Whiskey had fueled their business success.

Born into an immigrant Scottish family, brothers Thomas, James and John Gaff found opportunity in America’s midsection to create a commercial empire of extraordinary size and breadth. The Gaff saga began in 1811 when parents James and Margaret Wilson Gaff pulled up stakes in Edinburgh, Scotland and immigrated to the United States with their three-year-old son, Thomas.  The family settled first in New Jersey where son James was born in 1817 and John in 1820. Far from wealthy, the brothers from early on honed their skills in the mercantile trade.

After an initial move to Pennsylvania where the Gaffs ran a profitable general store and distilling operation, they were enticed to move to Aurora, a small town in along the Ohio River in southeastern Indiana, by an offer of free land and tax incentives.  With James Gaff, shown here, in the lead, upon arrival the Gaffs almost immediately built a distillery near town on the banks of Hogan’s Creek, a waterway that emptied into the Ohio River.  This distillery eventually produced rye, bourbon, and a scotch-type whiskey that the brothers dubbed “Thistle Dew.” The brothers called their facility  “T. and J. W. Gaff & Co.”  By 1850 it had become one of the largest distilleries in the United States.  An illustration of the complex in the 1800s shows its growth and proximity to the Ohio River.

The success of their whiskey-making spurred the brothers to build a brewery in Aurora, stretching for 300 feet along Market Street, an enterprise they called the Crescent Brewing Company.  With their access to the Ohio River multiplying products, it was almost natural that the Gaffs would gravitate to shipping.  They built and owned a fleet of steamboats,  

Founded on revenues from distilling  and brewing,  Gaff Brother investments came to encompass the Fleischmann Yeast Company,  Indiana grain and hog farms, a Louisiana plantation, a silver mine in Nevada, turnpike construction, railroad financing, banking, and a factory that reputedly produced the world’s first ready-made breakfast cereal.  An 1880 history of Indiana's eminent and self-made men captured Thomas Gaff's wide range of interests, both business and philanthropic, noting:  “His executive ability is remarkable. No transaction within the range of his complicated affairs escapes his observation.   

Crawford Fairbanks, shown here as a young man, has been characterized as a poor boy with limited education who studied by candle light.  A Union soldier during the Civil War, Fairbanks returned to Terre Haute, Indiana to start a grain business that soon transitioned to distilling.  After a number of false starts, explosions and fires in his facilities in 1884 he turned to John H. Beggs, a distillery executive from Peoria, for help. Together they organized the Terre Haute Distilling Co., that ultimately would be accounted the world’s largest of the time.  In time Fairbanks became immensely wealthy,  owning the Terre Haute Brewing Company, a strawboard factory, Terre Haute’s principal newspaper, and paper mills in Massachusetts, Chicago and New York.  

Additionally, Fairbanks liked owning hotels, buying the Terre Haute House, shown above;  the Denison Hotel in Indianapolis; and co-owning the French Lick Springs Hotel, a resort popular for its warm springs and reputed healing waters. He also was principal investor in Indiana Sonora Copper & Mining Co., and president of the Terre Haute Water Works and Terre Haute Street Railway Co.  At the time of his death Crawford also was the principal owner of the Standard Wheel Co. and president and major stockholder of Wabash Realty & Loan Co., that held title to most of his real estate, including several farms where he raised race horses.   

May 1924 obituaries of Crawford Fairbanks ran in newspapers throughout Indiana and beyond.  One state journal hailed him as “Indiana’s greatest financial genius.”  Another newspaper declared him “Indiana’s Richest Man.”  What too frequently was ignored was the original driving source of Fairbanks' wealth and enterprises — making and selling whiskey.  

Note:  Longer profiles of each of these men may be found posted on this blog.  Herget Brothers:  June 5, 2018;  Gaff Brothers, July 8, 2018;  and Crawford Fairbanks, June 13, 2018.  There also is a vignette on J. C. Beggs and his family, Oct. 17, 2017.