Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Tom Kelly and His Nevada Bottle House

When Saloonkeeper Tom Kelly about 1905 found obtaining good timber too difficult to allow him to build a house, he turned to something he knew well — beer bottles.  Kelly  collected and used an estimated 51,000 bottles to construct a house of glass and adobe in Rhyolite, now a ghost town, in the Nevada desert near the eastern edge of Death Valley. 

Rhyolite was a perfect example of a boom town.  When gold was discovered in the vicinity in 1905, the rush was on.  By the following year the town, initially called “Bullfrog” after an area mine, had 10,000 residents.  Shown above in its heyday, Rhyolite reputedly was so wealthy that serving the community were three stage lines, among them the first automobile stage, and three railroads, including the Tonopah & Tidewater, the Bullfrog-Goldfield, and the Las Vegas & Tonopah. “As many as a hundred train cars waited at the depots with incoming freight, and reloaded with gold-laden ore,” claimed one account.

At its peak Rhyolite boasted an efficient water system complete with mains, 400 electric street lights, a school for 250 children, a miners’ union hospital, public baths, an ice plant, a weekly newspaper, foundries and machine shops.  On the darker side of its economy were numerous brothels, gambling halls, and an estimated fifty saloons.  One of these was owned by Tom Kelly who stepped into the spotlight of history only briefly at age 76 when he decided to build a house, possibly intended for family members.  

Kelly’s choice of building materials was driven by a lack of good local timber.  He chose  bottles, he said because “it's very difficult to build a house with lumber from a Joshua tree." Beer bottles were particularly common in Rhyolite.  Anheuser Busch brewery in St. Louis had made the American West its special marketing target, literally flooding mining areas with its beer.  Although its ads depicted crates of bottles carried by mule trains wending through the mountains, most beer came by rail car.

As result, the most prominent bottles used for Kelly’s house were from the Adophus Busch Glass Works in Belleville, Illinois, and the Adophus Busch Glass Mfg. Co. of St. Louis.  The bottles are readily identified by the “AB” monogram on the base.  Busch established these factories in his never-ending quest to find sufficient glass containers for his ever-increasing beer production.  A second prominent bottle carried the mark “R & Co” and a number.  Those were made by Reed & Company who operated the Massillon (Ohio) Glassworks.  Reed was a major provider of beer bottles, including for Anheuser Busch, particularly supplying Western bottlers.  The marks of both bottle makers are shown below.

From his own drinking establishment and other Rhyolite saloons, Kelly had no trouble gathering the thousands of glass items needed for construction, also including wine, whiskey, and medicine bottles,  The saloonkeeper laid the bottles on their sides, with the bottoms facing out, and mortared them together with adobe mud.  Few if any were cleaned before placement.  Some bottles like the Hofstetter’s Bitters shown here were laid on their side, apparently to add decoration.

Estimates differ widely on how long it took Kelly to build the three room, L-shaped dwelling.  Some accounts say five months, others more than a year.  He is said to have spent about $2,500 on the building with most the money going for wood trim and fixtures. The structure was decorated with a gingerbread roof strip and boasted a front porch. The interior of the house had plaster walls and a wooden floor that resembled a big city home.  One writer has speculated:  “To the miners of the day, this was a castle.”

Whatever Kelly’s original intention was for the house, by the time it was finished he had a new idea.  Whether it was his advancing age, the foresight to see the future of Rhyolite, or another reason, upon completion Tom decided to capitalize on the widespread attention the structure had attracted and raffle it off.  Tickets cost $5.00, equivalent today to about $100.00.  Local lore has Kelly selling about 400 tickets.  If true he realized $2,000 from his effort, less than he is said to have spent. The raffle was won by locals named Bennett, three of the family shown above. They lived in the bottle house from 1906 until 1914. 

Saloonkeeper Tom Kelly, having built his bottle house, faded from the scene.  So did Rhyolite.  Almost as fast as it had developed, the town declined.  As the richest ore was exhausted, production fell.  A financial panic in 1907 dried up investment money for new prospecting.  A major mine began operating at a loss and closed in 1911.  In an attempt at levity, Rhyolite took the penguin as town mascot with the saying:  “It is as hard to find gold in the Nevada desert as it is a penguin.”  Out-of-work miners moved away and the town population plummeted. By 1920 the census recorded only 14 residents and Rhyolite thereafter became just another Nevada “ghost town.”

Through it all, however, the bottle house survived.  In 1925 Paramount Pictures chose Rhyolite for the filming of two movies called “Airmail” and “Wanders of the Wasteland,” the latter a silent film in early Technicolor.  The studio repaired the roof of the bottle house and after filming was completed donated the property to the “Improvement Association” of the nearby town of Beatty, Nevada.  That organization operated the house as a museum until 1953 when the house was sold to a couple who ran it as an antique store.  In recent years the building has remained standing, although empty, and a tourist attraction for those willing to drive off Nevada State Route 374 to what remains of Rhyolite for a look at the bottle house Tom Kelly built.

Friday, October 25, 2019

NYC's Steve Brodie: Daredevil Saloonkeeper

In the early 1890s, the New York City tour buses regularly stopped at the door of a saloon at 114 Bowery Street and passengers rushed inside to see the proprietor who was waiting for them behind the bar.  What they saw was the suave gent shown here who was eager to tell them the story of his leap off the Brooklyn Bridge and how he lived to tell about it.  His name was Steve Brodie and this was his “Famous Bowery Saloon.”

Born in Gotham in December 1861 into a poor family, Brodie early worked as a newsboy, bookmaker, and gambler to scrape by.  As he grew to manhood he watched the construction of the engineering marvel of the time, the Brooklyn Bridge. At 1,600 feet long and 135 feet above the water the span time was considered the highest bridge in the world.  By now 23, the young Brodie was married but broke and owed large gambling debts.  He solicited a bet that if he survived a jump from the Brooklyn Bridge, he would win $200 and, more important, a local liquor dealer pledged to back him in opening a saloon.

On the morning of July 22nd, 1886, Brodie said goodbye to his wife, Bridget, and climbed on a wagon that was crossing the bridge.  Down below friends sat in a rowboat waiting.  Stories differ.  Bystanders shouted “suicide” as they saw the form of a man preparing to jump and in a moment it was over as the form hit the water.  Suddenly the rowboat was moving rapidly toward a man flailing in the river.  Brodie’s friends pulled him into the boat and rowed to the Manhattan side of the bridge where Brodie was arrested.  Headlines in New York papers the next day gave banner coverage to the story of Stevie Brodie and his jump.  Soon the entire country knew.

But there were skeptics.  Just a year earlier a trained swimmer and diver named Odlum had tried the stunt and been killed instantly upon hitting the water.  Out of jail and lionized by the press, Brodie claimed that he had developed a special technique for the dive, perfecting his form for months by taking practice jumps off lower bridges and the masts of ships.  Moreover, as a competative athlete he was in prime physical shape.  The only total eye witness of the jump, however, was Brodie himself.

Still basking in the public limelight, Brodie opened his saloon shortly after his release from jail.  He made sure that his three room drinking establishment was a cut above the usual Bowery dive.  The floors were inlaid with silver dollars, the walls covered with humorous quips, and above the bar was a huge oil painting replicating Brodie making his famous Brooklyn Bridge leap.  Next to it was a signed affidavit by a boat captain that he was the one who dragged Brodie from the East River. Below, a photo montage exists of the saloon interior with Brodie, now approaching middle age, standing behind his bar and working in his picture-filled office.  One author has said that Brodie’s drinking establishment “partially served as a temple dedicated to himself.”

A second large painting of the bridge graced the outside of Brodie’s place. The sign indicated that his was a “tied saloon,” featuring only one brand of beer in return for financial incentives from the brewers — in this case the William H. Frank Brewing Company in Brooklyn.  

Frank, an experience brewmaster, had invested in an existing brewery, in 1893 and changed its name to his.  He soon expanded the beer output to 150,000 barrels or 4,650,000 gallons annually.  From his brewery. shown below, he issued glass bottles that featured elaborate embossing of an eagle rampant on a horseshoe.

Meanwhile Brodie was pursuing a second career.  He became an actor, appearing in vaudeville musical skits.  One theatrical in 1894 focussed on his own exploits.  Called “On the Bowery,” it used a set fashioned after his saloon and as a finale had him make a faux jump.  One of the playbills from “On the Bowery” depicts Brodie behind the bar serving a top-hatted customer while a Bowery bum siphons alcohol from a cigar lighter.  

As time passed and questions continued to be asked about the veracity of his story, Brodie reacted negatively to the skeptics and the cooling of his fame.  He moved to Buffalo, New York, where he opened a new saloon.  There he made it known that he contemplated a new stunt — jumping over Niagara Falls.  He never did. 

Subsequently Brodie pulled up stakes again and moved 1,460 miles west to San Antonio, Texas, perhaps for reasons of health.  There in 1901 at the age of 39 he died.  The cause was variously laid to diabetes or tuberculosis.  His body was returned to New York where he was interred in Section 9, Plot 443, Grave 13 of Queens County’s Catholic Calvary Cemetery.  To his dying day Brodie proclaimed vehemently that he had indeed made that famous jump in 1886.

Addendum:  His death, however, did not end the Brodie saga.  In 1933, more than two decades after his passing, Hollywood retold his story in a film called “The Bowery.”  It starred tough guy George Raft as the fearless jumper.  To attempt a seemingly suicidal or high risk stunt even today is known as “to do a Brodie.”  I came on the saloonkeeper’s story while doing research on automobile steering knobs, shown here.  Wikipedia states that they are generally known as “Brodie knobs” because of the dangers they present when driving. Thus a knob preserves for posterity the name of perhaps the most famous daredevil of American history. 

Monday, October 21, 2019

D. L. Arey and a Picture Worth Talking About

If, as is said, a picture is worth a thousand words, then the saloon sign above can  afford a few choice ones.  With the assumption that it is his likeness on a label of his whiskey,  D. L. Arey, a liquor dealer from Salisbury was clearly in love with his North Carolina birthplace.  Instead of giving local drinking establishments the typical lounging nude,  Arey provided wholesale customers with a panorama of the state’s industries.

Let’s begin with the sow and piglets at lower left side of the picture.  Hog farming has been an important part of North Carolina agriculture since colonial times.  The Berkshire breed had been introduced in Arey’s day.  This major upgrade in the quality of hogs was the spark that led to a massive industry with a gross value today in excess of two billion dollars annually.  

Now move right to the man in the hat whose back is to us.  He has a small shovel and a pan in his hand while kneeling over a stream.  He is panning for gold. Few know that North Carolina was the site of the first discovery of gold in the United States.  Although the mines have long since been exhausted, for decades resident and visitors — I among them — have visited local streams to pan for gold.

Almost directly above the panner is a second man looking approvingly at a leaf of tobacco.  Tobacco and tobacco growers put North Carolina on the map.  Beginning in the 1800s tobacco was North Carolina's key product. Farming and industry in the state were built around the crop, and two of the four largest cities developed as company towns for the world's largest tobacco companies.

Moving off the left shoulder of the miner we view the distinctive equipment required for making whiskey — the kettle, the coil, the barrel and a sluice of water.   This does not appear to be a licensed, revenue-paying operation.   Amidst apparently legitimate occupations, the men in the picture seem to be operating a moonshine still.

But wait!  Over the shoulder of the standing moonshiner, barely seen in the picture, is a man elegantly dressed in a hat, coat and tie.  He is carrying a rifle in his hand.   Although he might be a customer for whiskey and the rifle is for protection against bears, a more logical explanation is that he is a revenue agent about to initiate a raid on the still — perhaps an omen of the future.

The final element of the saloon sign are two cases of “Pride of North Carolina” whiskey, the flagship brand of the D. L. Arey Company, showing both flask and quart sizes.  Arey expressed a great deal of enthusiasm for this entire scene.  It was replicated on the labels of his “Pride of N.C. Corn Whiskey.”  Moreover, he took the time and expense of registering the image with the Patent & Trademark Office, claiming it had been in use by his company beginning in 1897, possibly dating the origin of the saloon sign.

Dougal Lindsey Arey was born in April 1856 in Rowan County, North Carolina, the son of farmer Milas and Nancy Arey.  From his name his origins might be inferred as Scotch-Irish or English.  His surname, however, originated with a pioneer ancestor named Peter Ihrig who immigrated from the German Palatinate in 1749 and settled in Rowan.  There Peter changed his name to Eary;  many of his descendants subsequently changed it once more to Arey.  

When he was four years old his father died and Dougal grew up working as a farm hand.  He was still farming at 22 when he married Nancy Lugenia Shemwell in 1880.  Both were from Rowan and about the same age, possibly childhood sweethearts.  They would go on to have eight children, two of whom died in infancy.   Perhaps it was his growing family that propelled Aery off the farm and into Salisbury, the seat of Rowan County, where during the 1890s he opened a wholesale grocery business that specialized in liquor sales.  

The 1900 federal census found the Areys living in Salisbury with five children, three sons and two daughters, whose ages ranged from 4 to 19. A fourth son would be born a year later.  Also living with family were two servants, a cook and a “day laborer.”   Aery apparently found alcohol sales very profitable, providing funds for real estate investments.  Upon his death, his obituary accounted the liquor dealer “a man of considerable means and…probably the largest property owner in the county.”

As he prospered, the prohibition noose was slowly tightening around liquor sales in North Carolina.  Imposed initially in small towns and rural areas, the ban did not affect Arey’s operation in Salisbury, In 1908, however, a referendum enacted statewide prohibition twelve years before National Prohibition. North Carolina became the first state in the South to ban alcohol completely.  The “Pride of North Carolina Corn Whiskey” no longer could be made or sold.  Revenue agents like the one on Aery’s sign above swarmed over the Tarheel State destroying stills and whiskey.

By this time Dougal had brought his son, Ernest Cass Arey into his liquor business.  While the father stayed behind in Salisbury to look after his real estate and other business interests, Ernest moved the D. L. Arey Company to Danville, Virginia, a city immediately on the North Carolina border with excellent railroad access to its southern neighbor.  From there the company could send mail order liquor via railroad express to virtually any part of the state.  I have found only a single Aery artifact from the Danville location.  It a folding card with an “Ourgood Bank” outside cover that inside contains a mail order price list for bourbon and corn whiskies and other liquors.

By 1909, as Virginia itself inched closer to a ban on alcohol, D. L. Arey Company also opened an outlet in Baltimore at 21-23 Pratt Street.  There Ernest made an agreement with Maryland’s Cecil Distillery to provide him with whiskey for Arey brands.  Among them was “Arey’s Malt Whiskey” that sold in gallon glass jugs and carried a picture of an older gentleman that I have identified with Dougal himself. 

With whiskey production a major Maryland industry, that state seemed unlikely ever to go “dry.”  Despite that assurance, Arey’s Baltimore experience was far from trouble free.  In March 1911, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia seized two barrels of Arey whiskey shipped from Baltimore to Savannah, Georgia. The charge was misbranding.  

A violation of food and drug laws was alleged by Federal authorities because “Pride of North Carolina”  had not been aged five years nor had it been made in Salisbury as indicated on the barrels: “…The whiskey actually used in the manufacture of the product consisted of 50 percent new corn whiskey and 50 percent corn whiskey of older grade, all of said whiskey being procured from Distillery No. 19…in the State of Maryland, known as Cecil Distillery….” D. L. Arey pleaded guilty and was fined today’s dollar equivalent of $15,000.

The coming of National Prohibition in 1920 brought an end to all aspects of D. L. Arey Distilling Company and its brands.  In Salisbury, the founder himself had other investments to merit his attention.  In declining health as he aged, on March 20, 1922, Arey suffered a fatal stroke while at home and never regained consciousness.  He was 65 years old.  Arey’s funeral took place in his home on North Boundary Street and he was interred in Salisbury’s Chestnut Hill Cemetery.  His monument is shown here.

Given Aery’s lifelong dedication to North Carolina, a commitment expressed in he saloon sign that opened this vignette, he must have mused frequently how his home state abruptly had terminated his thriving liquor business, requiring a scramble to Virginia, thence to Maryland and then nothing.  Could it be, Dougal, that the revenue officer with a rifle lurking in the underbrush of your saloon sign was a peek into the future of things to come?

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Whiskey Men Who Built Opera Houses

Foreword:  While most distillers, liquor dealers and saloonkeepers concentrated their recreational attention on horse racing, prize fighting, and baseball, a handful had a respect for more refined amusements, including the opera.  With wealth from their profits selling booze, at least three, profiled here, were responsible for building opera houses in their communities.  

When Jenny Lind, a famous soprano known as the “Swedish Nightingale," sang in Cincinnati, Ohio, in early spring 1851, sitting in the audience was a successful young liquor dealer named Samuel N. Pike.  Struck to the core by her singing, Pike, shown left, vowed to use his wealth to build an opera house.

After eight years of selling whiskey, Sam finally had the riches necessary to make his dream  a reality.  Pike’s Opera House opened in 1859 with a Grand Italian Opera Company performing.  Shown right in a cameo view, it was hailed as an ornament to Cincinnati.  Featuring a grand stairway and 2,000 seats for patrons, the opera house was the first of its kind west of the Appalachians.  Said one observer:  “At that time, there was nothing out West that could compare to it.” 

In 1866 Pike’s fancy opera house burned to the ground. As an example of what onlookers called his “colossal wealth,” Pike lost no time in rebuilding.  Just a year later a new Pike’s Opera House rose from the ashes.  Just as ornate as the earlier building, this one was larger, filling a half block on Cincinnati’s Fourth Street.   This gesture earned Pike the dedication of a piece of music called “The Opera March” with a picture of his new opera house on the cover.   

After watching his first theater burn, Pike was no longer alive when in February 1903, his second Cincinnati opera house was destroyed by a fire described at the time as historically the city’s largest.  The responding twenty-seven engines companies could not save the structure.  But Sam had kept faith with his pledge to Jenny Lind.

A regional history, commenting on a North Carolina town adjacent to the South Carolina line, concluded:  “In a manner of speaking, much of early Hamlet was built on money from liquor production…The Lackey liquor fortune….”   Indeed, the day in 1890 when Eli Alexander Lackey settled in Hamlet and opened a distillery made possible the day in 1917 when the famous tenor Enrico Caruso sang in the city’s Opera House.

Lackey and his wife, Ella, dreamed of bringing something cultural to Hamlet with their liquor profits.  They decided on contributing an opera house at a property where one of Eli’s distillery warehouses had been located.  Building commenced in 1912.  As shown here the Lackeys’ opera house originally had a Greek Revival facade with an ornate interior to match. 

The theatre provided a venue for the people of Hamlet to hear lectures by Booker T. Washington and William Jennings Bryan, songs by Jenny Lind, and shows by Buffalo Bill Cody and other traveling entertainers.  “And for one glorious night in 1917,” according to an historian, “Hamlet was the center of the musical world as Italian tenor Enrico Caruso performed before a packed crowd….”  This performance brought the Lackeys to their pinnacle of prominence.

Unfortunately the glow was not to last.  The Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 ravaged Richmond County and caused the governor to put Hamlet and other towns under a strict quarantine.  It did not save Eli who succumbed on October 11, 1918. The opera house Lackey financed is now on the National Register of Historic Places.  Although its facade was altered to “art deco” in the 1920s, the opera house continues to be in use up to this day.  It is a constant reminder to residents and visitors alike of Eli Alexander Lackey and how he used his wealth from selling whiskey to bring culture to his adopted home town.

The career of Jacob Nunnemacher as a distiller was marked by his many accomplishments, including building a premier opera house in Milwaukee, and one fatal mistake.  A German Swiss immigrant, Nunnemacher in 1854 founded a distillery and cattle farm south of the city.  Before and during the Civil War, he did highly profitable business in both whiskey and beef.

With his wealth in 1871 Jacob created the Nunnemacher Block in downtown Milwaukee that included a Grand Opera House.  Shown below, the structure was three stories with tall pillars guarding the entrance.  The interior was a large open space with a full orchestra level and a balcony, box seats on two sides, rich ornamentation and lighting, and a stage suitable for performing operas, German language productions preferred.  Seating more than 500, the theater was the grandest the people of Milwaukee had ever seen. 

Four years after the opening, however, Jacob Nunnemacher became caught in what came to be known as the “Great Whiskey Ring.”  On one day in May 1875 the Secretary of the Treasury using secret agents from outside his own department directed a series of raids throughout the country,  including Milwaukee.  They arrested 86 Federal revenue agents and other government officials and 152 distillers and whiskey wholesalers for cheating on their liquor taxes.  Jacob Nunnemacher was among them. 

Although found innocent of three charges, on a fourth, conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government,  Nunnemacher was convicted and sent to prison for six months.  Although he was pardoned by President Grant after spending only two months in jail, the experience broke the distiller physically and mentally.  At 57 years old, Nunnemacher died the same year as his release.  In 1895 the theater he had financed suffered a major fire but was rebuilt by one of Milwaukee’s “beer barons.”  Today it is known as the Pabst Theater and is still in operation.

Note:  More complete biographies of these three opera-loving whiskey men may be found elsewhere on this blog:  Samuel Pike, January 1, 2018;  Eli Lackey,  July 20, 2018; and Jacob Nunnemacher,  March 21, 1912.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Mayer Margolies: Convicted Expert on Bootleg Whiskey

“There was rapt and breathless attention” in a Canton, Ohio, courtroom, accord to a news account, when a witness took the stand in July 1925 to testify to the age and origin of bottles of whiskey arrayed on a table in front of him.  He was Mayer E. Margolies, a former local liquor dealer, recruited as an expert on whether the whiskey was pre-Prohibition or bootlegged.  The selection of Margolies for this judicial task was ironic because years earlier he himself had been hauled before an Ohio court and convicted of bootlegging. 

Born in Augustow, Poland, in April 1873, Meyer was the son of Joseph B. and Sarah L. Sparling Margolies.  He emigrated at the age of 16 in 1888 to the United States, early settling in Circleville, Ohio, south of Columbus.  The 1900 federal census found him living there in a boarding house and working in a liquor store.

By the early 1900s  Margolies had moved 160 miles north to Stark County.  His first stop was in Massillon where he managed a saloon on Erie Street owned by Samuel Rosenbloom.  In Stark County Mayer also found a bride in Josephine Dittenhafer, a local woman born in Illinois who was 10 years younger than he.  Married in December 1906, the couple would have four children, Leah born in 1908;  Robert, 1809;  Gertrude, 1912, who died in her teens; and Joseph, 1916.

By the time of his marriage Mayer had moved the short distance to Canton, opening a liquor store on West Ninth Street he called the Canton Liquor Company.  His success was such that he expanded to the main commercial avenue, Market Street, where his liquor house was located on Canton’s Public Square, shown above.  He also opened a branch store 20 miles northeast in Alliance, Ohio.

Margolies was rectifying whiskey in his store, buying whiskey
by the barrel, blending it to achieve desired taste and textures, and bottling it with his own labels.  His flagship brands were “Belle of Canton,” sold with the slogan, “Get the Best,” and “Green Bag” touted as ”Good as Old Gold.”  He advertised these whiskeys widely through giveaway items like shot glasses, cork screws, and mini-jugs containing a swallow or two.

He also publicized his products vigorously in the Canton Daily News.  At Christmas 1913, he advertised:  “Whether they be for the Christmas table or for cooking—all wines and liquors bought at Margolies’ can be depended upon—absolutely. An immense assortment, each selected with scrupulous care to hold to that standard which this store has always maintained—absolute purity, fine body, delightful banquet—and at prices that make them rare values.”  He promised to deliver his goods to any part of Canton. 

The year 1913 had its setbacks for the liquor dealer.  In April the Xenia Daily Gazette had headlined: “Mayer E. Margolies Tried for Shipping intoxicants Into Dry Territory Under Fictitious Label.”   Green County, of which Xenia is the seat, had gone “dry” under local option prohibition laws.  Federal law still allowed liquor shipments to such localities from out of state.  Margolies, firmly in Ohio, sought to ship his booze into Xenia via the Western Union Express Company using a fictitious label appearing to originate out of state.

This ruse did not fool local officials, however, and the Greene County’s sheriff confiscated four boxes of liquor shipped to Xenia by Margolies.  His lawyer argued that authorities had not proved the liquid found in the four boxes was intoxicating and asked the court to dismiss the charges.  The judge was not impressed and two weeks later issued a verdict finding Margolies guilty of bootlegging.  His sentence was not immediately announced.

Likely discouraged by this event, Margolies exited the liquor business about 1919 when Ohio went completely dry ahead of National Prohibition.  He now became a  real estate dealer and insurance agent — occupations that more than a few whiskey men found compatible with their earlier careers.  Meanwhile, across town, a Hungarian immigrant named Elek Takacs had been forced to close up his saloon to become a steamship ticket and foreign exchange agent.

Fast forward to July 1825.  When Takacs left his saloon, he reputedly had taken home liquor worth $10,000 (equivalent to $220,000 today), a perfectly legal move.  Getting word of this valuable stash an Ohio state prohibition officer had come to the Takacs’ home and confiscated the bottles as latter-day bootleg moonshine.  When authorities sought to prove that the whiskey originated post-Prohibition and was “contraband,”  a court hearing was scheduled to determine the origins and quality of the liquor.

The courtroom was packed with spectators, including Elek Takacs, likely with his wife, Vilma, the couple shown here on a passport photo.  As Mayer Margolies took the stand, the tension was palpable.  The Polish immigrant did not disappoint.  He broke the seal on the first of twenty bottles and sniffed the aroma. As reported in the press:  “Then amid an expectant hush he put it to his lips and tasted the amber fluid….’I can say that this is whiskey,’ he testified.”

The courtroom crowd sighed frequently as Margolies opened bottle after bottle, twenty in all with his cork screw, poured some out and tasted it.  He testified that it all was pre-Prohibition liquor and not moonshine.  There were no illegal “modern concoctions among it,” he testified.  The headline in the Canon Daily News the next day told the story:

After that moment in the limelight, Margolies went back to selling real estate and insurance.  By the time of Repeal in 1934 he was 63 years old, semi-retired, and had no interest in returning to the liquor business.  He died in May 1941 and is buried in Canton.  His monument is shown here.  His widow, Josephine, lived another thirty years and when she died in 1971 was buried adjacent to him.

One question about this story continues to nag at me:  Did Canton authorities know of Margolies' conviction on bootlegging in Xenia when they failed to object and allowed him to assume “expert” status on the witness stand?