Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Arthur Fels: Whiskey’s Monumental Myth Maker

In Kansas City, Missouri, a youthful German immigrant named Arthur Fels, shown here in maturity,  beginning about 1911 ran a mail order liquor house by spinning an elaborate tall tale about its age, its capacity and its whiskey.  Whether Fels' myth-making paid off is open to question. After leaving the liquor trade, however, Fels found a future that elevated him into the business and political elites of Missouri for the remainder of his 97 years.

If you believed Fels’ advertising, his was among the oldest, largest, most established wholesale and mail order liquor houses in America.  One Fels advertising piece claimed:   “For nearly 50 years (ever since 1869) we have catered to the wants of the discriminating buyer, both dealer and consumer, being not only the oldest house in our line, but the largest west of New York City —  in fact, one of the largest in America.…We own and control three distilleries, two in Kentucky and one in Missouri.”  The piece went on to claim a customer base of 5,000 wholesalers and dealers, and 350,000 individual mail order customers.


Ads like this were published widely.  Printers Ink, the journal of the advertising trade early in 1910 reported:  “The Fels Distilling Company, Kansas City, will shortly begin an extensive mail order whiskey campaign in a big list of daily newspapers, weeklies, and mail-order publications in the Middle West and South.  One hundred and fifty line display copy will be used.”  Ad managers in the target areas must have been salivating at the thought of landing a Fels account.

Tall tales and outright chicanery were endemic in the pre-Prohibition liquor trade.  Arthur Fels, however, was carrying deception to new heights — or low point.  He was almost without peer in creating a monumental myth about Fels Distilling Company.  The truth lay somewhere else.  Finding it sends us back across the Atlantic to Kaiserslautern, Bayern, Germany.

There in 1876,  Arthur was born, the son of Bertha Hirsch and Joseph Fels.  When the  boy was only three years old, his father died.  Bertha, apparently seeing no prospects for herself and her only son in Germany, left their homeland and came to the United States.  She had relatives here, likely first cousins,  Adolph and Simon Hirsch, who had settled in Leadville, a Colorado mining town, and were running a saloon and wholesale liquor business. [See my post on Simon Hirsch, Dec. 10, 2011.] The Hirsch brothers would loom large in Fels' life.As he grew to maturity, Fels went to work for his cousins.

Leadville was a classic boom and bust mining town. Gold was discovered nearby during the Pikes Peak gold rush of 1859, followed by discovery of rich silver ore in the early 1870s. In July 1893 the price of silver crashed from $1.60 per troy ounce to less than sixty cents. Mines went bankrupt and Leadville fell into an economic depression. Its 1893 population of over 40,000 dwindled to less than 15,000 by 1895. The Hirsch brothers’ liquor trade virtually disappeared.

Simon was the first brother to decamp from Leadville, arriving in Kansas City about 1885.  He bought into a liquor dealership that had been established in 1879.  Under Simon’s leadership the company flourished. Trade reached outside Kansas City to other parts of Missouri and into nearby Kansas and Colorado.  At some point Fels joined him and, it appears, initially became one of four Hirsch traveling salesmen.  According to business directories, within several years Fels had been moved into the front office as cashier.

With Fels showing a distinct talent for the whiskey business, about 1912 a scheme was hatched, likely fostered by Fels himself, to create a new company that would operate side-by-side with the successful Hirsch liquor house. The new entity would concentrate on the mail order whiskey trade that for the moment was thriving because federal laws allowed shipments of alcohol into “dry” locales and states.  As the “Heart of America” Kansas City was well positioned.  Likely funded by Hirsch money, the Fels Distilling Company was born.

From the outset the new business sold more than 25 brands of whiskey, divided between nationally known labels like “Clarke’s Pure Rye,” “Guckenheimer Rye,” “Old Crow,” and “Old Sherwood Rye,” and proprietary brands like “Arabian Club,” “Cedar Brook” (from Hirsch), and "Fels 3 Star,” "Fels 4 Star Reserve,” "Fels A-1,” "Fels Monogram,” "Fels Old 100 Proof,” "Fels Pure Rye Malt,” "Fels White Rye.”

To his customers, both wholesale and mail order, Fels gifted shot glasses, virtually all of them with his name brands advertised.  His ads continually hammered at the alleged longevity of the Fels brand name.  Said one:  “Forty years ago and over upon this brand of whiskey we laid the foundation of our business which today extends from Ocean to Ocean, from Lakes to Gulf….” In a subsequent advertisement the time frame was extended to “nearly 50 years—a half century” during which the name Fels had become “a household word.”  Fels actually had been in business only a few years.

In a riff on the British children’s verse “The House that Jack Built,” that he called “The House that Fels Built,” Arthur embellished the tall tale of his enterprise by claiming to have built a distillery, pictured at left with the caption “This is the House that Fels built.”  Other illustrations purport to show the “…The Worm where in was distilled with skill the Liquor rare”  and “…The Oak Cask, so huge and stout, that aged so well the Liquor rare….”

In fact, Fels was distilling none of his own whiskey but with the help of the Hirsch brothers blending his distillery products in a back room of their liquor house.  The idea that Fels owned and controlled three distilleries also was a fantasy.  For a brief period (1889-1892) Simon Hirsch was recorded as a co-owner of a distillery in Daviess County, Kentucky (RD#18, 2nd District).  This was well before the Fels operation began.

The myth about his company that Fels attempted to project seeming failed miserably.  Perhaps his “rectified” whiskey was substandard.  Certainly the expense of the aggressive ad campaign must have been drain on the coffers of the Hirsch company.  Then too, Prohibition lurked in the foreseeable future.  After at most seven years in business, someone pulled the plug on The Fels Distilling Company.  It ceased operations.  The culprit likely was Simon Hirsch.

Despite the demise of his liquor enterprise, however, Arthur Fels flourished.  He became an investment banker and realtor.  As president of the Arthur Fels Company, he was credited with being instrumental in the financing of early high-rise buildings in Kansas City and St. Louis.  He also had a political career, elected to the city council in 1924 and 1925. During World War II he was selected as a member of the Selective Service Board.  Married and with one son,  Fels died at 97 years old and was cremated.

As noted earlier, tall tales were an accepted part of the environment in the pre-Prohibition liquor trade, a flaw that likely helped bring on National Prohibition.  Although Fels’ fabrications were among the most egregious, his failure may indicate that the drinking public was more knowledgable than he gave them credit for.  Or maybe it was just that he was peddling lousy whiskey.

Note:  This post was researched from a number of online and other sources.

Friday, December 24, 2021

Whiskey Men at National Party Conventions

Forward:  The nature of running a liquor-associated business often involved pre-Prohibition whiskey men intimately in the political processes of their times.  Here are brief stories of three who had  achieved sufficient stature in the Democratic or Republican party to be named as a national convention delegates charged with  nominating a Presidential candidate.

Whatever the enterprise,  Christian Hanlen of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, throughout his life exhibited an uncanny ability to be on the side of success.   As a soldier in the Yankee Army during the Civil War, as a whisky dealer, and as a delegate to the 1892 Democratic National Convention,  Christian was could pick a winner.

Beginning about 1882, Hanlen emerged as owner/manager of a wholesale liquor business called Hanlen Bros., located a 330 Market St. in Harrisburg.  As Hanlen’s business flourished, so did his stature in the community.  Like many of the whiskey dealers and saloonkeepers of the time who saw Prohibitionist forces heading to the Republican banner,  Christian was a strong Democrat. 

His involvement in party activities came during a particularly crucial period.  Grover Cleveland, the first Democrat to be elected President since before the Civil War, had been defeated for reelection in 1888 by the Republican Benjamin Harrison despite Cleveland having garnered a majority in the popular vote.   When Cleveland ran again in 1892, serious opposition to him erupted within the Democratic Party.  Hanlen, however, was cited by the New York Times as a particularly ardent Cleveland supporter.

Elected as a delegate to the Democratic Convention in Chicago,  Hanlen headed across the country by train and emerged upon a convention center nicknamed “The Wigwam.”  Shown here it was a temporary building that had been thrown up in 30 days, located on Michigan Avenue between Washington and Madison.  Whatever excitement Christian experienced as a delegate, the Wigwam provided much of it.   The first day of the convention was marred by a rainstorm when the building sprung a massive leak.  Delegates were opening  umbrellas inside.  The following day as nominations were made, the roof broke again during a rain, showering the delegates.

Presidential balloting did not begun until 3 a.m. that morning.  Cleveland received enough votes to be nominated on the first ballot.  When the convention broke up at almost 5 a.m. Hanlen presumably was tired but  jubilant.   He would celebrate again on the night of the general election when Cleveland went on to victory and a return to the Presidency.

Jere M. Blowe, an African-American, ran a saloon and liquor business in Vicksburg, Mississippi, during a period of history when the local newspaper opined:  Don’t mess with with white supremacy;  it is loaded with determination, gunpowder and dynamite.” Yet Blowe managed to provide leadership in his community, including being a delegate to the Republican National Convention.

Briefly during the period of Reconstruction (1865-1877), blacks in Mississippi were given a measure of freedom roughly equal to whites.  But as the Federal Government relented in its effort to seek equality,  a series of white-passed laws increasingly discriminated against the Negro population.  Growing up during Reconstruction, it is possible that Blowe was able to get a good public education, but he experienced the gradual erosion of rights for himself and his people.

For a time Blowe served as a Vicksburg alderman, a position that seems to have had little power.   He also was selected an alternate delegate to the GOP Convention of 1908, along with a fellow black Vicksburg saloonkeeper named Wesley Crayton.  It is likely that they shared a “Jim Crow” train car to travel to Chicago where the Coliseum awaited, patriotically decorated for the convention.  Historian Neil McMillan has written: “Although impotent in the state and local context, Mississippi’s blacks, like Republican functionaries in other parts of the South, took an important part in the nomination of Presidential candidates.

The 1908 convention nominated Secretary of War William Howard Taft of Ohio, who would go on the win the general election.   McMillan goes on to say that black delegates had a disproportionate influence on convention outcomes and “performed their function in a corruption atmosphere.”  Whatever his experience, Blowe could return to Mississippi, where he was largely powerless to affect local affairs,  knowing that the GOP platform that year vowed to “uphold the rights of African-Americans.”  It turned out to be an empty promise.

In 1893, swayed by a powerful preacher, Tom Doores of Bowling Green, Kentucky,  took a solemn pledge never again to touch alcohol.  By 1900 he seemingly had forgotten, abandoned carpentry, and was in business as “J. T. Doores & Co., Distillers and Wholesale Liquor Dealers,” on Main Street.  After ten years of making money from alcohol, Doores sold out and turned his attention to real estate and politics.

Doores already had taken steps toward political prominence.  In 1904 he was elected as a Kentucky delegate to the 1904 Republican convention held in Chicago, one that nominated Teddy Roosevelt.  In 1908 he was an alternate to the convention that selected William Howard Taft.  He was seen by the Taft people as an effective loyalist.

By 1812, however, the Grand Old Party had been riven by a split between Roosevelt and Taft. By now Doores not only was the Warren County Republican chairman, he also had been appointed by the Taft Administration as the postmaster of Bowling Green, a highly sought, well paid political appointment. After the 1912 GOP nominating convention in Chicago, the “muckrakers” of Colliers Magazine charged that a group of 23 Kentucky postmasters and assistant postmasters who also were county chairmen, Doores among them, had stolen the state’s nominating votes from Roosevelt.  The periodical named them and quoted their salaries.  At $2,700 a year, Doores was the highest paid.

Ultimately the split cost the GOP the White House as Democrat Woodrow Wilson was elected.  Doores lost his postal job.  He made a bid for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1916 but inexplicably pulled out just before the election.  A year later he tried bootlegging, was caught and tried.  The Cincinnati Enquirer opined:  “Doores probably is the most prominent man who yet has been arrested in Kentucky on a charge of peddling liquor into a dry burg.”  What happened then is undisclosed.  He probably received a fine and no jail time.  Five years later, Doores — still a relatively young 52 years — died and was buried in Fairview Cemetery in Bowling Green. 

Note:   More complete vignettes on each of these whiskey men can be found elsewhere on this website:   Christian Hanlen, August 9, 2012;  Jere Blowe, April 6, 2013; and Tom Doores, January 26, 2015.

Monday, December 20, 2021

Pierre Lacour and Whiskey Without Distilling

“QUIT DRINKING POISONOUS LIQUORS.” Thus blared the headlines of Pierre Lacour's’ advertisements.  Instead, the New Orleans entrepreneur for $20 would sell you 1) A complete assortment of “Oils necessary for making and flavoring every variety of liquor,” 2) ingredients to convert 70 gallons of whiskey into 100, and 3) “every article” needed to start a liquor store.   That likely would include a supply of crushed, dried cochineal bugs, an insect that lives on cacti in Mexico and Central America.

The secret behind Lacour’s liquor was that it really did not require whiskey at all, just raw alcohol he called “neutral spirits.”  Lacour’s book, The Manufacture of Liquors, Wines and Cordials without the Aid of Distillation, first published in 1853, listed dozens of “recipes” for making liquor without the onerous and time consuming process of distillation.  Among them are four instructions for making various American whiskeys.

1.  Old Bourbon Whiskey:  Neutral Spirits, four gallons; refined sugar, three pounds;  dissolved in water, three quarts;  decoction of tea, one pint; three drops of oil of wintergreen, dissolved in one ounce of alcohol; color with tincture of cochineal, two ounces;  burnt sugar, three ounces.

Comment:  My father, a dentist, when called late at night by a patient suffering from a toothache would suggest swabbing it with oil of wintergreen and arrange to meet the sufferer in the morning.

2.  Monogahela Whiskey:  Neutral spirits, four gallons; honey three pints, dissolved in water, one gallon;  rum, half gallon; nitric ether, half an ounce. This is to be colored to suit fancy.  Some customers prefer this whiskey transparent;  while some like it just perceptibly ringed with brown; while others, again, want it rather deep, and partaking of red. [Then apparently add the bugs]. 

Comment:  Nitric ether is defined as a colorless, flammable liquid used in perfumes, drugs, and dyes and in organic synthesis.  It is potassium nitrate mixed with alcohol.  The mechanism left purports to show the process of creating the compound.

3.  Oronoko Rye:  Neutral spirits, four gallons; refined sugar, three and a half pounds, dissolved in water to dissolve three pints;  decoction of tea, one pint; burnt sugar, four ounces; oil of pear, half an ounce, dissolved in an ounce of alcohol.

Comment:  The name of this whiskey seems to have been esoteric to Lacour himself.  I can find no such designation anywhere. Pear seeds contain a high percentage of oil (50%). The seeds, it is said, can be processed into a kind of vegetable oil. 

4.  Tuscaloosa Whiskey:  Neutral spirits, four pints; honey three pints, dissolved in water, three pints; solution of starch, five pints;  oil of wintergreen, four drops dissolved in half an ounce of acetic ether; color with four ounces burnt sugar.

Comment:  One reference to a Tuscaloosa Whiskey is from the Baltimore distillery of W. T. Walters.  He was producing that brand more than a decade after the publication of the book so that it is difficult to know the origin of Lacour’s reference.  It is doubtful that Walter’s whiskey included a “solution of starch” or acetic ether, defined as “a colourless volatile flammable fragrant liquid ester, made from acetic acid and ethanol.”  

Michael Veach of the Filson Historical Society and America's reigning expert on bourbon history has explained why it is important to parse these recipes.  First, they tell us what ingredients were among those being used to concoct cheap alcoholic beverages.  Second, they validate the complaint by legitimate distillers against shysters clothing themselves in the garment of “rectifiers,” that is, blenders of whiskey.

An 1858 newspaper ad for Lacours potions indicated that it was not necessary to start from scratch and assemble for oneself all the esoteric ingredients needed to  imitate whiskey.  He suggested starting with whatever “rectified,” whiskey was at hand.  Simply by adding “Lacour’s Oil of Rye,” it was possible to create Monongahela Rye, Old Virginia Malt Whiskey or even Kentucky Bourbon.  To convert rectified whiskey into “Old Irish Malt Whiskey” Lacour recommended oil of cedrat, extracted from a citrus-type fruit that grows in Latin America,

Of Lacour himself, information is scant.  Little is known of his personal life. His date of birth has been given as “about 1800.” He called himself “of Bordeaux,” leading to the assumption that he had been a resident of that city before emigrating to the United States.  Lacour’s arrival year and place is given as 1848 and New Orleans.  Those few details are from a 1992 book entitled “The Foreign French: Nineteenth-Century French Immigration into Louisiana,” by Carl A. Brasseaux.

Upon his arrival, Lacour reputedly opened a saloon in the New Orleans’ French Quarter.  His venture into the liquor trade may have led him to scheming about how to make popular alcoholic drinks on the cheap.   His book, cited earlier, was first published in 1853 and republished at least once in 1860. An 1861 New Orleans business directory listed a “Pierre Lacour” as a cotton trader, doing business in Cloutierville, Natchitoches, Louisiana.  If this is our man, he may have been branching out into other enterprises.  I can find no record of his death or place of interment.

Lacour went on to write at least two more books that may now be lost, including “Lacour’s Chemical Analysis” and “Lacour’s Chemical Manipulations.”  He also claimed to have set up a laboratory in Jefferson Parish, contiguous to New Orleans, for the manufacture of “Lacour’s Essential Oils” — essential that is for turning raw alcohol into any number of faux liquors.  

In contemplating the history of American whiskey before Prohibition,  Lacour’s story is instructive.  Although my research indicates that many of “rectifiers,” blenders of whiskey, played it straight, enough examples of those who cheated have come to light to indicate that Lacour had his disciples.   The Kentucky straight bourbon distillers who pressed the government to have all blended whiskeys designated as “artificial” were not just self-serving.  National Prohibition, while ill-considered and devastating, had one positive effect:  It eliminated the Lacours of the liquor trade.

Note:  While drawn from a variety of sources, this post was made possible by Mike Veach in his 2013 book “Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey:  An American Heritage.”  There he reprinted the four Lacour whiskey recipes, not available from Internet sources. 

Thursday, December 16, 2021

St. Paul's Daniel Aberle: Potables, Parks, & Politics

 Arriving on these shores from Germany in 1870 at the age of 22 and likely speaking little or no English, within a few years Daniel Aberle had established his own liquor store.  After moving his business to St. Paul, Aberle carved out a career there that saw him appointed park commissioner, become a power in the Democratic Party, and accounted among the “Leading Men of the State of Minnesota.”   Aberle’s is another American success story based on selling whiskey.

Daniel Aberle was born in 1848 in Baden, Germany, the son of Lazarus and Karoline Mayer Aberle.  Educated in the good German schools, at the age of 22 he decided to seek his fortune in the United States, boarding a ship that took him to New York City.  He must have seen what he liked in the Big Apple because he stayed for the next seven years.  Aberle’s employment during that period has not come to light but my surmise is that for at least some of the period he was working in the liquor trade.

In New York he met Amelia Stern, born in New York,.  The 1870 census records her as a girl of sixteen working as a clerk, almost certainly in the “fancy goods” store run by her 46-year old mother, Barbara, a German immigrant.  Although no man was recorded as present in the Stern household, Barbara is listed by the census having six children, ranging in age from eighteen to one year.  A puzzle.

Daniel and Amelia were married in Manhattan in 1878.  Almost immediately after, apparently being aware of an opportunity, the newlyweds left New York City and headed 1,200 miles west to St. Joseph, Missouri.  "St. Joe", as it was commonly called, was a jumping-off point for migrants headed to West.  Pioneers would stay and purchase supplies before they heading out in wagon trains across the Great Plains. Although this traffic had slowed after the Civil War, the city had continued to grow steadily.

Aberle is reported to have opened a wholesale liquor store in St. Joseph in 1878 and pursued the business for about next six years.  The couple’s first two children would be born there, David W. in 1879 and Edward M. in 1881. The 1880 census found the family in St. Joseph, along with Amelia’s younger sister, Emma, and three of Daniel’s adult cousins, Morrris, Sidney and Iela Flarsheim, The Flarsheim men apparently were working as salesmen for Aberle.  The busy household was completed by a live-in maid.

Business in St. Joseph apparently was not up to Abele’s expectations.  In April 1882, Aberle moved his family and liquor house 425 miles almost directly north to St. Paul, Minnesota.  It would be his last move.  The 1883 St. Paul city directory records D. Aberle & Company “Wholesale Wines and Liquors” at 409-411 Sibley Street.  Morris Flarsheim now was in management.  By 1886, an apparent need for more space prompted a move to 236 East Seventh Avenue.  A postcard view of that block reveals an Aberle sign at the far left of the image.

Aberle early showed a flair for advertising his products.  Show here is a bottle of “Golden Wedding” whiskey, a brand from the Joseph Finch distillery in Pittsburgh [See post on Finch, January 31, 2015.]  Aberle has wrapped it in a distinctive ceramic  jug from the Fulper Pottery in Flemington, New Jersey.  He also was providing wholesale customers such as saloons, hotels and restaurants with attractive glass “back of the bar” decanters to advertise his “Aberle’s Melbrook” and “Loring” brand whiskeys.  I can find no evidence that Aberle trademarked any of his proprietary labels.

As Abele’s stature as a St. Paul businessman grew, so did opportunities for community service.  From 1973 to 1891 the St. Paul City Council, in charge of planning city parks, had accomplished little.  In 1991 a separate commission assumed entire charge of parks.  It was led by a dynamic superintendent of parks named Frederick Nussbaumer, a man credited with “great taste and ability in the construction of landscape work” who decidedly improved the the city’s park system.  Both originally from the same part of Germany, Nussbaumer in 1901 tapped Aberle as a member of the commission.  Serving at least six years and likely beyond, the liquor dealer worked closely with the superintendent for the development of the 402 acre Como Park, then and now a St. Paul showpiece.

Aberle also was becoming a major figure in Minnesota’s Democratic Party, rising eventually to the executive committee and for a time serving as state treasurer.  He was chosen as a delegate to the 1900 Democratic National Convention, where the only candidate was William Jennings Bryan, making his third unsuccessful try at President.  Although the 1904 Democratic Convention, shown below, was contested among eight candidates, the eventual nominee, Judge Alton Parker, also lost.  As a member of Minnesota’s slate of electors for Parker, Aberle watched from the sidelines as Theodore Roosevelt was inaugurated.

Parks and politics apparently never distracted Aberle from his main concern — selling liquor.  By 1901, the year of his parks appointment, he had taken on a partner named Westheimer.  His eldest son, David, was now the secretary of the liquor house.  By 1905 Westheimer had departed and Aberle’s second son, Edward, joined the firm.  David became vice president; Edward, secretary and treasurer.  Incorporated and moved to 138 Third Street, the company name was changed to Daniel Aberle & Sons. 


These changes were reflected in a tray-shaped saloon sign, featuring a woman dressed in a fancy gown and well-quaffed hair preparing to drink a shot glass full of whiskey while a bottle of “Golden Link” sits nearby on a dresser.  The motto is “Worth Asking For.”  My educated guess is that it refers to the liquor rather than the lady.  The brand also was advertised in a back-of-the-bar bottle.  Another Aberle label was "Governors Special Bourbon."

Aberle continued to manage the wholesale liquor business until his health failed. He died in 1916 and was buried in Mount Zion Temple Cemetery in St. Paul. A large monument denotes the spot.  Eight years later Amelia would join him there. The Aberle sons continued to manage the liquor house until shut down by National Prohibition in 1919.  Subsequently, David became president of a wholesale confectionary company and Edward maintained an office in St. Paul’s Pioneer Building.

The story of Daniel Aberle’s rise from penurious German immigrant to wealthy and influential American citizen was captured in two 1907 publications.  In one Aberle was counted among the “leading men of Minnesota.”  In the other, he was featured as one of “the big folks in Minnesota.”  In short, he had come a long way from Baden.

Note:  The two books alluded to above are “The Book of Minnesotans:  A Biographical Dictionary of Leading Men of the State of Minnesota” by Albert Nelson Marquis, and “Sketches of Big Folks in Minnesota,” transcribed by  Marilyn Clore.  Both 1907 documents provide details of Aberle’s life.