Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Out to Sea with Louisville’s William Baass

Some distillers and liquor blenders put their products on ships out to sea in the idea that ocean rocking and rolling aged and “soften” their whiskeys.  By contrast, William C. Baass, scion of a family in the liquor business, kept his whiskey at home and put himself out to sea, apparently keen to experience the world outside of Louisville, Kentucky.  Baass, shown here, fittingly is seen in a passport photo. 

William was born in November 1868 in Louisville, the son of Henry and Amalia Jacobs Baass.  In the center of Kentucky distilling and indeed the entire universe of American whiskey, Henry Baass, an immigrant from Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, ran a wholesale liquor house that he founded in the late 1860s or early 1870s. It was located at 40 Jefferson Street, near Brook Street..  The couple had four children, in addition to William, brothers Christ and Henry L., and younger sisters, Pauline and Henrietta.  The family lived over the liquor store.

When William was only 12,  Henry Baass died in 1880 at the age of 45 and was buried in Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery.  This left his mother Amalia with four minor children to raise and a liquor business to operate.  A German immigrant herself, she proved up to the task.  For the next eight years as her sons grew to maturity, Amalia, as executrix of Henry’s estate, ran the business, apparently successfully.  In time oldest brother Christ became bookkeeper and William a clerk.  

All this changed in 1866 when Amalia remarried, her husband a local businessman named Theodore Ahrens whose wife had died the previous year.  Christ became the liquor store manager and William took over the books.  As Henry’s estate was finally settled the transaction included selling the Jefferson Street business.  Christ and William were without jobs.  Undaunted, the brothers opened a new liquor business at 114 East Market Street under the name Baass Bros. Liquors.

In 1898 after only a few months after his marriage, Christ died at 30 leaving exclusive proprietorship of the store to William, who wasted no time changing the company name to his own.  That name adorns a variety of ceramic jugs in which Baass marketed his whiskey.  He was not a distiller nor is there any evidence that he was “rectifying,” that is, blending whiskey on premises and selling it under a brand name.  He seems to have been buying product by the barrel and decanting it directly into containers ranging in size from several gallons to quarts. His customers principally were local saloons, restaurants and hotels.  An embossed glass flask with Baass’s name indicates he was also selling to retail customers.

Baass was a success in the whiskey trade.  A lifelong bachelor he could afford to lodge in Louisville’s posh Galt House.  Having lived his entire life in Louisville and traveling little, as he aged, the whiskey man began to have thoughts of seeing the world.  His first forays were in the winters of 1918 and 1919, both trips to Cuba on a ship from the United Fruit Company like the SS Waverley, shown below.  Both times Baass said he was going on “commercial business,” presumably to buy rum for his liquor store.

Those voyages must have whet his appetite for sea travel; a 1920 journey involved a considerably more ambitious itinerary.  On his passport, one that included a new photo, Baass said his destination was Japan, China, Spain, Holland, Italy, France, Switzerland, Belgium, British Isles, Monaco, Turkey and Egypt.  His first ship was the SS Shinyo-Maru, below, embarking from San Francisco.  Asked for the objective of his trip on his passport application, Baass originally had written, “recreation and pleasure.”  Someone, likely Baass himself, had crossed that out and written “work.”

That extensive around the world jaunt seems only to have whetted Baass’  appetite for more ocean travel.  The following year found him in Colon, Panama, having lost his passport and applying to the American embassy for an emergency document.  He was planning to proceed from Panama to Brazil, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Venezuela.  By this time National Prohibition had shut down his liquor house and at the age of 54, he was listing himself as retired.  The last trip I can identify for Baass was still another winter jaunt to and from Cuba in 1926.  This time he shipped aboard the SS Turialba, shown below.  That visit required yet another passport photo.

Evidence is that Baass, having seen much of the world, subsequently made a home for himself in a rural area about ten miles north of Louisville.  He lived to be 82 years old, likely reliving memories of his globetrotting adventures.  As he aged, Baass’s health deteriorated.  In 1948 he was diagnosed as with  degenerative heart disease.  He worsened over the following two years and died in December, 1950.  Like his father and mother William lies buried in Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery.

Note:  Much of the information for this post was derived from ancestry.com and other internet  sources.  Readers should take note that nowhere earlier did I stoop to making a pun on Baass’s name with reference to his apparent love of being surrounded by water.  But I cannot help myself from doing it here.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Mark Twain and American Whiskey


More than any other writer in American history,  Mark Twain celebrated whiskey as the national drink of choice.   He has been quoted saying:  “Whiskey is for drinking;  water is for fighting over.”  But perhaps his most famous tribute to whiskey was Twain’s rather elaborate spoof on a patriotic saying known to young and old of his time:   “Westward the course of empire takes its way....”

Originally penned by an obscure American poet named George Berkeley in the early 1700s, the quote was picked up by Historian George Bancroft in 1840 and became a line stamped on the back cover of his highly popular (and still read) “History of the United States.”   In turn, the quote became the title and theme of a painting that adorned a stairway in the U.S. Capitol, shown below.  Put simply, the quotation implies that the United States was destined to move westward and create a new empire in North America --  a prediction that largely became true.

For Twain,  who made a career out of debunking overly romantic notions,  the driving force behind American expansion was not empire-building but whiskey.  In his autobiographical book, “Life on the Mississippi,”  the author takes issue with  the well-known quote about America’s expansion.  It should have been, he said:  “Westward the JUG of Empire takes its way.” 

Twain explained:  “How solemn and beautiful is the thought, that the earliest pioneer of civilization, the van-leader of civilization, is never the steamboat, never the railroad, never the newspaper, never the Sabbath-school, never the missionary--but always whiskey!  Such is the case. Look history over; you will see. The missionary comes after the whiskey -- I mean he arrives after the whiskey has arrived; next comes the poor immigrant, with ax and hoe and rifle; next, the trader; next, the miscellaneous rush; next, the gambler, the desperado, the highwayman, and all their kindred in sin of both sexes; and next, the smart chap who has bought up an old grant that covers all the land; this brings the lawyer tribe; the vigilance committee brings the undertaker. All these interests bring the newspaper; the newspaper starts up politics and a railroad; all hands turn to and build a church and a jail-- and behold, civilization is established for ever in the land. But whiskey, you see, was the van-leader in this beneficent work.”

Twain/Clemens was not merely a man of words about whiskey,  but of deeds as well.  While not given to over-indulging,  his  fondness for bourbon was well known.    As he wrote in his “Autobiography”,  he recalled imbibing at an early age:  “For many years I believed that I remembered helping my grandfather drink his whiskey toddy when I was six weeks old but I do not tell about that any more, now; I am grown old and my memory is not as active as it used to be.”   

During his brief career as a journalist in Washington about 1868,  Twain agreed to share expenses with a roommate with a similar taste for whiskey.   Their total joint income per week was $24.   In his autobiography he recounts:  “Twenty four dollars a week would really have been riches to us if hadn’t had to support that jug;  because of the jug we were always sailing pretty close to the wind....”

Later in life, when a friend sent him a case of whiskey, Twain’s thank-you note ran this way:   “The whiskey arrived in due course...;  last week one bottle of it was extracted from the wood and inserted in me, on the installment plan, with this result: that I believe it to be the best, smoothest whiskey now on the planet.” 

In his later years, while in England on a lecture tour, Twain remarked to companions that despite enjoying their company he badly missed the taste of Kentucky bourbon.  To accommodate him, friends imported six cases and even switched from scotch to help him drink it.   When he left England two cases remained. “I will be back very soon,” said he.  “Save them for me.”  Though Twain never returned, the bourbon was left untouched until World War II when the supply was destroyed during a German bombing raid.

During his lifetime,  Twain lent his famous face and name to a range of products:  Mark Twain Tobacco,  Mark Twain Cigars,  and -- naturally -- Mark Twain Whiskey.   One such brand was registered by Ralph W.  Ashcroft of Brooklyn, New York, in 1907.  Others were Mark Twain’s Private Stock,  a pre-Prohibition brand with a drawing of Twain on the front.  Shown here is a post-Prohibition brand called “Mark Twain Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey,” featuring a Mississippi riverboat on the label. It was identified as the product of the Mark Twain Distilling Company of Bardstown, Kentucky. 

No whiskey,  however,  can match Old Crow for latching onto the aura of Mark Twain.  In a series of ads that ran in national magazines like the Saturday Evening Post and LIFE during the late 1950s and early 1960s,  Twain is depicted in various situations,  including holding forth at a tavern, conversing with other notable contemporaries over a glass of bourbon, and visiting the distillery.  In another ad, shown here, he is visiting Klaproth’s Tavern, an Elmira, New York, saloon not far from Twain’s spacious home.  A barrel of Old Crow is being tapped on the bar and the author inquires of the bartender: “Lou, which barrel are we using now?”  

Old Crow was created  by a man credited with developing the first bourbon whiskey,  James Crowe,  a Scottish chemist and physician who settled in Kentucky.  The brand probably was familiar to Twain and may well have been his whiskey of choice.  But he would not have appreciated the Old Crow ad that showed him entertaining fellow writer, Bret Harte, at  his home.   

The ad depicts a mature, seated Twain while Harte is standing as if in the midst of a discourse. The scene could never have happened.   Although Twain and Harte had been youthful friends, later in life they had become estranged.  Twain publicly pilloried Harte in his autobiography,  stating:  “He was bad, distinctly bad;  he had no feeling and he had no conscience.”  In an 1878 private letter he wrote:  “Harte is a liar, a thief, a swindler, a snob, a sot, a sponge, a coward.....”  Harte was never invited to Twain’s house to sip Old Crow or anything else.

Clearly Mark Twain deserves to be considered the “patron saint” of American whiskey for his dedication to our Nation’s indigenous spirits.  It is appropriate, therefore to end this vignette with a final Twain observation:

Monday, March 22, 2021

Whiskey Men As Philanthropists


 Foreword:  Many pre-Prohibition distillers and liquor dealers profiled on this blog became wealthy men from their endeavors in the whiskey trade and some of their number engaged in philanthropic giving that earned them reputations in their communities for extraordinary generosity.  This is the story of three such “whiskey men.”

A street is named for Justin Gras in Shreveport, Louisiana, and a marker stands at the place where he once sold alcoholic spirits.  Speaking no English and virtually penniless when he immigrated from France to the United States as a youth in 1891, Gras, shown here, became one of the city’s most respected and wealthy businessmen.  That said, his most lasting monument is the Community Foundation he endowed that continues to provide the charitable giving that he practiced so generously while he was alive. 

Gras proved a quick learner both of the language and the mercantile trade.  Within four years of arrival in 1895 he was able to open his own small store at the southwest corner of Texas Avenue and Common Street.  In time he grew the business to be the largest retail grocery and liquor store in Shreveport.  

By then he was well known for his generosity. In the wake of World War One,  Gras contributed to rebuilding a school and chapel in his home village of Le Petit Puy destroyed in the fighting, and the restoration of the Cathedral of Embrun, a historic Church built by Charlemagne in the Ninth Century.  For these gifts Gras was awarded the Benemerenti Medal by Pope Pius XII. The bulk of Gras’ giving, however, was local.  He is said often to have repeated the motto:  “What’s good for Shreveport is good for me.” 

Gras remained a bachelor until the age of 57.  On a cruise in 1925, however, he met Eugenie Torr, originally from San Jose, California.  The two had no children but she proved to be highly supportive of Justin’s generosity.  At his death in 1959 Gras’ estate was valued at $2.3 million.  Through his will this philanthropist executed his greatest act of generosity by establishing the Community Foundation of Shreveport-Bossier and endowing it lavishly.  At Eugenie’s death in 1971 she gave the Foundation the residual portion of the Gras estate that she had inherited. 

The good works of Justin and Eugenie go on as their gifts provided the cornerstone of the foundation.  Among beneficiaries over time have been the Shreveport Symphony, the Strand Theatre, Louisiana State University at Shreveport, and the Red River Revel Arts Festival.  The Foundation continues to support local causes and in recent years sums of more than $100,000 have been awarded to organizations in the Shreveport area from the Gras’ funds

At John O’Connor’s funeral, the Catholic archbishop of Pittsburgh eulogized:  “…Anything that I could say would be a poor tribute to a man, who according to his means and opportunities, was so large-hearted, so generous, so humble, so unostentatious in his exercise of his goodness and the bestowal of his benefactions.  Peace be to him.”  The archbishop was speaking of the man whose photo is at right — O’Conner, a whiskey man through and through.

At some point during the 1850s, O’Connor entered the liquor trade. He was very successful and although supporting a wife and six children, he found time and money to help those less fortunate.  O’Connors' particular interest was in the orphans of Pittsburgh.  According to a biography:  “The building of the first St. Paul’s Orphan Asylum was the result of his study of conditions and untiring championship of its founding.” 

 At his funeral, the Archbishop related of him:  “In earlier days when the orphans…were in greater need than at the present time, he not only gave what he could afford, he went from door to door and from one business house to another gathering food and clothing for the orphans….Almost every Sunday he visited the orphanage and inquired into their wants.”   A photo of the children at St. Paul's is below:

In addition to orphans as the object of O’Connor’s philanthropy, he contributed generously to charitable institutions assisting the needy elderly, including the Little Sisters of the Poor home, and homeless women helped by the Sisters of Good Shepherd.  O’Connor also was a major financial backer of the “Great Sanitary Fair” held in Pittsburgh during the Civil War, part of a national campaign  to raise funds for wounded Union soldiers throughout the United States.

In 1912 O’Conner died as he lived, still residing above the liquor business he had founded more than sixty years earlier -- the source of the funds that fueled his philanthropy.  In death he continued as a benefactor to the needy, willing the greater part of his estate to charitable organizations.  

Few men have experienced the tragedies that during his lifetime beset Cincinnati liquor dealer and entrepreneur, Jacob Schmidlapp, shown here.  Fewer still have been able to rise above their pain and sorrow to do so much for their fellow Americans in need.

 Calling his enterprise Schmidlapp’s Live Oak Distillery, Jacob had a flair for advertising and from early on was marketing his whiskeys to all parts of the country.  As a result of his strong business sense, profits from his liquor enterprise were substantial and allowed him with partners to acquire a distillery in Hamilton County not far from Cincinnati.  Eventually the property included a plant with a mashing capacity of 4,000 bushels of grain per day, a 100,000 bushel capacity grain elevator, three warehouses capable of holding 35,000 barrels, and three drying silos producing 6,000 tons of feed annually.  With his distillery and other investments Schmidlapp became very wealthy.

Jacob also knew repeated tragic loss.  Two of his six children died in infancy.  In 1899 while on a vacation trip to France his wife, Emelie, and oldest daughter were killed in a railroad accident.   The fates had one more blow to deal Jacob. When his daughter, Charlotte, reached maturity, she yearned to travel in Europe, especially to see France and Germany.  Recalling what had befallen Emelie and Emma, the father likely hesitated but eventually acceded to the girl’s desires.  In the autumn of 1908, age 19, Charlotte departed from ship from New York for Europe, on the trip of her lifetime.  Days later the message reached Jacob — she had been killed in an auto accident in France.

Following the deaths of his wife and daughters, Schmidlapp began giving away large portions of his millions.  He financed a “magnificent annex” to the Cincinnati Art Museum, built a dormitory for the Cincinnati College of Music, and created an institution for women’s education in the name of daughter Charlotte.  He also gave a library and memorial monument to Piqua, his home town.  Jacob is said to have been particularly proud of Washington Terrace, Walnut Hills, a development of more than 400 homes he built to house working class African-Americans, shown below. He also was a trustee and contributor to Cincinnati’s McCall Colored Industrial School.

Jacob’s philanthropic works did not end with his death.  Having given most of his money away during his lifetime Jacob willed his residual estate, then amounting to about $1 million, to the Union Bank to create a charitable trust.  Roughly a quarter of that amount went to the Charlotte R. Schmidlapp Fund, created to empower and advance the welfare of women and girls.  What started as a $250,000 fund has grown to today to some $30 million in assets.  Personal tragedy had not destroyed this whiskey man’s concern for others.

Note:   More complete vignettes on each of these three whiskey men/philanthropists may be found earlier on this site:  Justin Gras, March 20, 2015;  John O’Connor, July 14, 2019; and Jacob Schmidlapp, June 18, 2020.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Wyatt Earp’s “North to Alaska” Saloon

 No Western figure has more engendered more written words than Wyatt Earp.  As a result, trying to cover his colorful career in a single post is impossible.  Accordingly, this vignette focuses on Earp during the four years he operated a popular saloon in Nome, Alaska, far from Tombstone, Arizona and the gunfight at the OK Corral for which the gunslinger, shown here, is best remembered.

Indeed, some have speculated that it was the aftermath of the October 1881 shootout that sent him “north to Alaska,” when he and his brothers were accused of murder.  A better explanation is provided by Western historian John Boessenecker:   For his entire life was a gamble, an effort to make money without working hard for it, to succeed quickly without ever settling in for the long haul.”   Earp himself is quoted saying that he came to Nome “to mine the miners.”

After gunfights in Arizona, Earp and his common-law wife, Josephine Sarah Marcus, whom Wyatt called “Sadie,” moved around the Far West, finally stopping in Yuma, Arizona.  It was there that Earp learned of a gold strike in the small fishing village of Nome, Alaska, not far from the Article Circle.   As author Ann Kirschner puts it:  “Josephine and Wyatt Earp were drawn to Nome as one more place to seek their fortune.

Because of health issues that laid them up in San Francisco, the couples’ 1898 trip to Nome was delayed.  By the time they started north they found the Yukon River frozen and themselves stranded in tiny Rampart, Alaska.  There they are said to have spent the winter in a shack, shown here, built by the novelist and playwright Rex Beach.  In the spring they proceeded to St. Michael, Alaska, where Earp opened a store selling beer and cigars.  Although the income was steady they were still 125 miles from Nome.  In letters Earp’s friend Tex Rickard urged them on to Nome where he already was running a saloon. [See my post on Rickard Nov. 22, 2019].

In 1899 Wyatt and Josephine at last arrived in Nome.  The settlement that greeted them, shown here, must have been discouraging. Largely tents, Nome was five miles long and two blocks wide.  The town still lacked docks. The Earps’ steamer was met by smaller boats who ferried the couple to within 30 feet of the shoreline.  From there Josephine was carried ashore on the back of a local.  There the couple found unpaved streets, a treeless landscape, a river filled with stinking sewage, and thick mud everywhere.  Finding no suitable hotel, the couple spent another winter in a wooden shack.

In Nome, Earp was fortunate to link up with a local, Charles E. Hoxsie.  Born in Rhode Island, Hoxie at an early age had gone to sea and his voyages eventually had taken him to Nome.  There he had entered the saloon trade and would later be named town councilman.  Earp and Hoxsie are credited with constructing the town’s first two-story building, a saloon they called the “Dexter,” shown above just behind the Warwick sign.  It immediately was reckoned the largest and most luxurious drinking establishment in Nome.  The second floor held a dozen “club rooms,” decorated with mirrors, thick carpets, draperies and fancy furniture.  

Using Earp’s notoriety as a drawing card, the Dexter was a success.  At 70 by 30 feet and 12 foot ceilings, the saloon was large enough to accommodate a variety of activities, including dancing, gambling, and upstairs in the club rooms a brothel, said to have been supervised by Josephine.  My guess is that the Earps lived on the premises.  For reasons personal to the proprietors, they also called it “The Only Second Class Saloon in Alaska.”  

Far from that designation, the Dexter Saloon drew anyone famous who visited Nome.  Although novelist Jack London may have been the most important figure to walk through the doors, Rex Beach and playwright Wilson Mizner also dropped by.  Shown here ls a photo of Earp, left, with the visiting John Clum, the mayor of Tombstone and  an Arizona newspaperman who had given the gunslinger favorable publicity.

It appears that the Wyatt and Josephine preferred to spend the dark, harsh winters away from Nome.  With steamships daily serving the boomtown, now fast growing to 20,000, the Earps found it easy go south to California in winter.  Among the steamers they boarded was the “ SS Cleveland”  from the Hamburg America line, shown above. Indicative of how lucrative their saloon was proving to be, the couple often stayed winters at the swank Los Angeles Hollenbeck Hotel, right.  When they returned to Alaska they often brought with them “luxurious accessories” to decorate the Dexter.

One of the Earps’ return trips has become the stuff of Alaska lore.  According to a document held in at the University of Washington, in 1901 authorities were tipped off that Wyatt was on a ship set to dock at Juneau, Alaska, in 1901: “…The deputy marshal, along with a posse of local citizens deputized for the encounter, met Earp as his ship docked.”  Branding him “a notorious desperado,” the marshal confiscated Earp’s gun and told him he was not welcome in Juneau.  Today at Juneau’s Red Dog Saloon a pistol is on display said to have been checked in at the marshal’s office but never claimed by Earp when he hastily left Juneau at 5:00 a.m. on June 29 aboard a steamship bound for Nome.   Some observers, however, doubt the validity of the story and the authenticity of the six-shooter.

The years the Earps spent in Nome were just four.  In 1901, at age 40, Josephine became pregnant and the couple decided to leave Alaska.  Wyatt sold his interest in the Dexter Saloon to Charlie Hoxie, who continued to operate it for a number of years.  The Earps left Nome on board the steamship “SS Roanoke,” arriving back in Los Angeles in mid-December 1901.  Again they stayed at the Hollenbeck.  Wyatt had “mined the miners” well.  The couple were rolling in money, estimated as the equivalent to some $2.5 million today.  Josephine miscarried, however, and lost the baby.

Blowing through their riches on speculative investments, gambling and high living, before long the Earps were on the move again opening saloons in several boomtowns in Nevada.  The seemingly bullet-proof Wyatt died in Los Angeles of natural causes in 1929 at the advanced age of 80.  Josephine, who was Jewish,  had him cremated and his ashes buried in the Jewish Cemetery outside San Francisco.  The couple’s joint grave is the most visited site in the burying grounds.

Although no evidence exists that Wyatt Earp ever visited Nome again, his four years there were memorable in Alaskan history.  His fame brought dozens of others to Nome hoping to strike it rich.  His initiative to build the first two story building in a tent city spurred local development.  His “better class” saloon not only provided entertainment in the bleak Nome landscape, it served civic purposes as a clubhouse, town hall and forum for political campaigns.  Although Nome had been good to Earp, Earp also had been good for Nome.

Note:  This post has been drawn from a wide variety of sources.  In addition to those cited in the text, a key resource was the lengthy and informative Wikipedia article on Wyatt Earp.  Ann Kirschner is the author of a book on Josephine “Sadie” Earp.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Watterson and Flexner : Louisville’s Liquor “Odd Couple”

Henry Watterson, shown here, has been called "the last of the great personal journalists,” writing colorful and thought provoking opinion articles carried by hundreds of American newspapers. Penning an early manifestation of the syndicated column, Watterson was known from coast to coast. Edward M. Flexner was a Louisville liquor broker whose attraction to Watterson led him to create a successful brand of whiskey in the journalist’s name.  As further evidence of his devotion, Edward named one of his sons “Henry Watterson Flexner.” 

The origins of the pair were entirely different.  Watterson was born in 1840 in Washington, D.C., into a family of politically connected journalists. His father was a crony of President Andrew Jackson and in 1843 was named editor of the Washington Union, the main organ of the National Democratic Party. An uncle would become a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.  As a volunteer in the Confederate Army Watterson spent the war safely on the staffs of leading Southern generals.  Postwar he worked on newspapers in Cincinnati and Nashville before settling in Louisville about 1868, editing the newly formed Louisville Courier-Journal, shown left. Watterson would hold that job for the next half-century

Edward Flexner, by contrast, was the son of immigrant parents.  His father, Jacob had been born in the Bohemia region of what is now the Czech Republic.  The 1870 U.S. census gave Jacob’s occupation as “notions dealer,” which I interpret  meaning he made a living as a peddler, as did many newly arrived Jewish immigrants.  Edward’s mother, Laura Sichar Flexner, was an immigrant from Germany.  The parents met in New York City, married about 1857, and moved to Louisville in the early 1860’s.  Edward was born there in 1864, the third of seven children.

When Jacob died suddenly at the age of 51, Edward, 16, was the eldest son  with a widowed mother and four younger brothers and sisters — the youngest only five.  The inference is that his education abruptly terminated and at an early age he was tasked as the family breadwinner.  Living in Louisville, the center of the Kentucky whiskey industry, it is easy to imagine Flexner beginning his career as a clerk in one of the many distilleries and liquor houses located there.  He was intelligent and hardworking, rising during ensuing years to a position of wealth and influence in the Kentucky whiskey industry.

Although I can find no photo of Flexner, a passport application when he was 42 contained this description:  Height:  5 feet, 6.5 inches tall; face:  high forehead, oval face, and fair complexion;  hair gray and eyes dark.  He surfaced in Louisville directories in 1897 as the proprietor of the Edward F. Flexner Company, described there as a whiskey distiller and liquor house proprietor.  To my mind, neither was true.  Flexner’s business was not being carried on at a facility involving a still, warehouses, or any of the usual elements of a distillery.  Nor was his headquarters a building with a ground floor store where he might have been active as a “rectifier,” blending proprietary whiskeys on premises.  Instead, Flexner was working from Room 415 of the Columbia Building, Louisville premier office space, shown here. It later became known as the Commercial Building. Flexner subsequently moved his operation to Room 310 

In truth, Flexner was a whiskey broker, acting as a middleman between Kentucky distillers and wholesale and retail liquor dealers throughout America.  He was among those brokers who marketed their own brands of whiskey along with those of their clients.  Flexner had two labels:  “Henry Watterson Whiskey” and “Henry Watterson Rye.”  Although he may have selected the name because it belonged to Louisville’s most famous resident, “Marse Henry,” as the newsman was known, also had credentials as a strong foe of prohibition.

For example when baseball star Billy Sunday became an evangelist and vocal advocate for banning alcohol, Watterson in a column ridiculed him thus:  “Having exhausted Hell-fire-and-brimstone, the evangelist turns to the Demon Rum. Prohibition is now the trick card.  The fanatic is never very discriminating or very particular…Today it may be whiskey.  Tomorrow it will be tobacco.” 

Later Watterson would condemn “dry” initiatives in the U.S. Congress, lamenting:  “The death blow to Jeffersonian Democracy was delivered by Democratic Senators and Representatives from the South and West who carried through the prohibition amendment.”  A humorous mint julip recipe has been credited to Watterson:  “Pluck the mint gently from its bed, just as the dew of evening is about to form on it. Prepare the syrup and measure out a half tumbler of whiskey.  Pour the whiskey into a well-frosted silver cup, throw the other ingredients away, and drink the whiskey.”

Just as Flexner knew Watterson's “wet” views, he knew that his face and name on liquor might make a best seller.  Shown below is the Henry Watterson Whiskey label on a clear quart bottle,left, and a half pint flask. The label designates it as “bottled in bond” indicating that it was made after 1897.  The brand is prominently displayed as the product of the Flexner Distilling Company.  What quality of liquor these bottles contained is unknown.  My guess is that the broker was working with a local distillery to supervise the contents and labeling.  

The agreement Flexner struck with Watterson for the use of his name and picture has not come to light.  In those days the legal framework for use of celebrity names and images was virtually non-existent.  Given the whiskey broker’s evident esteem for Watterson, an amiable agreement must have existed between the two. 

In 1895 Edward at the age of 31 had married 26-year-old Belle Katz in Chicago.  A native of Illinois, Belle was the daughter of German immigrants.  In quick succession the couple would have two sons, Edward M.G. and Henry Watterson Flexner.  During this period Edward appears to have been commuting between a home in Chicago and Louisville, lodging there in the posh Galt House Hotel, shown here.  Meanwhile Watterson had built himself a large home in Louisville, a mansion he called “Mansfield.”  Residing with the journalist was his wife Rebecca and their six sons, two daughters, and several servants. 


In Louisville during the late 19th Century and early 20th, the whiskey industry was undergoing rapid change.  Distillery names, ownerships, and labels were altering with dizzying speed, leaving whiskey historians scrambling.  The Henry Watterson brand fits that description.  At some point during the 1910s, Flexner apparently sold the rights to the label to an entity calling itself the Watterson Distribution Co., as seen below.  The rear panel of this half pint flask indicates that the contents were distilled at the A. Mayfield & Co., Distillery No. 229, in LaRue County, two miles south of New Haven, Kentucky.  The distillery was operated under the auspices of the Whiskey Trust.

Adding to the confusion was a multiplicity of Kentucky whiskeys that traded on  Watterson’s name.  The John T. Barbee Co. in 1900 added the brand “Watterson  Club” to its list of proprietary whiskeys. [See post on Barbee, April 4, 2012]. The Pleasure Ridge Distillery of Jefferson County issued a whiskey it called “Old Henry Watterson.” Flexner had never bothered to trademark his labels, perhaps encouraging copycat brands to surface.

Ensuing years found Flexner working as an officer in other liquor firms.  For several years in the mid-1910s, directories listed him as the secretary-treasurer of the Old Jordan Distillery Company, located in Room 215 of the Columbia/Commercial Building.  Flexner then became secretary-treasurer of Belle of Anderson Distilling, a company operating from the same building. My assumption is that both these outfits were in effect liquor brokerage houses, possibly under direction of the Whiskey Trust. 

Both Watterson and Flexner lived long enough to see National Prohibition imposed. The journalist’s newspaper would survive, his liquor brand would not.  Shown here in old age, Henry Watterson died in 1921 at 85 and was buried in Cave Hill Cemetery where so many major figures in whiskey history are interred.  Edward Flexner died in 1925 about the age of 60.  He was interred in The Temple Cemetery, a Louisville Jewish burying ground. 

Note:  This post was drawn from multiple resources.  Considerable information can be found on Henry Watterson on the Internet.  Robin Preston’s “pre-pro.com” website furnished valuable information on Flexner as did ancestry.com.  The photo of Flexner here was a later addition to the post, sent to me by an anonymous donor, to whom I am very grateful.