Saturday, May 29, 2021

Three Savants on Whiskey and Prohibition

 

Foreword:  The dictionary defines a “savant” as a person with a high degree of intelligence and foresight.  While that term might not fit perfectly for the three men presented here, my use of the word is meant to suggest that each of these “whiskey men” offered insights into the subject of alcoholic beverages and the effort to ban them from the American people.


The most popular American orator of his time and noted religious sceptic, Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1889) is an unlikely candidate for the title:  “whiskey man.”  That is, until one looks at the liquor label that opens this vignette and recognizes that it advertises “Ingersoll Whiskey,” with the gentleman’s picture  prominently displayed.  Audience in locations all over America would flock to hear Ingersoll speak on political and social issues of the day.  As shown below in what may be the only photo of him at an outdoor gathering, the orator could command the presence of thousands with his speeches. 


 


Ingersoll waxed lyrical on the subject of liquor in describing American distillations:  “The most wonderful whiskey that every drove the skeleton from the feast or painted landscapes in the brain of man.  It is the mingled souls of corn & rye.  In it you will find the sunshine & the shadow that chase each other over the billowy fields, the breath of June, the carol of the lark, the dew of night, the wealth of summer and autumn’s rich content.  All golden with imprisoned light.  Drink it and you will hear the voices of men & maidens singing ‘The Harvest Home,” mingled with the laughter of children.  Drink it and you will feel within your blood the star-led dawns.  The dreamy, tawny dusks, of many perfect days.  For 40 years this liquid joy has been within the happy staves of oak.  Longing to touch the lips of men.”


As for the efforts of the Prohibitionist, Ingersoll sided strongly with the “wets.”  In answer to an 1883 press question in Chicago he said:  “They are not questions to be regulated by law….I believe that people will finally learn to use spirits temperately and without abuse, but teetotalism is intemperance in itself, which breeds resistance, and without destroying the rivulet of the appetite only dams it and makes it liable to break out at any moment. You can prevent a man from stealing by tying his hands behind him, but you cannot make him honest. Prohibition breeds too many spies and informers, and makes neighbors afraid of each other.


Here is a last word from Ingersoll, now an almost forgotten American savant:  Whiskey is what you need,” he wrote his ailing personal secretary.  ‘After every meal take a good swallow.  One swallow will not make a summer but will make you feel as though summer has come….”


When Robert Mugge (1852-1915), an immigrant boy from Germany, stepped ashore in New York City in September 1870 he began a career that only “a land of opportunity” can provide.  Selling liquor as his launching pad, Mugge, shown here, is credited with developing the city of Tampa, Florida, while authoring a treatise that has been termed “part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it.” The growing tide of prohibition likely was the impetus that turned Mugge, liquor purveyor, into a political theorist.  He evolved a concept of the ideal American society in a 52-page monograph he entitled “Practical Humanity,” issued initially in 1909.


Mugge devoted more than one-third of his treatise to “The Liquor Question.”  Given his background, he not surprisingly created plenty of room for alcoholic spirits.  “We might just as well give up the idea of founding these colonies at all as to establish them under a hypocritical prohibition law and expect them to be a success.”  This self-educated savant then discussed the drinking public:  “I refer to men known to partake of liquors in moderation.  Will you not find that the great majority of these men are more sociable, warm hearted, charitable, kinder to women and children, more generous, more given to help their fellow man, live longer, and, indeed, are more honest in business than teetotalers or those who profess to be? 



 Although Mugge explicitly disavowed any identification with socialism, his ideas might be characterized as “Karl Marx meets Mr. Rogers.”  Marx thought the state would “wither away.”  Mugge suggested that in his system state and local governments gradually would collapse in favor of directing everything from a national center from which one or a few individuals make all the rules for numerous “colonies” across America in which the residents would enjoy small town “agrarian” lifestyles. 


Marx called organized religion “the opiate of the people.”  Mugge banned all churches from his colonies but people would be free to go elsewhere to worship.  Marx advocated “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” In Mugge’s model society poverty and crime would be abolished along with capitalistic greed. This Utopia somehow would be accomplished mainly by abolishing paper money.  Needless to say Mugge’s vision of a future America did not catch on.


Founder of the famous Brown-Forman Liquor Company, George Garvin Brown (1846-1917) became the first president of the National Liquor Dealer’s Association and a leading spokesman against the movement to ban liquor and beer production and sales. The propensity of “dry” proponents to cite religion and the Bible encouraged Brown in 1910 to publish a book on the subject, entitled “The Holy Bible Repudiates ‘Prohibition.’”  The subtitle describes the contents as a compilation of all Bible verses that mention wine or strong drink,  Brown’s objective was to prove that the Scriptures “commend and command” the temperate use of alcoholic beverages — not a total ban. 



In an introduction, Brown openly admitted his bias:  “I have been a whiskey merchant and manufacturer for forty years and believe now, as I have always believed, that there is no more moral turpitude in selling an intoxicating liquor than there is in manufacturing and selling any other product.” His purpose for writing, he said, was “to expose the most dangerous propaganda against civil and religious liberty that has ever confronted the American people — ‘prohibition.’”  


What followed was Brown’s line by line parsing of Old and New Testament Biblical passages where wine or strong drink is mentioned.  Where needed, he said, Brown added his own “honest explanation” of each passage.  The whiskey man found many opportunities for comments, with a particularly long exposition over the Wedding Feast at Cana, concluding:  “If it had been wrong to make or use wine and given it to one’s neighbors, Jesus would not have set this example.”


Brown ended his book with a brief chapter he called “Reflections.”  In it he provided a harsh critique of prohibitionists.  Among them:  “This sort of fanaticism when practiced in the name of religion, is on the principle, ‘it is not our duty now to burn heretics but we will make the laws and Caesar will do the rest.’”  The book found a ready audience among the distillers, liquor dealers, saloonkeepers, and the drinking public of America.   Brown was widely hailed for his scholarship but, as might be expected, pilloried by the “Drys.”


None of these three thinkers lived to see the imposition of National Prohibition, an event that that has been compared to a national train wreck.  Not only were thousands of Americans now out of work but in their place came the bootleggers and a spike in crime.  All three, in various ways, had foreseen the societal disruption and warned America of the consequences.


Note: Both Mugge’s and Brown’s books are available in paperback under the imprint “Scholar Select,” on sale from Amazon Books.  Both bear a statement on the cover that:  This work has been selected by scholars as being culturally important and is part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it.”   Longer posts on each man may be found on this website:  Robert Ingersoll, October 24, 2018;  Robert Mugge, April 12, 2020;  George Garvin Brown, January 9, 2020.





















Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Obernauer’s Mantra: “My Word Is as Good as My Bond"

 

 A Jewish immigrant from Germany, likely escaping discriminatory laws, Herman Obernauer found a life of respect and community service as a liquor dealer in America.  Four times he was chosen by his fellow Pennsylvania Democrats as a presidential elector.  Caricatured in a book of prominent Pittsburgh citizens, this whiskey man was recognized by residents of his adopted city for his frequent invocation:  “My word is as good as my bond.”


Herman Obernauer was born in Wurttemberg, Germany, in 1856.  He received the usual rigorous German early education before going to work as a traveling salesman in his late teens.  He also served some time in the Prussian army.  Those experiences may have convinced him that a better future awaited across the Atlantic.  In 1880 at the age of 24, Obernauer immigrated to the United States, settling in Pittsburgh.



By 1884 he had saved sufficient money working as a bookkeeper to open a saloon at 395 Fifth Avenue.  There Obernauer also sold liquor at retail and soon decided that it was more profitable and less trouble to become a liquor wholesaler.  By 1886 he had made the switch.  His early address at 349 Fifth Avenue is said to have provided:  “All the requisite facilities for conducting business on a large scale….A heavy trade with Pittsburgh, Allegheny and all the surrounding sections of the country is carried on.”


After having established himself in Pittsburgh, Herman found time to be married.  His bride was Bertha Dinch, the daughter of Frederick and Martha Dinch of Allegheny City.  They would have three children, Olga, Arthur and Harold. Harold would become a prominent local lawyer and head of the Allegheny County Bar Association.


After eight years at his original location the growth of his business required Obernauer to move to 1400 Fifth Street at the corner of Stevenson.  The building, shown here in an illustration and below in a photograph was three stories.  Its location on a major Pittsburgh intersection allowed Obernauer to paint large bottles of his trademarked liquor on the side.  Note too the show windows that allowed passerby to see displays of whiskey bottles stacked four-high.



Among his brands, Obernauer featured “Belle of Pittsburgh Rye,” “Obernauer XXX 1885 Whiskey,” and “H.E. Brown Gin.”  He also offered proprietary “Berthana Medicated Wine,” and “Dr. Michael Cox Bitters,” both advertised to have beneficial health effects.  Like most liquor wholesalers he provided advertising items to the saloons, hotels and restaurants offering his products.  Those giveaways included artistically etched shot glasses and back-of-the-bar bottles.  While one glass here claims Obernauer was a “distiller” in reality he was a “rectifier,” someone buying whiskeys from Pennsylvania distilleries and  blending them to achieve desired color, smoothness and flavor.



 

Obernauer’s growing recognition as a businessman in Pittsburgh caused Arthur G. Burgoyne, a local cartoonist, writer and poet (bad), to include Herman in his book, “All Sorts of Pittsburgers:  Sketched in Prose and Verse. The caricature shows a highly serious Obernauer. Burgoyne’s rhymes about the German immigrant’s liquor read:


Quoth he:  If there’s any snide dealer around,

Right away he had better abscond,

For the man who sells liquor to proof should be bound,

That his word is as good as his bond.


In his prose essay on Obernauer Burgoyne gives attention to the whiskey man’s participation in politics:  “He…works zealously for the success of his party, attending all the conventions and consistently using his voice and influence in support of Democratic candidates and principles.”  The author does not mention that on four occasions his fellow party members chose Obernauer for the singular honor of being a Presidential elector, twice for winners, Woodrow Wilson (1916) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (1932), and twice for losers, James J. Cox (1920) and Al Smith (1928).



Not everything, however, was coming up roses for Obernauer.  In 1887 Pennsylvania state legislation known as “The Brooks Law,” incited by prohibitionists, made it highly expensive to be in the liquor business.  The annual license fee was set at $1,100, nearly $25,000 in today’s dollar.  That and an adverse decision from a judge caused Obernauer and other Pittsburgh liquor wholesalers to move 40 miles west to Steubenville, Ohio.  From there they could send liquor by rail to Pittsburgh and avoid the fees.  In 1889 the state recanted because of the lost revenue.  Obernauer and the others moved back to Pittsburgh.


A second law, called the “Wholesale Law of 1891,” allowed public comment on the renewal of liquor licenses.  In 1893, a “dry” advocate asked a local court to revoke Obernauer’s license because one of his drivers had been caught selling individual bottles of liquor off his truck. The law allowed wholesalers to sell only in large quantities.  Obernauer claimed the driver sold without his permission and that he had fired him. The challenge failed.


Such forms of harassment, however, appeared to alert Obernauer that the tide had turned against the liquor trade and that National Prohibition was a likely outcome.  In 1915 at the age of 59 he sold his liquor house.  The word “retirement,” however,was not in his lexicon.  By that time Obernauer had become a director of Merchant’s Savings and Trust Company, a bank located down the street from his store.  That association led him into the real estate business. It would be Herman’s occupation for the rest of his life. 


 Obernauer also had time to engage in the great American pastime of inventing things.  With a friend he patented a “foldable structure that can be advantageously used by campers, tourists and others as stool, table or other support.”  Unfortunately I have been unable to locate the patent application with a drawing of this seemingly useful device.



In 1928, Bertha, Obernauer’s wife of many years, died and was buried in Pittsburgh’s West View Cemetery aka Rodef Shalom.  A widower, Herman moved to the Arlington Apartments at Central Avenue and Aiken in Pittsburgh, living with his lawyer son, Harold.  Obernauer’s later years allowed him to enjoy his three grandchildren and eventually three great grandchildren.  At the advanced age of 91 Herman died in February 1947 and was buried next to Bertha.  As a final tribute to this immigrant “whiskey man” who contributed so much to his adopted country,  another verse from Burgoyne seems appropriate:


The path of fair dealing he never forsakes,

And he needs not a magical wand,

To establish of the statement he makes,

That his word is as good as his bond.


Note:  The information and photos in this vignette came from two principal sources: 1. Obernauer Family Papers and Photographs, Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center, and 2.“The Ongoing History of Pittsburgh: The City at Eye-level.”  Burgoyne’s book is entitled:   “All Sorts of Pittsburgers:  Sketched in Prose and Verse,” 1892.  Each of these references is available online.















































Friday, May 21, 2021

“Papa” Starke: The Pied Piper of Gardnerville

“Often at large farm parties, he came prepared with a small hand organ strapped around his shoulders.  As he turned the crank, a stuffed monkey popped out of the organ and danced around to the most fantastic music imaginable.  Papa led the way much like the pied Piper of Hamlin and, followed by dozens of children, he led the march around the house and every building on the farm, all singing as they marched.”  Thus did Frieda Godecke remember H. William “Papa” Starke, a German immigrant saloonkeeper of Gardnerville, Nevada.

Shown here, Starke was born in Westphalia, Germany, in 1860, the son of Dietrich and Henriette Starke.  Little is known of his early life and career, although he likely was trained as a cook and baker.  He also married.  His wife, recorded as Lina Pferdehirt, and he had one son, William, born in 1887.   Then the marriage fractured, perhaps the proximate cause of Starke’s embarking aboard the Steamship Europia, below, for America.  He arrived in Carson City, Nevada, in 1893.


The hand organ, said to be his only possession except the clothes on his back, is reported as the German immigrant’s initial way of making a living.  Starke soon gravitated to cooking and baking for local hotels, eventually moving the short 16 miles south from Carson City to the newly established town of Gardnerville.  There, assisted by his second wife, Maria Bobysud, an immigrant from then Bohemia, he supplied the residents with baked goods.  To augment his income, Starke catered local events and in winter helped area farmers with butchering and sausage making.  His stated goal was to earn enough money to own and operate a saloon. 



Eventually Starke had accumulated sufficient wealth to build a drinking establishment next to his bakery.  It officially was known as the Corner Saloon but popularly as “Papa’s Place.”  The business included a restaurant serving meals around the clock and selling beer, wine, liquor and cigars.  According to Ms. Godecke, “Papa’s Place” was something set apart from other Gardnerville saloons:  “The friendly atmosphere, the welcome grin of Papa, the free pretzels, pumpernickel and liverwurst at one end of the highly polished old bar made it a happy meeting place….”  A photo shows Starke standing behind the bar.



Another attraction was a large colorful parrot that hung in a brass cage from the ceiling.  Not only could it intone the traditional “Polly wants a cracker,” the bird possessed a pungent vocabulary of profanity, said to swear equally well in German and English.  The act was enjoyed by the men along the bar but said to be embarrassing to their wives.  Customers assumed that Polly learned its lingo from listening to Papa, who spoke broken English in a strong German accent, and said sometimes to mix the languages indiscriminately.


His lack of facility in English did not alter Starke’s popularity.  In 1906 he was  coaxed into running for county commissioner.  It was a three-person body mainly charged with assuring that muddy roads got gravel and that bridges were strong enough for heavy loads.  Ms. Godecke described the scene where Starke and other candidates were seated in a large hall before the electorate:  “After listening to lengthy speeches, some of which were very boring, it was Papa’s turn to address the assemblage.  He arose with all the dignity he could muster and summed it up in two short sentences:  ‘When I get into office, I will do my duty.  I am Papa and over there sits Mama.’”  He won, served, but declined to run again.


In October 1909, following his term in office, Starke returned to Germany, likely to visit his family and the son he had left behind.  When he returned the following year he brought a large nickelodeon, featuring a variety of musical instruments within an elaborate frame of colored glass and a lighted illusion of a waterfall.  At five cents a play, the machine delivered a constant stream of German ditties.  Whether Starke’s bar tokens, below, were legal tender for music is unclear.



Starke subsequently moved the nickelodeon into a new location, the Oberon Hotel and Saloon, identified with Starke in an advertisement.  He changed the name of the saloon to ”Germania.”   The 1910 census found Papa running the saloon and small hotel, and Mama doing the cooking and cleaning with the help of a single chambermaid.  Virtually all his roomers were German immigrants working as local carpenters, plumbers, blacksmiths and laborers. 


In his treatment of Starke, Author Raymond Smith asserts that in the early days of World War I, the Germania saloon became the headquarters of the German residents of the area.  He states:  “The Bund met regularly, sometimes twice a week, in the back room.”  Although sons and perhaps daughters of German descent may have met at Starke’s place, the Bund as a named organization was not formed until 1936 after the rise of Hitler in Germany.  Moreover, given the anti-German feelings fostered by the Wilson Administration, it is unlikely that those meeting at Starke’s were advocating treasonous activities as the Bund did.  After 1920, the Germania was closed and could not have host the Bund.


In April 1916, Starke moved to expand his saloon operations to another Douglas County community called Centerville.  The venture apparently failed and in a matter of months Papa was back in Gardnerville at the Germania and operating the bakery.  This period was marked by the arrival of Starke’s son, William, from Germany, possibly avoiding conscription into the Prussian army.  Their reunion proved short-lived when William died in 1919.  “Mama” Marie, with whom Starke had no children, followed her step-son in 1929.


Thereafter, widower “Papa” lived alone in a small house behind his saloon.  As he aged his health failed and he is said eventually to have become destitute, dying at the age of 86 in 1946.  Starke was buried in the Gardnerville Cemetery where he and Marie, his wife of 35 years, lie together under a joint headstone.



Rather than emphasize the sad nature of “Papa” Starke’s end of life, I return to his happier days entertaining the children of Gardnerville.  Starke was not a handsome man. He had a stocky round body and a face deeply scared, the result of small pox contracted as a boy.  His presence might have been frightening to small children. Such was his kindly disposition and clear love of children, however, that youngsters were attracted to him.  


A concluding comment from Ms. Godecke:  “…Children flocked around him as they do around Santa Claus.  There was always an expectation that some queer mechanical toy might pop out from one of his many pockets or he might pull a real live rabbit from his sleeve.  He loved each and every child.”  That is how I will remember Papa Starke, the Pied Piper of saloonkeepers.


Note:  This post was gathered primarily from two sources. All the quotations are from a November 11, 1976, article for the  Gardnerville newspaper by Frieda C. Godecke, who knew “Papa” when she was a little girl.  The article was contained in genealogical material subsequently gathered by descendants.  The second source was the “Saloons of (Old — and New) Nevada” by Raymond M. Smith,, 1992.  That  book provided information on Starke’s career in saloons and several of the illustrations used here.




























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Monday, May 17, 2021

The Dueling Biles Brothers of Cincinnati

 

In researching a post on a Cincinnati whiskey broker named William C. Biles, I came across his 1909 will.  In it he seemed to provide generously for his brothers and sisters but for one sibling, John, left only a single dollar.  The “why” was intriguing and led to my discovery that William and John Biles for years operated virtually identical liquor-related businesses in head-to-head competition.  Their rivalry clearly had shredded familial bonds.  The brothers are pictured below, William at right.



From census records it would appear that both men were born in or near Gadsden, Florida, two of eight children of Alexander and Hannah Kingsbury Biles.  John, the elder of the two was born in 1851; William, the youngest of the brood, in 1857.  Not long after his birth, Alexander Biles, a farmer, died leaving his widow, Hannah, to raise seven minor children and run the family farm.  


The next few years for the Biles household largely has gone unrecorded.  At some point both John and William moved to Cincinnati.  This suggests to me that John Biles may have had some early exposure to the whiskey trade and found that he had an aptitude for it.  J.W. Biles & Co., according to its letterhead was founded in 1878, when John was 21. The firm first surfaced in Queen City directories in 1886, however, when the proprietor would have been 29.  For several years after that John was listed as a wholesale liquor dealer in a town that then was at the center of the American liquor industry.


John Biles apparently found the local wholesale whiskey trade overcrowded and in 1890 shifted his focus to “commission merchant,” acting as a broker or “middle man” between distillers, of which next-door Kentucky had many, and liquor dealers all over the country.  He also was merchandising “distillers supplies.”  

Accompany this pivot, John brought into his organization younger brother William, who had been selling jewelry, along with a third partner, Godfrey Holterhoff.   This triumvirate was not destined to endure.  By 1892, with Holterhoff, William Biles broke away entirely from his brother and opened his own competing liquor-based commission merchant firm.  A Cincinnati directory for that year told the story:



Thus began a long and sometimes bitter rivalry between the brothers for primacy as Cincinnati whiskey men.  Each Biles published and sold periodic newsletters that contained pricing for major brands, along with information on other aspects of the liquor trade.  John called his publication “Biles Whiskey Price List:  The Recognized Standard of Whiskey Pricing.”  His periodical also contained information on state, county and local tax and storage allowance tables.  It cost a hefty $199 a year to subscribe.  John Biles was assiduous about copywriting every issue. 


 

Nearby, William Biles issued his own publication, the red-covered “Cincinnati Whiskey Price Current.”  It contained price quotes for “Every Standard Distiller’s Brand of Bourbon and Rye known to the Trade.”  That added up to 176 brands of bourbon and 76 of rye.  His booklet, William advertised, also included current insurance rates, which brands were “bottled in bond,” how properly to invoice whiskey, and tax tables.  As shown below, the newsletter was issued twice a month in an attractive illustrated format.  Most important, rather than costing $199 annually, it sold for only a token $1 a year.  William was undercutting his brother drastically.


Although several other whiskey price lists existed, the Biles brothers’ publications enjoyed national recognition.  Both were cited before the U.S. Supreme Court during the trademark case that involved the distillers of “Old Crow” whiskey against alleged violations by A.M. Hellman & Co.  The attorney for Old Crow specifically entered as evidence the W.C. Biles publication, stating:  “The Old Crow whiskey cited in that price list is the Old Crow of W. A. Gaines & Co…It is the only Old Crow whiskey ever quoted by whiskey brokers, and so would be so understood by any whiskey dealer in the country.”


Meanwhile, each brother was having a personal life.  John’s eventually would impact on the the intense brotherly competition.  In 1891, at the age of 41, the older brother married Clara Mantle, a woman 20 years younger than he from Louisville, Kentucky.  He likely had met Clara during one of his business-related trips to the center of the Kentucky whiskey industry.  The couple would have three girls.  William earlier had found a bride in Cincinnati.  She was Hannah Mary Webb, four years younger than William and the daughter of a prominent local merchant. They would have one child, a son who died in infancy.  There would be no others.


Although John and Clara Biles initially lived in Cincinnati, within several years the couple moved to Louisville, perhaps to be closer to Clara’s family.  At the beginning John continued to publish the newsletter but increasing turned his attention to managing the Turner Drier Co. a manufacturer of grain drying equipment used by distillers. By 1900 John had relinquished day-to-day operation of the J.C. Biles Co. and while keeping his name on the door a new management team was installed.


Neither brother would find their business interests free from pitfalls.  About 1903 William, through an intermediary company, bought receipts calling for 214 barrels of whiskey from the Old Times Distillery Company, a Louisville distillery owned by Dan Russell, a distiller of dubious reputation. [See my post on Russell, August 9, 2019].  Upon delivery William found a shortage of 39 barrels, worth thousands of dollars.  When he demanded the remaining barrels or his money back, the intermediary also claimed a loss.  The two claimants appear to have settled on suing Russell in Louisville’s Circuit Court.


In 1909 the J. W. Biles Company ran athwart the U.S. Board of Food and Drug Inspection, forerunner of the current FDA.  In a complaint signed by the head of that federal agency, Dr. H.W. Wylie, the Biles firm had sold a Buffalo distillery a shipment of distiller’s grain that claimed to be 10% fat and 26% protein — and bone dry. Laboratory analysis had revealed more than 10% of the weight was moisture and that the grain was not as labeled.  The company was assessed a fine.


For the most part, however, both Biles firms appear to have prospered even as National Prohibition hovered on the scene.  Each company found it possible to move its headquarters into one of Cincinnati’s premier buildings.  When flooded out of his original location William in 1914 moved to the Burnett House block on Vine Street, shown below right.  Opened in 1850 the Burnett was considered “one the finest hotels in the world.”  Later allowed to deteriorate, the building was demolished in 1926.  J.W. Biles Co. by 1916 had moved to the Gwynne Building, right.  Completed in 1914, the 125,000-square-foot, twelve-story Gwynne has evaded the wrecking ball and is now on the National Register of Historic Places.


Of the two brothers, William appears to have received the most attention from biographers.  Active in the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce and other business circles, William was credited for his generosity to Cincinnati’s charitable causes. An expert fisherman according to one account, he served on the board of the Ohio Humane Society and a founder of the Hamilton County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.


As he entered his 50’s, William’s health declined and “mindful of the uncertainty of life,” in 1909 he made his will.  In it he left his considerable fortune to his wife

and in case of her death to be divided in equal shares to other close relatives “other than J.W. Biles.”  To John, he willed $1.00. — perhaps indicating not a complete breach but little affection.  William died shortly after at the age of 52.  Following funeral services held in his home in Mount Auburn, he was buried in Cincinnati’s Spring Grove Cemetery.  His grave and that of his wife are shown below.  Said one biographer:  “The death of William C. Biles in the prime of his life proved a great loss….Mr. Biles was a keen businessman of much foresight, also a man of sterling integrity and of a kind and courteous disposition which won for him the esteem and affection of a host of friends.”


 

John Biles died three years later at 63 and was buried in Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville where many luminaries in the whiskey trade are interred.  His grave has not been photographed and I find no obituaries that might shed light on his latter days.  The distillery servicing companies and publications the Biles brothers founded survived their deaths  — John’s until 1916 and William’s until 1918.


Note:  The photo and quotations on William Biles are from the book “Centennial History of Cincinnati and Representative Citizens, Vol II” by Charles T. Greve, Biographical Publishing Co., Chicago, 1904.  The photo of John Biles is from  Notable Men of Kentucky at the Beginning of the 20th Century (1901-1902),” edited by Ben. LaBree, Geo.G. Fetter Printing Co.



























Thursday, May 13, 2021

Whiskey Men As Big City Mayors

Foreword:  Involvement in the liquor trade frequently led pre-Prohibition “whiskey men” into the political arena.  Their profits fueled investments and philanthropic giving that often brought them wide public attention.  Many also had an interest in politics and participated actively in elections.  For three such men their careers led them to becoming the mayors of large cities — Cleveland, San Francisco and Denver.  In office, however, their experiences differed, sometimes widely. 

Born on Christmas Day 1825 in Tuscarawas County, Ohio, Stephen Buhrer was the son of farm folks who had immigrated from Germany.  Buhrer did not attend school and was educated mainly in Sunday school and by any education he could pick up after a long day’s work.  Buhrer learned the trade of coopering (making barrels) and did various jobs including work in breweries and slaughter houses.


After years of employment at such pursuits to little advantage, Buhrer decided to make Cleveland his home and turned his attention to the business of rectifying and purifying whiskey.  He had a definite talent for the liquor trade and became a well-known wholesale distributor of alcoholic beverages.  He eventually owned the Eagle Distilleries Company. 


 


At age 29 Buhrer had only been a resident of Cleveland for eleven years, when in 1855 he was elected a member of the City Council.  He also served on that body in 1863 and 1865, during the Civil War.  Eligible to be conscripted into the Union Army he was not drafted because of bad health.  Nonetheless Buhrer was a stalwarchampion of the Union and Federal government. After his three terms with the Council, he was elected Democratic mayor of Cleveland in 1867 serving in that post until 1870.  


Recognized as progressive, Mayor Buhrer was the driving force for creating a viaduct to connect the east and west sides of Cleveland.  A photo here shows him at a construction site.  Replacing an outmoded facility, a new Cleveland House of Correction & Workhouse was built during his two terms in office.  Turning down an opportunity to run a third time for mayor, Buhrer later was elected to a fourth term on the City Council. He died in Cleveland on December 8, 1907, just short of his 83rd birthday. 


Described by a biographer as a man of “active temperament and speculative turn,” Edward B. Pond, shown left, followed a career path that involved substantial twists and turns until he engaged in the liquor trade in San Francisco and was propelled into the job of that city’s mayor.  Accord to a biographer, despite the bitterness of politics in his day: “Mayor Pond’s name was unsmirched and in the midst of the frictions…he has without obsequiousness or compromise of his integrity, retained the confidence of all factions.” 


Born in Jefferson County, New York, in 1833, and given a good education by an affluent family, the young Pond caught “gold rush fever” and in 1854, five years after the strike at Sutter’s Mill, he saddled up and started from New York for California.  Interrupted by winter snows in the Rockies he laid up until spring in Salt Lake City, arriving on the West Coast in 1855, settling in Butte County in north central California.



Pond’s mining efforts apparently were not fruitful and he took up mercantile pursuits.  In 1868, partnering with two locals, he opened a wholesale and retail liquor house at 325 Front Street in San Francisco. The liquor business flourished, developing a clientele up and down the West Coast.   Pond, however, increasingly was investing in other enterprises.   Still restless at the age of 43,  after eight years at the helm of his liquor house Pond sold out and semi-retired.  In today’s dollar his net worth was estimated in the range of $2.1 million.


Said to have had a lifelong interest in politics, in 1882 Pond was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, apparently served with diligence, and was re-elected in 1884.  In the Fall of 1886, leaving his supervisor’s seat, he ran for mayor as a Democrat and was elected “not on strict party lines, but a large and complimentary vote from all parties,” says a biographer.  Two years later Pond was easily re-elected.  

Los Angeles City Hall

Some of his popularity may have come from his financial prowess. Upon taking office Pond inherited a city debt of $520,000, which was substantial for the time. As mayor he discovered that San Francisco gas and water companies had not been paying their share of taxes. He negotiated a settlement and turned the city’s deficit into a surplus.


Pond had one more political try — an 1890 run for Governor of California.  At the California Democratic State Convention, a San Francisco political boss backed Mayor Pond and he won the nomination. In the general election, however, he lost to the Republican candidate.  That appeared to end the whiskey man’s political ambitions. In 1910 Pond died at the age of 76.


While Buhrer and Pond served with distinction during their terms as mayors,  Wolfe Londoner had a different story. In 1899 liquor dealer Londoner, with the help of two Western desperadoes, won the mayoralty race in Denver by a narrow margin.  How this Manhattan-born son of Jewish immigrants got to this place and what happened afterwards is the stuff of fictional characters in novels. 


Often in poverty, the youthful Londoner bounced around America from coast to coast until settling in Leadville, Colorado, about 1860.  There he managed a general store, one selling liquor.  Only about 21 when he arrived in town Londoner early began his political career there.  A gifted orator, he spent four years variously as the elected Leadville county clerk and recorder, county treasurer and county commissioner.  



Having saved his money, in 1865 Londoner moved to Denver and opened a grocery and liquor store.  Successful, in 1887 he built his own four story building. It was a large establishment with well stocked shelves and a whiskey-tasting bar. The upper floors allowed ample storage and allowed him to mix up his own liquor.  Using stocks received from Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Maryland, Londoner  created his own brands of whiskey, then bottled, labeled, and sold it.  Soon he was doing the equivalent today of $25,000,000 in sales annually.


Londoner came to public notice in Denver when he took time off from his liquor business to manage the construction of a new courthouse, right.  He was described by one author as “faithful and conscientious….He was proud that not a penny’s worth of graft occurred in the construction….”  The building quickly became the pride of Denver.   For the manner in which he had discharged his trust, Londoner wrote, city officials “drew up a resolution which was good enough to put on my grave when I die.”


With his stock high after completion of the courthouse Londoner decided to run for mayor.  He was a Republican, however, in a city that usually voted Democrat over the “free silver” issue.  As friends and supporters he could count on the local saloon and gambling proprietors, men who wielded considerable political influence in Denver.  They provided him with paid “volunteers.”  Among them were notorious Western gunslingers Bat Masterson and “Soapy” Smith.  


Led by those “bad boys,” Londoner’s supporters stuffed ballot boxes and traded drinks for votes at local saloons on election day.  As a result, Londoner became Denver’s 20th mayor by a whopping 77 votes.  Even before he could take office opponents were filing corruption charges against his campaign.  It took months before the legal challenges could make their way through the courts. While they were pending Londoner served more than a year as mayor, until forced by a court order to resign.  He was the only mayor in Denver’s history ever removed from office.  


Londoner seems not to have been daunted by his fall from power.  A skilled writer and wit, he subsequently devoted himself to the Denver Press Club and went back to selling groceries and liquor.  Managing his business to the end, in 1912 Londoner died at the age of 70.  A half century earlier when Wolfe Londoner first came to Colorado he had $1.50 in his pocket and knew not a soul.  When he took his leave he was extravagantly wealthy and known by virtually everyone.  


Note:  More complete vignettes on each of these three whiskey men may be found elsewhere on this blog:  Stephen Buhrer, April 3, 2018;  Edward B. Pond,  June 10, 2020, and Wolfe Londoner, November 26, 2017.  References for each article may be found there.