Thursday, September 30, 2021

Harry Levy Was Harvard’s Gift to Whiskey


 Looking back at the 900 plus “whiskey men” profiled on this website the vast majority began as indigent immigrants or native-born poor with little education who by hard work and intelligence succeeded in the liquor trade.  Not so Harry Milton Levy, the five foot, four inch, gentleman shown here.  Born to riches in Cincinnati, Levy was sent to Harvard for his college education and stayed to earn a degree from Harvard Law School.  

Harry’s good fortune began when he was born in 1862, the son of Albert and Julia Fries Levy.  His father and a brother had immigrated from Wurtemburg, Germany; settled in Cincinnati, and founded a highly successful wholesale liquor house known as James Levy & Brother.  At the time Cincinnati boasted its centrality east of the Mississippi River, its role as a canal and railroad hub, its access through the Ohio River to the Mississippi Basin and the Atlantic Ocean and, most important, its ability to tap the burgeoning distilling capacities of Kentucky.  “The Queen City,” as it was known, became the center of the liquor trade in America.  The Levys were among the beneficiaries.

After graduating from Harvard Law, above, Harry Levy never practiced for even one day.  He hurried back to Cincinnati and the family liquor house, located at 33 Sycamore Street, to join his father and uncle.  At the time the Levy brothers were selling at wholesale multiple brands that included:  “Belle of Milton,” "Crab Orchard,” "G. W. H.", "Hazel Nut", "Madison", "Maywood", "Old Pioneer ", “Pilgrimage,” “Richwood,” "Spring Lake,” "Spring Wood,” “Susquehanna," “Susquemac,”  “Treubrook,”  and “Teakettle.”

Like other wholesalers the Levys were always on the lookout for sources of whiskey supplies for their house brands.  An opportunity arose in 1880 with the availability of The Tea Kettle Distillery about 70 miles downriver in Trimble County.  Established about 1840, this distillery had been destroyed by fire in July 1879.  Rebuilt, the facility was contracted to James Levy & Bro. to handle its entire output.  

Insurance records from 1892 describe the property as containing a stone still-house with a boiler house. A shed located 16 feet from the still housed cattle to be fattened by the slops. The property also included three bonded warehouses: Warehouse "A" -- brick with a metal or slate roof, 210 feet south of the still house. Warehouse "B" -- brick with a metal or slate roof, 125 feet SE of the still house.  Warehouse "C" -- iron-clad, 150 feet north of the still.  In 1892 Harry Levy was recorded as the “proprietor” of this complex.

Beginning with the Trimble County distillery Harry took the family liquor business in a new direction.  Instead of seeking whiskey from a host of suppliers, James Levy & Bro. now contracted for the entire output of a handful of Kentucky distilleries with reputations for quality products and as “jobbers” marketing their whiskeys nationally to wholesalers and retailers.

The 1888 Centennial Review of Cincinnati offered this assessment:   “Twenty years ago Louisville would have considered impossible recognition by the jobbing trade of any city outside of itself as a jobbing market for fine Kentucky whiskey; yet the firm of James Levy & Bro. has not only made Cincinnati recognized as such, but has plucked the laurels from Louisville….”  The article goes on to say that the Levys were not rectifying or compounding liquor but shipping their straight whiskey direct to customer warehouses from the half dozen distilleries they controlled.

The blue ribbon prize of those distilleries had been founded by Judge W. H. McBrayer of Lawrenceburg, Kentucky.  Shown above, McBrayer’s “Cedar Brook” whiskey had won international metals and was, in one report, “the finest handmade sour mash whiskey in the world.”  This “coup” for James Levy & Bro. was engineered by Harvard-educated Harry.  As he aged Judge McBrayer had become increasingly aware of his inability to market his whiskey effectively to a wider audience.  In a visit to the Lawrenceburg distillery, below,  Levy was able to persuade the old gentleman to give him exclusive rights to merchandise Cedar Brook nationwide.  With the help of the Cincinnati organization the brand became synonymous with the best in Kentucky whiskey.

As Harry worked with other family members to build a national and international business for Kentucky whiskey, he was conducting a personal life. In 1896 he married Jeanette Feiss, Ohio-born in 1873 and about ten years younger than Harry.  Jeanette was the daughter of Leopold and Sarah Wyler Feiss;  Her father was a prominent Cincinnati businessman, involved in the tobacco and clothing trades, and known for his civic involvement and philanthropy.  

Although the couple apparently had no children, Harry consistently provided spacious accommodations for the couple.  From about 1904 until 1916 the Levys lived in East Walnut Hills residential district of Cincinnati.  The house, still standing, was a large and impressive pressed-brick residence at 2933 Fairfield Avenue, having the look of a French chateau.  The couple lived there together with one or more servants in attendance.  Harry also bought a summer residence at Tupper Lake in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, a favorite retreat for the well-to-do.  The Harry Levys were among the few Jews recognized in the “exclusive” Mrs. Devereux’s Blue Book of Cincinnati Society.

Wealthy after almost 30 years helping to guide the fortunes of the Levy liquor house,  Harry about 1910 cut his ties with the company.  The reason is not clear.  His father Albert had died in 1905.  Uncle James Levy had sons, his cousins, who may have been slated to manage the business.  Or Harry could have sensed the tightening noose of Prohibition.  Or perhaps he simply wanted a change.  The 1910 census gave his occupation as “capitalist,” someone dealing investments.

His new career coincided with a passion to build Jeanette and himself a new house, one like Cincinnati had never seen before.  The mansion, shown above, has been described thus:  “The design blends elements that were modern for the time, reflecting the approach of the Arts & Crafts a movement, with evocations of the historic past, primarily English architecture of the Tudor and Jacobean periods of the 16th and early-17th century to create a unique amalgam.”  The residence was located in the fashionable Hyde Park district of Cincinnati on six large lots overlooking the Cincinnati Country Club.  The 1920 census records the couple residing there with four live-in servants, a male and three females.

Harry Levy, however was about more than fine houses.  He never forgot Harvard.  In 1892 he personally paid for the attendance of a number of Cincinnati students to Harvard.  Harry also helped finance and administer the local Harvard Club’s annual “scholastic field meet” for local high school students.  Much of his philanthropy went to “beautifying” Cincinnati.  For at least a quarter century he was treasurer of the city’s Municipal Arts Society.  That work explains the “art souvenirs” folders under his arm in the caricature that opens this post.  The Arts Society actively sought to make Cincinnati a more attractive city by promoting open space and public art and by working with schools to advance art appreciation. 

In 1905, for example, the Society, with Harry in the forefront, persuaded city officials to give it a statue of Cincinnatus that had been stored away after being defaced with red paint.  The members paid to restore and place it in a public park for general viewing, as shown here.  When Cincinnati’s City Hall was redecorated, with Harry leading, the Society provided for the internal decoration.  The result were dozens of refurbished stained glass windows and painted ceiling panels that even today have made City Hall a tourist destination.  The building is listed on National Register of Historic Places.

Heavily invested in stock and bonds, Harry Levy faced a significant financial setback at the time of the stock market crash.  He and Jeanette could no longer afford their servants and moved out of their spacious Hyde Park home and rented it for income.  The couple, however, were far from penury.  They moved from the house to the Hotel Alms, shown right, a fashionable residential hotel in nearby Walnut Hills. The couple apparently lived there until Harry died in 1940 at the age of 78.  Jeanette subsequently sold the iconic house.

For a final word on whiskey man Harry Levy it seems appropriate to quote from a Cincinnati Press Club publication.   The article hailed him as “one of Cincinnati’s foremost capitalists, and certainly entitled to the fullest recognition as a philanthropist, for his benefactions for years have been of the most generous nature.”

Notes:  This post has been garnered from multiple sources of which by far the most important was the National Register of Historic Places Registration Form for the Harry Milton Levy House.  It was co-authored by Walter E. Langsam and Beth A. Sullebarger of the Cincinnati Preservation Society in 1997 and provides many cogent details about Harry and Jeanette Levy. 

Monday, September 27, 2021

Gilbert O’Shaugnessy — The Texas Teetotaling Whiskey Taster

Calling himself a professional “rectifier,” i.e. expert blender of whiskey, and frequently employed by his fellow Texans to determine the quality and composition of liquor,  Gilbert Ryan O’Shaugnessy as a youth had taken a pledge never to drink alcohol.  According to family lore, what Gilbert, shown here, tasted he spit out — just one aspect of the unusual life of this Irish immigrant.

Gilbert was born in July 1858 in Slievedooly, County Clare, the son of Patrick and Mary Ryan O’Shaughnessy.  His mother died when Gilbert was only two and the boy received an elementary education in Ireland.  It was in Ireland that he took the temperance pledge that he honored all his life.  His father was a dairy farmer whose properties by custom would go to an elder son.  As a younger son, Gilbert faced a less fortunate future, possibly the impetus for him to immigrate to America.

Sources differ between 1878 and 1883 as the year the youthful Gilbert arrived on these shores.  He seems early to have settled in Galveston, Texas.  There he met Mary Hansbury, born in Texas, the daughter of Irish immigrants, Mary Anne and Michael Hansbury,  At the time of their marriage in February 1887, Gilbert was 29 and Mary 22.  

During Gilbert’s decade or so living in Galveston, he worked for George Schneider & Co., whose letterhead proclaimed the business as “General Commission Merchants and Liquor Dealers.”  The Irishman’s status as a non-drinker might have helped him secure the job.  Gilbert seems to have been a highly useful employee, listed initially in Galveston directories as a “drayman,” that is, driving a horse-drawn wagon, and subsequently employed as a clerk.  Gilbert also had skills in cooperage, making barrels for holding Schneider’s house whiskey blends that included “Lone Star Bourbon” and “J. Martin Rye.”

As his employment with Schneider & Co. progressed, Gilbert became increasingly involved in the wholesaling, retailing and finally manufacture of whiskey.  In 1901 he listed his occupation as “rectifier” for the firm.  Rectifying or blending whiskey was and still is a highly valued skill in the liquor industry.  It requires the ability to insure consistency over time in the taste, smoothness and color in a particular brand.  Shown here is a Scheider quart.

Just as Gilbert was reaching the pinnacle of skilled whiskey men, tragedy befell the O’Shaugnessys.  During their decade in Galveston their union had produced five children, Mary Gertrude, Katherine, Patrick, Margaret Eileen, and Antoinette.  On September 8, 1900, a hurricane struck Galveston considered to be the deadliest natural disaster in American history, killing an estimated 8,000 persons.

As Gulf waters inundated the city, a crowd of forty or more displaced residents crowded into the O’Shaughnessy residence, waiting on the second floor for rescue.  When a boat at last arrived, the rush to board caused the craft to overturn temporarily.  Antoinette, 5 years old, was swept away by the flood waters. Fortunately, Gilbert, Mary, and their four remaining children were saved.My grandfather searched for her for two weeks,” related one descendant about Antoinette.  When Gilbert at last found her body amid the acres of wreckage, they buried her in Galveston and shortly after moved 250 miles west to San Antonio.  “I do not believe they ever got over the horror of that storm.”

In San Antonio, shown above in 1910, Gilbert soon found employment with J. Oppenheimer & Co., a local grocery and liquor wholesaler and retailer located at 230 West Commerce Street.  “This firm handles the finest wines and liquors to be had anywhere, both imported and domestic,” gushed a puff piece in the San Antonio Light.  A company ad indicates that while Oppenheimer was selling national brands like “Sunny Brook.” “Old Crow,” and “Hermitage,” it also featured house brands like “J.W. Stafford Maryland Rye,”  “Maryland Monogram Rye.” and “Oakhurst Whiskey.”

Oppenheimer’s ads claimed: “The Government’s rigid test has never quite reached the high standard of quality demanded by this house.”  Such a boast suggests that the company required the services of a professional rectifier such as Gilbert.  In order for their house brands to achieve quality desired, his services would be needed at every step to guide the results. For Gilbert it meant tasting and spitting out literally gallons of whiskey over his lifetime.

A skilled rectifier like Gilbert was also called upon by San Antonio liquor dealers and saloonkeepers to test by taste the whiskeys they were purchasing.  Some unscrupulous distillers and wholesalers sold products that were watered down or contained ingredients including grain alcohol, fusel oils, tobacco juice, molasses, and artificial coloring.  A professional taster could detect such contaminants. In the 1900 federal census Gilbert gave his occupation simply as “rectifier,” in the liquor industry.  No specific employer was indicated. 

As time went on, while continuing to work with Oppenheimer, Gilbert was associating closely with several San Antonio drinking establishments, reported among them the Viaduct Bar and the International Saloon.  Shown here are two sides of a bar token from the latter.  Apparently moving from selling whiskey by the bottle to selling it by the glass, Gilbert was obliged to acquire the skills of bartender and saloonkeeper. 

He apparently liked the change. In 1913 the Irishman became proprietor of the Brady Parlor Bar at 106 East Main Plaza,  in the shadow of the city’s Catholic Cathedral, shown above.  It was named for James T. Brady who turned it over to Gilbert’s management in 1913.  This was a high class saloon, known as the sole Texas agent for “Old Ripy,” a quality Kentucky bourbon.  O’Shaughnessy’s business card stated:  “We keep only One Brand and One Brand only for all customers — for Home use, Medicinal Purposes, and over the Bar.”   The “Teetotaler Taster” operated the establishment until shut down by National Prohibition in 1919.

Whiskey, however, was only one aspect of Gilbert O’Shaugnessy’s life.  He became a
 well known and respected member of the Irish-American community in San Antonio.  In 1908 he was elected president of the local chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish social organization.  The picture of Gilbert that opens this post is taken from a group photo of the Hibernians arrayed in front of St. Mary’s Catholic Church after the annual St. Patrick’s Day Mass.  The members were wearing their sashes and badges. Gilbert was the only one in a light suit and one of the few who was clean shaven.  He is also visible far left below standing on the running board of an automobile in the ensuing St.Patrick’s parade in downtown San Antonio.  Although Gilbert owned a motor car, the former drayman as yet did not know how to drive.

Typically on St. Patrick’s Day the Hibernian’s planned a daylong celebration for the patron saint of Ireland.  The Mass and parade would be followed by an elaborate dinner in which with the ladies auxiliary, the Daughters of Erin, and others, including the German American Liederkranz,  performed skits and musical numbers.  Says one writer:  “Often the grand finale on the evening’s vaudeville-style was Gilbert O’Shaughnessy, whose Irish dancing brought down the house.”  In contrast to vaunted Irish tenors, Gilbert was reputed to be unable to carry a tune.

O’Shaughnessy was a devoted family man, according to a descendant:  “His children and grandchildren grew up to find good jobs, wore the uniform of this country in wartime, were called to the religious life.”  Gilbert Jr.became a highly successful West Coast jazz musician and another  son was an international golf champion.  The family had realized the promise of America that brought Gilbert to these shores.

With the advent of National Prohibition, Gilbert was forced to shut down his saloon. Now 62, he took a job with the San Antonio Parks Department. As a city employee, he began a 12-year career as an inspector and later, having taught himself to drive, as a chauffeur. Shown here In his later years, Gilbert was diagnosed with stomach cancer in July 1932 and died four months later on October 31— the eve of All Saints’ Day.  As shown here, he was buried in San Antonio’s San Fernando cemetery.

At his funeral the Gilbert O’Shaughnessy was extolled for his generosity to the needy and other good works entitling him, said the priest, “to walk among the princes of the people.”  Little was said about his three decades working in virtually every aspect of the liquor trade, but once sworn having to abstain from alcohol, never having taken a drink himself, demonstrating a strength of character given to very few. 

Notes:  Much of this article was derived from two columns in the San Antonio Express-News in March and April 2021 written by Paula Allen.  The first column was sparked by an inquiry from an O’Shaughnessy descendant who asked whether “rectifier” was  a genuine occupation.  It was followed by a second column that focused on Gilbert’s career.  Family photographs are also from that source.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Frederick Stitzel — “The Thomas Edison” of Whiskey

 An impressive number of pre-Prohibition whiskey men have been inventors, frequently patenting their creations.  Very few, however, were able to see their “brain children” put into production.  An exception was Frederick Stitzel of the famous Stitzel family of Kentucky distillers.  Not only did Stitzel, shown here, register numerous patents, two of his inventions were commercial successes and continue to be in use down to the present day.

Recently Whiskey Magazine listed the 100 “Greatest Whiskey People,” highlighting individuals worldwide who left a lasting legacy on the whiskey trade over the years.  Frederick Stitzel was among that chosen few.  His claim to fame was based on his patented invention for stacking barrels of whiskey for aging.  Earlier the custom was to stack them directly on top of each other.  This was a highly risky practice.  Each barrels held about 53 gallons of whiskey and filled would weigh around 500 pounds.  Putting one of those behemoths on top of another could cause leakage, outright ruptures and other problems.

As shown here in a drawing, Stitzel’s system consisted of what he called rails, shelves attached to heavy wooden frames to support the weight of individual barrels.  The rails were spaced, so that when a barrel was placed on its side, each end would be supported by a rail.  It also allowed for the barrels to be turned from time to time, assisting the aging process.  Stitzel’s design called for each section to be made separately, allowing easier configuration of tiers in the warehouse.

In his patent application, Stitzel explained: “This my invention relates to a new and useful improvement in racks for tiering barrels containing whisky or other spirituous liquors, the object of which is to provide a portable rack or frame made in sections that will be sufficiently strong to bear the weight of as many barrels as may be tiered between the floors of the house without resting upon each other, thereby avoiding the danger of crushing the staves by the weight, as each tier is made to rest on separate rails projecting on the inside of the frame independent of the others, thereby causing a free circulation of air between the barrels, and at the same time making it easy to remove any of the barrels in the lower tiers without interfering with those above or below.”   The Stitzel rails are in general use even today.

Stitzel did not just exercise his inventive genius on whiskey.  When he died, newspapers across the country carried a notice headlined “Death Takes Inventor of Railroad Signals.”  Called a “semaphore”  Stitzel’s was one of the earliest forms of fixed railway signals. His semaphore system involved electronic signals that display their important information to engineers by changing the angle of inclination of a mechanical pivoted ‘arm'.  During the late 19th Century they became the most widely used form of railway signal.  

Stitzel described the system as “devices along the route for controlling devices in the…train, e.g., to release brake, to operate warning signal at selected places along the route…intermittent control simultaneous mechanical and electrical control….”  Shown here, these semaphore devices are still being used on some railroad lines although generally replaced by signal lights.

These were just two of perhaps a dozen or more Stitzel inventions.  Shown below left is the drawing for his 1883 improvement for railroads.  Noting that in telegraph, electric signals, and other electronic devices, the batteries operating them steady weakened and required replacement , Stitzel proposed an innovation that would automatically cut out the weakened battery and insert a new one.  Thirty years later in 1923 at 80 years old, Stitzel was still inventing.   Shown right is a “spring wheel” device for automobiles he patented to help smooth out bumps on rough roads.   Stitzel and other family members regularly were in touch with government and industry marketing his ideas for railroads, automobiles and, yes, even airplanes.

Given his passion for invention, it is a wonder Stitzel had time for distilling.  An immigrant from Germany, Frederick, at the age of 14 had arrived in the United States with his father and two brothers, Philip and Jacob.  The family was recorded living in Louisville in 1855.  With Philip in 1875 Frederick founded a distilling company they called Stitzel Brothers.  Frederick was president; Philip was vice-president.  They purchased a small existing plant known as the Glencoe Distillery in Louisville. Shown here, it had only limited mashing capacity.

After this distillery was destroyed by fire in 1883, the brothers rebuilt and expanded the facility as shown here.  Insurance underwriter records from 1892 note that that it was of frame construction, with three warehouses:  A — brick with a metal or slate roof, located 79 feet south of the still;  B — ironclad, 120 feet southwest of the still, and C — ironclad, located 83 feet north of the still. The warehouses were reported capable of holding 22,000 barrels — obviously on Stitzel racks. The partners also maintained cattle pens 79 feet downwind of the complex where the cows were fed spent mash from the whiskey-making. This distillery could mash up to 600 bushels, daily turning out 54 barrels of whiskey. 

The  Stitzel distillery, above, eventually covered an area of two and one half acres.  An 1895 publication entitled “Louisville of Today,” featured the facility:  “Here are a large and splendidly equipped stillhouse, elevator, immense warehouses, cattle sheds, etc.  The plant stands second to none as regards modern high-class machinery and appliances, power being supplied by a thirty horse power engine.”

The expanded capacity allowed the brothers to issue a variety of brands.  At various times they included "Billy Burke,” “Champion,” "Friend of Man,” “Glencoe,” "Lock Horn", "Merryland Rye,” “Mondamin,” “Parkland,” “Parkwood,” "Pomona Rye,” "S. B. Co.,” and “Old Fred Stitzel.”  Despite Frederick’s frequent contacts with the U.S. Patent Office, the brothers trademarked only one label.  Shown on a shot glass here, the brand was Mondamin, named for a Native American god of corn.

The distillery was listed in Kentucky State tax records as Stitzel Brothers until 1919 and the coming of National Prohibition.  During this period, the plant continued to be expanded.  At Prohibition the company had a large stock of whiskey in its commodious warehouses that it was authorized by authorities to bottle for medicinal spirits.  The distillery itself was dismantled.  The relationship of Frederick to the company during the 1910s is not clear.  Some indications are that he may have left actual distilling with his Stitzel brothers and nephews in favor of operating  a whiskey brokerage in Louisville — and pursuing his inventions.

While exercising these interests, Frederick also was carrying on a personal life with wife and children.  In 1874 he married Emma Laval, a woman born in Kentucky who was twelve younger.  Her father had hailed from the same part of Germany as Frederick.  They would have five daughters over the next nine years — Marguerite, Elizabeth, Winnie, Emma, and Marrie.   The couple would be married for 50 years, until Frederick’s death in 1924.

Stitzel was stricken with bronchial pneumonia in the autumn of that year, lingered only a short period and died on September 18 at the age of 81.  He was buried in Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery, where so many Kentucky bourbon barons are interred. His widow Emma would join him there 11 years later.  Stitzel was commended in the press as a Louisville distiller who supported: “All public enterprises of any moment calculated to advance the prosperity of this section”. 

Still receiving patents up to a year before his death,  Stitzel could never approach the record of 1,093 patents Thomas Edison received during his lifetime.  Nonetheless, inventing virtually up until the day he died, Frederick Stitzel richly earned the accolade as “The Thomas Edison” of whiskey men.

Addendum:  Frederick’s nephew, A. Philip Stitzel, later would join with members of the notable Weller Kentucky distilling family to create the famous Stitzel-Weller distillery that survived National Prohibition and brought Julius “Pappy” Van Winkle to the fore. See my post on Pappy, November 22, 2014.

Notes:  This post was gathered from a wide range of sources, of which the more important were records of the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office and “Louisville Today,” issued in 1895 by Consolidated Illustrating Co., Louisville.