Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Whiskey Men Writing About their Lives

Foreword:  For the most part individuals involved in the liquor trade were not an introspective lot.  Presented here are exceptions in which three of them provided diary entries or letters that detailed their activities on a regular basis.  Each of the “whiskey men” chronicled here were deceased when their writings were rediscovered and believed significant enough for reprinting in book form.  This post offers a brief introduction to each.

It is likely that the world would never have heard of Joseph J. Mersman, if Dr.  Linda A. Fisher, a public health physician, had not been doing research on the 1849 St. Louis cholera epidemic and came across Mersman’s diary at the Missouri Historical Society where it had laid “undiscovered” for years.  She found the whiskey merchant’s story intriguing and eventually edited it with annotations and put it into book form, published in 2007 by the Ohio University Press.   As a result the day to day activities and thoughts of the German-born St. Louis  liquor dealer and whiskey blender became available for a wider audience.

Mersman, born in Germany and brought to the United States as a child, began working at 15 in the whiskey trade at a successful Cincinnati liquor house.  In November 1847 when he was about 23 years old he began his diary, documenting his work in the whiskey house and other aspects of his daily life.  Completing his apprenticeship and now free to strike out on his own, Mersman moved to St. Louis, Missouri, and at 25 years of age with a partner established a whiskey and tobacco business. 

He also found a wife, Claudine.  Their first child, a boy they named Joseph, was born 13 months later.  A touching photograph of mother and son is shown here.  The couple would go on to have eight children.  In his diary Mersman recorded his enjoyment of his growing family, noting that he was becoming “quite domesticated.”  In March 1855, Mersman abandoned his diary only to take it up again in 1862 after the outbreak of the Civil War.  Despite Missouri being a hotbed of Confederate sentiment and conflict,  he thrived.  Having signed loyalty oaths to the Union, he and his partner were able to obtain lucrative contracts with the Union Army to provide whiskey for the troops. 

Dr. Fisher sees Mersman’s diary as “a record of a man transforming himself from an impoverished, unschooled newcomer into a successful, skilled merchant…a path many took in the mid-nineteenth century.”  All that is true but seen from a slightly different perspective, his story also demonstrates how the liquor trade in particular hastened the economic and social rise of immigrants who understood — as Joseph Mersman clearly did — the weath to be made.

In May 1915, I did a post on Benedict Joseph (B.J.) Semmes, born into a whiskey-making Washington, D.C., family.  But it was not until he had wooed and won the love of his life, Jorantha, the daughter of a New York congressman, that with her support Semmes was able to prevail through the crisis of the Civil War and maintain a whiskey dynasty down to three generations.  Serving as a supply officer for the Confederate Army, Semmes wrote Jorantha (he called her “Eo,”) every day an account of the 1864 Battle for Atlanta. The letters lay idle at the University of North Carolina for decades until Author A.A. Hoehling unearthed them for his book, “Last Train from Atlanta.” Following are some excerpts:

July 22: “Our communications have been cut as I foretold you and this is a chance just offered to write you. Before day this morning we evacuated Atlanta but left the Army in line of battle around the city…A terrible battle is raging around the city and in fact in it.

July 25:  “The enemy continues the wanton shelling of the city….For 30 hours they shelled my Depot where our stores are issued….Gen. Hood ordered us with the train of cars a little out of the range and now I am writing in a car on the R. Road while the shells are flying over me….I am well during all these troubles and am chiefly troubled since I no longer hear from you….God bless you and pray for me.” 

July 28:  “I can only say that I am tolerably well, and love you as much as you could wish, and much more than I know how to put on paper…I send a heartfull of love to all my little ones and my relations.”

August 7:  “I have been quite unwell and very feeble but today feel much better and stronger in every way, especially since I have been to Mass for the first time since we left Dalton….I felt you were  by my side.  It was consoling to me at this time especially for I am living in danger hourly and daily.

August 12:  “After a sleepless night, [I] cannot refrain from writing to my darling Eo my regular letter.  Today my heart is very loving and my very arms yearn to press to my  heart the living, breathing form of my beloved wife….I have you constantly in my thoughts, especially in the hour of danger.”

August 25:  “For the past 48 hours the enemy has shelled us terribly….The day before a young man from Manin, Ala,,  dined with us, and two hours after dinner his leg was amputated on the same table we dined from.”

August 30: Semmes was evacuated from Atlanta by train.  As supply officer he directed military supplies by rail through a hotly contested area and was able to arrive at a safe location twelve miles north of the city.  He told his “beloved wife” to gather the children, fall on her knees and thank God for his “protection” and “preservation from a most horrible death or most shocking wounds.  After the Confederate surrendered Semmes made his way home, rejoined Jorantha and his family, and continued his successful liquor business.

Born in New York, George Hand began keeping a diary as a Union soldier in the Far West doing garrison work.  After the war about 1872 with a partner he remained there to open a saloon in Tucson, Arizona.  Early entries of the diary apparently have been lost.  Those that exist begin in January 1875 and end in the late 1880s. In his diary Hand was starkly honest about his activities and the saloon.  For example, he documented his alcoholism with precision:   Jan. 19, 1875:  “Got up at 8 o’clock. Took one drink and was tight.  Kept drinking until 11 a.m., then went to bed full of rot and slept till 3 p.m.” Nov. 5, 1875:  “Got drunk today.” and the next day: “Got tight again. Went to a funeral.  Got tighter at night.”  Oct. 5, 1877:  “Very dull.  Drank all day and all evening.”

Hand was equally faithful in documenting his visits and payments to Tucson prostitutes:  Jan. 13, 1875: “Cruz—$5.00;”  Jan. 18, 1875:  “Unknown girl—$3.00;”  Nov. 6, 1875:  “Juana—$1.00.” Dec. 23, 1876:  “Called on Pancha a few moments—$10.”  Hand also described the raucous activity at the saloon:  May 23, 1875:  “Green Rusk got tight, had a row with John Luck and got a cut in his head from a cane.” May 29, 1875:  “Boyle hit a man in the eye for calling him a son-of-a-bitch.  Later in the evening I knocked a man down,”  Mar. 9, 1876: “Mr. Bedford, being full of liquor, made a row with old Dick.  Foster hit Bedford in the neck and put him out of doors.”

Man Right Standing at Hand's Saloon

Interspersed among such diary jottings are some Western history gems: "March 19, 1882:  “Morgan Earp died today from a gunshot wound he received while playing billiards in Tombstone. He was shot through a window from the sidewalk.”  March 21, 1882:  “Frank Stillwell was shot all over, the worst shot-up man that I ever saw. He was found a few hundred yards from the hotel on the railroad tracks [In Tucson]. It is supposed to be the work of Doc Holliday and the Earps, but they were not found. Holliday and the Earps knew that Stillwell shot Morg Earp and they were bound to get him.”

Twenty years after Hand’s death in May 1887, The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson’s morning newspaper, began publishing entries from his diaries as a historical feature on its editorial page.  From 1917 to 1972, the saloonkeeper’s observations were printed almost daily, bringing a man who otherwise likely would have been utterly forgotten to the forefront of public attention.  As his biographer Neil Carmody has noted:  “For more than four decades, thousands of Arizonians began their day reading George Hand’s laconic [and sometimes expurgated] comments on frontier life.”   

Carmony has described the importance of Hand’s “saloon diary:”  “Most of the  pioneers who took the time to keep a diary were serious and orderly folks, not much given to humor and certainly not frank about their lives and loves.…In his diary,  George Hand captured the flavor of the ribald, fun side of frontier life, described the often violent West, and revealed the…loneliness and tedium of a life far from home and family.”

Note:  More complete vignettes on each of these “whiskey men” may be found elsewhere on this post: Joseph Mersman, May 26, 2017;  B.J. Semmes, May 11, 2015; and George Hand, April 11, 2021.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Evan Williams: The Myth and the Man

A number of years ago in a visit to Bardstown, Kentucky, I visited the Heaven Hill Distillery and took a tour.  The final stop was the end of an automated line where the filled bottles received their labels and were boxed for shipment.  That day the fifths were all labeled “Evan Williams.”  Determined to find out why this individual merited his own brand, I did some research and found that there are two Evan Williams:  One of myth and one of reality.

Since no one has the least idea of what Williams looked like, his picture above, manufactured by Heaven Hill, belongs in the myth category, as do ads purporting to tell his story.  Shown here, a 1957 offering from the National Distillers Products Company headlined:  “Little did Evan Williams know what he was starting.”  The illustration is of a tall, rawboned pioneer watching as his distillery is being built.  It goes on:   “Evan Williams came down to Kentucky from Pennsylvania and set up a small distillery in 1783.  He had heard of the limestone springs of crystalline purity….As he set about his distilling, little did Evan Williams know he was starting a quiet revolution—that this still was to be the birthplace of truly American whiskey—Kentucky bourbon.”

Using the same timeline, in 1983 Heaven Hill celebrated the 200th Anniversary of the vaunted distillery by a magazine ad that headlined:  “Evan Williams started a quiet revolution in 1783.”  Again there was an illustration of a rugged pioneer watching as his distillery is constructed.  This ad declares:  “His was not a large distillery but the ideas he conceived were so revolutionary and so successful that all others have spent the last 200 years matching the rich unique taste he discovered on the Kentucky frontier.”

A historical marker, cannily sponsored by Heaven Hill, is more cautious in its claims but still anoints Williams with the first commercial distillery in Kentucky. Located on Louisville’s “Whiskey Row,” where many major distillers have their headquarters, the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience is a museum cum micro-distillery, event space, and sales shop that claims 100,000 visitors annually.  A stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, it perpetuates the mythical Evan Williams. 

Facts about the “real” Evan Williams, though they are few, are not a tidy fit with the myth.  He was born in Pembrokeshire, Wales, about the middle of the 18th Century.  As shown on the map here, the district is a peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean.  The town itself is an ancient one with remnants of ancient castles and fortifications scattered about.  

The real Evan Williams may have looked more like the drawing here than other depictions.  Rather than being tall, Williams may have been like his fellow Welshmen, quite short.  In World War one, the men of the 17th Welsh Regiment ranged between five feet and five feet three inches in height.  Unlike neighboring Scotland distilling was not a common occupation in Wales.  Thus, it is unclear where Williams learned the craft.

Historian Michael Veach of the Filson Historical Society disputes the much quoted 1783 date identifying Williams as Kentucky’s first distiller.  He points out that the year was first identified more than century after Williams’ death by an amateur Kentucky historian.   Veach explains: “For one thing, the dating is disproved by the existence of a receipt for William’s passage from London to Philadelphia on the ship Pigoe dated May 1,1884.”  Moreover, he says, others were distilling in Kentucky as early as 1779.

We have no way of knowing how long Williams stayed in Philadelphia.  By the late 1780s he was in Louisville, at the time a small town on the banks of the Ohio River.  He initially operated a small still there buying corn from local farmers who often had problems disposing of their surplus crops.  As the historical marker indicates, Williams may have been the first to market his whiskey outside Louisville by sending barrels by flatboat down the Ohio River.  By 1801 he was recorded operating three whiskey stills at 141, 130 and 93 gallons capacity.

The identification as bourbon in the ads and elsewhere of what Williams distilled is bogus. His whiskey would have been sold just as it came out of the still, what we would call “moonshine” or white lightning.  Bourbon is aged in charred barrels.  That technique had not yet been discovered.  Far from the “rich unique taste” claimed in the 1983 ad, Williams is said to have had “a rocky start.” According to whiskey historians:  “Early drinkers would rely on the beverage as ‘a good medicine for chills and fever,’ but decried it as ‘bad whiskey.'”

Williams soon ran into problems with local authorities.  Although Kentucky was something of a frontier, it also was a clone of highly regulated Virginia.  When the distiller claimed the right to sell his whiskey without a license, a grand jury in 1788 indicted him for the offense.  The latter day descriptions of William’s operation also ignore an action against the distiller that condemned his practice of dumping his discharge water, spent mash and other smelly byproducts into the Ohio River.  “Ironically, Williams himself was serving as Louisville’s elected harbormaster and was in charge of the wharf’s cleanliness at the time.”

Louisville Harbor 1780s

William’s run-ins with local authorities do not seem to have darkened his reputation in Louisville.  As harbormaster he facilitated the teeming river traffic traveling the Ohio River, unloading and reloading past the falls at Louisville and shipping onward to the Mississippi and New Orleans.  Shown here, the harbor was small and needed close supervision to avoid traffic jams. Williams enforced a regulation stipulating that all boats had to be unloaded and moved out of the harbor within forty-eight hours after their arrival.  Williams also was one of Louisville’s seven elected trustees.  He is said regularly to have brought a bottle of his whiskey to meetings to share with his fellow trustees.  It reportedly was always empty by the end of the meeting.

Both ads above depicting Williams have one legitimate feature.  They show him with a rolled up paper that contains the plans for his distillery.  The distiller was a builder and very likely would have been involved with such drawings.  Williams also was a master stonemason who oversaw the construction of the first jail and courthouse in Louisville.  I can find no reference to a wife or family for Williams and he may have been a lifelong bachelor.  He died on October 15, 1810, and was buried a local cemetery. 

Williams was rescued from the obscurity that surrounds most of the earliest Kentucky distillers when in 1957 Heaven Hill introduced a brand of bourbon named for him.  When I go to my liquor cabinet this weekend to make Manhattans, the whiskey that comes to hand will be a bottle of Evan Williams.  The contents bear little resemblance to the product made by its namesake and in spite of the bald fictional history,  the whiskey makes a tasty cocktail.

Notes:  Important among the sources for this post were an internet article by Historians Kate Sowada and Christopher Beebout who filled in many details about Evan William’s life, and Michael Veach in his book “Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey:  An American Heritage,” University of Kentucky Press, 2013.  



Tuesday, March 22, 2022

“Bose” Covington and the Silver King Saloon

John Y. “Bose” Covington at the age when many children today are still in elementary school, is reported to have been thrust into the position of managing not only his family plantation but a mercantile trade when his father unexpectedly died.  Covington’s survival of this challenge and his rise to prominence in community building and philanthropy in Monroe, Louisiana, lead squarely through one location — The Silver King Saloon.

Covington was born in 1863 in Red River, Texas, where his father,  John A.,  operated what apparently was a substantial farm.  John A. originally was from Alabama and Bose’s mother from Louisiana.  With no indication that the family owned slaves, the Covingtons may have been openly or covertly on the Union side during the Civil War.  In post-war 1873 the father accepted an appointment from the Grant Administration as postmaster of Forksville, Louisiana, a town a dozen miles from Monroe, and the family moved there.  John A. would have obtained this patronage position only if he were believed to be a Republican and a loyal “Union man.”  The job administering the U.S. mail apparently allowed the father to buy a small farm and open a store in Forksville, likely adjacent to the post office.

Then the story gets murky.  That area of Louisiana was home to numerous Covingtons, several of them named John.  The local newspaper obituary for this John Y. says his father died  when he was a boy of 14:  “Upon which the latter immediately assumed the task of carrying on the burdens of the plantation and the merchantile enterprise.” That dating would put John A.’s death in 1877.  A genealogical site, however,  puts the father’s death at 1890 when “Bose” (no clue how he got that nickname) would have been considerably older.

Whichever version is closer to the truth, the young Covington in time did dispose of the farm and moved to Monroe with the remnants of his father’s store.  My guess is that liquor was an important part of his stock.  By 1900 he opened a highly successful saloon and liquor dealership that he called “The Silver King Saloon.”  Shown left is a photograph of the two story building at 121 to 129 Grand Street.  Below are shots of the busy saloon interior and the liquor sales area where the central figure may be Covington himself.

Covington’s wholesale business required him to receive shipments of whiskey by rail in barrel quantities.  These were then decanted into ceramic jugs of gallon and larger sizes to be sold to his wholesale customers in other local saloons or restaurants and hotels.  Those containers in turn would be poured into smaller quantities for serving over the bar.  Covington featured a variety of ceramic whiskey jugs, from ones crudely marked with an incised name to more sophisticated jugs with elaborate under-glazed labels.

Covington also was “rectifying,” that is blending, bulk whiskeys to achieve particular taste, smoothness, color and other attributes, likely in the saloon basement.  These would have been bottled in embossed glass quart and smaller containers with paper labels.  “St. Clair Whiskey” appears to have been a proprietary brand, as was “Silver Wedding 1884 Rye.”  The bottles would have been sold both at wholesale and retail. 

The 1900 U.S. Census found Covington, who apparently never married, living in Monroe as the head of a household that included his 60-year old mother, Mary;  his sister Ida;  Ida’s daughter, Lucille, and a black servant named Alice.  Already people in Monroe were beginning to recognize that the young saloonkeeper was a generous soul but were unaware of the true extent of his charity so secret did he keep it.

During the early 20th Century, as prohibitionary forces banned alcohol sales in localities and even whole states, the liquor trade remained open for interstate commerce.  With Louisiana thoroughly “wet,” Monroe became a center for mail order whiskey and beer dealers.  Covington was among them, advertising on his whiskeys and shot glasses.  Quoting the local newspaper:  “He branched out and with commendable business acumen established a mail order liquor business, which by dint of sheer hard work and perseverance he built up into an enterprise of considerable dimensions and laid the foundations for a moderate-sized fortune.” 

As above, Covington publicized his ability to provide quality brands through railway express.  If you bought four full quarts  he would pay express charges.   As the reputation of his mail order house grew, he began to attract attention in neighboring Texas that had gone dry in 1918.  A Texas customer named Gould Collins drove to the Silver King Saloon, loaded up with liquor, and headed back home.  Authorities were watching.  Near the Texas border outside Shreveport they arrested Collins.  Part of the blame fell on Covington as the seller.  When the case reached the Federal Appeals Court,  Covington was absolved of any wrongdoing and Collins, not having crossed the Texas line, was acquitted.

With the advent of National Prohibition, Covington closed down his Silver King saloon and liquor sales, devoting himself to looking after his real estate investments that included a number of downtown Monroe buildings, including the Central Savings & Trust Company,  where he was an officer.  Said his obituary:  “He believed in the steady growth of the community, a belief which eventually was realized.”

As he approached 60 years Covington’s health began to falter.  According to newspaper  accounts, he developed severe intestinal problems.  Seeking better medical treatment than Monroe could provide, he traveled to Colorado, California and Texas.  When nothing availed, he returned home.  Operated on at Monroe’s St. Francis Hospital, “Bose” Covington died an hour later without ever regaining consciousness.  His June 19, 1922, death was mourned as “a real loss to the community.”


With Covington’s passing was unlocked the full story of his philanthropy.  Albert Horuff, who had been in charge of the former saloonkeeper’s affairs during his illness, told the Monroe News-Star that only recently had he become fully aware of Covington’s assistance to the needy:   “His indeed was a charitable nature, contributing not only to organized charity, but reaching to the very heart of want and answering with a ready response the appeals of his fellow-men who needed assistance.  Of him might truly be said that his left hand knew not what his right hand performed.”

Covington’s funeral services were held at the Elk’s Hall, conducted by the Rev. A. W. Waddill, pastor of the First Methodist Church of Monroe.  Burial was in the Old City Cemetery. The whiskey man’s badly weathered grave marker is shown here.  Even Covington’s funeral made front page news.  As his steel coffin weighing 800 pounds was being lowered into the ground, a wooden plank used in the process broke.  An undertaker’s employee named Lynch was pitched into the pit and pinned under the casket.  It took many minutes to raise it off the unconscious man.  Rushed to the hospital, Lynch was found not seriously injured.

Note:  This post was researched from a number of sources.  Among them the most important was the lengthy Covington obituary from the Monroe News-Star of June 20, 1922.  All quotes in italics are from that article.


Thursday, March 17, 2022

Harford Kirk Gave Wings to the Old Crow

Beginning in 1853, Harford Bradford Kirk, age 23, opened a wine and liquors importing business in New York City that by virtue of his merchandising genius proved to be highly profitable over the years.  Meanwhile out in Frankfort, Kentucky, the W. A. Gaines distillers were selling their “Old Crow” whiskey by the barrel, allowing customers to bottle it as they chose.  With the arrival of East Coast investors at Gaines, the game changed.  Now regional bottlers were being chosen for their marketing moxie.  Among them was the H.B. Kirk Company.  Kirk pivoted to whiskey and his talents gave an old brand a new look and new life.

Kirk was born on Christmas Day in 1831, in Henniker, New Hampshire, a small Merrimack County town that had been incorporated before the Revolutionary War. The son of Thomas and Elizabeth Kirk, as a boy he received the kind of education that a one room school house could provide.  Demonstrating unusual intelligence and ambition, from an early age Kirk appears to have gravitated to the wine and liquor trade with emphasis on imported spirits.

Shown above is an 1860 ad for the H.B. Kirk & Co. at its first location at 68 Fulton Street in New York City.  Note the emphasis on imported brands.  In these early days of his enterprise, the emphasis was on wines and imported liquors.  Shown here is green ceramic jug that once held Scotch whiskey from the famous Glenlivet District of Scotland that bears Kirk’s name and his New York location.  For almost the next two decades the young Kirk would be gaining a reputation for his ability to import and merchandise alcoholic beverages.  His success required opening a second outlet on Broadway at 27th Street.

Then Kirk made a pivotal decision.  According to a New York Times report: “In 1872, 19 years after his business was established, H.B. Kirk placed a sample order of 200 barrels with W.A. Gaines & Co. When it came to maturity, Kirk was delighted with its quality, and placed a large order….”   From then on whiskey, would be his focus.

Meanwhile, out in Frankfort, Kentucky, the W. A. Gaines Company, had been distilling and selling Old Crow, named for the master distiller James Crow, exclusively in bulk in 40-gallon barrels for a flat $3.50 a gallon. Liquor houses around the country could bottle it and slap whatever label on it they wished.  Brand identification and quality control by W. A. Gaines was virtually impossible. With the arrival of a group of New York investors from Paris, Allen & Co., headed by Edson Bradley, shown here, things changed drastically. [See  my post on Bradley, Sept. 19, 2011.]  

Bradley quickly saw to the incorporation of W. A. Gaines with all the assets and trademarks under its ownership.  He also determined that those liquor houses selling Old Crow bourbon should not be self-selected chaos, but chosen to represent the brand exclusively in specific markets.  In New York City he wisely anointed the H.B. Kirk Company.

Initially W. A. Gaines had designed a label that depicted an aerial view of the Old Crow distillery.  Kirk, however, had seen the benefit of using the black bird as the symbol of the brand, as shown in the image that opens this post.  Bradley, now president of W.A. Gaines Co., was quick to recognize the power of the crow symbol Kirk had initiated. He ditched the drawing of the distillery buildings, and decreed that henceforth on all bottles of the whiskey “James Crow would become species Corvis,” a bird with a stalk of grain in its mouth while standing on sheaths of bundled grain.

This image quickly was trademarked.  The result was a proliferation of copyright infringements as wholesalers who lost distribution rights or others who wanted to capitalize on the brand’s reputation copied or passed-off ersatz whiskey as Old Crow. By 1900, over 1,800 trademark infringement notices had been issued by W A. Gaines & Company.  Countering imitation would become a frequent theme of Kirk advertising.

Kirk took full advantage of his status as the sole bottler and distributor of Old Crow in the largest market in America.  While continuing his wine and imported liquor trade, he moved wholeheartedly behind merchandising the brand.  That included using humor.  Shown below are two Kirk ads, one equating George Washington with Old Crow.  The second one bears a highly unusual headline for a whiskey ad:  “It Kills Them Quickly.”  It purports to tell the story of a Mr. Lynch of Muncie, Indiana, “who for many years took in heavy jags of Old Crow Rye” and died at 120 years old.  “He was in hard luck,  We hope his premature demise will not deter others from using it.”


As W.A. Gaines in time experimented with other renderings of the crow, Kirk moved to his own distinctive label.  While keeping the crow involved, he featured a most unusual design for his labels.  It consists of intertwined heads, one of a white woman, a second of a black man, and a third of what appears to be a Native American.  The three are tied together by a ribbon held by a clover-shaped clasp with a “K,” presumably for Kirk.  Unable to find any source to describe the meaning of the symbol, I conclude that it is an effort to depict a unity of the American people.  Below is Kirk’s Old Crow quart bottled in amber glass, along with an unusual embossing of the three faces.

In telling the story of how Harford Kirk helped make a black bird an enduring symbol and the Nation’s bestselling pre-Prohibition whiskey, I have neglected Kirk the man.  Although unable to find a photo of this leading liquor dealer, we have two descriptions of him from passport applications when he was 59 and 68.  Although they differ on some particulars they agree that he was five feet, ten inches tall, had blue eyes, a full and open face, and gray hair.  In 1891 he sported a chin beard and “mutton chop” sideburns.  By 1900 those apparently were gone.

In 1871 Kirk married Mary Sears Cowles, a woman 19 years younger than he.  She had been born in 1850 in Claremont, New Hampshire, the daughter of Sarah Stilson and Timothy Cowles, a merchant.  Their nuptials took place in Weston, Massachusetts.  They would have two girls, Josepha, born 1874, and Lucy, 1879.

The 1880 Census found them living in New York City.  They were attended by two housemaids and a male servant.  By the time of the 1905 New York State Census the serving staff had grown to four, to include a nurse, cook, waitress and gardener.  

More important to the Kirk flourishing liquor business was the presence in the home of Ralph L. Spotts, 29, who had married the Kirks’ daughter, Josepha, and given them a grandson, Ralph K.  Although he had no sons, Kirk now had a son-in-law to assist him in his business.  Shown here, Spotts was working in the liquor trade, according to census records, as a “merchant, wines.” Spott also was a director of the Kirk Company. The presence of a family member in his liquor business allowed Kirk to undertake other activities.  Among them was as president of the Harlem Bridge, Morrisania and Fordham Railway Company.  Unfortunately, the activities of this incorporated business have faded into the mists of history.

In 1902, H. B. Kirk Co. placed the following announcement in the New York Tribune:  This year marks the close of a half century during which we have transacted business on Fulton Street.  After April 21st we will occupy the spacious seven story building, No. 156 Franklin Street, as our present quarters are wholly inadequate for our steadily increasing business.  Shown here, the building, rented by the company, added the seventh story just before Kirk moved in.  The structure is unusual on the block for having the fire escape in front.

As the 20th Century began, Kirk, now in his 70s, began to experience ill heath.  He was troubled by repeated bladder infections and chronic weakness.  He retired from the firm.  By this time, H. B. Kirk Company had incorporated and  Spotts, a member of the board, took over as president.  In July 1907 at the age of 76, Kirk died in his home in New York.  He was buried in Trinity Cemetery, Cornish, New Hampshire, 40 miles from where he was born.

During his lifetime as an important result of his creativity and marketing skills, Harford Kirk had seen Old Crow grow from among the many brands emanating from Kentucky during the late 19th Century into becoming the most popular whiskey in America.  Ralph Spotts, whose story will be told in a subsequent post, carried on Kirk’s efforts until National Prohibition.  

Note:  This post was researched from a wide variety of sources.  Key among them was a article entitled “The Whiskey Wash”  by Chris Middleton dated December 17, 2020 and available on the web.  The photos of the amber bottles are from the online Virtual Museum of the Federation of Historical Bottle Collectors (FOHBC), an exciting new venue for viewing rare American glass containers.  This post lacks a photo of Kirk, an omission I am hopeful some alert reader will remedy. Ralph Spotts is featured in a post of April 27, 2022.