Sunday, May 29, 2022

The Sandells: St. Paul’s Swedish Whiskey Clan

In profiling more than 950 “whiskey men” — distillers, dealers, and saloonkeepers — I cannot recall dealing previously with a Swedish family involved in the liquor trade, nor one in which a father worked for his children.  That made the discovery of the Sandells of St. Paul, Minnesota, all the more fascinating.  

Shown here, Nels Sandell was born in January 1845 in Fryksande, Varmland, Sweden, a bucolic area boasting large three lakes, shown below. His father, Nils Sandhall, was a farmer who also kept an inn on his land.  Under government regulation regarding service and prices, the inn was a traveler’s “public utility” in a region that had no railroad.  It provided lodging, board, and transportation to the next hostelry in the network.  Working in the inn from childhood, Nels received a typical education for a Swedish youth, served the required two years in the Swedish army and for a short time ran a general store.

In 1866 he married his childhood sweetheart, Carolina Jonsdotter Westburg, in Fryksande.   Nels was 21; Carolina was 17.   His marriage apparently provided the incentive for the newlyweds to leave their native land for America, arriving in 1868 while Carolina was pregnant with their first child.  They headed for Minnesota, a state that was known for its large Scandinavian population.  

Their initial destination was Jordan, a small town south of Minneapolis, a town with a proliferation of breweries.  There Nels, having “Americanized” his name to Sandell, opened a general store.  Among his stock was liquor.  After operating the store for more than a decade during which Jordan’s population grew only slightly, Nels “looked up the road” 44 miles to St. Paul and with Carolina, their four sons and three daughters, moved there.

Nels initial activity, according to business directories,  was operating a saloon at 373 East Seventh Street.  His family lived above the establishment.  As time elapsed, the father began to take his sons into the liquor trade and gradually retreated into the background.  By 1897 the family drinking establishment had become the George Sandell Saloon, named for his oldest son.  Nels was listed as “manager.”  By 1900, two other Sandell sons had joined George, shown left.  Oscar was listed as a salesman, indicating that the saloon had a retail trade;  Albert, right, was the bookkeeper.

By 1905, the saloon was gone and the Sandells were doing business as “Sandell Brothers, Importers and Wholesale Dealers in Wines and Liquors.”  The letterhead above indicates that the CEO was George, then 34, aided by Oscar, 32, and Albert, 27.  Nels was listed as traveling salesman for the company.  A photo of their establishment shows a well-stocked front window as well as signs advertising Hamm’s and Schlitz beer.  It is impossible to identify the standing figures but they may be two of the Sandells.

The brothers’ proprietary whiskey brands included "Milton", "Nordey Club", "Norden Club Rye", "Sidney Private Stock", "Snelling Rye", “Woodbridge,” and “Old Monogahela.”   The only brand they trademarked was “Nordey Club”(1906).  The Sandells also featured a “Norden Bitters” along with their whiskeys.  The Norden Club was a athletic and social organization for Swedes and other Scandinavians, to which Nels and other family members belonged.

Sandell Bros. was a blender of whiskeys that were sold in gallon or more quantities to saloons, restaurants and hotels. Those wholesale customers would then decant them into smaller containers for use by their bartenders. The jugs then might have been returned to the Sandell’s liquor house for cleaning and refilling.

Those jugs can be identified as products of potteries in Red Wing, Minnesota, a town on the Mississippi River less than fifty miles from St. Paul.  Made to order for distillers and liquor houses throughout the Midwest these containers are noted for their clean lines and tasteful labels.  Like the one shown right, the labels were applied using a inked rubber stamp, fired, and a clear overglaze  applied, a process requiring considerable precision.  Because of their quality, Red Wing-made whiskey jugs today can fetch into the thousands of dollars from collectors. 

Two of the Sandell brothers became family men. George was married in June 1903 to Margaretta Aurillia Baier, a childhood friend from his years in Jordan.  The newlyweds are shown here.   By the 1910 census they would have two children, Urana Alice, 5, and George Albert, 2.  Oscar also married, his bride was Anna S. Grote of St. Paul.  By 1910 this couple was recorded as having two children, Ethel born in 1904 and Paul in 1905. The census year found Nels, 64, still working as a traveling salesman for his sons, living the spacious home shown below. The household included his wife, Caroline, and four unmarried adult children, including Albert and Anna, who was working for Sandell Bros. as a bookkeeper.  The first decade of the 20th Century was good to the Sandell clan.

The year 1910, however, brought sorrow as George died in August at the age of 39. He left behind his widow, Margaretta, and their two young children.  Under the watchful eyes of Nels, Oscar ascended to the presidency of Sandell Brothers.   Albert became secretary-treasurer.  Walter, the youngest Sandell, joined the company, listed as a clerk. Shown here, by 1915 he would be raised to the position of vice president.

With the coming of National Prohibition, the Sandells were forced to shut down their liquor house.  According to business directories, Oscar became a salesman for a cider company and Albert moved  to Forest Lake, Minnesota.  Walter took over the East Seventh Street space and turned the liquor house into a restaurant and bottler of soft drinks.  

At 75 years old Nels retired.  He lived another nine years, dying on January 7, 1929.  Following services at St. Sigfrid’s Swedish Episcopal Church, he was buried in St. Paul’s Oakland Cemetery beside Carolina who had died nine years earlier.  Oscar and Walter are interred nearby.  A monument marks the family plot.   

Of Nels an observer wrote:  “He is an energetic and keen businessman and conducts his affairs with integrity and honest dealing.”  To that praise I would add — “And a father whose mind and heart was dedicated to the advancement of his children.”

Note:  A key reference for this post was “A History of the Swedish-Americans of Minnesota,” by Algot E. Strand, published in 1910.  Other information was furnished by St. Paul directories and genealogical sites.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Frank Ebner Was Sacramento’s “Fighting Hussar”



Had he ever ventured his troops the 2,700 miles to Sacramento, California, from his Virginia base, General Robert E. Lee would have found liquor dealer Francis “Frank” X. Ebner waiting for him.  A battle-tested veteran of the Prussian army, Ebner, shown right, was captain of the Sacramento Hussars and presumably ready to take on anything the Confederates might throw at him. 

Born in Waldshut-dei-Freiburg, Baden, Germany in 1829, Ebner was the son of Charles Ebner, a merchant, lumber dealer and butcher of some wealth who could afford to send the boy to a business institute after his graduation from government schools.  At the time Baden was in a state of disorder fomented by republican agitators.  A full scale uprising known as the Revolution of 1848 ensued that resulted in young Ebner being conscripted into the Prussian army.  A member of an artillery regiment, he helped put down the pro-democracy insurrection.

Following his discharge Ebner satisfied a youthful wanderlust by traveling first to Switzerland and then to America, shipping from Le Havre to New York City. From there he proceeded to Chicago, then to St. Louis and a year later to New Orleans.  In 1853 he traveled by steamer via Panama to California, landing at San Francisco.  From there Ebner headed to Sacramento, arriving on April 1, 1853.  That city would be his home for the rest of his life.

Ebner’s reason for settling in Sacramento likely was the presence there of his older brother, Charles, who was residing with his wife, Louise, and three children.  By this time Frank also was married.  His bride was Katerina “Kate” Albietz, a woman he likely had known in Baden.  The 1860 census found the young couple staying with Charles’ family in a household that included six German and two Peruvian boarders, and a servant woman.

The brothers opened a hotel called the Sierra Nevada at Ninth and J Streets and were proprietors of the Philadelphia Beer Saloon.  In 1857 they had sufficient resources to construct a new hotel, known as the Ebner House. Shown here, it was located near the waterfront at 116-118 K Street.  The brothers would operate the hotel for six years before selling it.  

During this period Frank Ebner also was playing a soldier as an 1859 organizer and officer of the Sacramento Hussars.  Even before California became a state, citizens had formed volunteer military units. With admission to the Union this process was formalized in the State’s Constitution.  The Sacramento Hussars, patterning themselves after the light-horsed units in the European armies of the era, were unusual in being composed almost exclusively of native-born and immigrant Germans.  The Hussars boasted uniforms and equipment that followed the European pattern.  Their fancy dress, sabers, belts and boots were expensive, costing as much as $100 in 1860 dollars, thus limiting membership to individuals of some wealth.  As shown here, their coats were red with gold braid and their trousers were dark grey worn tucked into boots. Each Hussar provided his own horse and equipment.

On March 3, 1860, because of their colorful appearance the Hussars were called upon to form a mounted escort for the first Pony Express rider to reach Sacramento.  The unit’s original strength was 26 men but that was soon raised to a maximum of 62.  During the Civil War the unit was incorporated into the California state militia as an “unattached company” of the Fourth Brigade.  With that status came a monthly stipend from the state of $100.  Captain Ebner and the Sacramento Hussars stood fully ready to resist any attack from the Confederacy that might come over the Rocky Mountains.

Possibly to the relief of Ebner and his companions, California was never attacked nor was there any serious pro-Rebel unrest in the Sacramento area. The Hussars retreated into becoming a social and philanthropic organization, said to care for the sick and bury the dead. With Captain Ebner in the forefront, the Hussars continued to be given a place of honor when the company went on parade as it did on national holidays and state and city celebrations.

Meanwhile, brothers Frank and Charles in 1866 had expanded their business operations by opening a liquor house.  Called “Ebner & Bro.” the store, shown above, was Initially located in the St. George Hotel on Fourth Street between J and K.  The two men in the photo are not believed to be either brother.

The Ebners featured such whiskey brands as “Blue Cross,”  “Old
 Colonial,”  “Sunnyvale,” “Mellwood,” “Runnymede,” and “.”Old Jordan.”  The brothers were not distillers but buying whiskey from a variety of distilleries nationwide, shipping it by rail to Sacramento in barrels, and then blending it to achieve a desired color, taste, and smoothness.  This process was led by a skilled “rectifier,” likely one of the Ebners.  The results then were decanted into embossed glass bottles ranging from half pints, pints and quarts and into larger containers for wholesale customers.

Like other liquor houses in the highly competitive Sacramento market, Ebner Bros.
 Company gifted good customers such as saloons, restaurants and hotels with advertising items.  Shown below are four back-of-the-bar bottles, a way for a liquor dealer to get exposure for his brands where people were drinking.  With engraved or enameled labels they were intended to catch the eye.  Essentially banned by law since 1920, all bar bottles qualify today as antiques.

My favorite Ebner Bros. giveaway is a portrait of a comely young woman bearing the caption, “Compliments of Ebner Bros. Co., Wholesale Wines & Liquors, Sacramento, Cal.”  Although it has a calendar and thus is dated, this image has been put into a frame and intend for a saloon wall.

Although Ebner Bros. liquor house proved to be highly profitable, two events marred whatever elation Frank might have felt with its success.  In 1868, Charles died in an influenza epidemic at the age of 36, leaving behind his widow and minor children.  Two years later, Frank’s wife, Kate, died leaving her husband to raise their three children.  Three years later he married Josephine Hug, a woman younger by 24 years.  They would have five children of their own. 

Throughout this period, Ebner continued to be a leading figure in the Sacramento Hussars.   His reward came in April 1872 when the unit presented him with a special saber and belt.  Shown here, the sword featured a finely tempered and ornamented blade, a hilt of silver and gold, and a fancy gold-plated scabbard.  Costing a then hefty $150, Ebner’s sword in 2009 went up for auction at $28,750.

A reporter for The Sacramento Union caught the spirit of Ebner’s award: "The presentation speech was made by Lieutenant Heilbron, who did justice to the occasion in expressing the high regards in which the Captain was held by his company. Captain Ebner made a feeling response, returning thanks in a manner, which his comrades plainly saw was heartfelt. The company subsequently visited Chas. Sillinger’s saloon, on fifth Street, between J and K, where a collation had been spread, and there passed a pleasant hour or more in proposing, drinking and responding to toasts….”

Ebner continued to operate his liquor establishment until his death on May 7, 1901, at age 71.  His death certificate indicated that he had succumbed to cardiac arrest as the result of a chronic heart condition.  His newspaper obituary identified Ebner as “one of Northern California’s oldest wholesale liquor merchants.”  Buried in the Sacramento City Cemetery,  his monument and a closeup of his gravestone is shown here.  Frank willed half of his estate to his widow, Josephine, and the other half in equal shares to his children from the two marriages.  Perhaps surprisingly, he left nothing to the Sacramento Hussars.  

Notes:  This post owes a great deal to Steve Abbott, an expert on Western whiskeys and collector of Sacramento whiskey artifacts.  In researching a possible story on Frank Ebner, I came across his excellent article on the brothers in the Sept-Oct 2018 issue of Bottles & Extras.  Steve graciously has allowed me to use material and photographs from that piece. Of the Hussars, Steve says: “The Sacramento German militia was mostly bull—, more of a club than a military unit.”




Saturday, May 21, 2022

Jerry Ragland: Black Barkeep & Forefather of Royalty

A Pre-Prohibition bartender in two Southern cities, African-American Jeremiah “Jerry” Ragland has received only minimal attention as the great grandfather of England’s Duchess of Sussex, better known as Meghan Markle.Overcoming a series of obstacles to arrive at a measure of success in Jim Crow America, Ragland may not make headlines like that of his descendent, but his story deserves to be told. 

Ragland was born into a family of Henry County, Georgia, sharecroppers.The date of his birth is uncertain.His WWI draft registration and Social Security registration give it as 1881, but his death certificate give it as 1883.His parentage also is uncertain. His father was Charles Ragland but his mother’s name is variably given as “Texas” or “Ellen Ann.” 


As a youth, he likely worked as a field hand, living in a ramshackle house owned by a Ragland cousin.  It would have been backbreaking work planting, tending and harvesting crops.  His education likely was short lived and provided in one room schools and extending no more than a few grades.  When he was about 21, the youth tired of the drudgery of life on the land and by 1902 moved to Atlanta, Georgia.  

There Ragland apparently found work initially laboring as a porter in saloon.  He had selected his employers well.  They were Edward Lichtenstein and Jacob Hirsowitz, two Jewish saloonkeepers whose drinking establishment at 110 Decatur Street catered to Atlanta’s growing Jewish community.  The proprietors sensed that Ragland was capable of something more than loading boxes and sweeping up and encouraged his obvious interest in working over the bar.

In that effort the proprietors were not breaking “Jim Crow” rules meant to keep blacks in subservient roles only.  For reasons not easily explained, many Southerners were delighted to have blacks mixing their drinks.  As one writer has expressed it:  “Respect was also often extended to them from people in the white community, who were won over ‘one gin cocktail at a time.’”  A few became prominent figures in their communities, accruing wealth and owning their own businesses.  Shown below is a saloon interior with the kind of eclectic clientele that might have frequented the Lichtenstein & Hirsowitz drinking establishment.  Note the figure at the far right — a man of color in a bartenders’s outfit. 

Ragland apparently gained a good reputation as an Atlanta barkeep.  It gave him the financial ability to marry in 1904.  His bride was Claudie (aka “Laudie”) Richie of Atlanta.  Both were about 26.  The 1910 Census found the couple living in Atlanta with three children, Dora, 4; Steve, 3, and Jerry, 1.  Things were about to change drastically.  Georgia had recently imposed statewide prohibition and Ragland’s job was gone.

The reputation of the black bartender had caught the attention of Herman W. Steiner, the owner-manager of the Julian Distilling Company, producers of “Feldwood Kentucky Whiskey.” This was a well known liquor house and saloon, noted for its vigorous advertising and fancy whiskey jugs.  Rather than closing the doors on his liquor house and saloon business, Steiner had moved 120 miles north to still-wet Chattanooga, Tennessee.  From there he could service his former customers by railroad express, still a legal practice under the Interstate Commerce clause of the Constitution.  His motto was “What we  say we do, we do do.”

Remembering Ragland’s prowess as a bartender, Steiner reached out to him to come to work for him in Chattanooga.  Family lore is that Jerry was offered a salary well above what he had been paid earlier.  Delighted with the opportunity and envisioning a bright future, he moved his family — now five children — to Tennessee, taking a mortgage on a small house at 620 West 10th Street.  From indications, Ragland was able to build a reputation as an excellent bartender in Chattanooga just as he had in Atlanta.  Ragland may well have used a knife like the one shown below as he prepared his cocktails.

Ragland could not, however, hold back the forces of Prohibition.  When Tennessee went “dry” in 1916, Herman Steiner was forced to shut down Julian Distilling and Ragland again was out of a job.  Not only that, demand for bartenders elsewhere in America virtually had evaporated.  Unemployed and unable to make mortgage payments, he lost the house to foreclosure.

Using his remaining slim savings, Ragland then opened a tailor shop at 215 East Ninth Street in Chattanooga.  A neophyte as a tailor, Jerry lacked the skills to keep the business afloat.  After it failed, he went to work for a competing shop, soon learned the trade, and by 1921 had the money and ability to open his own dry cleaning and tailor shop.  He called it the “Liberty Dry Cleaning Company,”  perhaps an oblique reference to being his own boss.   Claudie helped financially by going to work as a cleaning woman for the Miller Brothers Department Store. 

Although the prospect of home ownership was gone and the family was forced lived in rental housing thereafter, the will to succeed so evident in Jerry and Claudie was transmitted to their children, who proved to be achievers in a repressive system.  Daughter Dora, for example, was graduated from Tennessee A & I College and taught in Chattanooga’s segregated school system.   

After Claudie’s death in 1939, Ragland lived with two of his daughters in a rented house at 1141 West Terrace until his last days.   He died at Chattanooga’s  Walden’s Hospital in October 1944 after a bout of pneumonia.  If his 1881 birth date is correct, he was 63.  Ragland lies in an unmarked grave in Greenhill Cemetery, a Chattanooga African-American burial ground that has been allowed to go untended. 

Above is a chart where Jeremiah Ragland’s name appears near the top.  It is the heritage of Jerry’s great grand-daughter.  The chart exists in the elaborate format seen here only because “Mum” is the mother of Meghan Markle, now the Duchess of Sussex through her marriage to Britain's Prince Harry.  Did Jerry Ragland put in motion this “rags to royalty story” when he abandoned sharecropping for pouring drinks over the bar? 

Note:  This story emerged while I was researching a story about Julian Distilling and discovered that bartender Jeremiah Ragland’s name had some Internet attention. Soon it became apparent that interest in Ragland was related to Meghan Markle becoming a member of British royalty. The most important Internet source was “The Ragland Family of Meghan Markle” by John B. Wells III.