Analyzing current American whiskey sales, major national brands like “Old Crow” and “Jack Daniels” dominate the market, with only limited competition from “craft” distilleries. The Womack brothers of Tennessee provide a contrasting example of the liquor trade before Prohibition. By making a quality product, albeit on a modest scale, the Womacks were able to establish a strong regional customer base for their “White Maple” whiskey by carefully targeting their territory.
Shown above, John Harmon “J. H. ”, left, & Townsend P. “Ty” Womack, were born in Lincoln County, Lynchburg, Tennessee, the eldest two sons of B.F. and M.N. Womack, their Tennessee-born parents identified only by initials in the 1870 Federal census. At that census John was eleven, Ty was four. Their father’s occupation was listed as farmer. Of the Womacks’ early activities little is on the record.
One whiskey historian recounts: “The Womack’s operated a grist mill in Lincoln County and were contemporaries of the Tolley, Motlow and Daniels families in Lynchburg. It was from these prominent distilling families that they learned the distilling craft.” By the late 1890s the brothers, now both in their 20’s, moved approximately 60 miles north from Lynchburg and opened a saloon in Franklin, a larger town and the seat of Williamson County, Tennessee. They called their drinking establishment the White Maple Saloon.
At some point the brothers decided that selling whiskey over the bar was not as beneficial as making the product themselves. The historian: “Williamson County, Tennessee has a long and storied history surrounding the production, consumption and sale of whiskey and bourbon. Centrally located in the state, the county encompasses the Harpeth River Valley, an area rich in agriculture. Crystal clear spring water filtered by limestone flows through the lush rolling hills. It is due in part to this unique water source that the singular flavor of Tennessee Whiskey became world famous. Distilling was woven into the fabric of the landscape and became a way of life from the time of the county’s earliest settlers.”
At the time, there were an estimated nine distilleries in Williamson County, all them likely small farm plants turning out a few gallons a day when in operation. This was not the model the brothers had in mind. They constructed and operated a facility, one they called “J.H. Womack & Bro. White Maple Distillery,” capable of making 150 gallons of spirits daily. It was located on the corner of Boyd Mill and Eleventh Avenue in Franklin. Indicative of lively sales, both to saloons and directly to the consuming public, are examples below of the several variety of ceramic jugs that the Womacks employed to market their White Maple Whiskey.
The brothers also opened a saloon in Nashville, about 20 miles north of Franklin, to operate as a hub for regional sales. This was a smart marketing move. Nashville gave the Womacks’ rail and road access for soliciting and making sales to a large swath of Tennessee, extending into Northern Alabama. Their first Nashville address was 217 Broad Street, as shown on one of the several jugs in which the brothers sold their whiskey. Later Nashville jugs, shown throughout this post, carry the address of 203 Broad Street. John and Ty eventually were joined in business by a younger sibling, William Womack.
Even as they initiated their whiskey-making the Womack brothers must have been aware of the headway prohibitionary forces were making in Tennessee. Initially those were “local option” bans on alcohol, one of which forced the brothers to close of the White Maple Saloon in 1903. Their Nashville operation was not affected. In 1909, however, two new prohibitionary laws were passed in Tennessee. The first made it illegal to sell or consume alcoholic beverages within a four-mile radius of any public or private school (whether school was in session made no difference). While this bill did not explicitly ban the sale or consumption of alcohol across the state as a whole, the practical effect of the four-mile exclusion did just that. The second law banned the manufacturing of any alcoholic beverages within the state. Governor Malcolm R. Patterson vetoed both bills, but the General Assembly promptly overrode his vetoes.
After only nine years in operation and despite their success, the Womacks were forced to close their distillery at midnight on December 31, 1909. They may have been among the many Tennessee distillers who ran their last batches until the stroke of midnight. A year later the Womacks sold the site to a local banker. The brothers earlier had anticipated the ban and already were scouting out a new location in Northern Alabama. A 1904 directory entry indicated John Womack was resident in Gadsden. In the end, the Womacks chose to relocate in New Decatur (now just Decatur) Alabama, shown below.
For about next five years, until Alabama went “dry” in 1915, the Womacks were able to use their base in Decatur to serve their customers both in Tennessee and Alabama. My assumption is that they shipped large quantities of their existing whiskey in barrels to the new location, decanted it into jugs like the ones shown here and sent the products by railway express back to customers into Tennessee, a practice protected under the Interstate Commerce Clause of the Constitution.
At some point common sense would suggest the Womacks eventually ran out of their own distillations, yet there is no indication they opened a new distillery in Decatur. My conclusion is that they were buying whiskey from other distilleries around the South, blending and packaging it in their own ceramic jugs, including the decorative miniature shown right, and selling it under the White Maple name. Indications are that John was running a sales operation in Nashville, taking the liquor orders, while Ty was fulfilling them from Decatur.
When their days in the liquor business ended in 1915, the brothers went separate ways. John, up to that time a confirmed bachelor, married at 51 and moved back to Franklin, where he died in 1929 at the age of 64 and was buried there. Ty moved to Fort Worth, Texas, to become an automobile dealer. At 81 he died and was buried in Texas.. Today our only reminder of this once regionally popular whiskey are the pottery containers the Womack brothers left behind.
Notes: This post, while drawing on multiple sources, is chiefly dependent on an article by Rick Warwick, Williamson County historian, that appeared on the website, historicfranklin.com. Thanks go to Bill Garland, the guru of Alabama whiskey, for the use of photos of the Womacks' Decatur AL jugs from his informative 2009 book “Alabama Advertising Jugs.”