As eleven-year-old Gustav Riesmeyer took the long ocean voyage across the Atlantic from his native Germany, his thoughts frequently must have been about the kind of life he would have in the U.S. Shown here in maturity, the immigrant boy could never have imagined that events eventually would plunge him into the center of a pitched battle between the American liquor industry and National Prohibition.
Born in the mid-sized city of Bielefeld, North Rhine-Westphalia in December, 1854, Riesmeyer with family members settled in St. Louis, Missouri, a Midwest city with a large German population. There the youth learned to speak English, was educated, and in 1876 became an American citizen. Four years later in a Lutheran church he married Annie Haase. Shown here, Annie was the daughter of August Haase, a wealthy and prominent St. Louis businessman. Over the next 11 years the couple would have six children.
Of Riesmeyer’s early career the record is scanty. The 1878 St. Louis city directory records him working for a liquor house owned by Henry G. Biermann, located at 1422 Franklin Avenue. By 1884 he had struck out on his own, opening a liquor store down the street from Biermann at 1322-1324 Franklin. It would be the company address for the next 34 years.
Riesmeyer’s venture into the liquor trade appears to have met with success from the beginning. The standing of his father-in-law among St. Louis businessmen may have been a factor. A blender (“rectifier”) of whiskeys, not a distiller, Riesmeyer issued a variety of proprietary brands, including “Old Maryland 1881 Pure Rye,” “Ashburn,” "Blue Ridge Maryland Rye,” "Cedar Bluff,” “Chelsea,” "Meadow Springs,” "Old Canteen,” "Old Kenmore,” "Sailor Springs,” and "Spring Brook.” Of these he bothered to register federally only “Old Canteen” and not until 1908 after Congress stiffened trademark laws.
Like his St. Louis competition in the wholesale liquor trade, Riesmeyer was generous in gifting customers with advertising items. Shown above are two shot glasses that would have been provided to saloons, hotels and restaurants carrying his liquor. He also gave out “back-of-the-bar” bottles. The one shown here advertised “Old Maryland Rye” in gold lettering.
Riesmeyer packaged his whiskey ia highly distinctive container, a quart jug made by the Knowles, Taylor & Knowles (KT&K) pottery in East Liverpool, Ohio. To liquor outfits nationwide the ceramics firm offered these “hotel porcelain” bodies, all distinguished by the snake handle. Riesmeyer’s KT&K jugs have the distinction of coming in the widest variety of colors, including brown, purple, and three shades of blue, represented by examples shown here.
Riesmeyer was criticized by Baltimore liquor interests for appropriating “Maryland” for his whiskey and using the Maryland seal for a whiskey he had concocted some 800 miles west of the state. Nor was there any guarantee this brand contained even a drop of true Maryland rye. Calling his enterprise the G. Riesmeyer Distilling Company, the proprietor nonetheless made Old Maryland his flagship brand.
As shown below amid his wife and children, Gustave appears to be a man who enjoyed the domestic bliss of home and hearth. As a symbol of his care, he housed his family in a spacious pillared home at 3112 Hawthorne Boulevard in St. Louis. The house is shown here as it looks today. At the same time, Riesmeyer was making a reputation for himself as a canny businessman and a local liquor industry leader.
Looking out from his headquarters in Pittsburgh about 1905, A. J. Sunstein, president of the National Wholesale Liquor Dealers Association, saw considerable advantage in drawing Riesmeyer onto the executive committee of his organization, thus putting him in the forefront of industry efforts to offset the growing power and effectiveness of the Prohibition Movement.
Living in the midlands of America, Riesmeyer represented a state that had shown considerable success in blunting “dry” initiatives. Prohibitionists considered Missouri the most “lax” state in the union regarding intoxicating spirits. There was good reason. The state produced more alcohol than any other, much of it in the form of liquor, wine and beer.
Second, Riesmeyer was German through and through at a time when some Germans in the brewing industry were trying to distance themselves from the liquor trade. Their strategy was to brand whiskey as the offending beverage, sacrifice it to the prohibitionist crowd, and thereby hoped to preserve the right to make and sell beer. Riesmeyer’s ethnicity in St. Louis was an asset.
Third, Riesmeyer was a Lutheran during an era where Jews and Catholics, dominated the liquor trade. Although Lutherans generally had no moral strictures against the use of alcohol, other Protestant denominations like Methodists and Presbyterians were pressuring Lutheran synods to follow their prohibitionist example. A Lutheran “whiskey man” was a definite asset to Sunstein’s Association.
Riesmeyer’s entry into the inner circle of the liquor lobby coincided with a renewed effort at pushing back against the forces of prohibition. The Association issued an “Anti-Prohibition Manual” and distributed it widely to newspapers across America. Shown here in reprint, the manual depicted “wet” and “dry” territory and provided current U.S. and state statistics on conditions and revenues on manufacturing and selling liquor. Sunstein and his executive committee members also regularly were testifying before Congress, other public bodies, and the courts.
One by one as they matured, Riesmeyer was bringing his sons, Gustav Jr., Edward and Carl, into his liquor enterprise. About 1902 he was diagnosed as diabetic and his health steadily declined. In November 1913 he developed a heart condition that would prove fatal in February of the following year. Dead at age 59, Riesmeyer was buried in St. Louis’ Bellefontaine Cemetery. Anna would join him there 28 years later. Their gravestones are shown here.
His sons continued to operate G. Riesmeyer Distilling Company after his death. Gustav Jr. was president, Edward, vice president, and Carl, secretary. Meanwhile the prohibitionist pressures were growing increasingly intense. After 1918, the company Gustave Riesmeyer and his family had nurtured for 34 years disappeared from St. Louis directories, never to be revived. A national ban on alcohol was on its way.
Notes: The information and photographs in this post were assembled from a wide range of Internet sources.