Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Five Women Who Found Success in Whiskey

The history of the liquor industry in the United States traditionally has been dominated by men, particularly before National Prohibition was imposed in 1920.  Over time as I have profiled more than 1,000 “pre-pro” distillers, liquor wholesalers and saloonkeepers, I have found five women whose careers in whiskey were truly outstanding and deserve special recognition.

Mary Dowling from Anderson County, Kentucky, not only owned and ran major distillery, shown above, she found a way to stay in the liquor business after 1920 and, in effect, thumbed her nose at Prohibition.  Kentucky-born to Irish immigrant parents, at seventeen she married a distiller named Dowling at least 17 years her senior who saw her intelligence and brought her into the business.  When he died, she inherited his interest in the Waterfill & Frazier distillery, bought out his partners, and ran it successful for two decades.

Her success, however, came to screeching halt with the imposition of National Prohibition.   Federal records shown her withdrawing large quantities of whiskey from her bonded warehouse in the run up to the complete ban on alcohol.   Some of this whiskey she is reported to have sold to those Kentucky distillers fortunate enough to be licensed to sell liquor for “medicinal purposes.”   Other stocks, she successfully “bootlegged” for four years until Federal agents arrested her. 

After authorities were unable to convict her, Mary Dowling hatched a new -- and more successful -- business plan.  About 1926 she hired Joseph Beam, one of Kentucky’s premier distillers but now out of work, to dismantle the distillery, transport the pieces to Juarez, Mexico, reassemble it there, and resume making whiskey.  Mexico had no prohibition so the liquor production was completely legal.  Using several strategies to get her whiskey legally over the border to American consumers, she continued to operate until she died, four years short of Repeal.

Mary Jane Blair also was a Kentuckian who inherited her late husband’s share of a distillery, this one in Marion County, shown above. She promptly bought out his partners and changed the name to the “Mary Jane Blair Distillery.”  Although the greater part of her life had been spent in the Blair home as housewife and mother, evidence is that she took an active role as president of the company, one that distilled about five months in the year.   Limited production was not unusual in the Kentucky whiskey industry,  some distillers believing that fermentation was done best only in certain months.  As her distiller Mrs. Blair hired W. P. Norris, a well known Marion County whiskey man.

For the next seven years, with the help of a son, Mary Jane Blair operated the distillery, considerably expanding its operations.  By 1912  the plant had the mashing capacity of 118 bushels per day and four warehouses able to hold 9,000 barrels.  The Blairs produced whiskey sold under several labels.  The flagship was “Old Saxon,”  as illustrated here by a back-of-the-bar bottle.  About 1914 the family sold the facility.  Mary Jane Blair died in 1922 at the age of 76.

Lovisa McCullough was a strong women’s rights advocate who successfully ran a liquor wholesale business in Pittsburgh following the death of her husband.  A 1888 Pittsburgh directory under the heading “Liquors, Wholesale,” listed forty-nine such establishments in the city.  All of them save one are readily identifiable as male-run.  The exception is “McCullough, Louisa (sic) C., 523 Liberty Av.”    That same year Lovisa became a delegate from Pittsburgh to the historic founding meeting of the International Council of Women (ICW) devoted to women’s suffrage.  It is a safe bet that she was the only liquor dealer at the convention. 

Obviously a woman of great energy, Lovisa McCullough threw herself into other causes.  A lover of animals, she was a longtime member of the Humane Society and served on the board of the Pittsburgh chapter.  She also was among women who worked toward buying up and preserving the grounds and structures at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where Gen. George Washington and his troops passed the winter.  A true “daughter of the American Revolution,”  Lovisa’s grandfather was a soldier.

In 1893, after more than a half century of operation, the McCullough liquor dealership disappeared from Pittsburgh business directories.  Its demise cannot be explained by National Prohibition that still was years away and Pennsylvania was “wet” until the end.  Lovisa may have found her passion for feminist and other causes eclipsed her ardor for keeping alive the liquor enterprise.  Or it may have been advancing age.  Lovisa died in 1917, about 82 years old, and was buried beside her late husband, John, in Allegheny Cemetery. 

Mary Moll, living in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, earned this tribute from a local newspaper: Mrs. Moll, when she took possession of the business, had many obstacles to overcome but, being a woman of wonderful business tact, she bravely fought the many unpleasant features connected with the business and successfully built up a trade far superior to any in this country.”  Like the other women here, after her husband she died inherited his whiskey wholesale trade but also his three daughters from a prior marriage.  They are shown at the family home, Mary at far right.

Rejecting advice by friends to sell the business, she set out not only to run the liquor dealership, but also to expand it.  Her first instinct was to go on the road as a “drummer,”  and give existing and potential customers her personal attention to stimulate sales.  The strategy worked and she was credited with ultimately tripling the business.   After three years, however, Mary tired of traveling.  Looking at the costs-benefits she concluded she could build her trade more effectively by staying home and keeping prices low.

Eventually,  Mary Moll was selling three hundred barrels of whiskey a year.  Although not a rectifier, that is a dealer mixing and blending her own brands, she was decanting the whiskey by the barrel into her own embossed glass containers, shown here, an estimated 53,400 quarts of whiskey annually, an impressive number for any liquor house.  Mary Moll died in 1910 while still running her business. She was 64.

When her husband died in 1912, Catherine Klausman was left with five minor children in addition to a saloon, liquor store and small hotel, together known as “The German House,”  shown below.  She hesitated not a moment in taking over their management.  As a result, “Mrs. Klausman” as she was respectfully known in St. Mary’s, Pennsylvania, made her mark on whiskey history.

With the help of her bartender, Mrs. Klausman not only kept all the businesses open, she prospered by selling both at wholesale and retail her own brands of whiskey.  Taking a leaf from the liquor wholesalers and rectifiers of the time, she bought whiskey from both Pennsylvania and Kentucky, blending the spirits, bottling them and then applying her own labels.   My favorite is Mrs. Klausman’s “Corn Whiskey,” with its predominantly yellow label showing a rural distillery and a shock of corn, a design worthy of one of the big liquor outfits.

In 1920, however, National Prohibition brought a close to the thriving business she was doing in whiskey sales.  Moreover, the hotel bar no longer could serve alcohol.  Regardless of these setback, she persevered in running the German House through the 1930s.  No evidence exists that after the end of Prohibition in 1934, she went back to liquor sales.  When Catherine died in 1963, at the age of 88, she was buried next to her late husband in St. Marys Cemetery.  The German House remains standing on Railroad Street as part of the town’s historic district.

These five strong women helped pave the way for the many women who have engaged in  the whiskey trade since Prohibition and today fill some of the top spots in the Nation’s liquor industry.  They deserve a special place in the annals of American liquor.

Note:  Author Fred Minnick has written an informative book on “Whiskey Women,” detailing the effects that women, past and present, have had on the American distilled spirits business.  Through his writing I came upon Mary Jane Blair.  Minnick failed, however, to pick up on his radar Mary Dowling, Lovisa McCullough, Mary Moll and Catherine Klausman.  I am hopeful that this piece will bring these other four outstanding “whiskey women” the attention they also justly deserve.  For those interested in more biographical details about these five women I have written more extended accounts on each elsewhere on this blog:  Mary Dowling, Jan. 22, 2014; Mary Jane Blair, June 2, 2014; Lovisa McCullough, Jan. 14, 2017; Mary Moll, Oct. 28, 2015; and Catherine Klausman. Dec. 12, 2015.



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