Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Henry Beck and the Rescue of Aspen, Colorado

Today Aspen, Colorado, is world renowned as the playground of millionaires and intellectuals with a population exceeding 7,000.  A Swedish immigrant who arrived there in 1892 to run a local liquor business, Henry Beck would be delighted.  The town, located in a remote area of the Sawatch Range of the Rocky Mountains, had blossomed in the 1880s as a mining camp during the Colorado Silver Boom but in the 1890s entered a steep decline.  Beck, hailed as one of the “progressive men of Western Colorado” was a stabilizing presence who helped rescue Aspen from becoming just another Colorado ghost town.

The son of Henry and Mary (Olson) Beck, Henry was born in 1861 in Filipstad, Sweden, a small lakeshore municipality in central Sweden.  When he was only seven or eight years old, his father, a miner, uprooted Mary and their four children and emigrated to the United States.  After a sojourn in Pennsylvania, the family in 1871 settled on the border of Lake Superior where the elder Beck found employment in the iron mines.

Terminating his formal education when he was only ten years old, Henry was obliged by family financial circumstances also to become a mine worker.  At the age of eighteen, seeking better opportunities, he traveled west to Leadville, Colorado, to work in the silver mines.  Apparently nagged by his lack of formal education, in 1885 the youth earned enough to pay his way back to Sweden and attend secondary school.  He returned to Leadville in 1887 determined to stay out of the mines, instead becoming a shipping clerk for a wholesale liquor firm, owned by the Baer Brothers, Isaac and Adolph. Their store window is shown here. [See my post on the Baers, Oct. 22, 2017.]

After spending five years learning the business Beck was entrusted by the Baers with managing a liquor outlet they owned in the mountain town of Aspen, Colorado, shown above.  When he moved there Beck immediately must have recognized the logistical problems the remote town presented.  Aspen was miles from the nearest railroad hub — and still is.  The distance from Leadville was only 44 miles but required traveling a road that led over Independence Pass, crossing the Continental divide at 12,095 feet above sea level. The pass is 32 miles long and so steep in places, as shown here, that even today by car it can take more than an hour to traverse.  In Beck’s day, I surmise, supplies from Leadville had to come by mule caravan.

Moreover, in Aspen Beck found a mining town that had seen its peak days and was headed downward. The turn came when the panic of 1893 caused a collapse of the silver market.  Moreover, the United States ceased to value its currency in silver and adopted the gold standard.  For the next half-century, known locally as “the quiet period,” Aspen’s population steadily declined until it was under 1,000.


For the next two decades, Beck was a stabilizing force in the community.  Symbolic of his faith in Aspen, in January 1896, he bought out the Baers' stock and totally owned the business.  With liquor brought over the mountains to him in barrels, he was repackaging it in ceramic jugs in quart to gallon sizes, as seen here.  Eventually, finding it difficult to transport whiskey safely in jugs over the rugged mountains, Beck opened his own bottling plant, creating an opportunity for local employment.  He also invested his money in area mining enterprises. 

Quoting the “Progressive Men” on Beck:  “He is a prominent and influential citizen, taking a deep and continuing interest in local public affairs, and standing well in the good will and regard of his fellow men.”  The Aspen Democrat-Times put it more simply:  “…With every man who knows Henry, his word is as good as his bond and both are good as gold.” 

Beck was an influential figure in the social and political life of Aspen as a member of three fraternal organizations in town, the Elks, Odd Fellows, and Eagles, the last elected to a term as president.  A Republican in a heavily Democratic county, Beck was rewarded for his civic contributions by becoming the only member of his party to be elected county commissioner.  There he was said to have “served the people of Pitkin County, wisely and faithfully.”  He also spent a term in the Colorado state legislature, again furthering the interests of Aspen.

In the midst of his business and civic activities, Beck also found time for romance, marriage and family.  In January, 1890, he married Ida M. Echberg, like him an immigrant from Sweden.  She was the daughter of a successful area farmer and with Beck, an active member of the Lutheran Church.  The couple would have four children over the course of their marriage, daughters Edith and Ellen, and sons Verner and Carl.

While prohibitionary forces apparently were not a major issue, problems came from several directions.  Although Beck provided many Aspen area saloons with whiskey, he faced competition from out-of-town distributors and moonshine distillers for which Leadville was notorious.  While he seems to have surmounted those difficulties, certain unspecified health problems associated with the altitude were plaguing the family.  The remedy seemingly was to move to a lower altitude.

 About 1907, Beck thought he had closed a sale of his liquor house to a local named Kline only to have the deal fall through at the last moment.  It took four more years to find a buyer.  Aspen residents  E.M. Hawkins and Eugene Bascom stepped in and bought Beck’s business.  Taking note of the sale one local newspaper wrote: “Henry Beck has been in Aspen nineteen years, during which time he has done no man wrong.”

With the sale completed, the Beck family moved almost immediately 105 miles to Denver where they purchased a large home at 1111 Steele Street, shown here.  According to the 1910 census Henry initially worked in Denver as a liquor dealer.  With the coming of National Prohibition he was forced to find other employment.  The 1920 census found Beck, now 57, working as a shipping clerk for a farm implement company.  With him in the home was wife Ida and three adult children all in their twenties.  Edith, 27, was a piano teacher.  The sons Verner, 26, and Carl, 22, were not employed.  A short time later the boys moved to California.

About 1925, Beck began to experience troublesome health problems and retired.He died at his Denver home in February 1929.  After a Lutheran Church ceremony he was buried in Fairmount Cemetery, Block 81.  Ida would join him there in 1942.  Beck’s death brought an extensive obituary in the Aspen Daily Times that remembered him even after some 18 years gone as “one of the leading citizens of this state.”  It was a fitting tribute to a whiskey man who contributed so much to Aspen during dark days.

Note:  This post was researched using a number of sources, the most important being the “The Progressive Men of Colorado,” A.W. Bowen & Co., 1905 and Beck’s obituary in the Aspen Daily Times of February 8, 1929.


Saturday, November 25, 2023

Wheeling’s Fred Driehorst: Liquor, Loans and Liability

As regular readers of this blog know, a striking number of liquor dealers  graduated into the world of banking both before and after National Prohibition.  Thinking about it, the shift makes sense.  Successful “whiskey men” often have had the financial resources to fund banks and the management skills to run them.  Fred C. Driehorst of Wheeling, West Virginia, is a good example of someone who made the successful transition.  Shown here, Driehorst has a  story of achievement that deserves to be told.

Driehorst was born in Wheeling in October 1855,  the son of Sophia Bahre and Charles H. Driehorst, an “express delivery” man driving a horse and wagon.  It must have been a lucrative enough business to allow young Fred to be educated in private schools and at the Wheeling Business College.  His first recorded employment was in 1880 when he went to work for a successful local merchant named John Reid Jr., who advertised himself as a “family grocer” but prominently featured wines and liquor. 

Reid jug

Recorded as the bookkeeper, Driehorst stayed with Reid for approximately nine years.  During that time he came to understand that the business of selling alcohol, although it had its risks, was far more lucrative than canned anchovies. 

About 1899, Driehorst left Reid and with a partner named Schaefer, opened a liquor house at 1428 Main Street in Wheeling.  Tearing down an existing structure the partners built an imposing five story building topped with a cupola, shown here.  The space allowed the partners to advertise that they carried all leading brands of whiskey — and to list 25 of America’s best brands in their ads.

The company’s two proprietary labels were “Old Fort Henry Rye” and “Green Band Rye.”   There is no evidence that Driehorst registered the trademark of either brand.  He likely was buying the whiskey for his recipes for these two brands from nearby Pennsylvania and Ohio distilleries and “rectifying” (blending) them to achieve a desired color, smoothness and taste.  

As the business was growing, Driehorst had a personal life. In 1885 he married Julia Gardner of  Ohio County, West Virginia.  Over the next 17 years they would have five children.  To house them he bought a spacious home at 923 Main Street, not far from his liquor business. The couple’s eldest son, Harry, born in 1886, sadly would die in infancy.  Another son, George, would die in adolescence, again a source of grieving to his parents.

Although his name remained on the company, shown above on company jugs, Schaefer early left active management to be replaced by Clark Hamilton, Jr.  Listed as the secretary and treasurer of the liquor house, Hamilton had been the federal deputy collector of revenue for the State of West Virginia, responsible in part for collecting the liquor taxes.  Born in Preston County, West Virginia, he brought his knowledge of the whiskey trade and political connections to the business.

Perhaps as early as 1911 Driehorst apparently decided that the growing prohibitionary forces in West Virginia would prevail.  He saw his markets shrink because of county and town “local option” restrictions on making and selling whiskey.  By the time the state adopted a blanket ban on alcohol in 1914, he had shut down his liquor house, taken his profits and was looking around for other opportunities.

In 1916 Driehorst became president of Wheeling’s Germania Half Dollar Savings Bank and immediately brought change.  Founded in 1897, this financial institution received a new look by tearing down its original building and constructing a new one designed by architect Fred Paris.  At its grand opening, the Wheeling Intelligencer newspaper on July 3, 1917,  featured a front page drawing of the entrance and a tag line “Just as Strong as it Looks.”  Driehorst reciprocated by advertising lavishly.  When the onset of World War One in 1918 made things “German” controversial, he quickly changed the name of the bank.


Wheeling Fire Ins. Co.

About the same time Driehorst was helping grow the Wheeling Fire Insurance Company, serving as director and treasurer.  Two major local fires in 1917 and 1918 had reenforced the need for effective insurance.  The first destroyed following a winter storm was Hermann’s Department Store.  The following year Wheeling’s premier hotel, the Stratford Springs, went up in flames.  The Wheeling News-Register headlined:  “Only Gaunt Chimneys Mark Stratford Springs Hotel Site.”  Originally the German Fire Insurance Company of Wheeling, the only such insurer in all of West Virginia, it too changed its name in 1919 becoming simply the Wheeling Fire Insurance Co.   Driehorst remained an officer until his retirement. 

Fred Driehorst died in May 1939 at the advanced age of 83. The cause listed on his death certificate was bladder cancer. He was buried in Wheeling’s Greenwood Cemetery, next to his wife, Julia, who had passed in 1928, and adjacent to their two deceased sons.  The couple’s joint gravestone is found below.   Driehorst had spent his entire life in Wheeling.  His liquor house is gone, a victim of National Prohibition but the Wheeling bank and insurance company he served continues to this day, providing a more lasting memorial.

Notes:  This post was assembled from a variety of sources.  Standouts among them are “History of Wheeling City and Ohio County, West Virginia, and Representative Citizens” by Hon. Gibson Lamb Cranmer, Biographical Printing Co., Chicago, 1907; and “Progressive West Virginians” compiled by Robert E, Murphy, The Wheeling News, 1905.  For other “whiskey men” involved in banking  see my post on this site describing five of them on October 16, 2018.  

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

The Gerdes Brothers: Fighting for “Old Lexington Club”

George Gerdes and his brother Ben for years had wanted to own outright a Kentucky distillery to provide a steady flow of whiskey for their Cincinnati wholesale liquor house.  Over almost three decades they had invested in distilleries but sought total ownership.  Only about 1903 were the brothers able to buy outright the Old Lexington Club distillery in Jessamine County, a plant with its own considerable history.  Unexpectedly, the purchase would embroil the Gerdes in a lengthy, expensive, and eventually losing legal battle with the Whiskey Trust.

The Gerdes brothers first appeared in Cincinnati directories in 1874 as G. & B. Gerdes Wines, located at Eight West Second St., apparently also their living quarters.  George, 29, was president;  Bernard, 35, was secretary-treasurer. This was the first of what would be four Cincinnati addresses.

The Gerdes soon moved from wine to becoming wholesale liquor dealers.  Like many in that trade, they were “rectifying,” that is, blending whiskeys from Kentucky distillers to create their own proprietary brands of liquor.  Among those were:"Elkhorn Club", "Fort Deer Rye,” "G. & G. B. Manhattan,” "King of Nelson,” “Melrose,” “Mignonette,” "Mountain Lily,” "Old Gold Rye,  "Queen of Anderson,” "Rising Sun,” “Sunshine,” and "Tube Rose.”  The brothers do not appear to have trademarked any of those names.

During the first two plus decades of the Gerdes company the brothers had financial interests in at least three Kentucky distilleries.  They ere drawing liquor from RD#112, 8th District, in Anderson County, owned by Thomas B. Ripy of the famous distilling family;  RD#2, Fifth District, in Louisville, owned by the Mattingly brothers, and RD#405, Fifth District, in Gethsemane, owned by Francis M. Head and M.C. Beam.  As shown here, the brothers issued their whiskey in ceramic jugs of up to four gallons.

In the meantime, a distillery had been built on Hickman Creek just outside Nicholasville, below, a town of about 2,000 in Jessamine County not far from Louisville. Designated RD#86, 8th District, the owner was J. H. Reed, a man with a series of partners. Reed called it The Old Lexington Club Distillery and about 1874 began using the name “Old Lexington Club Whiskey.”  Principally advertising the brand locally, Reed proved to be a bad at business and became mired in debt.  Taken over by creditors, the distillery was sold to the Amann Brothers, whiskey rectifiers from Cincinnati.  [See post on the Amanns, May 6, 2017].

Insurance underwriter  records in 1892, indicate that the distillery, shown here, was built of stone with a metal or slate roof. The property included a frame cattle shed 75 ft SW of the still, and a corn crib. There were three bonded warehouses:  Warehouse A -- iron-clad with a shingle roof, located 125 feet NW of the still. Warehouse B -- frame with a shingle roof, 180 feet NW of the still. Warehouse C -- frame with a shingle roof, 250 feet NW of the still.  The Amanns’ reportedly paid $10,000 for the distllery, a relative bargain price related to the site being located on low ground and prone to periodic flooding. 

Before the Amann’s bought the facility it had the mashing capacity of 200 bushels a day and able to store about 7,700 barrels for aging.  The brothers promptly increased the mashing to 300 bushel per day and over time increased warehouse capacity to 13,500 barrels.  Most of this production was shipped to the Amanns for rectifying and bottling; the rest was sold to other wholesalers and rectifiers.

In October 1887, Daniel Amann died at age 65.  his brother Edmund succeeded to top management and carried on the business.  In 1903, for unknown reasons  he sold the Old Lexington Club Distillery. G & B Gerdes were the eager purchasers, delighted at last to have a distillery of their own.  The arrival of the Whiskey Trust on the Kentucky whiskey scene had jacked up the prices asked of rectifiers for raw product.  Owning their own distillery, they understood would free them from monopolistic prices.  The Gerdes ad below exudes optimism.

A key decision by the brothers was to make “Old Lexington Club” their flagship brand, a name that neither Reed or the Amanns had bothered to trademark.  Meanwhile back in Cincinnati another whiskey wholesaler, Freiberg & Workham, in 1878 began using the name “Lexington Club” for its own whiskey.  In his book, Bourbon Law, Atty. Brian Haara relates from court documents that this brand proved very popular and had been sold all over America while “Old Lexington Club” was marketed largely in central Kentucky with some sales in New York, Chicago, St. Louis and Cincinnati.

In 1899, Freiberg & Workam sold out to the Kentucky Distilleries and Warehouse Company, better known as the Whiskey Trust.  Trust executives recognized the strong customer base for “Lexington Club” and continued to sell it vigorously.  Meanwhile the Gerdes Brothers, who heretofore had not trademarked any of their labels, decided in 1905 to register “Old Lexington Club.”  Catching wind of this move, the Whiskey Trust, always well lawyered, objected and the registration was denied by the Patent and Trademark Office.  Early in 1906 the Gerdes Bros. sued the Trust. 

The litigation would stretch on for almost a decade.  The Gerdes brothers won the initial court battle.  The Trust appealed but lost again.  The third time proved the charm for the monopolists as they won on their second appeal.  Atty. Haara: The court ruled that “Old Lexington Club” was a descriptive name not entitled to trademark protection and that “Old Lexington Club” hadn’t done anything about “Lexington Club” despite knowing about it for at least 15 years.  This decision ignored the fact that the Gerdes had owned the distillery only since 1903. Inaction earlier by Reed and the Amanns seemingly had doomed the brothers’ trademark efforts.

The case dragged on for years with the final judgment coming only in October 1916.  In a Federal District Court of New Jersey the judge made a decision even King Solomon might have endorsed.  He overruled the earlier court decision to decree that “Old Lexington Club” was a distinctive enough name that the Gerdes could register it as a trademark.  On the other hand he let stand the earlier ruling that the Trust could continue to use “Lexington Club,” regardless of the confusion it might cause. He contended that Freiberg & Workman and then the Trust had built the label to a larger customer base than the Gerdes.  After all their efforts it would be unfair, he ruled, to let the name recognition and business reputation of the whiskey go to “Old Lexington Club.”  In other words, let both flowers bloom.  The Gerdes did not appeal.

In 1909 Bernard died at age 70, never to see the final decision on the trademark conflict.  His place was taken by his son Edwin, 30, who had been working for G. and B. Gerdes since maturity, including acting as the company bookkeeper.  With the death of George in 1918,  Edwin became the president of the Nicholasville distillery and the Cincinnati wholesale liquor house.  The history of the “Old Lexington Club” makes it difficult to establish a timeline for some of the artifacts identified with the brand, including back of the bar bottles and shot glasses.  The assumption is that they were issued during the years of Gerdes ownership, but both Reed and the Amanns had used the name earlier.

Below are two pint flasks of “Old Lexington Club” bearing slightly different labels.  Examination of the a back panel indicates that while the whiskey inside had been made before the imposition of National Prohibition, the bottles are certified as having been produced prior to January 17, 1920 by Edwin Gerdes at the Nicholasville distillery.  Bottling, however, had occurred at a federally secured distillery near Columbia, Adair County, Kentucky, and was being sold “For Medicinal Purposes Only.” This designation marked the final days of “Old Lexington Club” whiskey and the Gerdes family enterprise.

Meanwhile Ben and George lie together in Cincinnati’s Calvary Catholic Cemetery,under the watchful eye of an angel statue who carries a wreath in its hand.  I am particularly fascinated by the broken pillar at right entwined in ivy and the name “Gerdes” superimposed.  The grieving angel casts a particular dignity upon the men buried below, brothers who took on the Whiskey Trust — but lost.

Note:  This post was drawn from a range of sources.  My particular thanks go to Brian Haara for allowing me to quote from his Internet post of February 25, 2019 and providing me with the actual text of the 1908 and 1916 court decision.  For those interested in the often fascinating legal tangles of pre-Prohibition liquor, I highly recommend Atty. Haara’s book: “Bourbon Justice: How Whiskey Law Shaped America,” 2018, University of Nebraska Press. 


Friday, November 17, 2023

Those Post-Prohibition “Nasty Words”

As collectors of American whiskey bottles and jugs know well,  American whiskey history falls conveniently into four periods:  1) “pre-Pro”, up to 1920,  2) the Prohibition vacuum (1920-1934) ,  3) the “Nasty Words” era (1935-1964), and 4) ever since.   While “pre-Pro”items obviously hold the greatest collector and historical interest, many bottles and jugs from the “Nasty Words” era are only 20 or so years from attaining status as “antiques.”

Bottle guru Cecil Munsey speculated that items that contain the “nasty words” over the years would increase significantly in interest and value since their place in time would be appreciated by collectors.  His observations confirm my own interest in liquor containers produced during the period, even though currently they fetch only modest prices at auction or at bottle shows, 

First a comment about the “nasty words”:  The term was coined by collector/author John Tibbetts years ago. After National Prohibition was repealed in late 1933, Congress followed up by passing laws controlling various aspects of liquor sales.  Tibbetts was referring to a statement that lawmakers in 1934 dictated be imprinted on liquor containers.  It read:  “Federal law forbids sale or reuse of this bottle.” 

As a result,  after  January 1, 1935,  all hard liquor sold in the United States came in containers that had the federal warning permanently fixed in the glass or ceramic. The location of the warning could be on the body of the bottle or jug or on the base.  The statement was not required on wine or beer bottles. The intention of Congress was to prevent bootleggers, moonshiners,  and unscrupulous saloonkeepers from putting new booze into old bottles. 


By the early 1960s it had become clear to political leaders that the nasty words were no longer necessary,  if they ever had been.   The infamous bootleggers largely were a thing of the past.   The vast majority of American liquor purchases occurred in stores either run by the states or closely controlled by them.   This understanding led Congress in 1964  to amend Federal law and eliminate the reuse provision.  As glass and ceramic molds were replaced,  the nasty words became history after being required for 31 years. 


Dating up to the early 1970s, however, some bottles still had this warning embossed on them.  Since hundreds of bottle molds were in active use in 1964 when the requirement was ended, it was too expensive, time-consuming and for some distillers pointless to retool molds to eliminate the phrase.  As a result it is possible to find bottles that continued to carry the words for a number of years after repeal.

Whiskey containers of the 1934-1965 era generally have flown under the collecting radar.   They come up so commonly on eBay and other auction sites that we really don’t  take a second look at them. In his book “Looking at the Overlooked,”  art historian Norman Bryson points out: “...Things which, belonging to the numerous spaces of daily life, are taken entirely for granted, that familiarity itself pushes them far below the threshold of visual distinction.”  The two-handled jugs shown here, and others of that style,  fit Bryson’s  description. 

I believe they deserve better.   They  represent the production of notable American potteries.   The Glenmore jug shown here has been identified as a product of the widely collected Red Wing potteries by Ray Reiss in his book “Red Wing Art Pottery.”    Jim Martin and Bette Cooper in their book,” Monmouth-Western Stoneware,”  depict the same jug as have been made by Western Stoneware.    It is possible that Glenmore ordered from both firms.  Without a pottery mark,  it is impossible to tell.  Some jugs are marked with a USA on the base.  Again, that is not definitive.   My hunch is that most of those jugs were made by Western Stoneware.

Probably the most recognized bottle that contained the nasty word was one shown regularly on the TV sitcom “I Dream of Jeanne” that originally ran for five years (1965-1970) and 139 episodes on NBC and is still around on reruns. An astronaut (Larry Hagman) blows into the bottle and the genie (Barbara Eden) pops out in the first episode. The bottle was made by Wheaton Glass of Millville, New Jersey, for Jim Beam bourbon,  Shown here, a number of identical bottles were used in the TV production over the years, some modified when the show went to color.  They carried the federal warning on the base.

A second reason for collecting these ceramics is their quality.  In addition to being tastefully designed,  virtually all have underglazed transfers,  meaning that the labels cannot rub off over time,  unlike some pre-Pro whiskey jugs.   Their lettering will remain crisp and legible for as long as the jug is intact.  Finally,  as Cecil Munsey has suggested,  the ability to place these containers in a definite time frame adds interest. That is another way of saying that future generations may decide  those words were not so nasty after all.

Note:  Although this blog is dedicated to pre-Prohibition whiskey, I have received enough inquiries about “the words” to believe there is sufficient interest to make an exception.  The most important sources for this post  were  “Dictionary of the History of the American Brewing and Distilling Industries” by William L. Downard (1980) and “Bluegrass, Belles and Bourbon”  by Harry Harrison Kroll (1967).