Saturday, February 10, 2024

George Boldrick: “Last Man Standing” at the Belle of Marion Distillery

In 1880, as the story is told, four Kentucky businessmen joined resources to begin a new distillery in Marion County, Kentucky, buying a tract of land on which to construct it five miles south of the city of Lebanon.  The site was located where Arbuckle Creek joins the Rolling Fork River and adjacent to the L&N Railroad.  Two of the prospective owners and were seasoned “whiskey men,”  The others were not, among them George D. Boldrick, a Lebanon local who owned and operated a pharmacy when he join the investors.  Shown here, Boldrick a decade later was the “last man standing” at the helm of the Belle of Marion Distillery.  His place in Kentucky whiskey history, however, remains a conundrum.

Born in October 1842 in Danville, Kentucky, Boldrick had a strong Irish heritage.  His father, James P. Boldrick, was born and raised in Ireland, coming to the United States in his early manhood after a brief sojourn in Canada.  A “merchant tailor” he settled in Danville.  There James met and married Mary Freelove Doneghy, also of Irish immigrant ancestry.  The couple would have four children, three girls and George, the youngest.  The boy was educated in Danville schools where he showed considerable aptitude.

Boldrick’s fortunes took their first turn when he was 18 with the onset of the Civil War.  His ability caught the eye of General George H. Thomas, shown here, who chose him as a commissary clerk for his army.  My research indicates that such a post normally would carry an officer’s commission but I cannot find any rank for Boldrick.  A list of Army commissary clerks shows the young man being allocated $900 for unspecified purposes — a substantial amount for the time.  As depicted below, the commissary officer was a highly important position for maintaining a military force.  To cite a familiar adage: “An army marches on its stomach.”

Following the war Boldrick seems to have minimized his service.  He had fought for the Union while many of his Kentucky friends and perhaps even some of his relatives had cast their lot with the Confederates.  There is no evidence that Boldrick joined any veteran groups, his gravestone makes no reference to his service, and he seems to have sequestered all mention of his role in the war. It might not have been good for business to be identified with the Union cause.

Three years after the war, Boldrick opened his pharmacy, one of three in Lebanon.  This move into the mercantile world may have been a natural progression from his occupation in the commissary.  It also coincided with his marriage to Carrie Spaulding in July 1869.  Carrie may have been a distant cousin. Boldrick’s maternal grandmother was a Spaulding, the daughter of Samuel Spaulding, whose family origins were among Catholic immigrants to Maryland from England.  

Over the next six years George and Carrie would have three sons, Samuel James, Ralph Lancaster, ansd Charles Carter.  Then Carrie died in 1875, leaving her husband to care for and father three minor children.  Three years later Boldrick remarried.  His new wife was Kate Tobin, from Frankfort, Kentucky, also from an Irish immigrant family.  They would add four more Boldricks to the household over the next 17 years:  John Tobin, George Doneghy, Columbus Camron, and Lucy.

By contemporary accounts, Boldrick was a quick success in the druggist trade,attracting a local customer base.  His prosperity apparently allowed him at some point to buy into one of his competing pharmacies.   After a dozen years, however, Boldrick made a decision to get out of selling medicinals and move into the liquor trade.  My surmise is that he already was selling “medicinal” whiskey over the counter and he recognized the profitability of distilling and merchandising it.  

After selling his drug store interests, Boldrick joined — and actually may have initiated — a group of four Kentuckians to build and own a distillery.   The partners included two well-known figures in Kentucky whiskey-making, Richard Wathen and R.B. Lancaster. The participation of both was short-lived. Even before breaking ground for the facility, Richard Wathen died. (See post on the Wathens, August 1, 2020.)  Moreover, before completion of construction, R. B. Lancaster, newly burdened with issues at a family distillery in Bardstown, sold his interest to John Callahan. (See post on Lancasters, Nov. 5, 2023.)

Luckily Callahan was an experienced distiller, having been associated with the Chrystal Springs Distillery in Louisville, a major supplier to Kentucky wholesalers.The third investor was Ralph L. Spaulding, likely Boldrick’s cousin and related to his first wife.  Once the distillery had been completed, Spaulding assumed the presidency of the distillery known as the “Belle of Marion.”  Ralph Spaulding not long after was killed in a machinery accident at the distillery and his brother C. C. Spaulding replaced him.  After several years, C. C. Spaulding retired.  Of the original investors, now only Boldrick and Callahan remained.

Insurance underwriter records suggest that the distillery was brick with a metal or slate roof. The property included four warehouses, all iron-clad with metal or slate roofs. By 1890 Belle of Marion Distillery was mashing 300 bushels of grain a day, producing 30 barrels of whiskey.  The latter were stored in three bonded warehouses with a storage capacity approaching 14,000 barrels.  Within several years the partners had added a fourth warehouse bringing aging capacity to 25,000 barrels.  A shed where cattle were kept and being fed the spent mash was situated 400 feet west of the still.

The distillery employed local Lebanon workers.  A number of them are shown above, lined up in front of the distillery, some of them displaying the tools of their trade.  Two men at the right in the photo, the only ones wearing dress coats and ties, are identified as Boldrick,left, and Callahan.  Enlarged, their pictures also appear right..

Although Involved only tangentially, the partners became embroiled in a trademark dispute.  In return for a large order of whiskey, the Casey & Swasey wholesale liquor house in Fort Worth. Texas, asked permission from them to use “Kentucky Comfort” as a brand name and in their advertising.  With a large sale possibly at stake, the two men readily agreed. Barrels of whiskey with “Kentucky Comfort” burned into them began rolling into Fort Worth, 845 miles distant.  A photo of the Boldrick-Callahan operation shows the workers posing after loading whiskey barrels on a horse-drawn wagon likely headed to the nearby L&N railhead.

The Casey & Swasey purchase in Kentucky seemed to mean little to the Appeals Court of Kentucky when Rosenfield Bros. of Chicago and Louisville claimed an equal right to use “Kentucky Comfort” on their labels.  The Rosenfields alleged that they had widely advertised the brand and its value “has come in large part from the moneys expended in such advertisements.”  They also claimed to sell from three to five thousand barrels a year of “Kentucky Comfort.”   In 1898 the court found for the Rosenfields.  Both companies, however, it  strangely ruled, could use  the brand name.

The Texas whiskey men were not prepared to settle.  They took their appeal to the Federal Commissioner of Patents.  In 1906, he reviewed the record and, in effect, dismissed utterly the decision of the Kentucky judges,  saying that the   “judgment of the court was neither pleaded nor proved.” The Commissioner thereupon denied the claim by the Rosenfields that they had as good a right to the trademark as Casey and Swasey.  He ruled it remained solely the property of the Fort Worth firm.  I assume that throughout this lengthy legal process the Belle of Marion Distillery was providing the whiskey.

In 1899 John Callahan died and was buried in Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery leaving only George Boldrick of the original investors still active in the firm: “The Last Man Standing.”  As Boldrick reviewed the past, he could be justly proud of the record of success the distillery had achieved.  Both the brands “Belle of Marion” and “Callahan” had achieved recognition for quality beyond Lebanon, beyond Kentucky, and, indeed, throughout the United States.  When Boldrick looked ahead, however, he saw prohibitionary laws across the country steadily shrinking whiskey sales as states and counties one by one “went dry.”  With all his original partners now retired or dead, the future had turned bleak. 

 A year after Callahan’s death, Boldrick sold out to the Whiskey Trust.  That monopolistic organization operated and expanded the distillery, making rye as well as bourbon whiskey until shut down in 1919 by National Prohibition.  At the time of the sale the Trust was paying big dollars to own distilleries with distinguished names.  My guess is that Boldrick’s motivation for selling was the large offer made by the Trust.  He apparently used his profits to buy the Hugh Murray Drug Company and became its president.  He also was appointed president of the Lebanon Water Works. 

Early in the 1890s, Boldrick’s health began to fail  and he died in July 1904 at the age of 61.  He was buried in Lebanon’s Saint Augustine Catholic Cemetery in the shadow of a tall monument erected by his family.   In death, however, he received none of the long flowery obituaries accorded many of his fellow Kentucky distillers by the Louisville press,  Has Boldrick unjustly been overlooked in Kentucky whiskey lore.  A case can be made.

In contrast, George Boldrick attracted considerable attention during his lifetime.  A substantial biography appeared in the 1887 book, Kentucky:  A History of the State;  his portrait — the one that opens this post — was included in Notable Men of Kentucky at the Beginning of the 20th Century (1902), and he is referenced in the 1912 History of Kentucky and Kentuckians:  The Leaders and Representative Men in Commerce, Industry and Modern Activities.  While today largely forgotten in Kentucky whiskey history, Boldrick,  the “last man standing” at the Belle of Marion Distillery, deserves recognition, including this post documenting his life and accomplishments as a whiskey man.

Notes:  This post was written from a number of sources, including the references in the paragraph above.  A key source was Robin Preston’s website.In it he cites “Ftboldrick,” a descendant of George, for providing information.

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