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Distilling in the Early Days


This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, November 19, 1933



By Howard Burba


     Within recent months quite a few magazine writers have been devoting their time and talents to answering the question: “After Repeal, What?”  That it is an interesting question, no one will dispute.  But it only opens the way to a lot of speculation, a great deal of guesswork and a confusing tangle of conclusions.

     Such a timely question naturally carries deep interest, but what could be more interesting at this moment, as the pendulum swings back and America returns to the legalization of the liquor traffic, than to turn back the pages of local history and read the story of distilling in the days when it was one of the chief industries of the Northwest Territory, and before it fell into evil ways, into conditions which eventually caused it to be outlawed and which kept it outlawed for a period of 13 years?

     Distilling as an industry in Dayton is almost as old as Dayton itself, despite the fact that for a number of years before the enactment of the Eighteenth amendment there was not a distillery within the city limits.  Of the 19 men who formed the original settlers of the present site of Dayton one of them, William Hamer, was skilled in the manufacture of “corn whisky.”  Hamer was a miller by profession, but in pioneer days grist mills and distilleries were considered within a single classification, since liquor-making often was carried on as a side-line by those who operated the mills.

     Hamer built the first mill on the site of Dayton, and it stood within a few feet of the present site of the old gas tank on E. Monument av.  He operated there for quite a spell and then became possessed of a tract of land on the high ground near what is now the extreme eastern end of Springfield st.  It was there he erected and for a long time operated the first “still” in the then new settlement, though his outfit was at the time a considerable distance from the town.

     It was not long after Hamer had set up his little “tub mill” until D. C. Cooper, the man credited with outlining the original town plot of Dayton, purchased land on Rubicon creek, hard by the present National Cash Register plant, and established a grist mill and distillery.  That was in the fall on 1799.

     In connection with the grist mill and distillery Cooper also operated a saw mill, the power for the entire industry being secured from a home-made paddle wheel placed in Rubicon creek.  He had four posts set in the ground, about four feet apart, two on each side of the creek, forming a square.  The posts stood four feet above the ground and on top of them was a puncheon floor—a floor put together with wooden pegs—and on that a small pair of buhrs were set.  On these the corn was ground into meal.

     His little mill and distillery had most of the trade from the upper Miami country, and from up Mad river as far as Springfield.  Settlers, in coming to the Cooper mill, would sometimes bring pack-horses loaded with sacks of corn, following the narrow trails through the forests.  They came equipped to camp along the way.  Rifle, ammunition, an axe, compass, blankets and bells were necessary.  Halting for camp at night, the horses were unloaded, bells fastened about their necks, and they were turned loose to graze until morning.  The fire being built, supper was cooked and eaten, after which the lonely traveler spread his bearskin for the night.  Then came morning, breakfast and an early start for the mill.  After such a journey the pioneer would often have to wait a day or two for his turn.  When his corn had been ground into meal he took what was necessary for home consumption, trading the remainder for a supply of corn liquor at the prevailing price of 15 cents a gallon.

     We have the historian’s word for it that at one time nearly every well-to-do farmer in Montgomery co. had a little copper still of his own, in which he made his “old rye,” “apple-jack” and corn (Bourbon) whisky.  Many of them made from one to 10 barrels each year for shipment, and as early as the 23rd of May, 1809, John Compton, one of the original settlers of Dayton, loaded a flatboat with liquor and started south with the first cargo of its kind ever to be sent down the Miami.  According to our early historian, he made a successful voyage to Cincinnati.

     The pioneer kept whisky in his cabin for his own use and to bid neighbors and friends good cheer.  Whenever they came along the bottle and cup were always handed around, the host drinking first.  “Morning bitters” were popular then, and the men usually took a dram before meals.  Women treated their visitors to whisky and sugar.  “Milk punch,” declares the pioneer historian, “was popular with all, while whisky was generously used with roots and herbs in making medicines, and used as a preventive as well as a cure.”

     It was not long until distilling became a sizeable industry in this part of the state, so naturally there was someone standing by to see that it was “taxed.”  Thus it came about that on Feb. 1, 1815, the government announced that from that date on a tax of 25 cents would be levied on each gallon of distilled spirits.  Thomas Constant, of Xenia, was appointed the first revenue collector in this district.  And the days of 15-cents-a-gallon liquor were at an end.  The next jump in federal taxes came along about the time of the Civil War, when the government raised it to $1.10 a gallon, a tax which remained effective up to the very day the industry was outlawed by the Eighteenth amendment.

     Probably the first of the early settlers to go into the distilling business on a pretentious scale was Jonathan Harshman.  He came west from Frederick co., Maryland, and settled in Kentucky.  Dissatisfied there he made a trip into the Miami country and was so impressed that he settled here in 1805.  He purchased 40 acres of land at what is now known as Riverside, but which for long years—and even among “old timers” of today—was known as Harshmanville.  His cabin site was near a spring and on one of the branches of McConnell creek, and at that spring he installed a small copper still.  From that sprang a distillery of considerable size, and since he paid a good price for rye and corn, traffic to his place showed a steady increase.  Later he established a mill and a store, and Harshmanville became one of the most flourishing trading points in the county.

     That distilling was destined to become one of the chief industries of the Miami country was apparent from the start, so no surprise was expressed by residents of this territory when they learned in 1829 that a total of 7378 barrels of whisky had been shipped to Cincinnati and New Orleans during the year.  In 1830 the total was 7142 barrels.  Ten years later, or in 1840, 472,406 gallons of liquor were manufactured in this, the second revenue district, and in that year there were four distilleries and two breweries operating in Dayton, and within a few miles of the corporation lines.

     In the year 1847 Christian Rohrer, one of the pioneer settlers in Twin valley in the neighborhood of Germantown, erected a distillery about one mile south of the present town, on a stream known to the pioneers as “Mud Lick.”  Rohrer operated this distillery for years, and it became a prosperous industry. His son, David Rohrer, learned the secret of successful distilling from his father, and in 1864, he took over the plant, his father retiring.  Under David Rohrer’s supervision this became one of the most famous distilleries in all the Northwest territory, and the fame of “Mud Lick” whisky was widespread.

     Fifty years ago 30 barrels of “Mud Lick” were turned out daily in a plant that represented an investment, exclusive of real estate, of more than $150,000.  Thirty workmen were employed and 400 head of cattle and 1200 hogs were annually fattened from the mash which came from the plant.  Old “Mud Lick” distillery continued to operate until well along in the 90s. when competition from outside concerns commenced to encroach upon its territory.  It was eventually closed, and was a matter of industrial history when the great dry wave swept the country 13 years ago.

     Still another early distillery in this neighborhood was operated by Frederick Christian Trebein at a way-station on the railroad between Dayton and Xenia which bears his name.  Trebein was born in Dayton in 1833, and after finishing his education in the public schools here he became associated with a dry goods store on E. Third st., as chore boy.  He later purchased the store, operating it until 1868 when he sold out and went to Greene co., establishing a mill and distillery along Beaver creek at what is now Trebein’s Station.  He started in a meager way, but produced what was declared to be a high-class product, and he amassed a fortune.  Trebein invested a goodly part of his fortune in Xenia industries, and at the time of his death was one the wealthiest citizens of that place.

     In the city of Dayton proper the distilling business never reached any very great proportions.  Possibly the most pretentious of the several operated here was one owned by The Dayton Distilling Co.  The original owners and proprietors of it were Arnold and Harshman, who erected it and ran it for several years, but failed in business during the panic of 1873.  The works remained idle until 1878, when they were again put in operation by F. A. Shwill, who carried on for about one year.  In February, 1882, still another company took over the plant, remodeled the interior, repaired the old machinery and started making whisky.  The capacity of the plant was 300 bushels of meal daily, and the new proprietors, were Messrs. Herancourt and Moses, residents of Cincinnati.  There was never any great clamor for their product, so Dayton failed to “get on the map” as a distilling center.

     That is to say, Dayton never got on the map in the sense that it was a distilling center, but it loomed large in later years as a distributing point.  In fact, there was a time just before the country went dry when one of the most widely-known brands of liquor in the world was distributed from Dayton.  That was the famous old “Hayner” whisky.

     It wasn’t the best whisky in the world, but it outsold the product of any distillery in the middlewest—and it was the first whisky ever to be sold by mail-order.  In that connection there is a bit of romance about this old brand of whisky present-day readers are certain to enjoy.

     Along about 1856 Lewis Hayner removed to Troy from Warren co. and erected a distillery.  He prospered from the start and when, at his death, the property fell into the hands of his nephew, William M. Hayner, it was a money-making concern. The younger Hayner, of a new generation and possessed of a spirit of business adventure, was open to any proposition which promised to increase his holdings.

     There was in Dayton at the time a young telegraph operator by the name of Walter Kidder, a born hustler and a man with a vision.  All over the country local option elections were becoming more and more numerous.  The result was that entire counties and states were “going dry.”  This did not necessarily mean that appetites were being changed as a result of the balloting; it simply meant that the consumer would have to seek a new base of supply.

     Walter Kidder conceived the idea of selling whisky by mail.  Nothing like that had ever before been dreamed of.  True, distillers advertised in their home papers for home consumption.  But no one had thought of appealing to the resident of a city, town or village a thousand or more miles away, with the appeal mailed direct to him along with an order blank which he, in turn, could mail back to the Hayner Distilling Co. at Dayton O., and receive his consignment of liquor by express.  Walter Kidder studied the proposition from every angle and then he went to Will Hayner and laid his scheme before him.  I have told you that this Troy distiller was a progressive business man.  Need I tell you that he, too, saw the value of Kidder’s plan and the riches to be harvested once it was put in operation?

     Hayner made a fairly good brand of liquor.  For those who were so situated that they could not be a bit particular, it served its purpose admirably.  And be it known that there were far more men drinking a popular priced brand of whisky in the old days than there were men insisting upon “imported stuff” or brands like “Old Crow,” “Belle of Nelson,” “Johnny Walker” and a score more recognized as aristocrats of the liquor world.

     The Hayner company opened offices on W. Fifth st. in Dayton and began a heavy newspaper advertising campaign.  In “dry” territory the appeal was by direct mail.  Walter Kidder wrote this publicity and directed the distribution of it.  Will Hayner remained at Troy and directed the distilling business, a good deal of his time being taken up in building new additions to the plant.

     Down at Tippecanoe city a competitor arose under the name of the Dietrich Distilling Co.  This company was quick to see the possibilities of mail order distribution and also opened a Dayton office.  It prospered and its owners waxed rich.  But Hayner apparently never felt the competition, since each year saw an increased consumption of his product and a greater volume of mail orders.

     At the height of the company’s career, or along about 1913, I happened into a little Ohio river town hat had “gone dry” through a local option selection held but a few weeks a before.  It was possible for the residents of the town to procure “corn liquor” across the river on the Kentucky side.  But only a few of them owned boats.  I dropped into the express office only to find a line of men in front of the agent’s window, each patiently awaiting his turn.  Newspaper instinct caused me to seek the reason for this exceptional business in a crossroad express office.  Then I learned from the agent that he was engaged in making out money orders for Hayner whisky.  “I average 200 money orders a week,” he said, “ and there is no order for less than four quarts.”

     That was just one town in tens of thousands of towns and hamlets –and cities.  Now draw your own conclusion as to whether or not mail-order liquor distribution was all that Walter Kidder told Will Hayner it would be when he laid his plans before him and, together, they established the first business of its kind in the world and one of the most prosperous ones.  There was a time when the Hayner company’s reserve supply of liquor in the big warehouses at Troy totaled 80,000 barrels, and when Mr. Hayner passed on but a few brief years ago it was to leave the largest personal fortune ever amassed by any one resident of Miami co.

     The Hayner company continued to operate up to the adoption of the Eighteenth amendment.  It ceased business, of course, when this amendment became effective, and its stock was disposed of under government supervision.  A part of the immense distilling plant at Troy was afterward given over to other forms of industry.  Fire a few years ago destroyed several of the larger and more modern buildings, but along the tracks of the B. and O. in that city still stands one of the early bonded warehouses, a building in which Hayner whisky was aged, and from which building the Hayner product went forth to every state in the Union and to many foreign countries—all the result of mail-order advertising, all marketed under a plan which had seemed so radical when it was first adopted that it brought smiles to the faces of old and prosperous veterans in the distilling business.

     But before Hayner had gone very far with the mail-order plan the smile was on the other side of their faces, and then scores started in to profit by the Hayner example.  They never got to first base.  The name of Dayton was spoken—and often—in express offices in every dry town in the country.  The word Dayton became symbolical with mail-order whisky in every arid spot in America.  While other whisky was being passed out over the bar at prices ranging around $1 to $1.50 a quart, Hayner was advertising—whole pages in some papers—these prices: “Private Stock, Bond, 80c Per quart.  Miami Valley, Bond, 85c.  Old Trojan, Bond, 95c.  W. M. H. Own bottling, $1.05 Per Quart.  W. S. K., Own Bottling, $1.30.  But here was the “Special Offer” that brought such a flood of orders, day in and day out, year in and year out, that the big Troy distillery was kept running night and day.  “Three Quarts Hayner Private Stock Bottled-in-Bond Whisky; 1 Quart Fine Old W. S. K. Straight Whisky; One Hayner Patent Combination Lock Stopper and Sideboard Decanter—Direct From Distillery—Express Charges Prepaid—For Only $3.20.”

     That is what kept the wheels turning in a modern distillery of “the good old days,” a distillery which occupied three city squares, which consumed 2000 bushels of grain per day and which had a warehouse storage capacity of 5,000,000 gallons of liquor, and all owned by a company capitalized at $500,000.  The main office and shipping depot was at Dayton, though licensed and bonded warehouses were maintained in St. Louis, St. Paul, New Orleans and Jacksonville, with clerical forces in those cities taking care of such mail orders as might be forwarded there instead of to Dayton.

     Doubtless many of you recall the sarcasm and the cheap wit which attended Ford’s first ventures.  Whole volumes were published containing nothing but “Ford jokes” as they were called in their day.  And yet, as you will also recall, those bright efforts of the punsters only served to sell millions of Fords because they served to popularize it.  The same thing held true with Hayner whisky.  They joked about it, they poked fun at it—but they paid their money for it and they drank it—and they went to the express office and got a money order and sent in for more.

     Even Kidder, prince of good fellows that he has always been, tells the crowning Hayner story of them all.  As Kidders tells it a noted Kentucky judge was a business visitor in Dayton.  One morning several prominent citizens, Kidder among them, called upon the judge at his apartment in the old Phillips House.

     After the social conversation had proceeded to a certain point one of the Dayton men rang for a bell boy, with a view to having the distinguished visitor served with liquid refreshments.  The judge was asked if he would care for a little friendly drink and, pleased with the show of hospitality, answered in the affirmative.  One of the local men asked the judge what his favorite brand of liquor might be, whereupon he responded:

     “Oh, Bell of Nelson, Green River or something like that.”

     “But judge,” cut in Walter Kidder, “haven’t you ever tried any Hayner whisky?”

     “No,” responded the genial old Kentucky judge, “but I’ve tried a hell of a lot of fellows who did.”