It’s been the root of rebellions and social movements throughout history. People have been arrested for it, and arrested for protesting the use of it. What is this substance? Alcohol. From the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 to Prohibition era in the 1920s, alcohol has certainly had its impact on history. More recently, it has become a point of pride and heritage, like the Bourbon Trail here in Kentucky. But where does Boone County fit into this heritage? Let’s find out.
You’re listening to Historically Speaking, the Local History podcast from the Boone County Public Library. In this podcast, we share stories from the county’s history, particularly the history you won’t read about in textbooks. You’ll realize that truth is often stranger than fiction.
On today’s episode, inspired by many people’s coping mechanism of choice during these trying times, we look at a Kentucky staple, bourbon, and the distilling industry in Boone County. Let’s get started, then, on our historic booze cruise.
Segment 1: Something's Brewing
Up here in Northern Kentucky and the Greater Cincinnati area, we have a lot of Celtic and Germanic influences, which means two things: whiskey and beer. St. Patrick’s Day, and Oktoberfest. So, in this first segment, I’m going to go wayyy back to the origins of these two beverages.
Beer came about through convergent evolution, meaning that people discovered the fermenting process on their own, and they started brewing beverages of all kinds in different areas independently of each other. The earliest evidence of beer-brewing in the ancient world comes from China, Mesopotamia (or, modern-day Iraq), and the Incan Empire in South America. In many places, the drink had a religious significance.
Later, beer brewing in Europe began with the production of mead, which uses honey. When monasteries were founded, monks (of all people) started getting into the brewing business in Germany, Britain, and Scandinavia, so that they could offer it to travelers as a form of hospitality. People also began experimenting with different techniques and types of yeast, like top-fermenting yeast, also called ale yeasts, and bottom-fermenting yeast for lagers.
In North America, Native Americans had also been brewing their own beverages by the time European colonists had arrived and invaded what would become the United States. The brewing of bourbon, however, started in the 1700s, with Scots-Irish settlers in Kentucky. Many attribute the discovery of bourbon to Elijah Craig, who was born around 1740 in Virginia. He became a Baptist preacher, but since Virginia was mostly Anglican, Elijah Craig and his brother Lewis eventually left to avoid religious conflict. They headed to Kentucky and founded Lebanon, which eventually became Georgetown, as we know it today.
In 1789, Craig founded a distillery–among other essential businesses in the new town–and the story goes that bourbon was invented on accident. An oak barrel had been burned in a fire, but Elijah, not to be discouraged, stored his whiskey in it anyway, and thus, bourbon was born. The charred oak barrels used to age whiskey give bourbon its color. It’s a cute story, but unlikely to be true. Nonetheless, the bourbon industry–a staple of Kentucky heritage–was born.
Meanwhile, in the nineteenth century, an influx of German immigrants to the Northern Kentucky/Greater Cincinnati area led to developments in the beer industry. One of the most prominent figures was the so-called “beer baron” of Newport, George Wiedemann. Weidemann was born in Eisenach in Prussia in 1833. He emigrated to the United States in 1843, starting in New York before heading to Louisville. However, anti-immigrant nativist movements in Louisville prompted Wiedemann to leave there and head to Cincinnati. He started in Over-the-Rhine first, but he moved across the river in 1870 to build a brewery in Newport. The George Wiedemann Brewing Company was very successful–in 1890, it produced the most beer in the state. And of course, there’s been a revival of breweries on both sides of the river today.
So now you’re caught up–from clay pots in ancient Mesopotamia to oak barrels in Georgetown. In the next segment, we’ll hear about Boone County’s own distillery business–and what a tumultuous business it was.
Segment 2: Boone County Distilling Company
Did you know that, at one point, Boone County had the largest whiskey distillery in the state of Kentucky? If not, here’s how it happened:
We start in Petersburg in the 1830s. Petersburg was one of the first settlements in Boone County, and its location on the river made it a center of trade and industry. A steam mill was built there in the early nineteenth century, but William Snyder added a distillery to the mill in 1836. By 1850, 16 people were hired to work there, as distillers, millers, and coopers (the people who make the barrels). Lewis Loder, a resident of Petersburg who kept a detailed diary about the various goings-on in the town, also recorded activity from the distillery. For example, he notes that J.C. Jenkins, another Petersburg resident, raised pigs there, since they could eat the distillery mash. According to Loder, the distillery’s products were sold in Cincinnati as “Snyder’s Old Rye Whiskey.”
Despite some early success, the distillery faced some challenges leading up to the Civil War. The Snyder family headed to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to avoid William’s debts, since they had already had to sell or auction off his property. The move might also show where William Snyder’s loyalty lay–both he and his brother John were slaveholders.
In the wake of his departure, William Appleton, J.C. Jenkins, and James W. Gaff took over the distillery. However, taxes imposed on alcohol during the Civil War made it difficult to produce and sell whiskey, so they sold it to Julius Frieburg and Levi T. Workum, who were based in Cincinnati. Under their leadership, the distillery would become the largest in Kentucky in the 1880s.
Working in the distillery was no easy task, though. I called it a “tumultuous” business because a lot of accidents happened, not the least of which were: explosions. Boilers explode. People fall into the vats. One poor person got stuck in the still. Most of the time, these accidents were deadly. Another thing that made the work “tumultuous” was conflict between distillery employees. For example, let’s take a look at one incident in July 1879.
Our story involves two distillery workers: George W. Theetge, a carpenter, and Andy Leonard, a fireman (fires were also a relatively common occurrence at the distillery). Theetge and Leonard had bad blood before, when Theetge tried to stab Leonard on a boat the previous year–yeah, we aren’t dealing with the nicest people here.
On this day in July 1879, though, Theetge was provoking three young men who were visiting from Lawrenceburg, and he just happened to be in front of Andy Leonard’s house. Leonard told Theetge to scram, and Theetge wasn’t a huge fan of that, so he challenged Leonard to a fight.
Leonard came barreling out, but another Petersburg resident, a teamster named John Feely, stood in between them to try to break up the fight. Feely was by all accounts a good man–basically the opposite of George Theetge–so it wasn’t surprising he was acting as a peacemaker. That didn’t stop him from getting injured in the midst of the brawl, though. Feely was stabbed in the arm and abdomen by Theetge, and though the newspaper articles about the fight said that the prognosis wasn’t good, Feely did survive the attack.
The Boone County Recorder tells a slightly different story, though. It says that the fight originally started between Theetge and Feely, and that it was about the new storekeeper in the distillery, J.D. McLeod.
J.D. McLeod was a free person of color, and the first African American to be appointed as a government storekeeper in the state of Kentucky (so it’s pretty cool that it happened in Petersburg). It was so notable that Lewis Loder recorded it in his diary, and it was published in the newspapers, around 1877. Regardless, the rest of the story is the same: the stab wounds, Feely’s near demise, and what happened later that evening.
Theetge went out looking for Leonard with a pistol–the man couldn’t let it go–and Leonard, who was armed with a piece of wood, beat Theetge with it until bystanders intervened. Theetge survived, to be fined and arrested for assault. Theetge met a violent end in October 1893, in Cincinnati, where he was shot after threatening another man’s family.
Which brings us to the distillery’s gradual demise. It began when the Petersburg distillery was acquired by a disreputable company, the Kentucky Distilleries and Warehouse Company. By 1910, they announced plans to move their business to Louisville, closing the Petersburg distillery. The buildings were taken down, and the bricks were repurposed for other Petersburg building projects (such as the Petersburg Baptist Church, as I mentioned earlier). They had closed down before Prohibition could have any impact on their production, which brings us to our next segment… bootlegging.
Segment 3: Bootlegging
The two stories I’ve found about bootlegging actually don’t fall into the Prohibition Era–both of them happened when alcohol was still perfectly legal. The first predates Prohibition entirely, and takes place in Petersburg. In his diary, Lewis Loder also talked about people getting busted for various crimes, and one of those was Dr. R. C. Tilley, who sold alcohol illegally in the early 1900s. Remember, the distillery was still in full swing then, so his customers could have easily bought some whiskey legally just down the road.
However, R.C. Tilley did far worse things than illegally sell whiskey… But that’s a story for another podcast. Or, if you just can’t wait, you can find a video about him on the Boone County Public Library’s YouTube channel. That video is titled: “Dr. RC Tilley: Lady Killer, Serial Killer?” And that kind of puts the bootlegging thing in perspective, doesn’t it? I’ll put the link to the video on the Local History website, Chronicles of Boone County.
Lewis Loder also talks about the “Temperance Club,” which was in favor of Prohibition, and some of their activities in Petersburg.
The next story I have for you, however, took place much later, in the 1950s. Though Prohibition had ended at this point, people still produced their own alcoholic beverages illegally, including two moonshiners who were caught in Boone County in 1954.
Amos C. Haney, who lived near Burlington, had a 25-gallon unregistered still, along with mash and whiskey. He was fined $300 dollars total.
Howard Vise, who lived in Taylorsport, was caught with a 150-gallon unregistered still (compared to Haney’s 25-gallon one) in his basement and a ton of whiskey and mash was found in the outhouse on his farm. Apparently, Vise’s 150-gallon still was (quote) “one of the biggests stills taken within the last 10 years in Northern Kentucky.” So it was a huge operation–with 400 gallons of mash and 16 half-gallons of whiskey. He was fined 200 dollars.
They were caught in a raid by investigators from Erlanger and Cincinnati who worked for the Federal Alcohol Tax Unit. Both men were found guilty on three counts: (quote) “carrying on the business of a distiller, having an unregistered still and having untaxed whisky.”
The (legal) tradition of distilling lives on today. The Boone County Distilling Company started in 2015, and they have a section on their website talking about the historic Petersburg Distillery, which is super cool. They also appeared on Episode 6 of the Innovators & Creators podcast with BCPL!
I didn’t talk about wine in this episode, but that’s also been a part of Boone County history. The Dinsmore family, for instance, produced wine from their vineyards, and today, Verona Vineyards is a local winery that also has historic connections! The George Vest House, which was built in 1842 and is on the National Register of Historic Places, is on the property.
One great thing about the renewed interest in bourbon tourism and beer-brewing is all the historical heritage we can find.
That’s all for this episode. Information for this episode came from:
Information about Elijah Craig came from The Kentucky Encyclopedia, edited by John E. Kleber, and The State of Bourbon: Exploring the Spirit of Kentucky, by Cameron M. Ludwick and Blair Thomas Hess. Information about George Wiedemann came from the article, “Our Rich History: George Wiedemann, Northern Kentucky’s Beer Baron and his brewery,” by Don Heinrich Tolzmann, in the Northern Kentucky Tribune.
Information about the Petersburg Distillery came from the article, "The Distillery at Petersburg, Kentucky: Snyder’s Old Rye Whiskey” by Matt Becher, which can be found in the library catalog. The article goes into much greater detail about the distillery’s operations and the people who owned it, so I’ll put a link to it on Chronicles of Boone County.
Finally, information about Howard Vise and bootlegging came from the article “Bootlegging in Boone County,” by our own Hillary Delaney on Chronicles of Boone County. I also looked at the original news articles from the Cincinnati Enquirer and Boone County Recorder, from mid- to late-September 1954. You can find digitized issues of the Boone County Recorder in the catalog, and you can search the Cincinnati Enquirer using the Proquest database on the Local History page of the website.
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