Saturday, June 21, 2014
The End of an Era. Gethsemane Distillery, 1872-1961
This picture was taken in 1961, the same year this distillery closed for good. Thanks to Stephen Beam of Limestone Branch Distillery for finding it in the University of Louisville Digital Collections.
At the time of its demise it was called Gethsemane Distillery. It was owned by Schenley, one of the largest drinks companies in the world. What you can see here is practically the prototype of a small, rural distillery of that period, roughly 1945-1965. From this angle you can clearly see the last addition to the plant, built by Schenley in 1953. It is a long, Quonset hut-type building that housed the bottling line and finished goods warehouse.
The Quonset hut was a cheap, lightweight, all-purpose steel building distinctive for its semi-circular shape. Quonset is the name of the village in Rhode Island where they were originally manufactured, first for the military in WWII, then for general industrial and commercial use.
The Quonset hut building is just about all that is left of the plant today, which is near the Abbey of Gethsemani in Nelson County, Kentucky. If you want to check it out, either in person or on Google Maps, the address is 225 Dee Head Road, New Haven, KY 40051. On Google Maps you can clearly see the foundation pads for the fermenters in the ruins of the still house.
The first distillery on that site was built by Thomas Jefferson 'Jeff' Pottinger, whose father laid out and named the town of New Haven. Jeff's son, Samuel Forrest Pottinger, self-appointed family historian, made this map. The distillery was located at the place identified on the map as Gethsemane (bottom left), which was also called Gethsemane Station because the train stopped there. Francis Head and Minor Case Beam acquired the T. J. Pottinger Distillery in 1888.
You just knew there had to be a Beam in this story. Minor is an ancestor of the Limestone Branch Beams. He began his distilling career working for his uncle, Jack, at Early Times. At Pottinger, renamed Beam & Head, he trained his younger brother, Joseph L. 'Joe' Beam, along with Will McGill, who later became master distiller at Stitzel-Weller. Joe Beam worked at many different distilleries, including one in Juarez, Mexico, and he founded Heaven Hill.
Steve and Paul Beam of Limestone Branch are descended from Minor's son, Guy, who was also a master distiller at several places. Steve and Paul are Beams on their father's side, Dants on their mother's. Their ancestor J. W. Dant had several sons who owned distilleries. Steve and Paul are descended from William, who ran the family's distillery at Dant's Station in Marion County. William's older brother, Joseph, started his own distillery near Pottinger's station. He eventually bought out their other ancestor and merged Beam & Head with his Taylor & Williams plant next door. That distillery made the popular Yellowstone Bourbon until Prohibition.
After repeal, Joseph Dant and his sons built a new Yellowstone Distillery in Shively. Another Dant and another Head acquired the old place near New Haven, which was built back up into the plant you see in the picture above. It had several different owners thereafter, including Occidental Petroleum's Armand Hammer, who sold it to Schenley in 1953 for $6.1 million.
Sam Cecil, author of Evolution of the Bourbon Whiskey Industry in Kentucky, was in charge of quality control there in the Hammer and Schenley eras, so the account in his book of its history during that period is detailed and first-person.
Eight years later, Schenley was finished with the place. The aerial photographs (there are six) may have been part of a sales presentation, which apparently failed because the distillery closed that same year. It sat vacant for a time. The warehouses were demolished to salvage their lumber. Then it became a sawmill. Today it is a company called Affordable Truss, that makes and sells wooden roof trusses.
Locals refer to the place as Dant, or J. B. Dant, or Gethsemane, or Dant Gethsamne. I have been in a house in New Haven built of the salvaged lumber. Some members of the Beam family call it Old Trump, after one of Minor's brands.
Similar stories occurred across Kentucky. Small, rural distilleries like this one were bought by the big companies, used up, then abandoned, often because company operations were consolidated at a larger and more modern plant in Louisville or Frankfort. The bottling line and other equipment was removed first, as was any copper. Later the rackhouses were taken apart to salvage the lumber.
With nothing left of value, the places were left to rot. In several cases, some other business that could use the buildings moved in. Seagram's Cummins-Collins Distillery in Athertonville also became a sawmill and is now a small cooperage. Many sites where the rackhouses were not dismantled were acquired by one of the remaining distilleries. Diageo, Jim Beam, Heaven Hill, Wild Turkey, Sazerac, and Maker's Mark all own rackhouses at the sites of defunct distilleries.