Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Beams in My Home Town and Other Personal Stuff (Part 1)


The Blockhouse, South Park, Mansfield, Ohio (2009)
(This post, and several others to follow, will be more personal than usual and only peripherally about bourbon. You have been warned.)

I grew up in Mansfield, Ohio, the seat of Richland County. After college I moved away but visited often while my parents were alive, so until 2010. I still have friends and family there. 

In the summer of 2019 I attended my 50th high school reunion, at which I met the spouse of a classmate who just happened to have a notable surname: Beam. "No relation," he assured me. As I told him then, I knew there had been Beams in Mansfield in the early 19th century, but I didn't know if any were still around. I have subsequently learned that he is descended from the Beam family member the rest of this post is about.

Because this is a story about Jacob Beam, but not that Jacob Beam, the one who founded the Kentucky Beam distilling dynasty in the late 18th century. This is about Mansfield's Jacob Beam.

In his 1985 novel, The Tree of Life, Hugh Nissenson tells a story of the American frontier during the War of 1812. He set it in Mansfield, Ohio, and did extensive research to make it as historically accurate as possible. It was a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. I recommend it. It is a quick read (159 pages in the edition I have) and satisfying on many levels.

The novel is in the form of a diary kept by one of the settlers, a former New England minister named Thomas Keene. In his book, Nissenson skillfully melds actual and fictional history. One of his minor characters is named Jacob Beam, one of the tiny community’s principal landowners and, more importantly, its sole miller. The protagonist, Keene, and the miller, Beam, are also two of the town’s distillers. The first page of Keene’s journal is an inventory of his possessions, followed by their worth, which includes:

1 hammered copper Still, well-tinned, of 27 ½ gall. ...................14.30
1 hammered copper Head, with pewter charging pipe, etc ...........4.30
1 set of maple Worm tubs, hickory hoops .....................................0.90
2 vials for testing whisky’s proof ..................................................0.30
6 bushels of malt ...........................................................................0.30

Later he adds: Bought of Barr & Keys, Chillicothe, 1 copper Worm, 6 convolutions, 2 ½ ft. long... $3.00

In another entry, Keene pays 28 cents to the Beam Mill for cracking 300 pounds of his corn into grist suitable for whiskey mash. Keene visits Beam’s Mill often. Selling whiskey he makes from the corn he grows is Keene’s principal occupation. He is also his own best customer. Many of his diary entries are the date and one word: “drunk.”

When relations with local Indians deteriorate, a defensive structure called a blockhouse is built at Beam’s Mill. 

When I read the novel, I assumed the author had picked the most famous frontier distiller and dropped him into Ohio instead of Kentucky. I was wrong. Both Jacob Beams were real. More about the Ohio one in Part 2.

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