Saturday, August 7, 2021

Beams in My Home Town and Other Personal Stuff (Part 7)


Homer Cowdery, my great-grandfather, was born in Vanceburg, Kentucky.

I'm continuing with the series name but we're finished with the Beams, Johnny Appleseed and the War of 1812, and leaving Mansfield, Ohio, my home town, just as I did when I left for college in 1969. I never lived there fulltime again, but visited frequently until my father's death in 2010.

After college and working in advertising in Dayton, then Columbus, I took a job in Louisville, Kentucky. I didn't know much about Kentucky. I had been there once as a kid with my family, to see Mammoth Cave and other attractions. 

I did know about Kentucky bourbon. My parents drank it. They each had one drink before dinner every night, bourbon on the rocks, which they had in the kitchen while chatting as mom finished preparing dinner. Unless we had something urgent, my siblings and I knew to leave them alone until we were called to table. As the oldest, I occasionally mixed drinks for them, then went back to "The Three Stooges" in the other room. (I'm talking about the TV show, not my three younger brothers.)

My parents were frugal so they always drank the least expensive Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey in the store, which for most of my childhood was Mattingly and Moore. There were cheaper whiskeys, of course, blends and what-have-you, but my parents were interested only in Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey. 

I was raised right.

I lived and worked in Louisville from February of 1978 until March of 1988. I worked in marketing and did a lot of business with local liquor companies. It was a bad time for bourbon sales but all of the companies sold other things and mostly I worked on those 'other things.' I took a job in Chicago in 1987 but had residences in both Louisville and Chicago for about a year and after that continued to visit Kentucky frequently, as I still do. 

In 1991, I began work on the documentary that became "Made and Bottled in Kentucky," which ran on most American public television stations and still appears from time to time on KET, Kentucky's public TV network. I was hooked, and I've been writing about American whiskey ever since.

I have other interests, of course. In addition to the history of American whiskey I am interested in history more generally and, by extension, genealogy. What I knew about my family history growing up was that mom's family was from Cleveland with mostly German roots. One of my maternal great-grandfathers, Jack Schwartz, was a bookkeeper at Cleveland's Standard Brewery. The other one, Frank Bunsey, worked at the White Motor Company as one of the world's first car salesmen. Mom's family moved to Mansfield in 1940, when she was 11. They were beer drinkers mostly, although my grandfather (mom's dad, also Frank Bunsey) also drank scotch.

Dad was from St. Louis but his grandfather, Homer Cowdery, came from Coolville, Ohio, in the southeastern part of the state close to the Ohio River. As a young man, Homer took a job on a riverboat and eventually settled in St. Louis. 

Coolville is on the Hocking River. Where the Hocking joins the Ohio, that's West Virginia on the other shore, but if you drift a few more miles that shore becomes Kentucky. As I learned more about my family's origins, I learned they mostly lived near what is today Keno, Ohio, and operated a gristmill there in the early 19th century. That leads me to suspect some of them distilled, since many millers did, but I have no evidence.

I suppose I could invent a story about old Josiah Cowdery, cooking up a batch of corn likker in some Meigs County hollar. I wouldn't be the first person to invent a story about a distant ancestor's distilling prowess. 

Then I found something surprising, census records that showed my great-grandfather, Homer Cowdery, was born in Vanceburg, Kentucky, in 1865. The same census shows his two younger brothers having been born back in Ohio, so what were his parents doing in Vanceburg when he was born?

We don't know, but we know Homer's father, Josiah, struggled financially. Vanceburg had been a staunch Union town during the just-concluded Civil War and was booming, so he may have gone there looking for work.

I also learned that Grandpa Homer had lied about his age, adding two or three years. He was a big guy and as a teenager probably looked older than he was. I suspect he made himself older to get that first riverboat job and get the hell out of there. His youngest brother, Perry, followed him to St. Louis, then continued on to Texas. The middle brother, Heman, stayed in southeastern Ohio and is buried there. There still are Cowderys around, mostly across the river in Parkersburg, West Virginia. Most are descended from Heman.

Next time, in Part 8, I discover that my dad's mother had a surprising Kentucky connection with a direct link to the origins of Kentucky bourbon.


Richard Turner said...

Chuck, I am absolutely loving this stuff!
Very entertaining, especially as it's TRUE History. Facts!
Imagine what will be made of today's 'goings on' whenever it's set down as historical writing. I can't guess how anyone will determine what is fact from what is total BS what with the internet's penchant for pushing out drivel constantly. ...Much of it (but not all, I fear) the fault of private individuals publishing their own foolishness so we'll know 'em for what they are.
I guess that's why I'm loving these excerpts so well, my friend.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness.