Friday, September 17, 2021

A Tale of Two Jacobs


The furnace at Bourbon Iron Works, established by Jacob Myers in 1791 in Bath County. It was the first iron mill in Kentucky. 

Jacob Boehm was born in 1760 in Pennsylvania. You may know him better by the Americanized version of his name, Jacob Beam, ancestor of all the whiskey-making Beams. 

Jacob Myers was born in Maryland, reportedly in 1738 or 39. His birthdate is not well documented and, based on other life events, was likely a few years later. You probably don’t know him at all, but he was Jacob Beam’s uncle and the person who taught Jacob, and through him all Beams to come, how to make whiskey.

Skills such as whiskey-making typically passed from father to son, but not in Jacob Beam's case. His father died suddenly when Jacob was six. His mother, Margaretha, with five young children and no way to support them in Pennsylvania, returned to her family’s home and farm in Maryland. She was Jacob Myers' sister. Perhaps she named her son Jacob after her brother.

Since the Myers observed the rule of primogeniture, Margaretha and Jacob Myers' oldest brother, Jost, owned the homestead. Fatherless and landless, both Jacobs knew from an early age they would have to make their own way in the world.

The Myers farm was remote and relatively self-sufficient. It included livestock and crops, cereals as well as fruit and tobacco. Most of the farm’s income came from the sale of intoxicants, tobacco as well as beverage alcohol, fermented and distilled. Both Jacobs took a particular interest in the farm’s beverage alcohol enterprise. Jacob Beam, very much the junior partner, learned all he could from his Uncle Jacob.

It is a remarkable fact of American colonial history that after nearly 200 years of settlement, most colonists still lived very close to the Atlantic coast. That began to change in the last quarter of the 18th century. The first European settlement in Kentucky, at Harrodsburg, was established in 1774. Jacob Myers decided to seek his fortune there too.

As more and more settlers came through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky and Tennessee, their land claims had to be professionally surveyed and registered. Since surveyors typically were paid by retaining a percentage of the land they mapped, many got rich. 

Soon after he arrived in Kentucky, Jacob went to work as a chain carrier on a surveying crew, a low-level position. One day he asked the head of the crew, a man named Fox, to survey some land for him. When Fox refused, Myers announced he would deprive the crew of all the land they had surveyed that day; he would jump their claim. They laughed because they knew he was illiterate and couldn’t transcribe the complicated measurements they had taken, which he would need to establish the claim. 

Myers immediately set off on foot for the land grant office in Harrodsburg. The others slept, starting the same trip on horseback the next morning. Myers beat them by about 90 minutes and was able to register the claim in his own name. How? He may have been illiterate, but he had a very good memory.

Thereafter, Myers mapped and filed land grant claims for more than 145 tracts, encompassing some 30,000 acres, and launched many other enterprises. One of the first was a grist mill and distillery on the Hanging Fork of the Dix River, near modern Danville. Although we don’t know exactly when he started to distill, we know it was before 1781 because in that year he ran for political office and campaigned by giving out free whiskey, a common practice at the time. He still lost, to an “old Indian fighter” named Benjamin Logan. The Myers Mill is mentioned in official documents from 1783 and shows up on a map in 1784. 

By the mid-1780s, settlers were pouring through the Cumberland Gap on foot and floating into Kentucky via the Ohio River. Among them were more members of the Myers and Beam families, including Jacob Beam. Jost Myers had died and the Maryland farm was just about played out. By this time, Jacob Beam was married to one of his Myers cousins, Ann Marie.

The move to Kentucky was facilitated by two family members who were already there, Jacob Myers and an older brother of Jacob Beam, Conrad. Although the Beams were not initially Catholics they migrated with and settled among the Maryland Catholics who populated what are today’s Nelson, Marion, and Washington Counties in Kentucky. Jacob Beam converted. 

In 1791, Jacob Myers started the first iron works in Kentucky, near Owingsville in Bath County. It made everything from farm and household implements to military ordnance. Cannon balls from this foundry (what remains of it is pictured above) were used by the U.S. Navy at the Battle of New Orleans, but Jacob was long out of it by then. Shortly after he started the business, he realized he didn’t have enough capital to run it properly, so he sold it. The Bourbon Iron Works, as it was called, continued in operation until 1838.

Considering his many other enterprises, it is not surprising that Jacob Myers was involved in shipping. In 1793 he began regular service from Pittsburgh to Limestone (today's Maysville), Kentucky’s first official Ohio River port. Myers’ boats hauled passengers as well as freight. The service, strictly one-way in those days before steam power, was later extended to Cincinnati and Louisville.

At Louisville, the Ohio is blocked by a series of cascades, known as the Falls of the Ohio. Trips typically either ended there or resumed on the other side in a different boat. Today Kentucky’s largest city, Louisville became important because anyone who wanted to continue south on the river had to stop at Louisville and travel overland to Portland, on the other side of the Falls. Although foolhardy captains occasionally tried to shoot the rapids, they rarely succeeded, and generally everything had to be unloaded and transported overland. 

That became a business in its own right. It was thirsty work, a fact exploited by early distillers like Evan Williams. Other local distillers pursued that business too but Williams had the inside track. Louisville was Kentucky's second official port and Williams was its first wharf master. 

As a land speculator, miller, distiller, shipper and iron maker, Jacob Myers was like another better-known early Kentucky entrepreneur, Elijah Craig, who did many of the same things in Scott County. Like Myers when he jumped claim on his surveying crew, frontier entrepreneurs took their opportunities where they found them. They weren’t trying to establish historic “firsts,” they were just trying to make a living for themselves and their families. It took equal parts daring, effort and luck, but many, like Jacob Myers, succeeded spectacularly.

His Beam relations didn’t do too badly either.


Chris Middleton said...

Jacob Myers Bourbon Furnace has a fascinating whiskey addendum.

As your diligent research for the Beam article reported, Jacob Myers started constructing the Slate Forge in March 1791 on the Slate Creek, the first blast furnace west of the Appalachians. Quite a remarkable technical and logistical achievement in its own right for someone with limited literary skills. He discovered a surface ore deposit (oolitic hematite) a couple of miles south of where he erected the charcoal blast furnace. On May 24th, he sold seven-eighths of his interest (£1,426, 8 shillings and 6 pence, or in today’s value £22,160 or $30,450) to John Cockney Owings & Company, a joint-stock company in Baltimore. The blast furnace started processing ore in 1792, using slave labor and vulnerable to First Nation attacks to reclaim their ancestral lands. As you highlighted, the furnace later made ordnance for the 1812 War; however, it first made pig iron for Kentucky blacksmiths. Owings expanded his inventory items under the employment of Robert Williams, potter (moulder of cast iron vessels) from June 1793 to manufacture cast iron pots, kettles, stoves, axe heads, horseshoes, plough blades, etc.

By 1797, Owings was selling fifty-gallon kettles to distillers as a cucurbit, where a wooden capital or still head was mounted over the kettle to distil ‘whiskey’ or crude corn spirit. Even assuming the distillers had a copper doubler still and worm, the resulting distillate would have been quite unpalatable. Iron is hostile to whiskey. One imagines it was a very short-lived product extension.

Only occasionally do frontier records report the ill-informed use of cast iron due to lack or the higher cost of copper for distilling. Even the famous Aeneas Coffey initially used cast iron frames on his 1830 continuous copper analyser and rectifying column stills in Britain. The noxious plumbago effect had him immediately abandon iron exposure to the low and high wines contact. Another such case was the Australian bushranger, Ned Kelly. Hiding from police, a gang member had his blacksmith brother who made a set of iron stills to distil, then illicitly planned to sell whiskey in his hide-out gully. Fortunately, before harvesting their small barley crop, the police found the bolthole. An ambush resulted in the murder of one of the troopers and Kelly's eventual arrest, and Kelly’s hanging. Otherwise, the gang would have also been charged with endangering and offending the public taste.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Thanks, Chris. I'm lucky to have such smart friends.