Saturday, April 22, 2023

The Owsleys of Kentucky


Augustus Owsley Stanley III (1935-2011)

For a teenager in the late 1960s, the name "Owsley" meant just one thing. It was synonymous with the drug LSD, which Owsley Stanley manufactured in his clandestine California lab. Owsley Stanley was also famous as audio engineer for The Grateful Dead. He was as important in that field as he was as an underground chemist. The Dead had the most advanced sound system of any touring band and, no doubt, the best acid.

The name "Owsley" also sticks out to me because it shows up frequently in the history of Brown-Forman, America's top whiskey company. During one of Brown-Forman's periodic image re-dos, one internal wag suggested as their new company slogan, "We're the only company with two Owsleys." 

Augustus Owsley Stanley (1867-1958)

Although he had no direct connection to the Brown-Forman Owsleys, the Dead’s Owsley Stanley, also known as ‘Bear,’ was a Kentucky Owsley and got his name the same way they did. His full name was Augustus Owsley Stanley III. He was named for his grandfather (1867-1958), who was Governor of Kentucky (1915-1919) and then represented Kentucky in the United States Senate (1919-1925). 

When a prominent surname appears as a first or middle name, it usually is because your mother’s family is too important not to claim. Such was the case with both sets of Kentucky Owsleys. The link between them was the 16th Governor of Kentucky, William Owsley. 

William Owsley (1783-1862)

Born in Virginia, William Owsley’s parents brought him to Kentucky as an infant in 1783. He was well-educated and worked as a teacher, surveyor, and deputy sheriff before studying law. He was elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1809 and later became a judge on the Court of Appeals. Elected to the Kentucky Senate in 1832, he left that job to become Kentucky Secretary of State. He served four years as governor beginning in 1844, after which he retired to his farm near Danville, age 66. He lived there happily for another 14 years.

Governor Owsley had an older brother, Nudigate (sometimes spelled ‘Nudeget’), who also came to Kentucky. The name Nudigate was itself a surname converted into a given name. Nudigate Owsley had a daughter named Amanda, making her the governor’s niece. Amanda and her husband, Reverend William Stanley, named their first-born Augustus but gave him his mother's prestigious surname as a middle name. He became the governor after whom the famous chemist/audio tech was named. 

As for the Brown-Forman connection, Governor William Owsley had a son, Erasmus, who had a daughter, Amelia. In 1869, the governor’s granddaughter was a 21-year-old widow with a baby daughter. George Garvin Brown, 23 and unmarried, snapped her up. George went on to found and lead Brown-Forman. A son was born to George and Amelia, and they named him Owsley after his notable great-grandfather. He joined the company in 1904 and became president when his father died in 1917, just three years before the whiskey-making business was shut down due to Prohibition. Owsley obtained a medicinal whiskey license and kept the business going that way. 

Owsley Brown (1879-1952)

Owsley married Laura Lee Lyons and they had three children, two sons and a daughter. Two of them named one of their sons Owsley (Owsley Brown II and Owsley Brown Frazier), hence the “two Owsleys” employed at Brown-Forman in the late 20th century were first cousins. Their company prospered and both Owsleys became billionaires. 

When the original Owsley Brown wanted to restart Brown-Forman after Prohibition, he invited his brothers and sisters to invest before he sought outside money. Only one, his younger brother Robinson Swearingen Brown, responded, creating a cadet branch of the Brown family within the company, one that continues to this day, and is notable for its lack of Owsleys.

1 comment:

Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

As I'm sure many here know the Steely Dan song, Kid Charlemagne, was inspired in part by Owsley Stanley's chemical escapades.

Who knew that two of my favorite things, Steely Dan and Bourbon, would have a connection via the Owsleys of Kentucky?