History of Campbell County, Tennessee

Time Line


By Dallas Bogan

Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan. 
This article is intended for historical purposes only. I feel it is directly connected to early Tennessee culture.

     In modern times, distilling is more closely associated with Kentucky than Tennessee. Yet the two remaining producers of Tennessee sour mash whiskey, Jack Daniel and George Dickel, represent a much larger industry that was from earliest settlement an important contributor to the state's economic development. A study of the rise, fall, and re-emergence of Tennessee distilleries will demonstrate this industry's substantial and complex role in Tennessee's economic and political history.

     The process of converting corn and small grains such as rye and barley into whiskey was well known to the predominantly Scots, Scotch-Irish, and Irish immigrants who poured into the Tennessee country from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North and South Carolina. Evan Shelby's East Tennessee distillery, located at Sapling Grove near Shelby's Station on the Holston, was in existence by 1771 and perhaps the earliest on record in the state. By 1785 East Tennesseans were producing significant quantities of rye whiskey which they used to pay taxes at only two shillings, six pence per gallon.

     Middle Tennessee was close behind. In 1787 the Red Heifer, a combined distillery and tavern, was established in Nashville by John "King" Boyd. In October of 1792, Indians burned Frederick Stump's distillery, but by 1795-96 he was producing 600 gallons with four stills, on which he paid taxes of $41.93. By 1799 there were sixty-one stills for less than 4,000 people in Davidson County, according to records kept by John Overton, who was then serving as Supervisor of Internal Revenue for the District of Tennessee.

     Both East and Middle Tennessee were well suited for the production of whiskey, having good soil for growing corn, an abundance of firewood, white oak for the manufacture of barrels, and a good network of rivers upon which to ship the whiskey to marketing centers like Knoxville, Chattanooga, Nashville, Memphis, and beyond. Many Tennesseans shipped their whiskey by flatboat to Natchez where it brought $2 a gallon, twice the going price in Nashville. On the farm the mash was fed to hogs and cattle which, in the form of salted meat and hides, were also suitable for export.

     Always the demand exceeded the supply. As one old-timer said in more recent years, "They never did charge enough for it." To the frontiersman, whiskey was more than a drink; it was an anesthetic, disinfectant, and either a stimulant or a tranquilizer, depending on the situation and the individual. Andrew Jackson even advised his old friend John Coffee, who was suffering from arthritis, to bathe himself in whiskey.

     During the Revolution and after, soldiers were partially paid in whiskey and expected their half pint daily. Most of it was consumed straight or mixed with sugar and water as a today. Although whiskey consumption was high, Harriette Simpson Arnow concludes in Flowering of the Cumberland that drunkenness was frowned on and relatively uncommon on the Tennessee frontier.

     As the frontier gave way to settlement, whiskey consumption increased, not only in Tennessee, but also throughout the nation. By 1810, 14,191 registered distilleries were producing 25.5 million gallons of whiskey, a five-fold increase over statistics for 1792. Registration fees for the distilleries were high enough to discourage small private producers; increasingly what had begun as a home industry became a more large-scale industry, with some farm producers in some counties making the transition.

     As production increased, so did consumption and drunkenness. Congregationalists and Quakers in New England and Pennsylvania were the first to oppose the use of whiskey altogether. Fledgling temperance and prohibition movements spread south and west, to be carried over the mountains to the earliest settlements by Methodist circuit riders like Bishop Francis Asbury, who first visited Tennessee in 1788.

     In 1829 the first temperance societies were established in Tennessee, with support increasing in the 1830s and 40s. In 1848 the legislature chartered the Sons and Daughters of Temperance, the strongest temperance group in the state. The movement scarcely had gotten started when the threat of war diverted attention from it, but the groundwork had been laid.
In the interim, Tennesseans were not only consuming more alcohol but they were becoming major producers as well. In 1820 the Fourth Census showed that New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Tennessee had more capital invested and employed more men in the production of spirits than any other states in the Union. The industry continued to grow right up until the Civil War, gradually becoming concentrated in certain areas. One of these was Robertson County, extending north of Davidson County to the Kentucky line.

     During the war, occupying Union forces banned the distillation of whiskey because corn and other grains were needed to feed both humans and livestock. .

     In 1886 the Nashville Union reported that the distilling industry was the largest manufacturing industry in the state of Tennessee, annually consuming 750,000 bushels of corn and 500,000 bushels of apples and peaches. By the late 1880s, however, the industry had begun to decline. Smaller and less successful distillers had gone into other businesses, faced with intense competition from the larger distillers on the one hand, and mounting pressure from church and temperance groups on the other. The Women's Christian Temperance Union had organized in the state in 1874 and would be joined by the Anti-Saloon League in 1899.

     In 1903, the Adams Law, which extended the Four Mile Law first passed in 1877 to towns of 5,000, closed the saloons of Springfield. In 1909, with the state-wide prohibition on the manufacture of whiskey, the two remaining Robertson County distilleries, Nelson's Greenbrier and Pitt's Cave Spring, and all others in Tennessee went out of business, although some tried to conduct sales through retail and manufacturing activities in other states.

     The re-emergence of Tennessee distilleries after prohibition is in both cases one of modern business involving politics, advertising, and acquisition by larger companies from outside the state. The quality of the product was upheld: both distilleries utilize the leaching process through maple charcoal which is the most distinctive characteristic of Tennessee sour mash whiskey.

     (The preceding article was taken from Border States: Journal of the Kentucky-Tennessee American Studies Association, entitled, "TENNESSEE DISTILLERIES: THEIR RISE, FALL, AND RE-EMERGENCE," written by Kay Baker Gaston.)

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