The original post here contained some errors, partly because of a vast repository of flawed information about John Casper, but mostly because of my failure to do a thorough job of double and triple checking sources. That has now been done. Mea culpa.
The opening of Sutler’s Spirit, the first legal distillery in the city of Winston-Salem, in the newly developed Hoots Mill building on Bridge Street, offers the opportunity for a look back at the history of distilling in our area.
Distilling is an early and distinguished profession in American history. As anyone knows, there is a lot of food energy in fruits, but they don’t last long after harvest, so from the very first, humans have converted them into a more durable, and profitable, product.
The dominant product in Forsyth County in the 19th century before the establishment of the tobacco industry in the 1870s was dried fruits and berries. More of the apples from the trees planted in America by Johnny Appleseed ended up in apple cider and brandy than in Mom’s apple pie.
As soon as the Moravian’s got settled in Wachovia in the mid-18th century, they began growing fruits and converting them into brandy. The Bethabara distillery produced 2,100 gallons of brandy in 1772. And one of the few remaining historic structures in Bethabara is the 1803 Herman Buttner house, home of that village’s distiller.
Herman Buttner house, Bethabara, 1803
Shortly after its beginning in 1766, Salem had both a brewery and a distillery. When President George Washington visited Salem on May 31 / June 1, 1791, he praised the orderliness of the town, the demeanor of the citizens, the waterworks, the local band and, especially, the beer.
President George Washington enjoyed Moravian brandy and beer at the Salem Tavern on the evening of May 31, 1791…oh yeah, and he slept there as well.
The Salem brewery was on Academy Street between the current Old Salem Bypass and Marshall Street
Sometime in the early 19th century a small community grew up on North Liberty Street near where the street crosses the railroad tracks as it exits downtown. Some say that it got its name, Liberty, from the inhabitants perception of freedom from the control of the Moravian Church. We know little about the settlement, except that its only businesses appear to have been saloons and/or brothels. No doubt, a good bit of distilling went on there.
For some years after the founding of Forsyth County in 1849, the new county seat, Winston, was a typical backwoods courthouse town. In his book Winston, 50 years Ago, published in 1925 (we have a copy), Henry Foltz says that during the monthly court sessions, the wooded area around Second, Main and Church streets became a campground and center of revelry, with music, singing and dancing far into the night, no doubt fueled by nearby off the books distilling operations.
Forsyth County courthouse
But the town of Winston, between its founding in the early 1850s and its merger with Salem in 1913, never had a legal distillery. And until now, the modern city of Winston-Salem could say the same. There were a number of well known saloons in the late 1890s into the early 1900s, probably the best know being Holbrook & Winfree’s Criterion in the 400 block of Trade Street, just north of the current CVS drugstore, known for their oyster bar.
But then there is the tale of John Casper, who put the town of Winston on the national booze map.
That story begins with Casper’s grandfather, a farmer in Davie County who preferred his corn in a jug rather than on the cob. When his son, John C. Casper came home from the Civil War, he learned the distilling craft and expanded the family business in Davie and Rowan County. His son, John L. Casper, born shortly after the war, would transform the business through his extraordinary skills as an entrepreneur and salesman.
John L. Casper, c. 1900
Described as “a neatly dressed, slender man with sharp black eyes…the smartest man who ever lived, who wrote a beautiful hand…an advertising genius…”, Casper spent his early years in Winston working as a bookkeeper (1891-92 and 1894-95 city directories) for the W.B. Ellis Company, a tobacco manufacturer located on Depot Street near the R.J. Reynolds plant. But he had a dream, and by the late 1890s, had realized it.
In the latter part of the 19th century, liquor laws were a crazy quilt extending across the nation. If you lived near a sophisticated city, beer, wine and hard stuff were easy to come by. But if you lived in some backwater, where local churches controlled the laws, it was do it yourself or find a source.
John Casper decided to exploit that situation by becoming a mail order distributor of distilled spirits. The deal was simple. You read one of his ads, filled in an order blank, sent in your money and a few weeks later the US postal service delivered your product in an unmarked box. Since federal laws dealt only with taxes on whiskey, everything was perfectly legal.
The Casper Company, built c. 1902, was located at 617 North Main Street in Winston. Here whiskey was received, blended, bottled, labelled and shipped throughout the nation. The King Printing Company, which Casper was a partner in, designed and printed fliers, ads and labels and was located at the far left end.
The “distiller” claim seen on the building was true, because Casper’s relatives were still doing that, just not in Forsyth County. The “rectifier” claim is more accurate, because that is what he was doing. He had contracts with more than 20 distilleries in Davie, Yadkin and Rowan counties to provide him with distilled whiskey, which he “rectified” (i.e. blended) into a number of Casper brands.
His advertising always mentioned that “other” mail order houses watered their whiskey, but that his came from “honest North Carolinians” who would never cheat their customers.
His brands were aimed at a wide variety of audiences, from the low end to the penthouse. And to that effect, he controlled not only the taste but the packaging, provided by area artisans, and advertisements and labeling, designed and produced by his own in-house printing company.
The standard jug container and the etched cobalt upscale bottle are representative of the Casper line. Casper was an early adopter of the Winston-Salem name. Click on the pix for full versions.
Another Casper standard. Casper also produced a lot of giveaway items for good customers, such as the shot glass and ornate backbar decanter seen above and the corkscrew below.
From sometime in the late 1890s until Winston-Salem’s only governor, William Broadnax Glen, ushered in statewide prohibition in 1908*, John Casper was one of the top two mail order distributors of alcoholic beverages in the United States.
What happened after the “dries” shut down North Carolina becomes a bit confusing. Some say that Casper moved his operations to Roanoke, Virginia. Or to somewhere near Jacksonville in Florida. Or maybe it was Fort Smith, Arkansas, the former hangout of the “hanging judge” Roy Bean, “the law west of the Pecos”.
For most of those, we have only statements by individuals who claimed to have worked for or with him. For instance, a “Mr. Tesh” claimed to have worked for Casper in Jacksonville. He said that Casper always told his young employees to remember that “whiskey is made to SELL and not to DRINK.” But he also went on to say that Casper sold his Jacksonville operation to John Smithdeal and moved on to Fort Smith, Arkansas. Maybe, except that John Smithdeal was already an officer in the Casper Company back in Winston in the 1890s.
Another witness claimed that Casper remained in Winston and founded the Basketeria grocery store, which originated on Trade Street in 1918 and eventually moved to its better remembered location across from Hanes Park in the 1940s.
All print or online sources claim that Casper never married. As unlikely as all this may seem, there is at least some truth in all of it except the bit about marriage.
John Casper was born near the Davie/Rowan County border in 1866. In December, 1886, he married Annie Nading, the daughter of a Winston tobacco warehouseman. The young couple moved into a house at 1027 North Liberty Street, near her parents’ home. Sometime in the 1890s, they had two children, identified in the 1900 census as “Jonny” and “Sissy”. I might add that when the census taker asked what John L. Casper did for a living that he answered “Nothing”, which is duly recorded on the census form.
John L. Casper, Jr. would eventually marry and become a sometimes partner in his father’s ventures. “Sissy” would marry John D. Lamb, or Lambe, who would become Casper’s most faithful partner.
There is no doubt that John Casper, Sr. operated a very successful mail order whiskey business from his building on North Main Street. But he soon realized that the “dry” movement in North Carolina was quite serious, so sometime around 1905, he opened a second operation in Roanoke, which boasted a 14 acre “campus”, while the headquarters remained for a time in Winston.
1907 invoice from the Casper Company’s Roanoke operation.
The Florida part of the story is completely undocumented and appears to have arisen late in the game, perhaps after the implementation of national prohibition and may have had some sort of connection with rum running from Cuba. We do know that John and “Sissy” Lamb moved to the Jacksonville area at some point.
The Fort Smith business is a matter of record. In 1911, John Casper and others founded the Uncle Sam Distillery in Forth Smith. Not long afterward, he and his partners were charged by the Internal Revenue Department with multiple counts of evading federal taxes on alcoholic beverages.
On October 15, 1915, John Casper pleaded guilty to all 33 counts against him and was sentenced to 9 years and 3 days confinement at the Leavenworth, Kansas federal penitentiary, along with a fine of $33,000, the equivalent of $763,000 today. Another $100,000 in property, the equivalent of $2.3 million today, was seized by the court.
1914 postcard. One wonders who buys postcards depicting prisons…”Having a great time…wish you were here!”
But Casper was not long for Leavenworth. Three months later he was pardoned and released. At that point, he almost certainly returned to Winston-Salem, where he remained a partner in the King Printing Company and the Winston Distribution Company, still located at the old 617 North Main Street address.
The Basketeria, one of the most famous grocery stores in local history, opened on Trade Street sometime in 1917. The 1918 city directory lists “John Casper” as the proprietor, but I think that that is John Casper, Jr., who also operated the “Little Basketeria” in Ogburn Station. The two are thought to be the first self service grocery stores in this area, beating by 20 years the late 1930s Big Star and A&P self service stores in the downtown area.
By the early 1920s, the Basketeria had been taken over by the aforementioned John Smithdeal, who went on to build a local empire in real estate. John L. Casper, Sr. had not had anywhere near enough of the whiskey business.
With the continental US closed to legal whiskey, Casper, his son John, Jr. and his son-in-law John Lamb, departed for Mexico, where they set about building a distilling business from the ground up. But John, Sr. had been worried about his heart for some time, and on July 29, 1921, he died of a massive heart attack at Villa de Acura in Coahula, Mexico. John Lamb took care of shipping his body home by train, which required a week. John Casper, Sr. was buried in Salem Cemetery in Winston-Salem the first week of August, 1921.
We do not know if the whiskey operation in Mexico continued. We do know that three years later, John Casper, Jr. went to visit his sister and her husband in Florida. On Sunday morning, August 10, 1924, he went for a powerboat ride with his friend E.M. Honeycutt on Miami Bay. When they were out in deep water, the boat caught on fire, pitching them both into the water. Honeycutt was able to swim ashore, but he said that John, Jr. experienced difficulty in swimming, that he had tried to save him, but that the distance to shore was too great.
It took three hours to find and recover John, Jr’s body. He was buried next to his father in Salem Cemetery.
One person later told a local reporter an interesting story about the Caspers, the liquor business and the Basketeria:
“When the Basketeria first opened, my mother, a blue-stockinged Presbyterian, would not trade there because she disapproved of whiskey, and those who sold it. People used to have convictions like that. After Smithdeal bought it out, she patronized the store, not realizing that John Smithdeal had previously been in the liquor business.”
The Uncle Sam case produced an outbreak of hysterical newspaper stories which claimed that Casper and his associates, dating back to his Winston years, had defrauded the government of millions of dollars in taxes. Even though those claims were shown to be incorrect, they were used by the “dries”in their campaign to implement the 18th amendment to the US Constitution (prohibition), which became law on January 17, 1920.
North Carolina became the 34th of 46 states to ratify the amendment, on January 16, 1919. Only two states, Connecticut and Rhode Island, refused to ratify. Rhode Island was founded by Roger Williams, a former Puritan who broke away to help organize the Baptist church in America at Providence Plantation.**
As we now know, the 18th amendment unleashed the forces of organized crime which even today, nearly a century later, are still with us.
* May 26, 1908, NC referendum, 62% yes, 38% no, became the first southern state to enact statewide prohibition of alcoholic beverages.
** Rhode Island was also the last state to ratify the US Constitution, on May 29, 1790, more than six months after North Carolina and almost two years after New York. Rhode Island rejected the Constitution in a popular referendum in 1788 by a vote of 2,708 to 237. The eventual ratification in convention was by a vote of 34-32. North Carolina failed to ratify in August, 1788 when the first convention voted to adjourn, 185-84. Ratification came over a year later by a vote of 194-77. Other state ratification votes were New York 30-27, Virginia 89-79, New Hampshire 57-47, Massachusetts 187-168. Might want to keep those numbers in mind the next time you are tempted to join in a Constitutional debate.