An Authentic Piece Of Louisville History

An Authentic Piece Of Louisville History

The buildings that today form the block known as “Whiskey Row” bear witness to the significance of whiskey production in the history of Louisville s. Distillers began manufacturing the tea-colored spirit at the falls of the Ohio River around 1780, about the same time several petitioners secured a charter for the town of Louisville. Production grew slowly during the early nineteenth century but exploded after the Civil War, when railroad connections, increased commercial activity, and westward settlement made Louisville an industrial center. By the late 1880s, Louisville merchants shipped nearly 120,000 barrels of whiskey annually.

During the late nineteenth century, whiskey ranked as Louisville’s second largest industry, right behind tobacco. Not only did distillers produce significant quantities of the beverage in Louisville, but wholesalers bought and sold whiskey made in other Kentucky towns such as Owensboro, Frankfort, and Bardstown. At warehouses throughout the city, wholesalers blended whiskey to suit client tastes and shipped it via steamboat or rail. In 1905, buildings in the 100 block of West Main housed at least nineteen wholesalers, distillers, and other whiskey-related businesses.

All of the structures that today stand in the 100 block of West Main Street developed amid earlier commercial buildings.  Proximity to the river made West Main a desirable location for merchants and warehouses.  As the whiskey industry boomed, distillers and wholesalers became concentrated on West Main between First and Ninth streets.  In the late 1860s, the Hamilton Brothers firm built the group of Renaissance Revival warehouses at 125-127 West Main.  In 1877, the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, an anchor of the city’s booming economy, built a new headquarters building at the western edge of the block.  Designed by architect Henry Whitestone, the handsome Neoclassical structure features a prominent cornice a granite façade with quoins and carved window hoods.  A decade later, Louisville businessman Thomas Fosdick erected a four-story warehouse with an ornate cast-iron façade at 105 West Main.  Initially occupied by W. H. Thomas and Son, it became the home of J. T. S. Brown and Sons, one of the city’s largest wholesalers and distillers, in 1895.  In 1905, the Brown and Son’s firm built a new building immediately adjacent at 107-109 West Main to serve as its headquarters. 

In 1920, Prohibition crippled the whiskey business. Nearly thirty distilleries closed and an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 men found themselves out of work. A handful of firms received licenses to produce medicinal whiskey, but most quickly closed. The 100 block of West Main soon became home to other enterprises, including wholesale grocers and dry goods merchants. After repeal, whiskey distributors returned to the area. The W. W. Dant Distillery Company and Kunz’s, Inc., a wholesaler, occupied the building at 105 West Main for most of the 1930s, for example.

What does this mean for the bowtie you have purchased? It means you own a piece of history—a handcrafted item made of historic building materials whose mere survival reflects not one, not two, but several eleventh-hour escapes from seemingly certain doom. Few buildings last more than two or three generations. Even in the nineteenth century, when architects and corporate clients built to last, shifting priorities and economic upheavals eventually consigned most buildings to the wrecking ball. The simple fact that the 100 block of West Main survived to see the early 2000s is remarkable. In the aftermath of the July 2015 fire, the timber used to make your bowtie came close to going to the landfill. You now own a unique and authentic piece of Louisville history—and an enduring example of what bourbon whiskey means to Kentucky. We appreciate your business, applaud your good taste, and recommend you wear your tie with pride.

Chelsea Hackbarth
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