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Dusty Bottles and "The Wettest Spot in America" (Part 1)

The Los Angeles Times called it the wettest city in America in 1919. It's founder left a lasting legacy and an amazing collection of whiskey.

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Show Notes

One morning, I opened my email and read about one of the most fascinating finds any whiskey fan could hope for. A paralegal from Los Angeles who is also a fan of the show, had a client who recently passed away, and within their house was a store of whiskey filled with the most fascinating history imaginable.

Not only from the dusty bottles themselves, but also the story of how they got there - a magical gift from the man who created what the Los Angeles Times called in 1919, "the wettest spot in America."

It's a story so big, it will spread over 2 episodes.

Thanks to Corina Flores of Parker Milliken Law Firm in Los Angeles and the Estate of J.B. Leonis for the assistance with this episode.

Transcript

It was the summer of 1889, in the area known as Calabasas, just west of modern day Los Angeles and Miguel Leonis was contemplating the future of the massive empire he had established in the western San Fernando Valley. 

Born in the Basque region of France, aloft in the Pyrenees Mountain town of Cambo-les-Bains, Miguel was born into a Basque community that was quickly losing control of its territorial rights. Caught between two powerful countries, this self-ruling society had existed since Roman times. But during the Napoleonic Wars, Basque control began to slip away, and then a dispute over the monarchy in Spain led the Basques onto the losing side of the first Carlist Civil War and soon their autonomy would fade into history.

In this chaotic time, Miguel found a talent for smuggling and the discovery of this talent by the authorities may very well be the reason that Miguel made the life changing decision to leave his native France, board a ship, and head for a new life in gold rich California.

Now 35 years later, at the age of 65, the King of Calabasas as he was known, was in need of an heir. 

His common law wife, Espiritu had bore a daughter named Marcellina, and Miguel had doted on her and provided her with the best education money could buy. But at age 20, she was taken by the smallpox, devastating Miguel, who it has been said to have gone on a drinking binge that almost resulted in him hanging himself in despair. 

So with no other way to turn, he started thinking about his family back in France in Basque country. He sent several letters back to the old country, hoping to find someone willing to learn about life in this rugged and wild new country, and then succeed him as the head of the empire upon his death.

One of those letters found its way back to Miguel's home town in Cambo, France, where his brother's son Jean Baptiste seemed like a potential fit. But at age 17, his young nephew Jean was busy preparing for a life as a member of the clergy. The idea of giving up a life of the priesthood to strike out in the untamed world of gold rush California, with the goal of being heir to an empire - well this seemed like a complete 180 from the life God had planned for him.

Yet Jean couldn’t get the prospect of this new life out of his head. But to do this, he would have to abandon the priesthood and this would take getting permission not only from the monsignor but also from his parents.

And who was this Miguel Leonis anyway? Jean Baptiste had only seen him once in his life, during Miguel’s only return to the old country years after establishing his new home. But Jean was a small child at the time and only had vague recollections of the imposing 6’4” green eyed El Grande Basque as the first of his American friends would call him. Was he a good man? And how big was this empire he would be working to inherit?

The King of Calabasas 

The first weeks of Marcel “Miguel” Leonis’ adventure to the new world were almost his last. Boarding a ship in 1854, the way to California from France meant a journey through the most treacherous waters on Earth, the area south of Cape Horn in South America, where two oceans collide. 

And with the waterway’s reputation on full display, Miguel’s ship couldn’t escape the violent and intense storms that threw wave after wave of rippling seas over the decks. There was a moment when all on board thought they might hand their very lives to the angry seas. 

And as the boat found calmer waters up the western coast, Miguel was amazed at how many of his countrymen took to the first ports they could find, abandoning their dreams of reaching California. But Miguel was determined and in a couple weeks, he would catch his first glimpse of the place he was about to call home. He boarded a smaller craft and ored to the safety of Timms Wharf, at modern day Long Beach. 

The landscape had to be a bit of a shock. Palm trees, sand, and distant desert-like brown and dusty green mountains - very different from the lush green, rocky, and snow covered peaks of the Pyrenees.

But it wasn’t just the landscape that was different. Arriving in the dusty western town of Los Angeles, any hint of law and order was nowhere to be found. Gunfights, prostitution, and at least a murder a day, well that was the norm. It wasn’t unusual to see someone hanging by a rope in the middle of town, paying for their misdeeds through vigilante justice.

The Los Angeles of that day was nothing like what we think of today. It was the wild west town through and through and it also was a town that had heavy influences of French and Spanish. And Miguel felt right at home as he got to know many in the French community. In fact, Miguel never learned English and had no interest or need, he survived on his native Basque language as well as some French.

His first job in America was as a sheepherder, working for Joaquin Romero, a man who owned part of an estate called Rancho El Escorpion. Not long after, he met the widow Espiritu Chijulla and took her as a common law wife. Through this union he inherited the cattle, horse, sheep, and estate formerly owned by her deceased husband. And from there, Miguel began ruthlessly sowing the seeds of his empire.

Miguel had learned that owning land in this new country would give him control and soon he acquired so much land,his land grant spread from San Fernando's Old Mission to Encino and north of Malibu. And as new settlers tried to move onto his land, he would sometimes engage his 100 man army of Indians and Mexicans, using fear and intimidation to run off squatters, and one time in 1875 things escalated in a small war in what is today Hidden Hills, CA that resulted in the death of the squatter’s leader and the land ending up in Don Miguel’s possession. But Miguel’s favorite way to hold onto or acquire land, depending on who you ask, was through the courts, by way of whiskey and gold pieces provided to jurists and judges.

This is the world, a young Jean Baptiste was about to enter - definitely a far cry from the priesthood. And his uncle couldn’t have been more different in his approach to life. Yet the two men would share a couple of things in common, a desire to succeed and the brains and willpower to get things done.

Jean Baptiste’s New Life

When Miguel received young Jean's acceptance of his offer to apprentice, he quickly made plans to fund the young man’s trip to America.

Luckily, advances in transportation helped Jean Baptiste's trip to the west coast go a lot smoother than his uncle's some 35 years before. His first hurdle was getting approval, but the monsignor implored him not to miss this opportunity. After having received his parent's blessing, his last step would be to secure a letter from the Mayor of Cambo, letting those who Jean Baptiste met on the way to America know the reason for his passage to Los Angeles. A copy of that letter shows that it was signed on July 14, 1889, the hundredth anniversary of Bastille Day. At 17 years of age, young Jean was about to be set free to join a life he never could have imagined in his wildest dreams.

Setting sail on the La Bretagne as a second class passenger on August 5th, like his uncle before him, Jean was heading to America not knowing a word of English. But neither man could be called illiterate. In his preparation for the priesthood Jean had learned Latin, Spanish as well as his native French and Basque.

Arriving in New York, the also tall Jean Baptiste was a quiet but friendly sort. Not one to seek the limelight, he befriended just the right people to help him get from Ellis Island to a train bound for Chicago. Once on board, he leaned on the kindness of a conductor to figure out when he needed to get on and off the train to eat meals. From Chicago, he took the Santa Fe line to New Mexico, before boarding the newly constructed Santa Fe to Los Angeles connection.

The Uncle He Barely Knew

Upon arriving at the LA train station, it didn't take Jean long to recognize the tallest man in the crowd, all dressed in black, as his uncle, Miguel. After a friendly greeting in their native tongue, Miguel felt his first duty to the new arrival was to get him prepared for his new, rough and tumble neighborhood. They stopped in a store and Miguel purchased a .44 caliber pistol for his young traveler, telling Jean, always be ready to shoot someone if they get the drop on you. He also purchased some rope, in case he had to apply quick justice to someone who did him wrong. It must have been quite a shock for the young Frenchman.

The very next morning, on a journey into town for supplies, Jean was suddenly startled when Miguel whipped around, pulled his pistol and fired towards the rooftops. Suddenly the frame of a man and his shotgun fell forward and crashed two stories to the ground. Astonished, Jean asked his uncle how he knew the man was there aiming at him. He told him that he’d caught a glimpse of the man’s image in the general store window as they were passing by.

It would likely have been been hard enough for a man once destined for the cloth to be living in a world where you might take a life in an instant, but things became even more confusing for the young man when, a few weeks after arriving, he received word at his uncle’s ranch that Miguel had been thrown from his wagon out celebrating one of his big court victories and apparently Miguel had tried to save himself when he lost his balance and slipped underneath - the heavy wheel crushing his ribs and neck. Lying overnight in what must have been incredible pain, he finally lost the fight with his injuries and passed away at 6 AM as the morning sun peered through the window. Suddenly, the young Jean Baptiste would have to grow up in a hurry and face a battle he hadn’t anticipated. 

Starting New

Americanizing his name Jean going forward would be known as JB Leonis. JB would find out the hard way that inheriting Miguel’s land and money might not be in the cards after all. Not only was JB too young to acquire the inheritance, Miguel hadn’t changed his will and at the point of his death, his siblings were to inherit everything. 

Needing help, he summoned his parents in France and they made the long journey to claim their own piece of the inheritance as well as whatever they could for JB. But in the end, JB would be excluded as would Miguel’s common law wife, who decided to engage the services of a lawyer to fight for what she could. But since there was no legal record of the marriage beyond mentions during Miguel's many court battles, she was left with only $5000 of the $300,000 fortune. The real winners were the attorneys, who dragged the proceedings out and took home 2/3rds of the fortune. For JB, he was no longer the apprentice awaiting an empire - he was an immigrant looking for a job.

The long lawsuit wasn’t a total loss for JB. Attending the trial day after day, he learned three things that would sustain him into the future. He learned to speak English, he learned how the American legal system worked, and he inherited many of Miguel's powerful contacts. And his life would change another way, as the daughter of his first employer would soon become pregnant and JB would marry Adalina and soon their son Johnny would be born.

Remembering how his uncle had established his own empire, JB soon started looking out for opportunities to acquire some land for himself. And just south of Los Angeles, he found an untapped area called Vernondale, filled with hog farms and countryside. JB decided to invest in a plot of land there at 26th St. and Downy Road. Downy Road was a strategic location, because both it and the railroad were the two main ways to reach San Pedro and the port. When he arrived he had nothing but a horse, wagon, a family to feed, and $50 to his name. 

But as JB made money, he saved it, long enough until he could build a house and open Vernon’s first general store, the Santa Fe Avenue Mercantile. His well chosen location provided tourists and other merchants a place to stock up on supplies, tools, and whiskey. And because the Los Angeles area had a heavy influence of teetotalers, JB's store was one of the easiest places to get your whiskey, even on Sundays. 

JB was a natural businessman and he made many influential friends. And he leveraged those relationships as soon as he gained his US Citizenship and ability to vote and he decided to dive into local politics, becoming a member of the Republican party. And through debts to his store, he would always offer to accept land in Vernon as trade for outstanding debts and soon, like his uncle, but on a much smaller scale, he began to become land rich.

The Wettest City In America

It was around this time that JB would make the acquaintance of two Irishmen named Tom and JJ Furlong, and soon the trio started talking about incorporating Vernon as a city. But not just any kind of city, they wanted to create an Industrial complex, the first of its kind in California. They would work to draw in industry from back East and help Los Angeles, a place known for its orange groves and agriculture, a reputation as a commercial center. With JB's connections, he was able to leap frog other local towns like Huntington Park in getting incorporated. But drawing industry to this new town would be harder and would take much longer than JB and the Furlong's could have imagined. Incorporated in 1905, the first rush of industry to the area would be over 10 years away...and that would mostly be due to the opening of the Panama Canal, which would shorten the distance for boats between the East and West Coasts.

An interesting side note, just as Miguel had learned to use the courts to enforce his land rights, back east, Thomas Edison was using the courts in a way that would would also benefit the Los Angeles area in the early part of the 20th Century, although that was not his intention. Having filed a patent on the Kinetoscope, an early form of movie camera, Edison used the New Jersey courts and a trust called the Motion Picture Patent Company that he used so he could hold a monopoly over the film industry's production, distribution, and exhibition of films. When filmmakers became fed up with the patent collector Edison, they decided to move as far away from him as humanly possible but still in the United States, a place that would be hospitible to filming and one that would have courts that would work against the Eastern monopoly of Edison. And thus, Hollywood became the center of the film industry in the United States.

So how would this city make revenue to pay for roads and provide salaries for government employees while it waited for its meal tickets to arrive? Liquor licenses of course.  While Los Angeles was filled with teetotallers, there was a real opportunity to utilize the area as an oasis from the drys who dominated the region. But there would be a few rules to help keep things under control. Liquor stores could not be within 500 ft of any public school, no gambling would be tolerated around establishments with liquor licenses, serving women or minors alcohol would bring a $100 fine, it couldn't be served in restaurants, and there would only be a total of three liquor licenses for the entire area.

There was a license for Jack Doyle's Thirst Emporium, which was also known as Jack Doyle's Mile Long Bar or saloon.

There was the Vernon Country Club, opened in 1912, it wasn't really a country club as you would imagine, as there was no golf course. But instead it was a high class nightclub and restaurant, likely the first of its kind in the Los Angeles area. It was only called a country club because it was located in a big field, much like most of the area which was filled with hog farms and fields owned by JB. Because it would serve as a restaurant, liquor rules were eased. It's not clear if women were then allowed to imbibe, but pre-Prohibition, this was still seen as something that was unlady like.

And the third liquor license of course would go to JB's own Santa Fe Avenue Mercantile, where JB would bring in case after case of liquor likely to supply all three establishments.

The 19-teens became a heyday for the town of Vernon. With the city of Los Angeles exploding in population, from 300,000 in 1910 to well over a million in 1920, and blue laws placed within Los Angeles in 1910 prohibiting dancing and drinking, Vernon became a getaway from the stuffy rules of LA.

Jack Doyle's Bar was one of the main attractions, featuring 37 bartenders and 37 tills, with very liberal opening hours. And adjacent to the bar was a baseball field, where the semi-professional Vernon Tigers played baseball, even on Sundays, which was prohibited in most areas. In fact, it wasn't unusual for someone to stay all night partying at Jack Doyles, only to stumble over to the ballpark for a game at 10 AM on Sunday morning.

One of the town fathers JJ Furlong was quoted in the LA Times noting that Vernon voted for a wet Sunday, but had no churches..."but give us time."

Or for a high class evening of dancing and drinking, LA residents would make their way to the Baron Long's Vernon Country Club, where you might see the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith, Gloria Swanson, or you might have your drinks served by a yet undiscovered Rudolph Valentino. That is of course, if you got there before he was let go for reasons of a dubious nature. The boss said he was stealing, but Valentino had a different story. 

The famous director Cecil B DeMille also frequented the club, where you could see some of the greats of the day, including Sophie Tucker, the last of the Red Hot Mamas and several jazz musicians. Tom Mix actually once drove his car into the club and told the adoring crowd he was buying drinks for everyone in the place.

One of the era's favorite entertainers Fatty Arbuckle was a regular at the club and also went on to own the Vernon Tigers for a time. It was said that he invented the steak sandwich while there and Baron Long added it as a regular item on the menu. It would be 20 years before the concept reached Philadelphia.

As for JBs dreams of building an industrial empire, this would start by mid-decade when the American Can Company built a large factory right next to the Country Club. With World War I raging in Europe, the factory would have plenty of work both making cans and shells for the military. Of course, when the LA Times reported any new factory in Vernon, somehow Los Angeles would be given credit.

As business moved in, JB was persuaded to open a bank and it was here that he reached the next level of his success with First Citizens Bank of Vernon. Some 18 years after the death of his uncle Miguel, JB was enjoying much of the same success, without the wild west dangers.

But as busy as he was, his doctor's feared he might be overdoing things and they suggested by buy property away from Vernon as a get away. This sent him up into the canyons north of Los Angeles to a piece of property he procured from two widows. He started out by homesteading, building cabins and placing tents around the property. It became a working ranch and by 1933 they would build a house that still resides on the property. JB's son Johnny would soon take over at the bank to lighten the load.

Meanwhile, as the tight grip of Prohibition began to put a stranglehold on the country, Los Angeles passed the Gandier Ordinance which closed all saloons in Los Angeles and only allowed beer and wine in restaurants and only when served with food. This pushed all of Los Angeles' drinking culture to either Vernon or Venice, the only remaining wet areas in the region. It got so busy, Jack Doyles boasted 3000 customers a night, pulling in $10,000 a week. The city of Los Angeles became so frustrated, they actually petitioned the federal government to shut down Vernon's licensed drinking establishments as a wartime mandate, but the closest military base was over 20 miles away.

Meanwhile, JB began storing up large amounts of bonded whiskey and brandy.

They held out as long as they could, but on July 1st, 1919 wartime prohibition finally shut down the legal flow of whiskey, wine, and beer in Vernon. The dry Los Angeles Times proudly proclaimed the last days of Jack Doyle's biggest saloon in the world and proclaimed "the wettest spot in America had quickly come to a close."

But had it? After an explosion of business that last week of June, the legal booze was gone, but that didn't stop a few Vernon Country Club waiters from selling pint bottles to customers for $16 a pop. But when word got out that the feds were eyeing the place, the owner closed the country club for good.

As for JB, in 1919 he joined the LA Chamber of Commerce and this led him to taking trips to Hawaii, Cuba and beyond, all with the goal of bringing business back to LA. He also kept tabs on the Holllywood crowd and would later supply whiskey to the Biltmore Hotel and it's Biltmore Bowl ballroom where the Oscars were held.

The City of Vernon still exists and at times it had to fight off losing its incorporation status because its population had dipped to near 500 people. It really stuck as an industrial city and so its main residents were members of the health department, fire department, and police force. Several times Vernon also had to fight off advances from the City of Los Angeles, who deperately wanted all of that tax revenue...now coming from large corporations, rather than liquor licenses.

The Discovery

It was just before Thanksgiving last year when I received an email in my inbox from a paralegal at a Los Angeles Law Firm. It was titled "Hermitage Whiskey / Pre-Prohibition Whiskey and Carboys." Corina Flores started the letter by saying how she was happy to have found my podcast, but maybe a bit late.

She mentioned that in 2017, a longtime client of mine passed away and we discovered over 40 cases of Hermitage Whiskey, and about 60 bottles of various Whiskey brands of Old Crow, Hermitage, Old Taylor, Brookhill(J.H. Beam), Guckenheimer, Bushmills, Canadian Club, and other odds and ends that were hidden away in a vault prohibition room of the decedent’s two homes previously built by his grandfather J.B. Leonis, and founder of the City of Vernon." Her firm actually started in 1913 and J.B. was one of their first clients. She said she was sad she hadn't heard my show before a large portion of the collection was sold at a Christies auction.

But she went on to mention that her main reason for reaching out was that she had quite a few "carboys" of whiskey - basically 5 gallon jugs that were not labeled, but just tagged with words like Very Old Whiskey, and Very Good Old Whiskey 130... These bottles were a real mystery to her and she wanted to call and see if I could help her get a handle on what they had. The firm had sent out for chemical analysis on the whiskey to see if it was salvageable, or if was even what it said it was, but she had no idea how to read the reports and wanted to see if I had any suggestions. She also offered to share some whiskey for my help. I looked through the photos she had sent and my jaw hit the floor. What an incredible find. For a guy who always hoped he'd find an old baseball card hidden in the attic, I couldn't imagine what a find like this might have made me feel like.

After a great conversation, I started thinking about who I knew that could read a chemical analysis. Unfortunately, this isn't something I ever thought I'd need. But having talked with Gregg Glass and Richard Paterson in Glasgow about the chemical analysis they did on Shackleton's whisky, I thought sending them a message, they might be intrigued and want a shot at testing these 100 year old containers of spirits.

Oddly enough, a couple days later, I had an event where I was doing a scotch whisky tastings for a friend and his guests. After a wonderful 3 hours of conversation and going through tasting notes, I mentioned off the cuff about this call I received from Los Angeles. We happened to be sampling Shackleton's whisky as one of the 5 I brought and I mentioned that I hadn't heard back from them yet and wasn't sure if I could find a biochemist anywhere else. And that is when one of the guests Crista spoke up and said, well, that is what I do for a living!  What are the odds?

I started to think this whole endeavour was inspired. When I talked to Corina again, I told her I had found someone to do the analysis and that I'd love to not only do a podcast around the story, but that I felt compelled to come out to Los Angeles to get the story. And since mailing whiskey without a license is a problem, I knew we couldn’t chance it. So instead, I told her I would drive the 3000 miles to Los Angeles as soon as the Covid epidemic subsided. Who could pass up such a great opportunity to learn about and taste some history.

With only 2 weeks to complete a 6000 mile round trip, I wasted no time heading west and left South Carolina early in the morning to get ahead of Atlanta traffic and then made my way up to Memphis and along I-40 stopping to take photos at the Cadillac Ranch outside of Amarillo, Texas, I visited Las Vegas New Mexico, where Billy the Kid went on trial, over to London Bridge, the Bridge that once spanned the Thames in England and now spans the Colorado River in Arizona, on to Broken Barrel for my interview with Seth Benhaim and then off to stay with and see an old friend from my radio days south of Los Angeles.

The next day I was up and eager to meet up with Corina at a cafe just below where the former getaway residence and ranch of J.B. Leonis. I followed her up to the estate and there I met one of JB's descendants Linda as well as her husband and son. They were busy working on the ranch where they still are raising chickens all these years later.

We stood in the downstairs room of the house JB had built in 1933. All of this was becoming very real. I started asking her questions about JB and the ranch, but I also wanted to get a handle on how they discovered all of this whiskey and why it remained untouched for so many years.

Next week on the season finale of Whiskey Lore, I chat with Linda and Corina and have a chance to see and photograph some of the remaining whiskies and artifacts sitting in the vault. I also got a heck of a surprise when we started going through all of Crista’s analysis of the whiskey in those carboys, a chance to taste history. And later in the episode, my journey home takes quite a detour, as I stumble upon the perfect way to end a most memorable journey into the world of dusty bottles, Los Angeles history, and pre-prohibition whiskey. That’s next week on Whiskey Lore.

Whiskey Lore is a production of Travel Fuels Life, LLC

Research, stories and production by Drew Hannush

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And until next time, have a great week - cheers and slainte mhath.

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