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The story of an immigrant's dream and his family's whiskey legacy.

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Show Notes

Take a journey on the Helena Sloman, a ship en-route from Hamburg, Germany to New York City, carrying the hopes and dreams of John Phillip Nelson, a candle and soap maker who sold everything to give his family a wonderful new life in America.

Join me to hear an immigrant's story and how it lead to the most successful Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey of the 19th Century. I'm joined by John Phillip's 4 times great grandson Andy Nelson, of Nelson's Green Brier Distillery and producer of Belle Meade.

Transcript

The Helena Sloman was a modern marvel. It was only 12 years before the Sloman's maiden voyage that the sidewheel steamer Great Western had become the first steamship in the world to make transatlantic crossings with regularity. And while the paddle system used to propel the Great Western was state of the art for its time, technology had evolved and the Helena Sloman had been outfitted with an ultra modern screw propeller, something that was still new to the world of transatlantic sailing, but that would soon rise to become standard by the 1880s. No longer were you at the mercy of the wind and the waves. Seafaring was evolving and the Helena Sloman was a shining example of her progress.

Built in the port city of Kingston upon Hull in Northeast England, she quickly became the pride of German shipbuilder Robert Sloman who saw his jewel as the future of ocean travel, so much so that he named the ship after his daughter.

During her first two journeys, she hauled over 300 European immigrants, eager to get their start their lives in a land of promise - America. In fact, on her maiden voyage, she had delivered a fifty-three year old Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg along with his wife and seven children to New York from Hamburg, Germany. 14 years after debarking from the ship, he would anglicize his last name and pin it to his thriving piano business - Steinway.

And on this, her third voyage across the Atlantic, the Helena Sloman would hold in her steerage compartment, another future success story - this one would make a name for himself in Tennessee’s burgeoning whiskey industry. And it all started when a 49-year old candle and soap maker from Germany, sold everything, packed up his wife and five children, and bought them tickets on an iron-steamer bound for a land of opportunity and the dream of a better life. 

It was 19 days out of Southampton, and the third voyage of the Helena Sloman was by all accounts a boisterous affair, with wind, rain, and choppy seas setting the passengers on edge, while the crew went about business as usual. Having left her home port of Hamburg, Germany on October 26th, 1850, the steamer had made her way to England under the steady and experienced hands of Captain Paul Nickels Paulson. And it was at Southampton, that the crew of 36 helped prepare 144 passengers for the coming journey, while completing the onboarding of 100 tons of iron, and 150 tons of French and German merchandise destined for New York Harbor.

The rough seas shouldn’t have been a surprise, England and the North Atlantic had already been dealing with unseasonably cold weather as far back as August - and a violent gale in early October had wreaked its own kind of havoc - driving boats ashore and causing wind damage as far away as the Highlands. 

Tuesday, November 19th must have seemed like nothing new to the passengers and crew. Unpleasant weather and choppy seas had tested them for the entire three weeks. But as dinner hour passed, the storms seemed to strengthen. Nighttime drew up under a blanket of clouds and as the ship rocked, dark foreboding skies seemed to tease danger. 

The next four hours were intense as a fearful gale grew up out of the North Northwest. Then at 11 PM a fierce wave crashed with intense violence against the stern and starboard quarter of the ship, sweeping waves of ocean water across the deck, flooding the cabins with water, and causing the ship to quiver from stem to stern. Sleep for the passengers and crew was impossible as the ship creaked and moaned all night with the relentless waves pushing and tilting the vessel from side to side.

By daybreak, the winds had died down, but the seas were still choppy. By 4 PM, Captain Paulson was noticing that the crewman at the helm seemed very uneasy. He asked if something was wrong, but the seaman said all seemed fine. Unsatisfied with the response, he took the wheel and turned it 360 degrees. To his dismay, the ship wasn't responding. Looking over the stern, he saw the rudder had parted from the ship and was tangled and dangling in chains. The massive wave that had struck the ship the night before had apparently done more damage than he expected.

All hands on deck...including the passengers. This rudder weighed at least 4 tons and would take every ounce of energy to rescue. They set the chains on a pully and endeavored to lift the rudder, but its weight was too great. Both chains snapped and rudder sunk quickly beneath the waves to the bottom of the icy Atlantic. Meanwhile, the first Engineer was now reporting that the engine was jerking so violently, he feared the propeller had been compromised as well. Night was falling, so the Captain ordered it shut off until they could inspect it the next morning.

In the morning, when the crew lowered lifeboats to inspect the damage, the news was not good. Not only had they lost the rudder, but apparently it had ripped about 12 feet of the stern and part of the keel from the boat. Keeping the boat stabilized in another storm would be difficult and to make matters worse, she was taking on water.

They immediately began pumping water out of the boat and attempted to seal the cracks. And as if the crew and passengers weren't already on edge, a hurricane-like storm battered and tossed the ship for the next 36 hours. The mizen sail and the fore trisail were ripped and torn away from the ship. With no rudder or propeller, and now even using the old school sails in tatters, things were looking pretty desperate. 

As the storm subsided on Saturday morning, they saw a smaller sail powered ship about

10 miles away. They tried to send distress signals, but to no avail. A couple members of the crew offered to go after the boat in a lifeboat, but night had fallen and the captain said it would be too dark. The men, planning a mutiny, secretly started tossing biscuits and water into the lifeboat, but thought better of the plan. They weren’t far off from the coast of Nova Scotia, surely another ship would soon spot them.

They put up with more storms, including rain, sleet, and snow for the next couple of days, until on the morning of the 28th, some nine days after the disastrous rogue wave had dismantled their ship, another vessel was spotted off the mast-head. Once again the Helena Sloman sent distress signals, this time in both German and English, just to make sure.  Times were getting desperate. The ship was now seeing the water rise about an inch an hour, even with all of their tireless work attempting to pump it out.

To everyone’s delight, the other ship responded. Emissaries were sent immediately by lifeboat to tell the captain of this American packet ship, the desperate situation they were in. 

The Devonshire’s Captain Hovey went to action, calling on his best men to assist in transferring all of the passengers and crew from the Helena Sloman to the Devonshire. 

But the seas didn't want to make the transaction easy. Throughout the afternoon heavy waves and wind played havoc with the boats. But as each lifeboat made its way across, passengers were lifted safely to the Devonshire’s deck. 

And then around 4 in the afternoon, the Devonshire’s third officer Mr. John G. Johnson, was getting his third lifeboat full of passengers and crew from the Helena Sloman. But as the boat was slowly lowered into the water, everything went wrong. The waves took control of the little boat and it began to drift and before Johnson could stop it, it slid under the steamer's bow. The force of the blow caused the lifeboat to pitch and roll over, tossing the passengers and crew helplessly into the water. Two passengers were able to quickly grab onto the bottom of the capsized lifeboat and they were pulled to safety. Ropes were lowered immediately, but only one more person could be rescued. Mr. Johnson, three of his seamen and five passengers were dragged under and died a cold and terrible death in the icy cold Atlantic.

When the clock moved past 6:30 PM, all but those nine lost in lifeboat accident had made it safely to the Devonshire. After Captain Paulson ordered the crew to abandon the Helena Sloman, prayers were offered up as they watched the crippled steamer fade into the distance - and they charted a path to their final destination, New York City.

One of those men who had decided to make the journey across the Atlantic with his family, was that soap and candle maker from Hagenow, Germany - his name was John Phillip Nelson. John smartly decided to have the proceeds from the sale of his business turned into gold and he had clothes specially made to allow the gold to be stitched into them, as added security for the long journey to New York. 

One can only imagine the fear John had for his family's safety after weeks and weeks of battering storms and those helpless 9 days floating on the iron-steamer. During those harrowing hours as the waves crashed and the lifeboats bobbed and weaved through the ocean, what a feeling of relief John must have felt, as he boarded one of the lifeboats, knowing he and his families journey wasn't going to end on the crippled Helena Sloman. It wouldn’t be long before they could kiss America soil and start on their amazing new life. 

But as his lifeboat touched the water, he must have been in shock to hear the Devonshire’s highly respected third officer Mr. Johnson succumbing to panic. Did John Phillip have time to react. Likely the sudden flipping of the boat caught him totally off guard. If an able seamen like Mr. Johnson didn’t stand a chance, what likelihood did John Phillip have? With his horrified family watching from the deck of the Devonshire, and the weight of the family’s fortune literally dragging him down, John Phillip Nelson was lost beneath the waves and taken to an icy grave in the depths of the North Atlantic, his hopes and dreams sinking with him. 

For 15 year old Charles Nelson, there was little time to recover from the tragedy of seeing his father’s lifeboat capsize. He would now have to grow up quickly and become the man of the house. And to make things more difficult, he would be doing it on foreign soil and without a penny to his name. 

When they reached New York, his mother went about taking care of the children’s homelife, while Charles and his brother went off to work in their father’s trade as candle and soap makers.  

But life in the fast paced and dangerous metropolis soon became too much and the family made its way far inland, arriving in the midwestern city Cincinnati, Ohio in 1852. For a German immigrant family, it was the ideal place to establish themselves - as the town seemed to be a magnet for their countrymen. And there was plenty of opportunity, Cincinnati was the sixth-largest city in the United States and was considered a boomtown at that time. At first, Charles continued in the candle and soap trade, but the burgeoning livestock industry provided him with greater opportunities at a butcher shop. It is here that he learned the art of distilling whiskey. When Charles began to feel the entrepreneurial spirit, he partnered up with another local man and opened a grocery store under the name Blersch & Nelson.

But by 1857, Charles had grown restless and decided it was time for a change. Nashville, Tennessee seemed like the perfect place. It was a prosperous town and seemed primed for growth. Little did he know that the Civil War would soon find its way into the state. But even war couldn’t stop Charles, he found another partner and opened the Nelson & Pfeiffer grocery store a block up from the river on Market Street. And it wasn’t long after that he met Louisa Rohlfing and they were married on March 4th, 1863.

One of the things that Charles noticed with this new grocery store was how well the whiskey was selling. Charles had an agreement with a new distillery in nearby Robertson County called the Greenbrier Distillery, where he would purchase and then blend their spirits to sell under his own moniker. This is the origin of the Nelson's Green Brier brand of whiskey. By 1867, the draw of whiskey was so strong, he decided to buy the distillery and leave the grocery business behind. And it was the best decision of his life.

He immediately purchased a patent for improved distillation methods and he would eventually expand to nearly 30 labels. But he didn’t only sell his own whiskey. He was gaining such a great reputation for his marketing abilities that a Market Street company called Sperry Wade & Company asked Charles if he would market their Belle Meade brands of bourbon, rye, corn, and Tennessee whiskey. It didn’t take long for Belle Meade to become a very popular whiskey brand.

By 1885, Charles was selling nearly 380,000 gallons of whiskey in a year and his Tennessee whiskey was known worldwide. He was miles ahead of his former Nashville competition George Dickel as well as Jack Daniel, who had placed a cap on how much whiskey his distillery could make in a year.   Part of Charles marketing genius was knowing how to leave a lasting impression.  One of his marketing devices was a calendar featuring paintings of beautiful women. But he also helped build up brand recognition by selling his whiskey in glass bottles.

He was also a man of the community. He founded the Nashville Musical Union and Nashville Trust Company, serving as the first president for both. And he was a family man. With three boys and three girls under his roof, it was said that he always made plenty of time for them. And he was a charitable man, his obituary stated "Mr. Nelson was in the fullest sense a public-spirited citizen. Every enterprise intended for the good of Nashville received his hearty support and generous help." And while he did return multiple times to his home town in Germany, accepted as a hero - he was an American through and through and was fiercely loyal to his adopted home country.

But Charles' time on Earth was cut short. He passed away on December 13, 1891. He was just 56 years of age.

His wife Louisa would pick up the mantle and helped the company not only survive, but thrive for the next 18 years, until the Tennessee state legislature passed a law in 1909 banning the manufacture of whiskey within its borders. The doors closed and except for a historical sign placed on the main street of Greenbrier, TN, the Nelson’s Green Brier brand and distillery disappeared into obscurity.

Until one day. Two young men, one in college and the other just out of college are riding along with their parents to pick up some meat from a butcher, when they stopped for gas and were confronted by a historical marker that mentioned a family legend they’d only heard scant details about.

Andy tells the story.

That is Andy Nelson, the great, great, great grandson of Charles and Louisa Nelson. And while he and his brother Charlie suddenly had a mission to restore the family name to the distilling business, they had a few obstacles to overcome. First, it was 2006, and at that time distilling was still outlawed in all but 3 counties in Tennessee. The second problem was their age and experience. Sure they had a pedigree in the industry, but it was almost a century in the past and at 22 and 26 with degrees in philosophy, financiers weren’t going to be eager to get involved. And third, they bumped into the 2008 recession, which hampered money raising all that much more.

While diving deep into Charles Nelson’s history, they suddenly fell into a solution, gifted to them by their great, great, great grandfather.

Andy tells the story.

And all the research, hard work, and capital raising finally paid off. After rediscovering the historic recipe of the original whiskey, they realized they had a really unique product. While Charles used the Lincoln County Process way back in the 19th Century, his product was different from Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel’s in that his was a wheated bourbon, instead of one made with rye like his competitors. This meant that Andy and Charlie would be introducing a whole new twist on Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey. And in the fall of 2019, for the first time in 110 years, a replica of the historic “Nelson’s Green Briar” Tennessee whiskey label was once again adorning a bottle featuring that once world famous whiskey. 

And while Belle Meade has made its way across most of the country, Nelson’s Green Brier is one that is just starting to get out of the state of Tennessee. But if Charles' success back in the 19th Century is any indication, it shouldn’t take long.

Today, Andy and Charlie follow in their ancestor’s civic awareness, through their issuing of the annual Louisa Nelson Awards - celebrating the achievement, vision and inspiration of three female leaders in the Nashville community. And to further honor the name of a women neglected by whiskey historians, they named the copper pot still that is the backbone of their business, Louisa.

One can only wonder if John Phillip Nelson, way back in 1850 could have imagined, not only the success of his son Charles, but the brilliant revival of the families name by two brothers, his great-great-great-great grandchildren, who not knowing anything more than hearsay and legend - and simply seeing a sign on the way to a butcher shop, would all at once feel their families heritage burning within themselves - pushing themselves to overcome odds that would make Charles himself proud, and bringing the family name and their Nelson’s Green Briar whiskey alive once again to inspire generations to come.

Maybe it wasn’t exactly the way he saw it happening, but even in his tragic death, somehow, John Phillips dream for a better life for his family...was a dream fulfilled.

I’m Drew Hannush and this is Whiskey Lore

Whiskey Lore is a production of Travel Fuels Life

Research, stories and production by Drew Hannush

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And stop by whiskey-lore.com to pick up our new Whiskey Lore tasting kits including flavor wheel, tasting note pads, a Whiskey Lore pen, and a beautiful Whiskey Lore master distillers tasting glass.

Thanks to Andy Nelson of Nelson’s Green Brier for sharing his family’s story with me as well as he and his own brother’s adventures in learning the whiskey industry and finding creative ways to get to market. And to you, look for an x20m with Andy Nelson coming up later this week.

And until next time, cheers and slainte mhath.