Podcast Episode: Log Still, the Dant Family, and New Hope
Special Guests Wally Dant and Charles Dant help give insight into New Hope's fall from whiskey stronghold and we talk about their new project Log Still Distillery.
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Last week we looked at the growth of one of the biggest bourbon making areas in Kentucky - an area that at its peak had nine distilleries, but at the turn of the century had just about forgotten its whiskey past.
Join me this week as we examine the area's downfall, the Kentucky Whiskey Trust, the families as they faded away, and the future of New Hope. My special guests are Wally and Charles Dant of Log Still Distillery. Listen to what they have in store for this once great whiskey area.
Last week on Whiskey Lore - We followed Captain Sam Pottinger to a fort in the wilderness where his family, the Dant’s and the Miles families would lay the groundwork for what would become one of the leading areas of whiskey production in Kentucky - the area surrounding New Hope. An area that at its peak, had upwards of nine distilleries feeding hundreds of families and providing a great economic boom that resulted in four main rail stops at Gethsemane, New Hope, Coon Hollow, and Dant Stations. How did such a booming area go from prosperity to whiskey ghost town? And what does the Dant family have in store for this once thriving community? Find out in the next few minutes as I take the story up to Prohibition and then invite Wally and Charles Dant of Log Still Distillery to share their memories of the area and we’ll take a look at what the future has in store.
What was it like, growing up in New Hope, 100 years after it was a boomtown? Charles Dant:
Memories of Growing Up In New Hope
11:40 Charles: Will you just come down and walk the track and visit my grandpa with the distillery eat supper and then go do the rounds with him and always remember riding by through St Francis they had the old Blair Distillery and I guess the Dant Station with J.W. Dant to still restart it you know the ruins and out of the child That's all I really remember about that but I remember this place while I'm still discovering it very well as a child grew up playing running climbing the tire New Hope is a great town to grow up in everybody knows everybody everybody weighs at you when you go back Just a lot of great childhood memories and I know a lot of people around here depending on the whiskey industry you know feed their families and to relax and talk when you go home
You wouldn't know it today by driving around the 398 acres that encompass New Hope, KY, its population around 129, but in the 1890's this area of Nelson County was a hotbed for whiskey distilling. Coming into that decade, the distilleries included E.L. Miles, New Hope, Cold Spring, Head & Beam, Coon Hollow, Big Spring, J.W. Dant, and a new entry that arrived in 1885, the Belle of Nelson Distillery. This latest distillery was the brainchild of newcomers Bartley, Johnson & Co, who had just acquired the Belle of Nelson brand name from Mattingly & Moore (Mattingly being another descendant of the founders of the region).
And Belle of Nelson wasn't any simple or humble facility. The distillery sat in a ravine near a picturesque stream and pond, while Several large warehouses graced the hillside above it. It was within 3000 feet of the E.J. Miles/New Hope distilleries and 2500 feet of Coon Hollow/Big Springs Distilleries.
By 1893 the area would finally reach its apex when a distiller named Martin J. Cummins, with the help of his father Patrick’s pocketbook, would open a small distilling operation called Willow Spring Distillery. Located just north of Coon Hollow Station, not too far from Coon Hollow and Big Spring Distilleries, it would produce a sweet mash bourbon called Minway Club and a sour mash named Willow Springs, after the distillery. Although it was a small operation, they were big enough to be distributed throughout the midwest and New York.
But the area wasn’t only known for supplying large quantities of whiskey. It also boasted a natural resource that was drawing the attention of locals as well as medical professionals around the country. And an enterprising entrepreneur was about to turn this unique little resource into a money making tourist attraction.
In the late 1890s, cure-alls were all the rage. Doctors were touting the benefits of cocaine and heroin. Cocaine was sold in tablets, powder, and even lozenges. It was said to cure depression, toothaches, alcoholism, and hay fever. By 1902, there were over 200,000 cocaine addicts in the United States. Heroine was seen as a safe alternative to morphine and the proper cure for a cough.
Whiskey was seen as a cure for asthma, cancer, and colds - in fact, it is still a primary ingredient in many of today’s cough medicines.
For the town of New Hope, the curative agent was in the form of a hot spring just south of town at Washington Bell’s Sulphur Springs-On Sulphur Lick Creek.
Many of the locals swore by the healing powers of this sulphur water which likely carried a heavy odor of rancid eggs. They would come to the spring and fill up buckets with this seemingly endless supply of smelly water. According to the local paper, "Father O'Shea" from St. Vincent DePaul was a huge fan of this sulphur water, and he would have the mailman drop off a gallon of it every couple of days.
Soon, medical journals across the country were touting the benefits of sulphur water. It was listed as the perfect cure for rectal diseases, most notably “the piles” which we know better today as hemorrhoids. One advertisement claimed it was "The only Natural Treatment known" Restorative, non destructive. The only problem, this has never been fully proven. And ingesting sulphur water has never been shown to have any benefits.
But in the 1890s, it didn’t matter. And when you have something this popular drawing local, regional, and national attention, you know someone is going to figure out how to make some money from it. That person was the property owner Ben Hall. He created a tourist destination spot by building the Sulphur Springs Hotel. Just imagine, after enjoying a day of healthful benefits from the natural spring, you could knock down a few pins at the on-site bowling alley or try your hand at swinging the clubs at the hotel’s 3-hole golf course.
Hall’s establishment was a big enough success that he drew the attention of another entrepreneur named George Morris. George was a little envious of all of the good fortune happening across the street, so he built his own hotel to open up some competition. The only problem was, Ben Hall owned the water rights, and as soon as Morris opened for business, Hall shut off his access to the water. Needless to say, no access to the stinky water, led to a short life for the business.
Today, one can only imagine what the area between Gethsemane Station and Dant Station looked like in that last decade of the 19th century. Distillers, farmers, and workers churning out barrel after barrel of whiskey. It must have seemed like the party would never end. But if I had asked you before these last two episodes if you could name a single distillery in the New Hope region, could you have? Probably not. So what happened? Where did it all go?
If you’re like me, your first inclination is to think that national Prohibition is what wiped New Hope off of the distilling map. You would be partially right. But cracks were starting to form as many as two decades earlier.
The late 1880's were a time of consolidation. John D. Rockefeller had shown how building a confederation of businesses called a trust could help one organization dominate an entire industry by buying out the competition. Other industries were seeing the benefits of his heavy handed tactics and soon, trusts were popping up everywhere. And whiskey was not immune.
Whiskey’s most famous trust started as a small Peoria, Illinois distillery, but through ruthless takeovers, the “Whiskey Trust” as they came to be known, grew to produce 75%-80% of the alcoholic spirits sold in the United States.
It seemed that little could be done to stop this powerful organization. Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 couldn’t do it. A depression in 1893 had marginal effects. And even the lawsuits exposing their doctored spirits that lead to the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 couldn’t completely bring them down.
What was amazing was that somehow New Hope had avoided entanglements with the trust through the organization’s most dominant years. How remains a mystery. Maybe being far out in rural Kentucky made a difference. Or maybe having legendary and steadfast family distillers like Dant, Beam, and Miles kept the trust at bay..
But it couldn’t last forever. And when the trust finally broke itself up, due to shareholder and management squabbles, New Hope landed in the crosshairs of one of the trust’s offshoots. And in a perfect storm, the men who had built the region into the major success it had become were growing old.
The first to leave the industry had been T.J. Pottinger or Jeff as his friends called him. Although Jeff had only owned his own distillery for a short time, he had several strong ties to the community. His father Captain Sam had founded Pottinger Station, his first boss was Henry Miles, he had partnered with two other distillers, Henry’s son E.L. and Francis Head, the man who would eventually buy him out. But one can only imagine how his death in 1900 from pneumonia impacted the distilling community of New Hope.
But the five years that followed Jeff’s passing would radically alter the distilling landscape around Pottinger Creek.
Francis Head left the business, selling his part of Head & Beam to his partner Minor Case Beam, who reorganized as the M.C. Beam & Company.
At the distillery next door, J.B. Dant merged his Cold Spring Distillery with his Yellowstone partners Taylor & Williams and relocated to Louisville. With the move he also took the position of company president.
Around the same time, J.B.'s father J.W. Dant the master of "running it on a log" passed away in 1902 with another of his son’s George inheriting the company’s leadership position.
Meanwhile, Thomas Sherley, Edward Leo Miles chief distiller and partner at the New Hope Distillery had been assisting in the formation of the new Kentucky Distillery and Warehouse Company. This was one of the three offshoots from the Whiskey Trust. It is likely that the relationship between Sherley and the Trust is what finally brought their attention to New Hope.
But when Sherley died around 1900 as E.L. Miles was nearing retirement age there was probably little surprise that he would sell both the E.L. Miles Distillery and New Hope Distillery to the Kentucky Whiskey Trust. But what is surprising is that the trust was apparently acting as a front for Stoll & Company, a Lexington firm that produced Olk Elk and a variety of other brands.
Once Stoll & Company had a foothold in the area, they also purchased the Belle of Nelson Distillery. Known by the slogan, "The Whiskey that made Kentucky Famous" this would set James Stoll’s company up as the largest whiskey production company in the state.
Next, the Kentucky Whiskey Trust came in and bought Nelson County Distillery Company which featured both the Coon Hollow and Big Spring Distilleries. And in a competition killing move, they shuttered the doors of both. They also purchased distilleries in nearby New Haven and Athertonville. Including the distillery that Abraham Lincoln's father Thomas once worked at.
Bourbon Justice: How Whiskey Laws Shaped America By Brian F. Haara
Kentucky Distillery & Warehouse Company run by Charles H. Stoll
The radical change of those five years concluded with the passing of Edward Leo Miles in 1905.
Future changes would hold importance but wouldn’t be as devastating. First, in 1908 James Stoll passed away and so all of Stoll & Company’s assets were purchased by the Kentucky Whiskey Trust. And Minor Case Beam would merge his company with Taylor & Williams, joining two legendary distilling families - the Beams and the Dants.
So, as Prohibition began to close in, New Hope and E.L. Miles were all under the Trust, Coon Hollow, Big Spring and eventually Belle of Nelson were all closed, and Taylor & Williams controlled the old T.J. Pottinger and Cold Springs Distilleries, the J.W. Dant Distillery was still at Dant Station, and Willow Spring was hanging on by a thread. The area had been consolidated from nine entities down to just four.
And when the Kentucky Distilleries and Warehouse Company (or the Kentucky Whiskey Trust) died with Prohibition, so did the brands "Belle of Nelson", "Big Spring" "Coon Hollow", "E L Miles" and "New Hope" along with other familiar names, including Chicken Cock, "J B Wathen", "J M Mattingly," "Olk Elk" and Boone County. Some of those names have been revived in recent years and others have been lost to the ages.
With Kentucky and the nation now dry, what were these little towns in Nelson County to do? In Bardstown, prior to Prohibition, saloons lined the east side of North Third Street. No respectable woman would be seen walking that side of the street. Now its doors were shuttered. The Old Stone Inn, which is now Old Talbott Tavern, was forced into taking a break from being the world's oldest bourbon bar.
Farmers who depended on alcohol production to maximize their crop yields were choked off and spent grains they depended on to supplement livestock feed disappeared. Coopers and still men were put out of work. A few jobs were salvaged for the few distilleries that had medicinal licenses, but none of Nelson County's distillers had that license.
Occupations affected included distillers and their employees, coopers, coopersmiths, US government taxmen, botting house employees, labelers, whiskey dealers, millers, millwrights, farmers, and beyond the farmers there were large families.
18:00 Wally: yeah it was funny we had somebody that doesn't one of his uncles came in today and he was just talking to us about you know how many people this distillery employee at one point in time which is around 200 you know in peak season like Christmas season you know when you're doing all the gift packaging and things like that and you know from bowling perspective and then you know just and he said you know to see that all go away you know and and see the financial impact that has on the families that they know that we're living here at the time and you know having to and of course my grandfather was one of those right he worked here he worked here all his life and then his job was now up in Louisville Kentucky so you know eventually he moves up to Louisville Kentucky and leaves and you know never to return and and so when you think about that impact just on my family alone and then just replicate that over 200 families right with all and we're good Catholics around here we had we had big big families in those days and so you know and then you begin to see that there's nothing left here for your kids to go work on right so you know so you begin to replicate that out and you can see kind of the you know the ultimate dying off of a community that was once a thriving driving place down to
So some people had to leaving to find jobs, but for those that stayed how did people survive?
Wally: Charles's family where they had to leave the this area to go find work You know I know my great-grandfather at the time was in the distilling business and from 1920 to 1933 when he got back into it again you can look at the historical record of him trying to incorporate everything under the sun to try to make ends meet You know he's a yeah own a carpet company a furniture company he started a garage for vehicles you know just everything to try to make ends meet for his what was then 13 kids I think he was trying to take care of you know so a lot of miles if he right so you begin to look at that and you you can begin to get a feeling and and an understanding of kind of the impact
As for the distillers, while they couldn’t produce any more alcohol, they were given the right to hold onto their stocks. But the government showed no mercy and forced distilleries to pay taxes on that stock. Jim Beam basically gave his Clear Spring Distillery barrels of aging whiskey and equipment away for $10,000 before he could be devastated by taxes coming due, with no legal way to bottle and sell it.
Minor Case’s son Guy Beam went off to Canada to distill and Joe Beam who would later work at A. Ph. Stitzel and eventually became an investor in Heaven Hill, survived by going to Juarez, Mexico as a master distiller of tequila.
27:40 Wally -I think this plant here was actually turned into a ball bearing plant made ball bearings right for a period of time and that was probably more war related but they made ball bearings at one point in time right to to at least get by and do something with the ground that they had here
When Prohibition was finally repealed in 1933, distillery stocks had been decimated. A. Ph. Stitzel was one of the only distilleries that hadn’t sold off all of their equipment. Family distilleries were being forced to take on investors, just to get going again. You would think that the shell’s of the few remaining distilleries in the New Hope area might have been a draw for the distillery industry to return, but with the other families having sold out to the trust or moving their operations to Louisville, it was basically down to the Dant family. And they wouldn’t remain for long.
When Did The Dant Family Leave The Area? - 1940’s
5:20: Now our families the Dant family sold out of this distillery that we're sitting at in 1940 and and then the original JW damp distillery sold out in 1943 So our family at that point in time were no longer owners of the distillery company that bore their name right And so that JW Distillery was then owned by first arm & Hammer and his company called National Distillers which was you know a company of his and then he sold this facility here and the JW Dan brand in 1953 to a company called schenley. Then shenley eventually sold back to United sometime I think in the early 90's which was then you know a few years later the United became Diageo right but but the brand at that point in time in 1993 was then sold to Heaven Hill Distillers which are here in in Bardstown So Heaven Hill owns the brand today
Captain Sam’s home Walnut Hill was knocked down in 1941.
The old Louisville & Nashville Lebanon Branch (then known as the Knoxville Branch) of the rail line stopped service in 1987 and the track through town has all but disappeared.
So by 2000, the U.S. Census showed New Hope with a population of just 23 people. By 2010, it had grown to 129.
And a drive down the main road through town would indicate that all matter of commerce has been forever wiped from this town. But to those that grew up here, it is a special place worth more than just a memory in some old dusty books or as a name on some old bottle in a museum.
16:50 Charles - I'm just I grew up right below New Hope Church my grandmother lived there I went to school St Vincent de Paul for 3 years until it shut down I guess you know lack of funding and not enough kids went on and moved to New Haven St Catherine but I've grown up in this area and loved it my whole life and I don't see any other place in the world that I would call I just glad that Wally Dant and the family has decided to come back and open this place up you wouldn't believe the people in this area that are just smiles on their face and good feeling they have about something coming to New Hope it's the best things happen in a lot of people's life times and you know everybody's just excited to see it all come together
There appears to be more to the words “new hope” beyond just a town name. Wally Dant and the Dant family have a dream for this area and the family name. And it all starts with the rebuilding of the old distillery that sits just above the old Gethsemane Station. A distillery whose name Log Still harkens back to the family heritage in the area.
Why We’re Back
30:00 I think that's the reason I'm back here right is from a legacy perspective what we want to do is is bring back our family name into this bourbon making business that we've been in since 1836 right and I'm a sixth generation and the five generations that have gone before us have been in that that industry right And so now for us to be able to bring that back and then bring it back into a rural community that meant so much to my family my parents and and their parents right and to be able to bring back good paying jobs back into this community bring back tourism into this community because Kentucky's could done a great job with a bourbon trail and promoting that having people from the outside visit us much like you would see in in Napa out in California we replicating that here on the bourbon side and being able to bring dollars back into this community to really reorient ourselves to being a thriving little community again and I think that's those are the two primary reasons that you know that I've I came here right legacy and community in building a community again and and so that's that's that's why we're doing this so.
Once you bring back commerce then people come back and people follow commerce and so if you can bring back commerce into this market again and give people a reason for them to stay and they see that there's a future right I really believe that you know we're going to see some some great growth out here I mean cuz in reality we're six eight miles away from loretto Kentucky Makers Mark right so from a bourbon Trail perspective we're right there where a mile away from the Travis monastery here we're two and a half miles away from New Haven and 15 miles away from Bardstown right so another major part of the bourbon Trail and so I think there's a number of reasons for people to come and visit with us and and as long as you give them a great experience and a place to you know not only have adult beverages right and that's what we're all about is having adult beverages but we're going to build the campus here that's going to be attractive to families right so you know this is going to have 14 acre Lake out here so we want people to come and stay fish picnic we're going to have a live music event space restaurant visitor center you know to really kind of make make this a special place plus bed and breakfast will have an event space area for weddings potentially corporate events things like that yeah we're pretty excited about it and I don't know if you had a chance if you didn't see it when you walked in but I didn't know if you noticed the water tower right so that water tower was I think constructed in 36 37 sort of time frame and so that was kind of our initial first pass it's saying raising our hand is saying hey we're back we're here right and and I think you're going to continue to see that as as we move along so she tells me that we're going to be doing it in the first quarter of 2021 okay
And that is the story of a whiskey ghost town. A place that the whiskey world had all but forgotten, but whose heartbeat has been quietly ticking away through the years, waiting for someone to come along and revive her legacy and her memories.
And how appropriate that the vehicle for that revival comes in the form of a distillery named Log Still, in honor of J.W. Dant - a man who helped create the area’s distilling industry back in 1836 and a man whose own great grandfather helped settle this land, so that future generations could grow and prosper here.
While the casual passer by may wonder at the reason for the town name, to the Dant family, this area continues to provide New Hope.