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Photo by Tom Landon
Jim Cook's vintage whiskey jug, which he found 60 years ago while playing in a ravine in Blue Ridge.
Courtesy Cecil Munsey
A newspaper advertisement for the Casper Co. in Roanoke in the first decade of the 20th century described it as the largest mail-order whiskey concern in the world.
Monday, October 28, 2013
Q: I’ve got a stone whiskey jug I found when I was 7 or 8. It’s probably over 100 years old and the printing on it says “The Casper Co., Roanoke, Lowest Priced Whiskey House.” What can you tell me about it?
Jim Cook, Roanoke County
A: I went to see Mr. Cook, and was impressed with what he already knew about his whiskey jug. He found it when he was playing in a gully in Blue Ridge about 60 years ago and took it home. Though he didn’t know what it was, his older brother Don liked it, and decided to keep it for himself. 50 years later, big brother gave it back to little brother, and that’s where it remains today.
While reading the “Looking Back” feature in this newspaper in 2009, Jim learned that the Casper Distillery’s distribution center, located at 24 Salem Ave., burned to the ground a hundred years earlier, but he was pretty sure that the distillery itself had been located on Hollins Road, just off Orange Avenue.
When the town of Big Lick was chartered in 1882 the future distillery site was home to a tavern and stock drover’s (cattlemen’s) hotel. The area included a spring that discharged 15,000 gallons of water an hour, which would later make it a good spot for cooking up liquor.
John Casper, the grandson of a distiller from Winston–Salem, N.C., bought 14 acres there in 1906. He picked Roanoke after North Carolina went “dry” a year earlier, effectively putting his successful operation out of business in that state. He evicted the tenants of the hotel and built an impressive factory, advertised as the “largest mail order whiskey concern in the world.” There was even an overhead pipeline across Old Hollins Road, through which the “refuse of distilled mash was conveyed to feed a herd of hogs owned by the company” according to an account in the paper.
Other animals ate it too. One article reports that, “Intoxicated by free feeding of corn mash from the tanks at the Casper distillery and other brewing houses, a horse belonging to T. Fleming Jamison fell yesterday near the hack stand at the crossing of Jefferson and the Norfolk & Western tracks, and lay in a drunken stupor for some time.”
When the distillery opened, it offered a “two quarts for the price of one” special: 75 cents a quart, $1.25 a gallon. At its height, Casper was shipping a variety of mail order liquor from its Salem Avenue warehouse as far away as Massachusetts, Florida and Texas. It was like Home Shopping Network or Orvis for drinkers.
The next newspaper story about Casper tells of a fire that gutted the warehouse in February 1909, destroying everything within, in what must have been one heck of an inferno. Reports indicate that the property was insured, but the business never seems to have made a comeback here. Virginia went dry in 1916, but the distillery was already long gone.
Casper resurfaced in 1911 in the liquor business in Florida and Arkansas until Congress passed the Webb-Kenyon Act of 1913, effectively stopping the mail order booze business well before the 18th Amendment launched Prohibition in 1920.
That’s the story of the whiskey jug. Mr. Cook says he’s seen one like it appraised for $300 on the cable show “American Pickers,” but he’d rather hold on to his piece of history and pass it on to his 12-year-old granddaughter Kendall one day. And now she’ll know the story behind the jug when she gets it.
I’ll post a link on the blog to a very informative thesis on the Casper distillery by a California Ph.D. named Cecil Munsey for anyone who is interested. Thanks to Belinda Harris and the researchers at the Roanoke City Library’s Virginia Room for help with this one.
If you’ve been wondering about something, call “What’s on Your Mind?” at 777-6476 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t forget to provide your full name, its proper spelling and your hometown.
Look for Tom Landon’s column on Mondays. Visit the blog at blogs.roanoke.com/whatsonyourmind.
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