Over the years, dozens upon dozens of people and products have helped bring notoriety to Kalamazoo; from guitars to taxicabs, fishing tackle to pharmaceuticals, sleds, stoves, corsets, and of course, “That Gal.” One of the first products made in the village, and the first to bring national attention to Kalamazoo was of all things, whiskey.
America’s thirst for alcohol during the early nineteenth century (and the problems that went along with it) is certainly no secret. Annual per capita consumption in the United States then averaged nearly three times what it is today, and Kalamazoo was no exception. In its 1837 annual report, the Kalamazoo Total Abstinence Temperance Society stated that the combined total sales for the five local liquor retailers that year amounted to 4,375 gallons, including 1,070 gallons of whiskey. Kalamazoo’s population at that time was just 1,367! A decade or so later, the “Big Village” boasted no less than six breweries and two distilleries, plus a thriving crop of saloons and liquor retailers—rather amazing for a community of then just seven thousand.
“It was customary,” recalled one early pioneer, “to have liquor for such times as raisings of new barns, it being quite common at the time. But,” he added, “some felt the need of it for their stomach and the infirmities which is sometimes epidemic in a new country” (Gazette). At one such barn raising in Portage during the 1840s, a concoction known as “black-strap”—a blend of water, molasses, and “Luke’s Best” whiskey “in nearly equal proportions” (Kalamazoo Telegraph)—was served up on site for the workers in a large wash tub.
Clearly, distilling grain into alcohol was (and of course still is) big business. From that perspective alone, it’s interesting to explore the backgrounds of these early enterprises and to learn more about the people behind this lucrative and often controversial industry.
Kalamazoo’s First Commercial Distillery
The earliest distillery on record in the village of Kalamazoo was opened in 1836, not long after Kalamazoo (then Bronson Village) was founded. William Clark and George Thomas Clark arrived in Kalamazoo during the spring of 1836 and built a distillery on the west side of the Kalamazoo River, just north of where the Michigan Avenue bridge now crosses. By February 1837, (G.) T. Clark & Son’s “Kalamazoo Distillery” was paying cash for grain and advertising plenty of “well rectified whiskey on hand.” (“Rectified” then referred to the process of manufacturing liquor from raw distilled spirits and creating blends from multiple batches for consistent flavor.) The Clarks advertised frequently for more than a year and apparently did a brisk business. But the enterprise was short-lived and appears to have ceased operation about 1838.
In 1845, two prominent local dry goods merchants, Isaac Moffatt and Hiram Arnold, formed a new partnership with Prentiss S. Cobb and former Kalamazoo sheriff John Parker to develop a large steam-powered gristmill on Kalamazoo’s north side, a few blocks north of the Michigan Central depot.
After much planning, work finally got underway in 1849 and by the spring of 1850, Isaac Moffatt & Co. was operating a saw mill and distillery in “a large double building” (Gazette) on the west side of Burdick Street between North and Frank streets. The company advertised extensively, soliciting large quantities of wheat, corn, rye, barley and oats for their mill and distillery, which according to the Gazette, was “solely employed for the manufacture of highwines (liquor) for exportation.” Moffatt’s distillery turned out some 60,000 gallons of liquor annually, and was in operation until the mid-1850s, when a short-lived statewide liquor ban went into effect. Moffatt himself served as village president from 1849 until 1851, and was one of the principal investors in the Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids Plank Road. Moffatt’s building was later acquired by George Judge and converted to a malt house and brewery.
The best-known and certainly the most successful of the Kalamazoo distilleries was owned and operated by the three Whitcomb brothers; Elias (born about 1804), Leverett (born about 1806), and Luke (born about 1810). The Whitcombs descended from a long line of New England millers, including their great-grandfather, Joseph Whitcomb, who was a miller in New Hampshire. All three sons were born in Vermont where their father, Peter Whitcomb, was himself a miller. The family later relocated to western New York where the boys learned the trade from their father, before ultimately moving on to Kalamazoo.
In 1835, the first bridge was constructed across the Kalamazoo River where Michigan Avenue now crosses. During the fall, Anthony Cooley and Erastus Bailey began building the town’s first gristmill near the bridge along the east side of the river. By springtime, Cooley and Bailey had their mill up and running and were busy grinding wheat into flour. So joyous were the citizens of Kalamazoo about the construction of the new mill that a special committee was enlisted to draft a formal letter of appreciation in Bailey’s honor. “It is highly gratifying to me,” stated Bailey in response, “to have my name associated with the growing interests of so enlightened and intelligent a community as the citizens of Kalamazoo” (Gazette).
Elias and Leverett Whitcomb
Elias Whitcomb arrived in Kalamazoo in 1836 and purchased Bailey’s share of the newly constructed flour mill. Whitcomb’s younger brother, Leverett, joined him in Kalamazoo a year later. Eventually, the Whitcomb brothers assumed full ownership of the gristmill, and became well-liked among the locals. Leverett Whitcomb was another who would later play a significant role in the development of the Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids Plank Road.
Luke Wheelock Whitcomb
During the spring of 1838, a third brother, Luke Wheelock Whitcomb, made the journey westward from the family home in western New York and settled in Kalamazoo, where he purchased the old Clark distillery across the river from his brothers’ gristmill. Luke soon had his distillery operation in full swing, making whiskey, packing salt-cured pork and making “lots of bacon” (Massie).
Whitcomb operated the distillery in its original location until July 1841 when a sudden fire consumed the building, taking with it “a few barrels of pork and 1,000 gallons of whiskey” (Gazette). After the fire, the Whitcombs hired a local carpenter named Martin Turner to put up a new distillery building next to the flour mill on the east side of the river, and to build a new sawmill on the same property just north of it. Turner had originally been contracted by George Gale to build a sawmill in what would later become Galesburg, but when that building project fell through, Turner sold the wood to Luke Whitcomb instead and floated it down the river to Kalamazoo.
For the next dozen years or so, Luke Whitcomb packed barrels of salt-cured pork and distilled upwards of 60,000 gallons of liquor annually. A statewide prohibition law went into effect in December 1853, which undoubtedly curtailed Luke’s distilling operation for a time, although local enforcement was evidently lax and the law was soon declared unconstitutional. Leverett Whitcomb continued to run the sawmill, and Elias Whitcomb took care of the day-to-day operations in the flour mill until his untimely death in April 1854. Leverett and Luke then carried on as “L. and L. W. Whitcomb,” although the worst of times, it seems, still lay ahead.
During the early morning hours of 23 September 1858, a sudden blaze wiped out the entire Whitcomb mill and distillery complex, including all of its contents. A worker in charge of the mill had evidently allowed a lamp to come in contact with a cask of liquor, which ignited a blaze that quickly consumed the dry wooden buildings, including the distillery, the gristmill, an adjoining shed, the sawmill, and some livestock. Loss was estimated in excess of $17,000 (more than $465,000 today) for which the Whitcombs had no insurance coverage. Leverett Whitcomb was overwhelmed by the loss. Without the ability to rebuild his operation, he died less than two years later. This, along with the nation’s growing anti-liquor sentiment, effectively brought an end to commercial distilling in Kalamazoo.
One account later told of several temperance supporters who watched the 1858 fire and suggested the firemen should “just let it burn,” as it was “nothing but an old distillery.” Whitcomb knew that some horses and several head of cattle were kept in the sheds directly behind the burning building, and in response, he instructed the firemen to “never mind the whiskey, let it burn, but save the animals.”
A decade later, Luke Whitcomb was nearby when fire broke out in the old Congregational Church building on Academy Street and bystanders were pleading for assistance to help remove furniture ahead of the blaze. “Let ‘er burn, it’s nothing but a church,” Whitcomb quipped, then removed his coat and jumping in bodily to help save the building and its contents. “(Luke Whitcomb) had his faults and vices like many other men,” recalled Judge E. W. DeYoe in 1901, “but despite them all he was ever the gentleman under all circumstances” (Gazette).
Kalamazoo’s Famous Whiskey: “Luke’s Best”
Despite the 1858 fire and the untimely deaths of his business partner brothers, Luke forged ahead. He knew that despite stiff competition from the big city distilleries and growing resistance from the temperance movement, there was still money to be made locally in the liquor trade. He formed L. W. Whitcomb & Co. and went into the business of “rectifying” whiskey at the corner of Harrison and Willard Streets. Rather than distilling it locally, raw corn liquor was brought in from out-or-town, then aged and mixed into various blends and distributed regionally.
“That famous ‘honey dew’ for the pioneers”
Luke Whitcomb’s signature product had for many years been a whiskey known as “Luke’s Best,” which grew famous largely by word-of-mouth from Chicago to the Eastern Seaboard, and perhaps even abroad. From the 1840s, freshly distilled “Luke’s Best” could be purchased right from the distillery for 25¢ a gallon, or 50¢ for a gallon of two-year-old. “Luke’s Best” would continue to be Whitcomb’s stock-in-trade for decades to come.
Tales of Luke Whitcomb
Whitcomb was tall in stature and a bold character who seldom hesitated to make his presence known. As the stories go, Luke took such pride in his work that he felt every tavern in the country should carry “Luke’s Best” and he often took it upon himself to see that they did. According to the Gazette in 1922, “Pioneers who had a taste for strong drink declared that the ‘Best’ was better than any other brand to be had. Whitcomb himself pinned his reputation to it and is said to have been quite partial to the liquor of his own making.” As Luke traveled, he stopped and asked for it wherever he went.
“I know ‘Luke’s Best’ when I see it...”
A typical story of Luke Whitcomb’s travels is recalled in a 1920 Gazette article...
“15 cents a drink?”
Another similar story was articulated by Hon. E. W. DeYoe in 1901…
Luke’s Fourth of July Lemonade
Luke it seems was a bit of a prankster, as well. In November 1899, the Gazette published a series of stories about Kalamazoo’s early pioneers and some of the humorous things that happened to them. One such story tells of Luke Whitcomb and an incident that occurred during an early Fourth of July celebration near what is now Farmers Alley…
“Luke’s Best” and the Civil War
When G. W. Lyon submitted his report to the Soldiers’ Aid Society in July 1862, he described the conditions he found in the various field hospitals while touring the Civil War battlefields and spoke extensively of the Michigan regiments. “The 12th Michigan was in a truly deplorable condition,” Lyon wrote in his report. “They had suffered terribly on the battle field, and now with greatly reduced numbers, sickness was alarmingly prevalent, and the men were disheartened and disaffected... The lack of proper food and stimulus greatly swelled the list of deaths. We were abundantly supplied with everything else (except mosquito nets) that a hospital needs. We needed more fresh meat, more vegetables, milk and pickles and had it not been for the 20 gallons of “Luke’s best” contributed to our supplies, I have no doubt more lives would have been lost. The liquors furnished by the government are unfit for a sick man” (Gazette).
After Leverett Whitcomb’s death in 1860, his son LeGrand Whitcomb (b.1836) built a new gristmill on the old site and opened it in September 1862 as Whitcomb’s Custom Mill (though without a distillery). Shortly thereafter, LeGrand sold his mill to Caleb Sherman and joined his uncle Luke and longtime Kalamazoo merchant Milford N. Joy in the whiskey rectifying and distribution business.
Luke Whitcomb’s Legacy
Luke Whitcomb did rather well for himself in the distilling and rectifying trade. During the 1860s, Luke carried a class ‘B’ liquor license, which allowed him to produce up to five hundred barrels of liquor each year. In 1860, the census taker valued Whitcomb’s inventory of whiskey (25,000 gallons) at 58¢ per gallon, for a total value of $14,500.00 (about $389,000 in today’s currency). Whitcomb’s reported annual income for the year 1865 was $12,251.00, or roughly $170,000 today.
After Luke Whitcomb’s death in April 1868, his partners Milford Joy and LeGrand Whitcomb continued the business at the old Harrison Street location until about 1872. In June of that year, LeGrand Whitcomb returned to milling, and Milford Joy moved his rectifying and wholesale/retail liquor operation to Water Street. In 1876, Luke’s widow built a stately home on the corner of Lovell and Park streets, which stood for many years where the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts is now located. As of 1881, Hiram Cobb had rented the old distillery building on Harrison Street for his new spring tooth harrow manufacturing company, and Milford Joy was still at work on Water Street manufacturing and distributing “Luke’s Best.”
When Luke Whitcomb’s son Noble was born, the proud father presented Dr. T. A. Metcalf with a bottle of eight-year-old “Luke’s Best.” The good doctor put the bottle away and kept it safely hidden for a number of years.
In March 1901, a group of area businessmen gathered at the Post Tavern in Battle Creek to celebrate Dr. Metcalf’s 70th birthday. “On this occasion the bottle of whiskey was brought forth, covered with dust, cobwebs and dirt and ceremoniously opened. A number of the guests sipped the liquor and found it to be the same fine quality of the former years when it was a leader in its class” (Gazette). “The gentlemen were regaled with ‘Luke’s Best’ and other refreshments over 50 years of age,” hailed the Battle Creek Journal, “and it was the last drop of ‘Luke’s Best’ in the world.”
Like many of our Local History essays, this article is by no means a definitive study; rather it should be viewed as a work-in-progress. If you have new information, corrections, photos or items to share, please contact the author or the Local History Room.