Distilleries of Early Kalamazoo (1836-1872)

Home of “Luke’s Best”

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Advertisement, ca. 1867
Local History Room

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 no secret. Annual per capita consumption in the United States then averaged nearly three times what it is today, and Kalamazoo was no exception. The “Big Village” at one point boasted no less than six breweries and two distilleries, plus a thriving crop of saloons and liquor retailers—rather amazing for a community of about 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).

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.

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Kalamazoo Gazette, 4 February 1837, p.3

Isaac Moffatt & Co.

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Isaac Moffatt
Local History Room

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 was in operation until the mid-1850s, and turned out some 60,000 gallons of liquor annually. Moffatt himself was one of the principal investors in the Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids Plank Road. The same building was later acquired by George Judge and used as a malt house and brewery.

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I. Moffatt & Co., 1853 (view this location on a current map)
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The Whitcomb Mills

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Leverett Whitcomb
Courtesy, James Richards 

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 W. 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. In no time at all, the distillery was in full swing. Whitcomb was busy 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.

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Whitcomb Mill and Distillery, 1853 (view this location on a current map)
Local History Room

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. Leverett Whitcomb ran 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 carried on as “L. and L. W. Whitcomb,” but the worst of times, it seems, were still ahead.

“Fire!”

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 was 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.

‘Gentleman Luke’

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. In response, Whitcomb told 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).

C____, of Kalamazoo, thought highly of whisky for preserving leather, and always has a skin full. He sold his driving horse to a distiller, H___; seeing it passing one day, hauling a load of “Luke’s Best,” remarked: “That horse has changed owners, but keeps on at the same work, only he hauls it now in barrels.”

Auburn (NY) Daily Bulletin, 31 March 1870, p.1

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. 

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Local History Room

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...

“It is said that the distiller once essayed a journey to the elite east, the trip being made by stagecoach, which stopped every ten or dozen miles so that horses might be changed and passengers might alight and either exercise their legs or find refreshment with in the taverns. At each of the stopping places, the story goes, Whitcomb would invite his companions to have a little something and in each case ordered “Luke’s Best.”

In each instance a bottle of the “Best” was set out and duly sampled, until late in the day in sampling a drink, Whitcomb smashed his glass down on the bar of the tavern where the stage had stopped, and exclaimed: “I called for “Luke’s Best.’”

“That’s ‘Luke’s Best,’” reported the landlord, who waited upon the party. “’Tis not!” thundered Whitcomb; I know ‘Luke’s Best’ when I see it, or smell it, or taste it, for I’m Luke, Luke Whitcomb himself! Now sir, set out a bottle of the ‘Best,’ and never try to palm off an inferior article.”

Apologizing, the tavern keeper placed a bottle of the genuine article on the bar, and it is said that as long as he sold “refreshments for men and beast,” he never again attempted to substitute anything else for Luke’s Best.”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 30 May 1920, p.7

“15 cents a drink?” 

Another similar story was articulated by Hon. E. W. DeYoe in 1901…

“At one time Mr. Whitcomb went to Albany. Stopping at a tavern near there he went in and inquired if he could get a drink of first class whiskey there. He, by the way, was not a fancy dresser, and the clothes he wore were not always as neatly kept as they might have been. The bartender looked him over and was about to say something when Mr. Whitcomb espied a sign, “’Old Luke’s Best’ whiskey for sale here.” Then turning to the man behind the bar, he said: “Give me some of that ‘Old Luke’s Best.’”

“Do you know that whiskey will cost you 15 cents a drink?”

Raising himself to his full height and bringing his fist down on the bar he replied: “Fifteen cents – fifteen cents; too cheap, too cheap; ought to be twenty. Give me some of it anyway, for I’m “Old Luke,’ myself.”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 19 May 1901, p.12

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…

“In the late thirties or early forties there was a Fourth of July celebration held on the premises of General Humphrey that took in the whole square there the Farmers’ sheds now stand. The residence stood on a rise of ground back in the center of the plat, the front gate opening out on to Main street, which is now covered with stores. The village then had from seven hundred to a thousand inhabitants.

Patriotic citizens had furnished two barrels of lemonade, with ice, the first known in this section. Early in the day Luke Whitcomb, who ran a distillery and saw mill on the east bank of the river, east Main street, tasted the ‘stuff,’ as he called it, and at once proclaimed that it would give everyone who drank it the ague or chill fever. He at once drove to his distillery and brought back with him two gallons of whiskey, made from the old-fashioned eight-rowed Yankee corn, pronounced by competent judges to be the best whiskey ever made on earth, and poured a gallon into each barrel.

We have tried time and again to have some of the old pioneers tell us about that celebration, but all we could get from either men or women was a shake of the head and a big laugh with the request to ask so-and-so about it. When so-and-so was approached they utterly refused to talk, but we ascertained that the whole town acted as if they were chock full of — enthusiasm. It was generally believed that the ice, to which the people were not used, had an exhilarating effect. Be that as it may, no increase of ague patients were reported.”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 19 November 1899, p.11

“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).

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Whitcomb’s rectifying works (A) and flour mill (B) as they appeared in this 1874 drawing. 
Library of Congress 

LeGrand Whitcomb & Milford N. Joy

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LeGrand Whitcomb
Courtesy, James Richards 

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.”

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Milford N. Joy (foreground) standing in Bronson Park during the 1880s.
Kalamazoo Public Library Photograph P-899

“The last drop of ‘Luke’s Best’ in the world...”

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Kalamazoo Gazette, 11 July 1878, p.4 

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.”

Continuing Research

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.

Sources

Books

Thomas’ Kalamazoo Directory and Business Advertiser for 1867 and 1868  

  • Thomas, James M.
  • 1867.
  • H 917.7417 K14

History of Kalamazoo County, Michigan, 1880  

  • Durant, Samuel W.
  • D. W. Ensign & Col., 1880 (reprinted by Unigraphic, 1976).
  • H 977.417 H67U

The Whitcomb Family in America: A Biographical Genealogy  

  • Whitcomb, Charlotte.
  • 1904.
  • Open Library: OL23529087M
  • OCLC/WorldCat: 38226218   

Kalamazoo, The Place Behind the Product : an illustrated history  

  • Massie, Larry B.
  • Woodland Hills, CA : Windsor Publications, 1981.
  • 977.418 M417

Last Call : The Rise and Fall of Prohibition  

Articles

“Died, Thomas Clark, formerly of Essex, in England, aged 56.”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette. 20 January 1838, p.2, col. 7.

“Distillery of Elias Whitcomb & Brothers was consumed by fire.”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette. 2 July 1841, p.2, col. 4.

“Messrs. Parker, Moffatt & Cobb”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette. 25 December 1846, p.2.

“The new steam mill”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette. 17 May 1850, p.2, col. 3.

“Fire!”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette. 24 September 1858, p.2.

“Died, Leverett Whitcomb in the 54th year of his age.”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette. 29 June 1860, p.3, col. 3.

“To the Soldiers’ Aid Society located at Kalamazoo.”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette. 11 July 1862, p.3.

“Whitcomb’s new custom mill.”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette. 12 September 1862, p.3.

“Death of L. W. Whitcomb.”

  • Kalamazoo Telegraph. 29 April 1868, p.1, col.1.

“Manufacturing seems to be springing up...”

  • Kalamazoo Daily Gazette. 14 April 1880, p.4.

“Death of Milford N. Joy.”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette. 9 March 1888, p.1.

“Luke's Best”

  • Kalamazoo Telegraph. 16 December 1890, p.7.

“Clubs and Society”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette-News. 3 May 1901, p.2.

“‘Old Luke’s Best’ whisky”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette-News. 19 May 1901, p.12.

“Early days in Kazoo County”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette. 12 March 1905, p.12.

“Le Grand Whitcomb dies at age of 74”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette. 2 May 1911, p.7.

“Kazoo in olden days had five breweries and 1 distillery where ‘Luke’s Best’ was made”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette. 30 May 1920, p. 7.

“Birthplace of ‘Luke’s Best’ gives way to factory plant”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette. 19 March 1922, p.29.

Databases

Ancestry Library (In Library Only)

  • United States Federal Census (1840, 1850, 1860, 1870)
  • U.S. IRS Tax Assessment Lists, 1862-1918
  • Michigan Census, 1827-70

Microfilm

  • Nonpopulation Census for Michigan – Industry (1850, 1860)

Local History Room Files

History Room Subject File: Houses - Kalamazoo - Park, S., 344 (demolished).

Miscellaneous

  • Special thanks to Jamie Richards for providing photos and additional information about the Whitcomb family.