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 for the Whitcomb brothers, it seems, still lay ahead.
“Come Hell or High Water”
1858 would be a devastating year for the Whitcomb brothers. Heavy spring rains swamped the area, causing the Kalamazoo and Portage rivers to overflow their banks and flood “hundreds of acres of meadow” (Kalamazoo Telegraph) along their banks. The otherwise gentle Arcadia Creek became a raging torrent that washed out a culvert west of town that sent flood waters pouring over the north side of the community. By June 1st, the Main Street bridge over the Kalamazoo river was partially submerged and the mill race near Whitcomb’s mill was completely underwater. The mill and distillery buildings withstood the watery onslaught, although some 400 hogs narrowly escaped the rising water and had to be moved to the east side of the river. Grain in the mill was stored in upper level rooms so it was kept safe from the water, but damage to the machinery on ground level was said to be “severe” (Kalamazoo Telegraph). The water soon subsided, but their troubles were only beginning.
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. Some 300 hogs were saved from the blaze, but 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).