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.
Another prominent local pioneer, William “Billy” Wood, once recalled that “whiskey was sold at all public gatherings, over a board fixed between two trees and covered with cloth, very much the same as red lemonade is now dispensed at a county fair.” According to Wood, “The usual price was three cents for a tumbler full,” but he added, “scarcely ever did a man become intoxicated.” Wood also revealed that “the whiskey was made in a little still, which had been set up in the community” (Gazette), but he wouldn’t say exactly where.
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.