Gaston: Chattanooga's best-kept secret

Aside from a proud tradition of bootlegging on Walden's Ridge and the recent appearance of distilleries and breweries in Chattanooga, little has been said about Chattanooga's post-Civil War distilleries. In "The Chattanooga Country: 1540-1951," James Livingood and Gilbert Govan noted that during the Union occupation, General Order No. 5 forbade the sale of distilled intoxicating liquors to enlisted men. After an election in October 1865, the restored civil government set rates for liquor licenses at $25 and licenses for first and second class taverns at $50 and $10. The census of Nov. 7, 1865, reported 5,776 people in Chattanooga proper, 3,500 Negroes across the river in Camp Contraband, and 3,000 soldiers still stationed in the town. Those paying taxes into the city treasurer included 38 liquor dealers and two first class taverns.

Read more Chattanooga History Columns

In the late 1860s the business section was limited to Market Street between the river and Ninth Street, with a long row of drinking saloons near the train depot. On Dec. 8, 1868, the Daily Republican ran an advertisement for one month headlined WANTED IMMEDIATELY ANY NUMBER OF CARPET-BAGGERS TO COME TO CHATTANOOGA AND SETTLE. A postscript added "Those having capital, brains, and muscle preferred."

Among newcomers to the city was James W. Kelly, an Irish immigrant who had spent the Civil War in Nashville selling whiskey to the Union troops stationed there. In 1866 he moved to Chattanooga, opened a retail liquor store and began selling wholesale. He became a rectifier, creating his own blend and putting his own labels on the bottles. In 1876 he joined forces with George W. Davenport, a former Alabamian. In 1890 Davenport went into dry goods, and Kelly maintained the existing business under the name of J.W. Kelly & Co. He hired Louisianan Carl White as his manager and then started the Deep Spring Distillery on East Missionary Avenue in Chattanooga.

Their brands included "Belmont," "Golden Age," "Mountain City Corn Shuck," "Old Milford," "Old Tenn. Sugar Corn," "Pine Split Gin," "Silver Spring Corn," "Lincoln County," and "Deep Spring." His signature label was Deep Spring Tennessee Whiskey, sold in flask-size and both round and square quart bottles that are collector's items today. He created an imaginative saloon sign featuring Robert E. Lee and giveaway items that included shot glasses, highball glasses and bar signs.

Kelly was also a founder of the Lookout Rolling Mills and a stockholder in the Merchants National Bank. His empire was threatened as the Prohibition movement gained strength in the state and across the country. After the Tennessee legislature passed a law in 1909 banning all liquor sales in its borders, J.W. Kelly & Co. continued mail order sales to other states before finally closing about 1916. Kelly himself had died several years earlier in 1907 at the age of 63. He was buried in Forest Hills Cemetery.

Another post-war arrival in Chattanooga was Elijah Roach Betterton, a Confederate veteran. He returned from prison camp to Naruna, Va., where he operated a gristmill on Hat Creek, using a pot still to convert some of the corn to whiskey. He then moved to Chattanooga where he opened a bar and small wholesale liquor business. After trying to start a business in Dallas, he returned to Chattanooga and set up a partnership with J.O. Martin titled E.R. Betterton & Co. They established the White Oak Distillery on Signal Mountain Road near Valdeau and another in 1899 on the south bank of the river east of the Market Street bridge. They also opened an outlet in Cincinnati. They sold White Oak Distillery Tennessee Whiskey in quart bottles and flasks, with a design that was replicated on shot glasses and highball glasses given to favored customers. The distillery closed in 1913 after Tennessee voted prohibition statewide, although E.R.'s son "Lige" Betterton and a partner sold wholesale via express freight and even parcel post from Rossville, Ga., until their stock was exhausted about 1917.

On Sept. 3, 1915 there was a dust-up when Police Commissioner T.C. Betterton was charged with shipping whiskey from his coffin factory in Rossville. Betterton, an ordained Methodist minister who graduated from the Vanderbilt Divinity School in 1892, was not held accountable and later became president of the Loomis & Hart Manufacturing Company. His brother Elijah Jr. was elected mayor of Chattanooga in 1947.

Now Chattanooga's secret is out. Distilleries and breweries are back, including Chattanooga Whiskey and J.W. Kelly, re-introducing its Old Milford bourbon.

Kay Baker Gaston is a regional historian and a former Chattanoogan. For more, visit