Gaston: Chattanooga's best-kept secret

Gaston: Chattanooga's best-kept secret

May 6th, 2018 by Kay Baker Gaston in Opinion Columns

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

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 chattahistoricalassoc.org.

Getting Started/Comments Policy

Getting started

  1. 1. If you frequently comment on news websites then you may already have a Disqus account. If so, click the "Login" button at the top right of the comment widget and choose whether you'd rather log in with Facebook, Twitter, Google, or a Disqus account.
  2. 2. If you've forgotten your password, Disqus will email you a link that will allow you to create a new one. Easy!
  3. 3. If you're not a member yet, Disqus will go ahead and register you. It's seamless and takes about 10 seconds.
  4. 4. To register, either go through the login process or just click in the box that says "join the discussion," type your comment, and either choose a social media platform to log you in or create a Disqus account with your email address.
  5. 5. If you use Twitter, Facebook or Google to log in, you will need to stay logged into that platform in order to comment. If you create a Disqus account instead, you'll need to remember your Disqus password. Either way, you can change your display name if you'd rather not show off your real name.
  6. 6. Don't be a huge jerk or do anything illegal, and you'll be fine.

Chattanooga Times Free Press Comments Policy

The Chattanooga Times Free Press web sites include interactive areas in which users can express opinions and share ideas and information. We cannot and do not monitor all of the material submitted to the website. Additionally, we do not control, and are not responsible for, content submitted by users. By using the web sites, you may be exposed to content that you may find offensive, indecent, inaccurate, misleading, or otherwise objectionable. You agree that you must evaluate, and bear all risks associated with, the use of the Times Free Press web sites and any content on the Times Free Press web sites, including, but not limited to, whether you should rely on such content. Notwithstanding the foregoing, you acknowledge that we shall have the right (but not the obligation) to review any content that you have submitted to the Times Free Press, and to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content that we determine, in our sole discretion, (a) does not comply with the terms and conditions of this agreement; (b) might violate any law, infringe upon the rights of third parties, or subject us to liability for any reason; or (c) might adversely affect our public image, reputation or goodwill. Moreover, we reserve the right to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content at any time, for the reasons set forth above, for any other reason, or for no reason. If you believe that any content on any of the Times Free Press websites infringes upon any copyrights that you own, please contact us pursuant to the procedures outlined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (Title 17 U.S.C. § 512) at the following address:

Copyright Agent
The Chattanooga Times Free Press
400 East 11th Street
Chattanooga, TN 37403
Phone: 423-757-6315
Email: webeditor@timesfreepress.com


Loading...