Jack Daniels Distillery once located in Gadsden

By Danny By Danny "The Vagabond" Crownover

Known for its square bottles and black label, Jack Daniel’s is a brand of Tennessee whiskey that is among the world’s best-selling liquors.

Jasper Newton “Jack” Daniel was born in September 1850, although seemingly no one knows the exact date because the birth records were destroyed in a courthouse fire.

If the 1850 date is correct, he might have become a licensed distiller at the age of 16.

Jack Daniel’s sister married a Motlow. The couple had 10 children, including Lem, Spoon, Frank and Thomas. The first three were engaged in the liquor business in one way or another. Thomas became a banker in Lynchburg .

Jack took his favorite nephew, Lem Motlow, under his wing. Lem had a head for numbers, and was soon doing all of the distillery’s bookkeeping.

In 1907, due to failing health, Jack Daniel gave the distillery to his nephew.

In about 1890 Lem’s brother, Spoon Motlow, moved to Gadsden from Lynchburg, Tenn., to open the Spoon Motlow Saloon.

That was just before he decided to do what Lem was doing – getting into the distilling business.

Old map photographs depict Spoon’s saloon to be in the 400 block of Broad Street.

Records show that on May 26, 1903, a C. N Alford sold to Spoon Motlow 2.73 acres of land located at 5th Street and Tuscaloosa Avenue.

Fifth Street of that day was located about one block east of its present location.

It was known as Red Row and later named Essex Street. It again was closed at a later date.

Spoon Motlow paid $1,365 for the Tuscaloosa Avenue tract and began making plans to build a distillery.

His product was to be called Coosa River Corn Whiskey, distilled from waters from Standifer Springs, using the Lincoln County process from Tennessee.

In the fall of 1903, Motlow sold one-third of his interest in the distillery to Lem Motlow and one-third to W.S. Boyd.

The Gadsden Distilling Company then became a reality. Ten buildings were erected, including a reservoir that was necessary for distilling the Coosa River Corn Whiskey.

The main building was a large two-story structure with an exterior of vertical planking. Each building was painted red.

Judging from the number of buildings on the property the Motlows must have done a thriving business.

The distillery produced corn whiskey known as Black Jack and was famous for the Coosa River “Lincoln County Process” brand of sour mash whiskey.

A 1910 insurance map of Gadsden shows that the plant was “not in operation since 1908.” A notation on a 1915 map states, “buildings now vacant and in dilapidated condition.”

Many Gadsden residents remembered the old distillery and its buildings and how they looked around 1915.

The main building was two stories high with an exterior of vertical planking, painted red. The street on the western boundary of the property was known as Red Row.

Sulphur water that had a “terrible odor” poured from the old mines through a pipe.

There was an old whiskey jug popularly used in the early days by saloonkeepers that contained Motlow’s famous drink. Cut in the crockery is the inscription, “W. L. Echols, Pure Wines and Liquors, Gadsden, Ala.”

Echols had a saloon at Broad and Court streets in the building once occupied by Hagedorn’s store. The Echols family lived on the second floor over the saloon.

Another saloon, Nugent’s in Attalla, also did business with the Motlow distillery.

Back then Gadsden had a crockery industry, and it is plausible that saloons had their own jugs manufactured with their names cut into the crockery while the clay was still soft before the baking and glazing were done.

During the early 1900s, Etowah County was a “wet” county, meaning it was legal to sell alcoholic beverages such as beer and whiskey.

Many popular saloons were located on Broad Street, as well as in Attalla.

The saloons were very popular, causing the crime rate in Etowah County to reach a very high rate by mid-1907. 

One newspaper reported:

“Thursday, Sept. 20, 1906 – John Davis Murdered In a Most Brutal Way Near Boaz. Coroner Investigating

John Davis, bartender and manager of Spoon Motlow’s saloon at Mountainboro, was murdered and robbed in his place of business last Thursday night.

He was shot three times in the head and shoulders, his throat was cut from ear to ear, his head being almost severed from the body and he was beaten about the head and body in a frightful manner. News of the tragedy was received in Gadsden early Friday morning by telephone.”

It was at this time that a committee of prominent citizens formed to put a stop to open saloons and to try to get a handle on the high crime rate.

This committee soon began to circulate petitions to call for a wet-dry referendum to try to stop the sale of alcohol in Gadsden and Attalla.

J.E. Blackwood was chosen as chairman for the prohibition campaign committee, with Col. R.B. Kyle, one of Gadsden ‘s most respected citizens, taking up the cause against prohibition.

More than enough names had been gathered to call for the vote by late September, and the battle lines had been drawn.

The date for the vote was set for Oct. 29, 1907, with a rousing campaign being waged by both sides.

Kyle asserted that the question of alcohol and the open saloon should be left up to each individual’s own freedom of choice. Many of the women of Etowah County branded Kyle a “devil” and spoke out against him.

On the date for the vote, many of the men who went out to the polls were surprised at what they saw.

A large gathering of women was on hand to attempt to sway the opinion of the voters.

Many potential voters actually were turned away, causing a much smaller turnout than was expected.

In Attalla, the women and children took charge of the polls early in the morning, and many of the anti-prohibitionists failed to vote.

Many of the women at the polls carried signs, and if the demonstrators could not change a voter’s mind on how to vote, the signs were used to persuade him not to vote at all.

In Alabama City, where there were an unusual proportion of women and children, not a woman or child took any part whatsoever.

None of them gathered around the polls, but some demonstrations by the prohibitionists went on at several small precincts.

There was no question about the county going dry on this date. The only question was the size of the majority.

At noon, 62 voters had been polled in Alabama City, with 2-to-1 in favor of prohibition.

Out of the 90 voters polled in Altoona, not a single one was for whiskey.

Early in the morning of the vote, a large group of women and children gathered at the Etowah County Courthouse on Broad Street long before the polls opened.

When the election was officially announced at 8 a.m., probably 300 people stood on the broad steps of the big building and began to sing sacred songs and wave banners.

The children present each held flags and joined in the singing. It was a novel sight for Gadsden.

At first, the women and children massed solidly in front of the main entrance, but an opening was soon formed to get to the inside where the voting was being done.

On every hand, the good women of Gadsden asked for votes for prohibition and, every one of them was ready to argue her case.

When the votes were counted, 1,632 had voted for prohibition and only 474 had cast votes for the legal sale of alcohol.

Prohibition became law on Jan. 1, 1908.

This event marked the closing of the saloons throughout Etowah County as well as the closing of the Spoon Motlow Saloon and the Gadsden Distillery. Etowah County remained dry for several years.

Gadsden today might have a thriving distillery, making something like the famous “Jack Daniel’s No. 7” whiskey were it not for Etowah County ‘s proclivity for voting itself dry.

But it did this in 1907, for the first time in the century.

And it came at a time when anti-liquor forces, headed by the Anti-Saloon League, were engaged in a national campaign against the evils of “Demon Rum.”

It all ended in national prohibition during World War I.

The 1907 dry vote in Etowah forced the Gadsden Distilling Company, operated by Lem and Spoon Motlow, to close.

With this national sentiment against alcohol gaining momentum, there was little chance for the distillery to reopen even if the county had changed its mind.

This was the end of legal distilling in Gadsden.

Spoon Motlow returned to Moore and Lincoln counties and began to farm and raise prize mules to trade and show. He loved to fox hunt, and he was also president of the Moore County Bank from 1901 until 1916.

On Oct. 10, 1925, Motlow died suddenly at age 57, leaving his 11-year old daughter an orphan.

Further records show that Spoon Motlow died interstate, thus leaving his sole heir, Nancy Motlow Pitts, the Tuscaloosa Avenue property.

Spoon’s brother, Lem had produced whiskey off and on with him in Gadsden, Birmingham and St. Louis until Jefferson went dry with national prohibition.

Lem had the Birmingham and St. Louis operations going at the same time and traveled back and forth on a strenuous schedule.

Lem was out of the distilling business until 1938, when he opened the present distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn. When prohibition ended in 1932, Tennessee was still dry under a statute of its own. Lem vowed to change this.

A resident of Lynchburg at that time, he told the residents of Moore County, “If you elect me to the state legislature, I promise you I’m going to help myself, and if I do that, I’ll be helping you.”

After Lem was elected, he to the legislature and persuaded the legislators to change the statute.

Back home, however, Moore County had a judge who refused to call a referendum to legalize the distillery.

Lem took his case to the State Supreme Court, which ordered the referendum. Lem won, and the distillery was opened.

Liquor then could be made but not sold in the county. It was dry then and remains so to this day.

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