Ask Vance: Great Scott!
Our local trivia expert solves local mysteries of who, what, when, where, why, and why not.
Dear Vance: While cleaning out some old papers, I discovered a pamphlet for a Memphis liquor company with an unusual name — H. Scott’s Sons. Where was this firm, and what can you tell me about it? — F. D., Memphis
Dear F. D.: As you might expect, the Lauderdale family has a deep and abiding interest in all things involving alcohol — wine, whiskey, brandy, ale, beer, and certain brands of cough syrup. As a result, the estate has an impressive amount of alcohol-related research material — usually in the form of empty whiskey bottles filling up the bathtub, tapped-out casks of Jack Daniel’s serving as dining room benches, and a couple of hundred beer cans tossed into the street. Again, all studied, consumed, and enjoyed in the name of “research.”
But despite this familiarity with all kinds of liquor, I couldn’t tell you much about H. Scott’s Sons, a firm which — as you noted — had a rather unusual name, implying that H. Scott himself (whoever he was) wasn’t directly involved, but his sons were. Very curious indeed.
So I rooted around in some old shoeboxes in the closet, and what do you know, I turned up a wonderful old pamphlet for the company (shown here). At about the same time, I stumbled upon a fascinating website with the rather vague name of pre-pro.com, which I soon learned was short for “pre-prohibition” and is an online encyclopedia of hundreds of small breweries and distributors that were in business in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Including, as it turned out, H. Scott’s Sons.
The “H” stood for Henry, who was born in Greenville, Mississippi, and I believe moved to Memphis in the late 1800s. I say “believe” because I can’t prove that, and it doesn’t matter anyway, because it’s his three sons who interest us here. Isidor, Louis, and Jacob Scott established a liquor distribution company in Memphis in 1913. Judging from the promotional booklet in my own possession, and other samples displayed on the pre-pro website, it was an ambitious undertaking, since the brothers offered an astonishing assortment of alcoholic beverages: whiskey, gin, beer, ale, cordials, cocktails, and more. Why, they offered almost 30 flavors of brandy, including apple, peach, apricot, and even something called “rock and rye.”
Once a customer decided that he just wanted, say, whiskey, he was confronted with more than two dozen different brands, carrying such colorful names as Black Bird, Jolly Fellow, Old Oscar Pepper, Old Ripy, Big Ben, Old Tom, Great Scott, and — a Lauderdale favorite — Grandpa Corn. In fact, the sales brochures offered a gallon of 100-proof Grandpa Corn Whiskey for just $2.95, with free shipping. This product, so Scott’s Sons promised, “offers quality in every drop,” “is excellent for your health,” and — here’s the kicker — “will make you feel better after using it.” Oh, I bet it would.
In fact, the health benefits of all this boozing were often touted in the Scott’s Sons sales materials. “Doctors recommend whiskey for a tonic,” proclaims one brochure, “and say it will add years to your life because it has properties that will stop decay and waste.”
Another booklet urges customers that they’d better not delay: “Your family doctor will tell you that it is a necessity to have whiskey on hand, because in case of sickness its usefulness cannot be estimated. You cannot wait until someone gets sick before you place an order.” So true, so true.
I’m not clear where H. Scott’s Sons actually stored all these bottles and crates and barrels, but the company offices were located in the Falls Building on Front Street. In fact, one of their brochures contains this rather confusing order form (left), showing an H. Scott’s salesman commanding you to order now, while he is sitting in his nice office, a half-empty whiskey bottle close at hand. Meanwhile the Falls Building itself — where he would actually have been working — is visible down the street outside his window.
I guess the artist couldn’t figure out how to show the H. Scott’s Sons salesman and the company’s building at the same time. Or maybe he was so drunk on that Old Ripy whiskey that he thought the image made sense. Even so, the Falls Building did not carry the name “H. Scott’s Sons” in giant letters across its rooftop.
Despite the impressive selection of merchandise and the nicely printed sales brochures, I’m not convinced that H. Scott’s Sons was ever a thriving business. Sure, the Falls Buiding, then and now, was a nice address. But where did the sons actually live? I pored through old city directories and discovered that Jacob’s residence was listed as Greenville, Mississippi, so I can’t tell you much about him. The other two, Isidor and Louis, boarded together in the same house on Poplar. When company owners live in rented lodgings, that’s not exactly a sign of long-term prosperity.
By 1915, the company had moved out of its swanky offices on Front Street and relocated to the ground floor of a more humble building at 79 Union Avenue. Back then, Union was cluttered with small family-run businesses, and H. Scott’s Sons was tucked into the same block as Carlock Fruit and Produce, Gordon Cigar Company, Southern Cotton Picker Company, and Memphis Auto Service.
If the company was struggling to survive, the death blow came in 1919, when Congress passed the Volstead Act, otherwise known as Prohibition. Overnight, nearly all this country’s liquor producers and distributors were put out of business — the legitimate ones, anyway.
H. Scott’s Sons was apparently no exception, because the phone books have no listing for the firm after 1919.
What happened to the sons? I can’t tell you very much. Jacob and Isidor drop out of the city directories after the liquor business closed. But Louis stayed here, and eventually landed a job as a department manager at Goldsmith’s. He lived with his wife, Margaret, at 1372 Harbert until his death in 1938 at the age of 64.
Looking for Lowe’s
Dear Vance: I stumbled upon this nice photograph of an old grocery store online, and the location was supposedly Memphis. Do you know if that’s correct? — J. B., Germantown
Dear J. B.: It’s a great old photograph of a tiny grocery store, but I had never heard of Lowe’s Place and didn’t at first recognize it. But I immediately identified the huge building in the background as the old factory — still standing today — of the W.T. Rawleigh Company, and that settled it. Yes, this is definitely a Memphis location.
Rawleigh was one of this country’s largest producers of patent medicines, cosmetics, insecticides, and spices. It seems a rather eclectic mix of merchandise, if you ask me, but they were hugely successful, and the firm has managed to survive to this day. The building in the photograph, constructed in 1912 downtown at the corner of Illinois and Pennsylvania, was the largest Rawleigh manufacturing plant in the country.
Across the street, Lowe’s Place was decidedly more humble. The tiny wooden building, with its impressive Coca-Cola billboard and smaller signs advertising Royal Crown Cola, Hire’s Root Beer, and Spur soft drinks, originally stood at 884 Pennsylvania, just one block south of Crump Boulevard. Judging from the old car barely visible in the background, this photo was taken in the 1940s.
Looking through old city directories, which seems to be how I spend all my time lately, I discovered that a fellow named Marshall Lowe owned and operated this tiny establishment. Lowe got his start in the grocery business by working as a packer for Wagner Grocers, a large wholesale firm on Wagner Place. He opened his own establishment in the late 1930s. Not only did he work there, he lived in the back with his wife, Clara. Very cozy.
Nowadays, the area around Crump is mainly warehouses, factories, and vacant lots, but back then, this was a lively community. Lowe’s neighbors included Rosenblum Dry Goods, Loeffel’s Barber Shop, Vernon Memorial Methodist Church, and Dixie Coal Company, all tucked between block after block of houses and apartment buildings.
Lowe passed away in 1949, and his business died at the same time, but that was through no fault of his own. The Memphis-Arkansas Bridge was completed that year, and all the old neighborhoods north and south of Crump Boulevard, which was the main traffic artery to the new bridge, were obliterated to make way for entrance/exit ramps and the link with I-55 and Riverside Drive. The intersection shown here, in fact, is now an exit ramp for the expressway. The abandoned Rawleigh warehouse looks over this interchange, but there’s absolutely no trace of Lowe’s Place.