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Stash of Stoneware

Barnett’s Whiskey Jug Collection captures unique era of U.S. history

J. Chilton Barnett had a passion for stoneware jugs

LA GRANGE, Ky. (September 2019) – Henry McKenna was born in 1819 in Draperstown, County Derry, Ireland. As a youth he worked in an Irish distillery and clerked in a liquor store for a relative. Later in life, he would produce whiskey bottles, some of which are now on display at the Oldham County History Center in La Grange, Ky.
McKenna immigrated to the United States at age 18 with no thought of becoming a whiskey distiller. He did head in the right direction – straight for Kentucky. He married and eventually settled in Nelson County, where Bardstown would become known as “the Bourbon Capital of the World.”
By 1855 McKenna had become a partner in a flour milling business in Fairfield, Ky. The pair soon learned as they ground wheat into flour for neighbors that the gristing process produced considerable waste. McKenna’s answer was to purchase a farm and pigs to eat the leftovers. Deciding he still had too much waste, McKenna turned the leftovers into whiskey.

Photo by Helen McKinney

Whiskey jug collector and Pewee Valley, Ky., antique dealer J. Chilton Barnett left 469 whiskey jugs to the Oldham County History Center upon his death in 1999.

He set about constructing a wooden still in the back of his flour mill. The result was a barrel of whiskey a day. He eventually replaced the wheat for corn, a staple for true bourbon whiskey. A newspaper account from the time stated that he accomplished all of his distilling with the help of one slave.
McKenna made a name for himself as a unique Kentucky distiller because he refused to sell his whiskey until it had been aged at least three years. By 1880 he had opened an office on Louisville’s Market Street to sell his product. After another move to a different location on Market Street, McKenna settled on Fourth Street near Main. This location is now known as Louisville’s Distillery Row.
His whiskey became very popular. Even the containers were notable, with many of these “scratch jugs” sold that contained the distiller’s information scratched or etched into the glaze.
Such is the history behind several of the jugs in the J. Chilton Barnett Whiskey Jug Collection now on display at the Oldham County History Center. The exhibit will run from August – December 2019.
Barnett (Aug. 1, 1917-Nov. 16, 1999), was an antique dealer in Pewee Valley for 25 years. He amassed quite a collection, leaving 469 stoneware jugs to the History Center upon his death in 1999.
Barnett paid anywhere from 50 cents to $125 for each jug. The collectible jugs range in size from miniature one ounce jugs to larger five-gallon jugs. The most popular jugs had a one-gallon capacity.
Most of the jugs in his collection contained whiskey, although other liquids were often sold in stone jugs such as mineral water, honey, arsenic, vinegar, molasses and even mercury. “People recycled these jugs by taking them back to the local drugstore or bar for refills when they ran out,” said Nancy Stearns Theiss, executive director of the Oldham County History Center.
Scratch jugs, like the ones McKenna used, “are the oldest, probably from the Civil War period,” she said. The “stamped” jugs were “early advertisements. The more rare jugs in the collection are from small towns, and are more collectible.”
Barnett collected only jugs that bore the names of Kentucky businesses. Most of the jugs were branded with the names of either the many small distilleries that flourished in the state for a century, from the early 1800s through the early 1900s, or the names of businesses such as drugstores or groceries.
During the 1870s-1890s, Oldham County was home to several flourishing distilleries. Abundant farmland, multiple limestone springs and the proximity of the Ohio River made Oldham County perfect for distilling whiskey.
A number of distilleries were located in Buckner’s Station and operated by Benjamin Callahan, Leslie C. Ford & Co., Shirley & Chambers, W.W. Duncan & Son, Wilhite & Williams and James W. White. The Joseph Smithers Distillery in La Grange was a well-known distillery.
Westport contained its fair share of distilleries including Apply Brandy Distillers, F.N. Frishe, and Balzer & Co. Brownsboro contained two operated by Robert Sherley and T.C. Yeager & Son.
Prohibition helped bring about an end to many whiskey distilleries, reducing the need for whiskey jugs. Before his death in February 1893, McKenna had the foresight to turn over his distillery business to his two eldest sons, Daniel and James.
Daniel died not long before Prohibition, and James was left to run the business. He had to shut down the whiskey making for a time, but the distillery was left intact throughout the Dry Era.
Upon passage of the 21st Amendment to repeal Prohibition, James and his young brother, Stafford, re-opened their Nelson County distillery and continued their tradition of whiskey making. After James’ death in 1940, family members sold the distillery to the Seagram Corp. Seagram sold the brand name to Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown, Ky., in the early 1980s. Although not bottled in scratch jugs anymore, McKenna’s whiskey continues to be sold today nationwide.
When Barnett collected whiskey jugs, he was preserving a piece of Kentucky history that gives a glimpse of life before Prohibition. This collection is a valuable part of the archives of the history center.

• For more information, contact the Oldham County History Center at (502) 222-0826.

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