Articles & Stories

Distilling Service Operations In

Edmonson County, Kentucky

James Jones Brown, Licensed Inspector, Traveled Horseback

For Days Inspecting Distilleries And Establishing Proof

By Garland K. Childress - 2007

The site of this distilling project was located in Edmonson County, now probably in or very near to the Mammoth Cave National Park. A weathered signboard nailed above the doorway proclaims that this was the J. A. Sanders Distillery, 2nd District. Reportedly, the full name of J. A. Sanders was James Artie Sanders (1891-1918). It is most probable that he was not the first owner of this distilling establishment. Local distilleries of this example were once common in this area between the waters of the Green and Nolin Rivers. These stills were legal operations and produced spirits under contract to a larger distillery.
In earlier days it was commonly known that James Brown Jones (J. B. Jones, 1859-1944) was licensed by the state of Kentucky as an inspector. His job was to periodically visit these sites and establish "Outs and Proof (alcohol content)" prior to sealing the barrels for shipment down the Green River. From his home base at Cub Run, he would travel on horseback for days at a time, boarding and lodging in the household of his clients.
The final destination of the inspected product is said to have been one of the large distilling companies in Owensboro, Kentucky. Here the content was reprocessed, marketed, and shipped once again to far destinations. The most probable recipient of ample shipments from Edmonson County was the Eagle Distilling Company, located in Owensboro. This company was one of three registered and licensed as a contract distilling company within the county. Some records of these companies have been found dating from 1887 through 1891, and proper archival records could probably be found of a later time, perhaps circa early 1900.
According to J. B. Jones, the writer's grandfather, whiskey production from that area of the county was shipped in barrels made by local craftsmen, from locally-grown white oak timber. The Coopers Craft had been introduced in the area by the earliest Anglo-Saxon settlers. It is commonly- known much fine oak staves timber once grew there, from which many thousands of barrel staves and railroad ties were made and shipped down river.

The J. A. Sanders Distillery near Ollie, Edmonson County, Kentucky, ca. 1913. James Artie Sanders (1891-1918), owner of the distilling establishment at this time is shown third from left. The plaque, standing in front of the elderly gentleman, is probaby the license to operate the still. Others in the photo are not identified. (Photo courtesy of Garland K. Childress.)

Soon after this legal alcohol had been proofed and the state seal affixed by Jones, wagons pulled by teams of oxen were loaded and transported overland to the landing at Houchens or Mammoth Cave Ferry on Green River. Here the barrels were off-loaded onto steam-powered packet boats, such as the J. C. Kerr/Chaperone and others of a shallow draft.
Jones reported in a 1941 interview that given any one time, there were as many as a dozen distilling service operations in that section of Edmonson County, which consisted of the area north of the Green River, now in the Mammoth Cave National Park. Communities within this boundary went under the names Good Spring, Cade, Ollie, Stockholm, and others. It was at Stockholm, while making his rounds of the stills, Jones met his future wife, the 18-year-old Sarah Elizabeth Meredith. Jones was 38 years old. The year was 1897, and that was the last year he worked in the distilling industry. On June 22, 1898, he secured license to practice pharmacy, which he immediately began at a store in Hart County, located in the little town of Cub Run, Kentucky.
Just when the last of these small, licensed distilleries closed their doors for the final time is unknown. What is known, however, is that much had been learned during the times of legal production. These lessons were put into practice during the time of our country's imposed attempt at abstinence from drinking. Bootleggers in the big cities were keen to lay hands on good quality brew produced in these hills, by masters of their craft. Even today, the number of illegal still sites is evidenced by the hundreds of abandoned fieldstone furnaces housed in out-of-way rock shelters, near a source of firewood and a good limestone spring.
It is reported that the full name of J. A. Sanders was James Artie Sanders (1891-1918). His place of burial was in the Union Light Cemetery, Edmonson County, Kentucky. His cause of death was attributed to the 1918 influenza outbreak during WWI.

Garland K. Childress, 4105 Riveroaks Lane, Louisville, KY 40241, shares this article with our readers.

Sources: James Brown Jones, personal recollections, taken from a 1941 interview.
The Green River Of Kentucky by Hellen Bartter Crocker, U of K Press, 1976.
Norman Warnell, author of Mammoth Cave, Forgotten Stories Of Its People, 1997.
Dalyn R. Hester, antique photo collection and for his research assistance.