Could Iredell County have been the Milwaukee liquor capitol of the South? Iredell certainly had an earlier start in the manufacture of alcoholic beverages. The first business in Statesville was a tavern and the 1800 tax list showed nearly 50 still houses in the area. The 1820 tax lists showed 220 grain stills and about the same number of brandy stills with 180 persons employed in the making of whisky and alcohol. Iredell County had an abundance of good farm land to grow grain and corn and in Homer Keever’s, “Iredell Piedmont County,” Prof. Henry Burke is quoted as saying at Bethany Centennial Church in 1875, “When Rev. Stephen Prontis was pastor of this church in 1829, almost every farmer had a still by a spring on his farm and it was customary to use liquor freely. Distillation was thought to be the only means of converting the surplus products of the farm into money.” In 1840 there were 150 known stills operating in Iredell County.
The Landmark newspaper reported that “The agent of the A.T. & O Railroad figured between Sept. 1, 1879 and March 30, 1880, nearly 57,000 gallons of whisky had been shipped to South Carolina over his road alone, to say nothing of what was being shipped over the Western road.” In the 1880’s and 1890’s Statesville was the liquor capital of North Carolina manufacturing huge quantities of whisky and tobacco. In the late 1890s there were 47 bonded distilleries in Iredell County of which 21 were brandy distilleries and 26 were making whisky from corn. It was social conditions rather than economic ones that brought the industry to a close. A strong temperance movement led by the religious community shut the industry here down by 1903 as local and state laws ended the legal manufacture of the liquor trade.
The repeal of prohibition in 1933 and the Great Depression brought new opportunity for the liquor industry locally. A charter was issued on Oct. 10, 1933 for the Old South Brewing Company to sell $1 million in capital stock to start a new brewing manufacturing plant in Statesville. Mac Lackey wrote about the company in an article published in the April 12, 1989 issue of Iredell Neighbors. J.G. Isenhour and E.L. Murphy were the officials of the new company while Maj. William L. Allison of Statesville was president. The brewery was to be located in the old Sterling Flour Mill at the intersection of Monroe and Rickert Streets near the railroad depot in Statesville. Plans called for the brewery to start by Jan. 1, 1934 and shipping to begin by March 1, 1934.
The brewery would have been a boon for Statesville during the depression. It planned to employ up to 125 people and hoped to produce approximately 120,000 barrels or 4 million gallons a year. The barrels were to be made locally and the grain and corn were to come from local farmers. Maj. Allison had served in World War I and had been a vice president of Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia before returning to Statesville in 1931. He was the owner of the Statesville Manufacturing Co. and his involvement in the Old South Brewing Co. gave it instant creditability. Unfortunately, the project ran into troubles from the start. It was announced that work to remove the old Sterling Mill Flour Mill equipment and sell it would not begin until Jan. 1934 and that operations would not begin until April, 1934. A major setback occurred when the Southeastern Brewing Co., of Chattanooga, TN, filed a suit over the use of the name of Old South Brew in 1934. The suit dragged on and did not get settled until April 15, 1935 when the courts ruled in favor of the Statesville operation.
Soon over $200,000 had been spent in renovating the plant and $100,000 more spent in purchasing brewing machinery. Old South Brew had its own beer recipe and in February 1936, they contracted with the Belmont Brewery Co., of Marin’s Ferry, Ohio to begin manufacturing their beer so they could get some on the market. Delays continued on into 1937. Maj. Allison’s expense ledger is a reflection of the company’s fortunes. He begins recording what he has spent and invested in the company on Dec. 20, 1933. His writing begins large and bold. On page two the writing gets smaller as he needs to allow more room to record expenses. On page three the writing becomes even smaller and crammed together. By page four it is almost 1938 and his writing is so small it is hardly legible as he struggles to find room to write down all the bills he has paid.
In the end the company never produced a single beer out of the Old South Brewing Company in Statesville. It is hard to say how much Maj. Allison put into the venture, but the four ledger sheets added up to $182,910. The cost and delays brought about by the lawsuit and the conversion of the factory ended the venture. By 1940 the factory at 741 Rickert St. was occupied by Latham & Seville who were in the cotton business.
Joel Reese, Local History Librarian
Iredell County Public Library
For the Statesville Record and Landmark
June 30, 2009