When I started doing work as an archivist for United Distillers, one of the first things I did was visit the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History. This is when I first met Flaget Nally and Mary Hite, the two ladies that were curators of the museum. They have since retired and the present curator is Mary Ellen Hamilton. These three ladies are indeed unsung heroes of the Bourbon industry. To understand just how important they are, first you must understand the Getz Museum and its importance.
Oscar Getz purchased the Tom Moore distillery in the 1940s and changed its name to the Barton distillery. For the next four decades he collected whiskey artifacts and documents and showcased them at the distillery. He retired and sold the distillery in the late 70s or early 80s and took this collection with him. Unfortunately he passed away very soon afterwards, but his widow and son helped turn the collection into the present day Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History.
The collection at the museum has grown over the years and includes many artifacts of historical rarity. Pot stills from the early 19th century or older, bar decanters, bottles and jugs from many distilleries, both those that exists today and many who were lost with the start of prohibition. Books, magazines and other documents dealing with the distilling industry not only in Kentucky but all across America. Any person wanting to find an old label or letterhead from a distillery where a family member once worked needs to start their search at the Getz Museum.
Now when the museum was started the Getz family stated they would donate the collection and give a yearly donation to support the museum, but the museum would never be allowed to charge admission. The collection is open to the public without a charge. Great for the public but not so much for the museum. The family’s donation, donations left by visitors and the Auction during Bourbon Festival are the only sources of income for the museum. This total budget is less than the pay of one full time curator at a museum in Washington D.C. or New York or even the Speed Museum in Louisville. For less than $100,000 a year these ladies have kept the doors open and the public educated about Bourbon and other American whiskeys.
This was a real challenge when I first met Flaget and Mary. Besides paying themselves and a couple of part time workers for the museum, they had to pay the utilities bills, the security system bill, insurance bill, and any other emergency expenses that came up. In this time they have managed to raise money to put a new roof on the building and put an elevator to allow handicap access to the museums. The building is owned by the proto-cathedral and the Catholic Church but they do not charge rent, and in return the museum staff is responsible for maintaining the building. Some of this is raised by renting office space on the second floor of the building and renting the ground floor out to a restaurant, but two hundred year old buildings are expensive to keep up and funds are always a problem.
Mary Ellen Hamilton faces the same expenses as her predecessors but with dwindling resources. The budget today is about the same as it was when I first started coming to the museum in the early 1990s, but expenses have increased. She does an heroic job just keeping the doors open. Income has not increased and in fact, the auction increased revenue is more than balanced by decreasing revenue from individual donations over the year. There are fewer people coming to the museum since the distilleries have opened visitor centers with exhibits of their own.
The curators of the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History, Flaget Nally, Mary Hite and Mary Ellen Hamilton are real heroes of the Bourbon Industry. They have worked for very little money but spent many long hour making the heritage of Bourbon and distilling available to the public. They preserve this heritage as best they can with what they have to work with. Keep this in mind the next time you are in Bardstown and visiting the museum. Enjoy the displays while you can and remember that donation you leave when you finish the tour really does help.
Photos Courtesy of The Oscar Getz Whiskey History Museum