In 1944 Schenley Distilleries purchased the Louisville Cooperage. It was part of a plan by Schenley to control as much of the whiskey-making process as they could, including the barrel making process. They would later purchase the Chess and Wymond Cooperage in 1946 as a continuation of this plan. To support these cooperages, Schenley also purchased land and planted oak trees. It was truly a long-range plan on their part. They were making thousands of barrels of whiskey every day in the late 1940s and 50s. They owned over a dozen distilleries in several states. They needed the cooperages to make the barrels required for this production.
This photograph is one of a series of images in a file on Louisville Cooperage in the United Distillers Archive. The file was created to show the Schenley management in New York what they had purchased when they acquired the cooperage. It shows staves being selected and barrels being raised at the cooperage. There are seven workers in the image, showing the labor-intensive nature of the coopering process. This is still true today. Raising a barrel has to be done by hand as each stave is unique and it takes a trained eye to pick the correct staves to make a barrel that does not leak. The cooper is a real artisan with the skill and talent of knowing what stave to pick to fit tight with the one next to it and to spot a defect in the wood that might cause weakness or a leak.
The cooper was a valued employee and a vital worker during World War Two as barrels were needed to ship various products during the war. To save wood and use fewer barrels, the size of the barrel was increased during the war to 53 gallons from the previous standard of 48 gallons. It might have been increased even more, but 53 gallons was as large as they could go and still fit barrels into the racks of aging warehouses. The barrels in this photograph would be the 53-gallon size.
There are several African-American men working in this photograph. The war opened doors for African-Americans as places like Louisville Cooperage needed workers as more and more workers were drafted or voluntarily joined the military. After the war, Schenley was a very progressive company and worked to keep as many of their African-American employees as possible.
In the 1960s, Schenley found itself with a glut of whiskey due to overproduction in the early 1950s. They closed most of their distilleries and the ones remaining were at minimal production. The result was that they found themselves without a need for as many barrels and started to sell off their cooperages. The first to go was the Chess and Wymond Cooperage, but the Louisville Cooperage soon followed. As Schenley entered the 1970s, it was a mere shell of the company it was before the overproduction of the 1950s. By the late 1980s, Schenley existed only on paper as the Ancient Age Distillery went independent and the rest of the company was sold to what became United Distillers.