When you visit the James E. Pepper Distillery in Lexington, Kentucky, you will see these two images hanging on the wall of their history room. Ella Offut Pepper was married to James E. Pepper and they were devoted to each other. These two images help tell the story of that love for each other. The first image is of Ella O. Pepper. Under the image is the caption “Mrs. Ella O. Pepper, “Queen of the Turf”, 1856-1939”. Above the image is the caption “Mrs. Ella O. Pepper Repaired Husband’s Failing Fortunes by Establishing a Racing Stable”. This image is from the cover of a magazine and as the new owner of the Pepper Brand and Distillery, Amir Peay, tells the story, it contains an article telling how she saved her husband’s distillery from the auction block.
The story starts with one of the many financial depressions of the late 19th century. James E. Pepper was caught short of money with many debt collectors calling for their money. He filed for bankruptcy and his stable of racing horses were the first thing to hit the auction block.
Ella did not want to see it all leave the family so she went to the auction to bid on some of the horses with her own money. When the other bidders saw who she was and what she was trying to do, they refused to bid against her. She was able to save the best horses in the stable, paying the minimum bid for each horse. She then turned to managing these horses and managed to raise enough money to bail out the James E. Pepper Distillery and save it from the auction block.
The second image is from 1906-07. The poster is taken from the New York Times 1906 headline announcing the death of James E. Pepper and a 1907 Washington Times article about Pepper’s wish to have a statue of his wife as a monument at this grave. Pepper slipped on an icy sidewalk in New York and hit his head, sending him into a coma, from which he never recovered.
He loved Ella so much he wanted her statue at his grave site. She, however, was still young enough and living, so she did not think it appropriate at the time for that to happen. She did not want to take away from her husband’s legacy by discussing how she saved him. In her opinion, he had built these businesses and she had just done what any loving wife would have done for her husband. She did survive James by another 33 years.
James and Ella Pepper were not the only distillery couple that were more than life partners. E.H. Taylor, Jr. purchased his first distillery from one of his wife’s cousins. He used his wife’s family connections with the Crittenden family to sell whiskey and raise money when he needed to start over after bankruptcy.
Isaac Wolfe Bernheim’s wife and family played a role in the career of Bernheim Bros. Her brother became a partner in the business for a while, before starting his own company. More recently, Margie Samuels played a huge role in supporting her husband, T.W. Samuels when he started the Maker’s Mark brand and Star Hill Distillery.
There are probably many other unrecorded stories of wives that were vital partners to their husbands’ distilling business. The story of Ella O. Pepper is just one story that was made public. If you dig deeply enough in the family papers of distillers, I am sure you will find the stories of the women who played a vital role in both their families and their businesses.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller