The Beam Reunion
(Descendants of Jacob Beam)
by Jim Beamn (Jim Beam Noe) on Saturday,
Jacob L. Beam was born in Berks County Pa., an agricultural region west of Philadelphia. His parents were 1st & second generation descendants of immigrants who came to the new world to escape political instabilities in western europe. Conflict of the time was the War of Austrian Succession (1740 – 1748) which decimated southwest germany and the lowland countries of western europe and displaced many people of germanic origin. Their family was part of the burgeoning rural community in that region of Pennsylvania, today represented as the Pensylvania Dutch. Whatever life and livelihood his parents envisioned for young Jacob and his close knit family of 3 brothers & 2 sisters was cut short by the untimely death of their father Nicholas, at the age of 29. Jake was 6 years old.
In this frontier era , when survival truly depended on ones ability to be self sufficient, no young family could stand such a loss alone. Widowed with 5 young children, Margaretha turned to her family to help carry on, and eventually relocated to live in Maryland, close to her brother Jost Myers. Jost was the oldest son and as was the custom of the day, he became the principal landowner for a good sized plantation in Frederick County MD, which his forbears had established. It is unknown whether Margaretha remarried, but the Beam children grew up in the close knit family community, on the Myers estate.
Like most remote family owned plantations of the era, the Myers plantation had to be relatively self-sufficient. Dairy cattle, fruit trees, grapes, cultivated tobacco as the principal cash crop and grains to feed the livestock and kids. Fermentation and distilling were vital and common practices on the plantations, most often rendering brandies & aperitifs from the fruits, “hard” cider from bountiful apple harvests and of course, grain whiskeys. The latter also generated some cash income. Considered safer to drink than the water, and having myriad curative and health promoting properties, Spirits held a vital and valued place in the society – and the cupboard.
Jost’s younger brother - Jacob Myers being unlanded, exhibited a keen interest in matters of commerce. Distilling in particular captured his attention, as a business enterprise which could make a man successful. Jake Beam, several years younger and likewise without substantial wealth of his own, was Myers’ admiring partner. Together they conducted the distilling business of the estate, until the day Myers felt the time to be right, and struck out to make his own fortune in the wild lands west of the Alleghenies.
The way west had been opened by 1775 when the likes of Daniel Boone and James Harrod cleared the Wilderness Road into Kentucke, traversing the mountains at the Cumberland Gap and heading northwest to the first inhabited settlements at Boonesborough and Harrodsburg. The colonies of the time - most notably Virginia, encouraged westward expansion by offering land ownership to hearty souls who would settle, clear a patch of land and grow crops. Jacob Myers siezed the opportunity, and by 1778, had established his homeplace near the end of the Wilderness Road, just past Crab Orchard, on Dick’s River.
Jacob Myers’ true ambition was not farming, but rather the production of spirits, from the ample harvest of the settlers in the fertile new lands. His share of the production, “2 gallons for every 10 produced”, he resold to his neighbors and the steady stream of new arrivals coming over on the Wilderness Road. In 1780, when the District of Kentucky was organized into 3 new counties of Virginia, Jacob sought the elected office of burgess, “making free use of his whiskey” to win support. He was outdistanced by Ben Logan, indian fighter and compatriot of Squire Boone. Nonetheless, his enterprise continued, and in 1783, Jacob constructed a new grist mill near his distillery on Dick’s river.
The westward migration quickened when in 1783 George Rogers Clark defeated the English, and the new United States gained sole claim to the Great Northwest Territory which included Kentucky. The US continental congress began more aggressively recruiting immigrants to the west. Jacob Myers, frontier enterpreneur, took up land surveying. Between 1785 and 1792, he mapped and filed land grant claims in Virginia for over 145 tracts, encompassing some 30,000 acres.
Meanwhile back in Maryland, by the mid-1780’s, the thin cumberland plateau soil was beginning to yield diminishing harvests, and Jost Myers knew their lifestyle might be in jeopardy. He realized the solution was to head south or west, and enlisted the aid of his brother. In 1785, Jacob claimed 800 acres in the name of his brother Jost Myers, of Maryland. Conrad Beam, Jake Beam’s elder brother, claimed an adjacent tract as bounty for his Continental Army service during the Revolutionary War. The area promised to be choice farmland, with deep rich soil, and good water. Located on a ridge by Hardin’s creek and “...on the headwaters of Pottinger’s creek”, the place for the continuing American Dream by the Myers / Beam family seemed assured!
Alas fate was again unkind. Jost Meyers died in 1787, never having set foot on Kentucky soil. Nonetheless, the family held to their patriarch’s vision, sold the Maryland farm and prepared to strike out for a new beginning in Kentucky. Jacob Beam is now a man grown, and a full member of the inner family circle, having married Jost’s daughter Mary the year before. So in 1788 six of the seven heirs, plus Jacob Beam, struck out for their new life in Kentucky.
They take the long overland route, down the Shenandoah valley of Virginia, along the Clinch river into Tennessee, then across the Appalachian mountains at the Cumberland Gap. The final leg, into Kentucky along the Wilderness Road and beyond was worse yet - being of simple dirt tracks and game trails. This arduous journey, made on horseback or afoot, with valuable possessions and supplies brought along in wagons, took 5 months or more. Jacob Beam and Mary, now with Jacob jr on her hip, made it to their uncle’s farm in Linclon county, where they take refuge for awhile.
It is here in Lincoln county that Jacob & Mary Beam, now with 2 young children, are counted in the census of 1790. The extended stay here, short of their intended destination was due largely to complexities of gaining title to the land of Jost, which he legally claimed but never occupied before his death. The stay in Lincoln county also provided Jake the occasion to reconnect with his uncle Jacob, and observe his working, profitable distillery and mill operations – a lesson he would soon put to good use.
By 1792, the complexities of the frontier legal system having been overcome, and Jost’s “Promised Land” becomes a reality – as 100 acre tracts divided between his 8 heirs. Not the plantation they had envisioned, but it’s theirs. Jake and Mary travel on to their homestead in what is then Washington county, in the newly formed State of Kentucky.
The area is bustling with activity, as new immigrants from the east jostle for their new start. Large groups of Catholics, dispossessed of voting and property rights in Baltimore arrived in three major waves, after 1785. Basil Hayden led one group of 25 families, which settling in the vicinity of Pottinger’s creek, and were the Beam’s nearest neighbors. Boundary disputes were common, and many found themselves again homeless, as disputed claims and redundant grants could not be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.
The Beam’s settled in, and now with 3 young mouths to feed, Jake and Mary needed all of their wits to make ends meet. They began farming the rich land, producing the staple Indian corn which grew so well there. Jake almost immediately set up his stillhouse, remembering his uncle’s success in Lincoln county. Through succeeding years, bumper crops of corn ensured a ready supply of ingredients. Business was good, and by 1795 Jacob Beam was known around the region as a master distiller. The Beams added acreage a little at a time until by 1810, Jacob Beam had amassed some 800 acres – finally realizing the promise Jost had portrayed 25 years earlier.
Jacob Beam expanded the successful distilling business, building his grain mill and larger facilities on the bank of Hardin’s creek. As the business grew, his products were shipped by flatboat down the Beechfork from nearby Fredericktown, and on to the southern rivertown markets and New Orleans. Jacob was also known to be a capable surveyor and roadbuilder. On their farm the Beams raised predominantly corn, tobacco, cattle, fine horses – and children. He and Mary produced 12.
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By Charles K. Cowdery
Of all the families who claim more than one generation of whiskey-makers, none
has been as prominent as the Beam family. To get some sense of how ubiquitous
this one family has been in the American whiskey industry, imagine if every state
government had at least one high-ranking official named Kennedy, or if every new movie
starred at least one Barrymore.
Generations of Beams have been involved with the Jim Beam Brands Company,
of course, but virtually every other current distillery has had Beams on its payroll at one time. Heaven Hill, for example, has never had a distiller who was not named Beam.
All of the Kentucky Beams trace their lineage back to Jacob Beam, whose surname was an Americanization of the German "Boehm." He immigrated in about 1752 and after living in
Assisting Jacob in that enterprise was his son, David. There may have been
other children, but all of the whiskey-making Beams descend from this David.
Three of his four sons continued the family tradition of making both whiskey and
The Oldest Son.
The oldest and most prolific of these sons was Joseph M. Beam, born in 1825.
He and his wife, Mary Ellen, had fourteen children and at least two continued the
family legacy. The older of the two was the oddly-named Minor Case Beam, who
worked at several distilleries before buying an interest in the F.M. Head Distillery
M.C. Beam Distillery. In 1910 he sold his plant to the distillery next door,
Williams, which thereafter made
son, Guy Beam, worked at a number of
Prohibition. During Prohibition, he worked at a Canadian distillery that made Old
Crow and Old Grand-Dad bourbon.
Guy and Mary Beam had ten children. One of their sons, Jack, worked at the
Barton Distillery for most of his career. Another son, Walter (known as "Toddy"),
owned a Bardstown liquor store that still bears his name.
The other son of Joseph M. Beam who entered the family business was Joseph
L. ("Joe"), a distiller at many different plants around Bardstown until Prohibition,
during which he decamped to a distillery in
Katherine, had nine children, all boys, seven of whom became distillers. Toward
the end of Prohibition, Joe and several of his sons worked at the Stitzel Distillery
youngest son, Harry, remained at Heaven Hill as its first master distiller. Parker
Beam, current master distiller at Heaven Hill, never met the man he calls "Mister
Joe," or Harry, although he recalls his father talking about them.
After Heaven Hill, "Mister Joe" continued to move around. For a time he and two
other sons, Roy and Desmond, made Four Roses whiskey at the
Kennebec Distillery near
Roy Beam stayed at the Frankfort Distillery. Eventually, two of his sons joined
him there. One of them, Charlie, also worked at several Seagrams plants,
finishing his career more-or-less where he started, making Four Roses, only this
time at the distillery in Lawrenceburg where Seagrams still makes Four Roses
The oldest of Joe Beam's boys, Elmo, had a long association with the Samuels
family, first at the T.W. Samuels plant near Bardstown and later at Maker's Mark,
where he worked for about a year, until his death in 1955.
The other two distiller sons of Joe Beam were Otis and Everett, both of whom
worked at several
distiller at Michters in Schaefferstown, Pennnsylvania, where he made both
bourbon and rye whiskey in an old style pot still. Although Michters closed in
1989, some of the highly regarded bourbon made there is still available under the
A.H. Hirsch name.
Although the line started by Joseph M. Beam was prominent in the industry
through the 1980s, no Beam of that line works as a distiller today.
The Youngest Son.
The youngest son of David Beam was John H. "Jack" Beam, born in 1839. He
was 14 years younger than Joseph M. After working at his father's distillery until
age 21, he built his own plant near Bardstown in 1860. That enterprise was
successful for many years, but he lost financial control of it during the Panic of
1880, staying on as distiller until his death in 1915, at the age of 75. Jack's only
child, Edward, worked there too and was supposed to follow in his father's
footsteps. Instead he died, also in 1915, at the age of 42.
The name of Jack and Edward's distillery, and the name of the whiskey they
made there, was Early Times. Eventually the brand, though not the distillery, was
acquired by Brown-Forman. When Brown-Forman built a new distillery in 1955, in
whiskey brand. Early Times continues to be a leading seller throughout
The Middle Son.
The middle son of David Beam, his father's namesake, stayed at home and
eventually took over the distilling operation begun by his grandfather. In about
1860, this David Beam (known as David M.) moved the family distillery from its
original site in
railroad line. Many other distillers had the same idea, including his brother Jack.
In those days whiskey was shipped in barrels, which weighed about 500 pounds
each. Having your rackhouse a few yards from a railroad track made a big
difference. Getting their own spur line, connected to the main line between
compete with their big city rivals.
As more and more
brand names became important. The first brand launched by D.M. Beam &
Company was called "Old Tub." Other brands were the more evocative "Clear
Springs" and "Pebbleford."
David M. Beam had four sons. His two older boys, George and Tom, did not
make names for themselves in the whiskey business. His two younger ones did.
The older of these was James B. "Jim" Beam, born in 1864, who became the
most famous member of the clan. Jim worked closely with his father and younger
brother, Park, at the family distillery. He was also close to his Uncle Jack, who
was best man at his wedding.
David M. retired in 1892, at age 59, and passed control of the operation on to Jim
and Park. Their sister, Nannie, was married to a man named Albert Hart, who
also joined the firm. Jim and Albert ran the business and Park, as master distiller,
made the whiskey.
Jim Beam had two children, a son, Jeremiah, and a daughter, Margaret. As soon
as he was old enough (about age 13), Jere (pronounced "Jerry") was put to work
in the family distillery. His sister, Margaret, married Frederick Booker Noe and
one of their sons, Booker Jr., decided to become a distiller. He would eventually
oversee the Beam Company distillery at
famous as the company's spokesperson, a role that is gradually being taken over
by his son, Fred.
In 1920, the Beam operation was shuttered by Prohibition. After Repeal in 1933,
Jere and Jim (by then almost 70) purchased the old Murphy Barber Distillery at
but several miles closer to the main line. They built a new plant, reincorporated
as the Jim Beam Company, and resurrected the "Old Tub" brand, adding to it a
new brand called simply "Jim Beam."
They were joined in the new operation by Park Beam and his two sons, Earl and
Carl, but the family simply didn't have enough cash left after the lean Prohibition
years to keep the operation going. They found three financial backers in Harry
Homel, Oliver Jacobson and Harry Blum. Homel and Jacobson eventually sold
out to Blum, who in 1967 sold the company to American Brands (today known as
What Jim Beam experienced after Prohibition was repeated throughout Bourbon
country. Veteran family distillers had the know how, but not the wherewithal, to
open and sustain new distilling enterprises.
After they sold the distillery, Jim retired. Park went to work at the Shawhan
Distillery in Bardstown, which later became Waterfill & Frazier. Jere, Carl (known
as "Shucks") and Earl stayed on at Clermont, with Jere on the business side,
Carl as master distiller, and Earl as his assistant. In later years Carl's sons, Baker
and David, also went to work as distillers at the Jim Beam Company.
Meanwhile, on the other side of Bardstown, "Mister Joe" Beam and several other
men were founding what became Heaven Hill. When their money ran out, they
turned to the five Shapira brothers, whose descendants still own the company
today. After World War II, Harry Homel, Oliver Jacobson and Earl Beam all
departed the Jim Beam Company and joined Heaven Hill.
"It was a friendly split," says Parker Beam, Earl's son and Heaven Hill's present
master distiller. "When Dad left Jim Beam, Carl told him 'Earl, I'll be glad to do
anything I can to help you get started over there,' and it really was that way. For
me, it has been that way with Booker, David and Baker. All of us have shared a
lot of information and traded parts. Anything we could do to make both
operations go, we were always glad to do it." At times, the two companies have
deliberately bought the same equipment to make parts swaps easier. "At one
time, we both had the same milling equipment," says Parker, "so if we needed a
bearing or fan, we could get it from them. Mash cooker drives were pretty well
the same too, so we could trade those back and forth. We have given them
barrels when they were short. Anything we could do, any way we could
cooperate with each other, it was always that way."
The first master distiller at Heaven Hill was Mister Joe's son, Harry. Earl Beam
succeeded his cousin in 1946. Earl was followed by his son, Parker, who has the
job today. Through 65 years and more than four million barrels of bourbon,
Heaven Hill has had only three master distillers, all Beams. Craig Beam, Parker's
son, expects to continue that tradition. "I feel really proud to be part of it and carry
on the Beam name," says Craig. "When I started here at Heaven Hill my
grandfather was still working and I worked with him and dad on the jug yeast and
they showed me the yeast process. I grew up with Baker Beam and David Beam,
and would go down to Jim Beam and try to get ideas from their processes too."
According to Parker and Craig, all of the Beams have been practical distillers,
which means they propagate their yeast from a wild strain. The alternative is
scientific distilling, which uses a pure strain yeast. All of the Beams use the same
yeast, handed down from generation to generation.
As distilleries began to close down all around him in the 1960s and 70s, Parker
Beam says he never regretted his career choice. "I always thought we would be
around to the bitter end," he says. "If you do those things we Beams were taught
to do, it seems we could always survive. I think it is because of the quality
standards we were taught to maintain."
It is difficult to fully assess the impact of the Beam family on the American
whiskey industry because it is almost impossible to imagine that industry without
them. In no other field of endeavor has one family been so prominent for so long.
The reasons for this are mysteries that we may never unravel. So we must
accept them and do so gratefully. Some of the best whiskey of yesterday and
today has been made by Beams. It is a tradition, one hopes, that will never end.
This article was originally published in Malt Advocate Magazine, Volume 10,
Number 2, Second Quarter 2001 Issue.
2001, Charles Kendrick Cowdery. All Rights Reserved