Boldly choosing to sell absolutely everything including the family home and successful business? John Phillip Nelson proved was already a risk-taker in 1850. He had established a successful business and life in his homeland of Germany. What made him want to sell it all and move along with his wife and six children to the United States? A better life.
As a modern-day entrepreneur, the stakes seem pretty flipping high when you decide to leave the security of a regular paycheck and health insurance to go out and hang up your own shingle. Risky, right? But what were the stakes in 1850? No airplanes from which to fly, so you have to board a boat. No electronic bank accounts, so you might decide to invest your entire family fortune into gold bars. How do you keep your life’s savings safe as you travel to the United States? If you are John Phillip Nelson, you have a special suit made with pockets where your gold bars are sewn into the cloth for safekeeping.
When John boarded the Helena Sloman, certainly he had no idea he would never live to see the shores of the United States. A wicked storm capsized the boat, drowning John. You see, all of those gold bars weighed him down. He sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. And in one day, the head of the Nelson household and the family’s entire wealth were in Davy Jones’ locker, fish food, swimming with the fishes.
How do you recover from that? John’s oldest son, Charles, was only 15 years old when his father died. Here he is, arriving in a new country, with his mother and five siblings. His poor mother became ill after the storm and soon died. So this definitely wasn’t John’s plan but what about Charles? Suddenly the man of the house, Charles had to hustle to keep himself and his siblings alive.
I think Charles had a superpower. And that superpower was how to build a business. I imagine he probably spent lots of time at his father’s knee learning the soap and candle trade. Charles didn’t create a soap and candle business, however. He quickly identified an opportunity.
Whiskey. During this time period, whiskey was risky. Whiskey in the barrel has three parts – the top called the head, the middle called the heart, and the bottom call the tail. The head and the tail are undrinkable as they range from not tasting good to being poisonous. As in most things, what you want from whiskey is from the heart. Unscrupulous salesmen, knowing they had a substandard product, would sell unsuspecting pub owners a barrel of head, heart, tail and – to give the unready “whiskey” color – tobacco spit.
Charles spotted an opportunity. You know how Ivory soap claims to be 99.44/100% Pure? Or you may know of the Sanitary Fish Market in North Carolina where they named their restaurant to prove their place is guaranteed to be clean? Charles saw a similar opportunity in whiskey, to sell a product that was not only of great quality but that he and his company would guarantee. As stated on their website, “His honesty and fair dealings brought about great prosperity for his business as well as an elevated social status in the community.” Nelson Distillery of Greenbriar, Tennessee, was a runaway success. How successful? The website states, “Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey was in such demand that it was being sold in markets ranging from Jacksonville, FL to San Francisco, CA to Paris, France, to Moscow, Russia, and the Philippines.”
And Charles married and had a family of his own. Charles’ wife Louisa was a smart cookie. She understood business and helped Charles grow the company. How unusual it was for a woman in this period of time to be involved in business? We still have a gender pay gap today and certainly other major issues like workplace harassment. But what did a businesswoman’s world look like in the late 1800’s? How amazing and wise for Charles to bring Louisa into the business!
The big whiskey kept on flowing. Until one day Charles followed his father and mother into the inescapable path we all walk and passed away.
Interesting problem…who would run the company? Louisa had the skills and experience. But she was a she in a time when most “shes” were not running companies. And there was an extra complication for her.
The Temperance movement was growing. Declaring that alcohol was responsible for society’s woes, many women banded together to stop the sales of liquor. The fascinating twist, and what made this a real pickle for Louisa, was that the same women involved in the Temperance movement were also lobbying for women to have the right to vote.
As you might imagine, Louisa wanted women to have the right to vote. But being the public head of a big whiskey company did not jibe with being an upstanding member of the women’s suffrage movement. What would you do when faced with this sort of conundrum? You want to run your family’s business but you also want to improve the standing of yourself and your sisters.
Louisa made the choice to be the secret head of the company while still being a public figure in the Temperance and women’s suffrage movement. That certainly took some nerves of steel! As a secret entrepreneur, Louisa kicked butt and made Nelson Distillery even more successful. That is, until the Temperance movement won out and Prohibition became the law of the land. Nelson Distillery was shuttered.
And the family legacy lay fallow and mostly forgotten until two young men stopped in Greenbriar in the early 2000’s. Interested in history, the two brothers liked to read the signs as they would drive around Tennessee. This sign really caught their eye:
Here was the site of the Nelson Distillery.
Hey, one brother said to the other, we are Nelsons. They decided to detour to a historical society. Much to the delight of the ladies of the Greenbriar Historical Society, the keepers of the past, possesors of two original bottles of Nelson Whiskey, they had the two great-great-great-grandsons of Charles, Andy and Charlie, with them.
And that entrepreneurial spirit was running through Andy and Charlie’s blood. After all, their great-great-great-great grandfather John took that boat, and their great-great-great grandfather Charles started that company, and their great-great-great grandmother bucked tradition and ran that company. And the brothers looked at each other and decided to bring it back. As it states on their website, “It was love at first sight. Charlie and Andy stared at the perfectly preserved bottles and then looked back at one another, knowing what the other was thinking: “This is our destiny.””
So around 2007, they made plans to relaunch Nelson Distillery. You may recall as it is recent history that 2007 was not a super great time to be launching a business. The housing bubble burst in 2008. Getting loans and building a business must have felt like swimming against the current. Would you have had the guts to get a loan in 2008? Would you have had the courage while all of the housing deals were going bust to start a company?
But the brother persevered. On a July day in 2018, I visited Nelson Distillery and was amazed at the courage, bravery, and sheer will that it took to create, sustain and resurrect this business. I was amazed at what I learned.
What’s your big whiskey? Mine is a writing and publishing business. I too like the Nelsons make decisions every day. I hope mine aren’t bad decisions like stuffing my pockets with heavy gold bars and taking a boat ride without a life vest. I hope mine are brave decisions like recognizing a need and creating a service that meets that need. I hope mine are clever decisions like how to be a woman who can navigate business and also support and lift up her fellow women in the process. I hope mine are visionary to realize a way to make my family proud, make them money, and improve the world around me despite the odds. Cheers!