Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A story for the season

Seeing as how this is the start of not only the season of cold weather (despite all of which we already seen!), and the season of sharing, giving, and the best of humankind, it seems only appropriate to offer something that covers all this and more! Something that reminds us of both physical and spiritual warmth, as well as offering hope for potential of human existence.

Isaac Wolfe Bernheim was born today, in 1848, in Schmieheim, Germany. At 19, he immigrated to the US with $4 in his pocket, hoping to make a life for himself in NYC. When that company when bankrupt, he worked as a peddler in PA, but was forced to stop after his horse died. He settled in Paducah, where he found work as a bookkeeper for a wholesale liquor company. He soon earned enough to pay his brother, Bernard's way to America. Soonafter (1872), with a silent partner, they founded their own distillery - Bernard Brothers and Company. Seven years later, they acquired the trademarked "I W Harper" - a bourbon whisky.

I W Harper became very well-known and popular. It earned a number of domestic and national awards, including a gold medal at the 1903 Chicago World's Fair. It was one of the few brands allowed to continue as a medicinal bourbon. The name - "I W Harper" was never fully explained until shortly before I.W. Bernheim's death, in a 1944 letter. While the I W is self-explanatory, he writes that "Harper" came from a man named Harper who had a horse in the Kentucky Derby. Three years (1882) after the intro of their trademark bourbon, the Bernheim Brothers moved, expanding their distilleries to Louisville. This is a 1901 ad for their Louisville Distillery, from the Kentucky Irish American:

Though the bourbon business proved profitable, the brothers invested in other ventures, such as mining & real estate. They likely lived quite comfortably for their time, but they also invested back into their Kentucky communities. One such example began in 1882 Paducah, after a terrible winter flood left many poor and needy. The Bernheim brothers started a yearly tradition (outlined in this article from page 1 of the December 20, 1909 Paducah Evening Sun) of indiscriminately donating coal to the poor and needy in the city.

I.W. Bernheim also financed, donated & commissioned a great deal of statuary to, and in honor of Kentucky. Many of his donations can still be seen today, including the Abraham Lincoln bust in Frankfort's Old Capitol dome (1910), the Abraham Lincoln that still stands in front of the Louisville Free Public Library (1922), and the only 2 sculptures representing Kentucky (Henry Clay & Ephraim McDowell) in the U.S. Capitol's Statuary Hall. He & Bernard also donated the Thomas Jefferson statue that stands in front of the Jefferson County courthouse. Commissioned in 1899, it was not unveiled until November 1901, due to assorted mishaps. Read these excerpts (respectively: 5/12/1900 KY Irish American, 6/8/1900 Bourbon News, 6/26/1900 Mt. Sterling Advocate, & 11/12/1901 Hopkinsville Kentuckian) below to learn about its rocky journey from Germany to Kentucky.

Probably one of the greatest gifts I.W. Bernheim left to Kentucky was not bought until after Bernard died in 1925, and did not truly fall into place until after Isaac died in 1945 - the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in Bullitt County. In 1928, he bought 14,000 acres of worn-out farmland, stripped for mining ore. A year later, he established it as an arboretum & research forest, over time creating lakes on the land & working with the Frederick Law Olmstead Firm to lay out a proper landscape & essentially "restore" it. Finally, in 1950 - 5 years after Isaac died - Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest opened to the public. Ultimately, he and his wife were buried there, exhumed from their initial resting places at Cave Hill Cemetery. Their graves are marked by George Bernard Grey's memorial sculpture "Let There Be Light."

And so it was, in this cold season, yet time of warmth in the human spirit - a German immigrant was born, came to America, and lived the American dream. He gave us something to warm ourselves on cold winter nights, but also gave us an inspirational story of the human spirit - sharing & spreading his wealth & legacy with the earth & with others.

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