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Though Alexandra Richman’s grandfather and his siblings sold the Jack Daniel’s distillery six decades ago, the fourth-generation landowner manages more than 6,000 acres of Tennessee forestland in the shadow of where her great-great grand uncle founded his famous whiskey empire.

By Pete Williams

Alex Richman is driving through history. On a crisp chamber-of-commerce morning in mid-October, with the sun accenting a kaleidoscope of fall colors, Richman pilots her SUV through Tennessee land her family has owned for more than a century.           

She points out specimen white oaks on either side of the road while mentally reviewing a packed schedule that includes a forestry field event the next day, along with an ongoing red oak logging operation and a timber sale the following month. She’s a landowner, forester, hunter, graduate forestry student at the University of Tennessee and, on this day, perhaps the most insightful tour guide of Lynchburg, the tiny town that draws 300,000 annual visitors wanting a glimpse of how the world’s most famous whiskey is made.      

The 34-year-old Mary Alexandra Motlow Richman is the great-great grand niece of Jack Daniel, who founded his legendary whiskey distillery 151 years ago here in the rolling hills of middle Tennessee, where sour mash whiskey still is mellowed through sugar maple charcoal, bottled and distributed throughout the world.      

Richman likes to keep a low profile, which can be difficult when until recently her mother’s last name, Motlow, appeared on the label of every bottle of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey, all of which still is made in Lynchburg just a few miles from the farmhouse where she lives on land that once belonged to her grand-uncle Dan Evans “Happy” Motlow.           

Happy and his siblings sold Jack Daniel’s in 1956 and today the Motlow family has little involvement with the distillery. But Richman’s busy life managing 6,079 acres of fourth-generation family forestland is a direct result of the legacy of Jack Daniel and his nephew Lem Motlow, Richman’s great-grandfather.         

“This land is a challenge but it’s very rewarding,” Richman says as she turns off road toward an ongoing logging operation. “It’s a legacy our family has had for a long time and we want it to remain a beautiful asset.”

Jack Daniel lived an epic American life. Born in 1849, the youngest of ten children, his mother died when he was 6 and he clashed with his stepmother. He befriended a local Lutheran minister and shopkeeper, Dan Call, who engaged Jack’s interest in the whiskey still on Call’s property. In 1863, Call’s wife made him choose between his ministry and the whiskey business. Call sold the still to Jack, who at 13 began competing in the rough-and-tumble world of Tennessee whiskey makers, later tangling with an aggressive U.S. government, which saw the distillers as an important source of tax revenue following the Civil War.

As business grew, Daniel spent $2,148 to purchase Cave Spring Hollow, which draws 800 gallons of pure spring water every minute from miles below the Earth’s surface. The surrounding land, also part of the deal, was covered with sugar maples necessary for the distillation process Daniel learned from Call. 

A legendary ladies man, the 5-foot-2 Daniel never married nor had children, leaving the distillery and 200 acres of land to nephews Lem Motlow and Dick Daniel shortly before his death in 1911. Motlow soon bought out his cousin and went to work expanding the empire of his late uncle and mentor.

Motlow had urged Uncle Jack to diversify his business holdings as a hedge against the ever-tenuous state of the whiskey business. Jack resisted, though he accumulated some modest land holdings. According to Peter Krass’s biography of Daniel, Blood & Whiskey, Jack owned 450 acres in multiple Tennessee counties by 1895 and at one point sued several Giles County individuals for timbering land that belonged to him, demanding the profits.   

Motlow, meanwhile, was an equally shrewd if more diverse businessman who owned several saloons and a bank. He was said to be able to add two columns of numbers in his head at once. An avid outdoorsman devoted to quail shooting and fox hunting, he amassed 7,000 acres of land, not only for hunting but to provide wood for whiskey barrels and charcoal used to make whiskey. Motlow’s holdings included the wooded valley along Hurricane Creek, just east of Lynchburg, where he built a dam to create a lake for fishing and boating. At one point, Motlow owned 15 farms, including a portion of the original land owned by Calaway Daniel, Jack’s father, and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars developing land for agricultural use. In 1945, Motlow formed the Cumberland Springs Land Co., named for the springs surrounding a resort he owned.

Recognizing the value of the mules that hauled whiskey from the distillery over shoddy roads to the Tullahoma railroad, Motlow built a mule-trading business that would have made him a millionaire even without the whiskey operation.

A stern taskmaster and father of five, Motlow refused to wear a necktie and encouraged his four sons not to marry, believing they should work in his business without female distractions. Only one of the four sons had children.

Motlow’s second wife, Ophelia, ironically was a teetotaler who did not allow liquor in the house. She headed Lynchburg Waterworks, a company formed to sell water from the Cave Spring in the event the distillery was closed.      

Though Jack Daniel is immortalized as the namesake of one of the world’s most recognizable brands, Motlow deserves credit for keeping the business alive though the temperance movement, Prohibition, and the Great Depression.    Motlow died in 1947 and his children sold the distillery in 1956 to the Brown-Forman Corp., of Louisville, Ky., for $20 million ($178 million in today’s dollars). The publicly traded company reported sales of $3.08 billion in 2016 from its portfolio of wines and spirits, the most prominent of which remains Jack Daniel’s.

In 2011, Brown-Forman streamlined the familiar black Jack Daniel’s whiskey bottle label, removing the three lines of text that included Motlow’s name.

Jack Daniel's Old Time, Old No. 7 Brand, Quality Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey, Distilled and Bottled by Jack Daniel Distillery, Lem Motlow, Proprietor, Lynchburg (Pop. 361), Tenn. U.S.A., Est. & Reg. in 1866.

The name might be gone, but the legacy of the Motlow family in Lynchburg remains. Alex Richman is making sure of that.

A few miles from the Jack Daniel’s distillery, Richman is standing in her living room office, giving a visitor a tour. There are photos going back for generations, along with voluminous files and other correspondence that comes from operating a large land operation. 

“I never thought I’d end up running the family business,” she says, sighing as she fumbles for a photo. “I think the whole town knew before I did.”

Richman speaks softly and deliberately, belying the tough businesswoman she’s become. She’s unfailingly polite and cheerful, though guarded and private, which is understandable when you’re part of a fifth-generation family that inspired a steady stream of visitors to your small town.

One of Richman’s cousins works in marketing for Brown-Forman, but that’s the extent of the Motlows modern connection to the distillery. Still, Richman draws attention. When we arrive for lunch at the iconic, ever-busy Miss Mary Bobo’s Boarding House, a worker nudges another. Our hostess recognizes her, even though the reservation is in a writer’s name.   

Richman’s grandfather, Conner, was the fourth and youngest of Lem Motlow’s sons. Conner’s daughter, Mary, was married twice and had Alex in 1983 with her second husband, Andrew Richman, who died in an auto accident when Alex was a toddler. Mary also died in a car accident, along with longtime companion Morris Parker, in 2012.

Mary Motlow owned an antiques store and worked as a teacher before getting involved in managing the family forestland around 2000, five years after her father died. To that point, the land had undergone little management by modern forestry standards. The U.S. Army used some of it as a munitions operation after World War II. In 1969, Reagor Motlow, the oldest of Lem’s five children and a state senator, donated 187 acres of the family property, which became Motlow State Community College.

Mary Motlow immersed herself in forestry and became chief operating officer of the family’s Cumberland Spring Land Company. She joined numerous forestry and wildlife organizations, including the Forest Landowners Association, sitting on a number of boards.

“She stepped up when there was a need for the family to manage on the ground,” Richman said. “Then she became more active when she saw me getting interested in college, figuring it would be a way for me to get into the business.”

Richman’s undergraduate degree is in natural resources and she planned to work in environmental conservation and forestry, just not with the family business. She spent a year with The Nature Conservancy in Northern Virginia, two years as a coordinator for the American Tree Farm program, and a few months as a field forester before joining Cumberland Springs.

These days, she manages one of the more unusual working private forests. There are row crops and the remnants of buildings from Lem Motlow’s various businesses, some lingering concerns from the former munitions operations that must be addressed, and a firing range used by local law enforcement. This in addition to the typical forest landowner issues: hardwood and softwood timber management, wildlife hunting leases, food plots, and commercial land leases.

Walking the woods with Richman, it’s obvious she’s worked as a hands-on forester. She can identify hardwoods and their ages – no small task in an older, diverse property – and talks at length about logging rates, property access, and the importance of having hardwood sawmills nearby. She’s still planting hardwoods, mostly white oaks and sugar maples.

“I can’t justify pulpwood when there’s no market,” she said. “We have to spend the extra money and time to create a healthy well-managed forest that’s going to grow high-quality timber products.”

Richman is unusual in the forestry world: a full-time fourth-generation landowner and forest management professional who also happens to be female and under 40. Like her late mother she’s involved in many forestry organizations and often is among the only women – sometimes the only one - at meetings and conferences.

“It’s a male-dominated industry and that can be intimidating at times,” she said. “But I do have the background and I feel a duty to represent my age class and my gender, being at the table to represent the young female forest landowner.”

She’s staring now at a framed photo of Ophelia Motlow, Lem’s wife and her teetotaler great-grandmother, a woman who appears unassuming but had a reputation for being tough and a tad mischievous. “I wish I had known her,” said Richman, who is close with her 104-year-old great aunt Mary Avon Motlow Boyd, Lem’s last surviving child. “I think we’d have gotten along really well.”

Lem Motlow set up his estate so that the land stayed in the family and provided for generations, even stipulating that only blood descendants could be on the board of directors. That’s changed only recently, Richman says, though she can appreciate why Motlow made such provisions.

“He had a lot of foresight in thinking that your children might not manage things right or marry someone who might not,” she said. “Landowners need to decide which children are going to continue the legacy and that’s a difficult choice because that might not mean equal shares. You don’t want to treat one child unfairly but in terms of keeping the land in the family you have to make tough decisions and not leave those choices until after you pass away.”

Richman holds a shareholder meeting once a year, usually in Nashville, and she speaks regularly with her board. Like any family forest operation, the challenge is finding markets to make the land sustainable. Richman occasionally meets locals who tell her Lem Motlow or one of his sons sold them their land. Though nearby Murfreesboro 40 miles north is booming, development is slow in Lynchburg.

“We’re like any other corporation that has a responsibility to shareholders to make good financial decisions,” Richman said. “We have years where the market for white oak is great and red oak not so great and vice versa. We have a lot of pine but those markets are really bad. It’s tough to find new revenue and plan for when existing revenue stops. What’s going to be the transition? Will we sell land or will we do something in terms of conservation that will keep it protected for a long period of time? Those are the things we have to grapple with and discuss.”

She’d love to establish a forestry program at Motlow State Community College or at least a demonstration forest that could be used to educate school and scouting groups. Already she’s hosted forestry field days for the Society of American Foresters. The Motlows also have contributed to schools and a library.

“Our family has tried to do a lot of good in this community,” she said. “I would like to continue that legacy.”

Though his sons sold the distillery 60 years ago, Lem Motlow and forestry remain a key part of the daily tours at Jack Daniel’s.

There’s a replica of Motlow’s home on the property. Tours take visitors into a small office where Motlow maintained the distillery books, keeping them locked in a safe. Jack Daniel arrived to work early one day and needed to access the safe. Unable to remember the combination, he kicked the safe and broke his big toe. Infection moved its way up his leg, contributing to his death six years later. The office also was the site of where Motlow’s children signed the paperwork completing the sale to Brown-Forman in 1956.

Sugar maples and white oaks, like the ones that always have populated the Motlow forestland, continue to play a prominent role in the making of Jack Daniel’s. A key part of the “Lincoln County process” involves taking the 140-proof, un-aged whiskey on a painstaking, drop-by-drop journey through charcoal handcrafted from sugar maple. The trip takes more than a week to complete and is part of what makes Jack Daniel’s a Tennessee whiskey and not bourbon.

From there the whiskey goes into handcrafted barrels each made from 33 staves of American white oak. The barrels are stored in “barrelhouses” throughout the property and whiskey is declared ready not by age but when tasters deem it so. The barrels are not reused, but sold to hot sauce makers, beer brewers, and Scotch whiskey distillers who will reuse them several more times. Some barrels are cut apart and made into furniture, planters, and dozens of other Jack Daniel’s-emblazoned items sold in shops a block from the distillery.

In Lem Motlow’s time, wood from his forest went directly to the distillery for charcoal and barrels, Richman said it’s impossible to know for sure if the sugar maple and white oak harvested from her family forestland is making it’s way back to Jack Daniel’s. “It’s a good bet that at least some of the white oak is,” she says.

Even Motlow’s name remains a part of Jack Daniel’s six years after Brown-Forman removed it from the label in 2011. Visitors walking through a barrelhouse at the distillery or perusing the downtown shops for souvenirs made from barrels will notice a prominent three-line stamp. The top line reads “Jack Daniel Distillery” and the bottom line “Lynchburg, Tenn.”

Nestled in between is Lem Motlow, Prop., Inc.

Pete Williams is editor of Forest Landowner magazine.

*This story originally ran in the March/April issue of Forest Landowner Magazine.

 

 

 

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