John H. Kearns: Marion County, Kentucky

My neighbor is very aware of my interest in family histories and, after looking into his family history, I better understood his love of whiskey (which I share). His family, like mine, was scattered across the country and I have discovered that he has some very interesting ancestors; John H. Kearns (1858-1910) of Kentucky is one of them.

John H. Kearns was the eldest child of Irish immigrants Patrick Kearns (1833-1886) and his wife Mary Scott (1833-1896). Patrick immigrated to the United States in 1854, along with his mother Margaret (1799-1886), on the American flagged packet ship Isaac Webb. They relocated to Marion County, Kentucky, an area settled by Roman Catholics in the early 1800s. It was in Marion County that Patrick met, and then married in 1857, fellow Irish immigrant Mary Scott.

Patrick and Mary Kearns, along with Patrick’s mother, established themselves on a farm near the towns of Lebanon and Loretto, Kentucky by 1860. It is possible that they were already living there in 1858 when they welcomed the birth of their first child, John H. Kearns. Another son, Thomas, would follow in 1860 and the couple would ultimately yield eight children, all sons.

An 1851 engraving of the Packet Ship Isaac Webb that brought the Kearns family to the United States.

Whether Patrick Kearns served during the American Civil War is unclear and would require further research into primary sources; however, there is some evidence to indicate that he did. Firstly, there is a gap of five years, 1861 to 1865, between the birth of his son Thomas in 1860 and his next living child noted in the 1870 census. Kentucky’s status as a “border” state between the Union and Confederacy resulted in it serving as an active theater of the war. Lastly, there is record of a Patrick Kearns having served in Company D of the Second Kentucky Infantry regiment, though the majority of that unit was actually raised in Ohio.

When the 1870 census was taken, Patrick’s real estate was valued at $5000. He employed, and housed, a number of laborers processing corn, referred to as “Corn Laborers.” This would indicate that Patrick had begun some sort of commercial distilling operation to convert corn into alcohol. In addition to the those laborers, the family also housed a school teacher, whether for the family or the community as a whole is unclear.

The area of Marion County, Ohio where the Kearns settled in the late 1850’s.

John H. Kearns was 19 years old when he married Catherine Smith (1862-1921), the daughter of fellow Irish immigrants, in June 1878. Catherine’s father, Thomas J. Smith (1829-1876), operated a store in Loretto, Kentucky near the train depot and it is probable that this is where John worked. After Thomas’s death in 1876, and by the time of the couple’s second anniversary in 1880, John established himself as a merchant in the town of Loretto.

John and his family relocated to Lebanon, Kentucky after 1881. Five years later Patrick Kearns died and it is likely that, at that time, John took over the family distilling efforts. John purchased a store front in Lebanon, right across from the town’s passenger depot, where he offered his whiskey for sale. He named his saloon the “Sunny Side”, after a nearby mansion with the same name.

John H. Kearns’ “Sunny Side Saloon” in Lebanon, Kentucky. (Source:

The building served as a commissary site for the Union during the Civil War and saw its share of violence during Morgan’s Raid in the summer of 1863. Whether John was aware of this history is unknown, but the saloon soon became a favorite of locals. John offered his whiskey in a variety of stoneware containers, all carrying his name.

A search of the internet will turn up a handful of examples of containers used for John Kearns’s Sunny Side whiskey. They often sell on sites like eBay, and at auctions, for over $500 a piece. Unfortunately for John Kearns, the Temperance Movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries threatened to derail his profitable Lebanon trade. We will explore how John adjusted to that movement in part two of our story.

Here are some great links to learn more Lebanon, Kentucky’s Sunny Side Saloon:

© Noel B. Poirier, 2021.

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