John H. Kearns: Louisville, Kentucky

Louisville in 1910 Library of Congress

My neighbor’s whiskey-distilling ancestor, John H. Kearns, faced a fight in his hometown of Lebanon, Kentucky. The Temperance Movement worked hard and convinced his neighbors in the whiskey distilling town to go dry. John Kearns turned his attention to other business endeavors.

While the Sunny Side Saloon was a popular watering hole in Lebanon, Kentucky for some of the town’s residents and passengers using the train depot across the street, there were many in the community who were being swayed by a third wave of the Temperance Movement in the United States. This movement sought to establish “dry” communities, free from the sale of alcohol; the consumption of which they believed led to crime and poverty.

The town of Lebanon, in 1906, placed on its ballot a referendum on becoming a dry town. John Kearns played an active role, perhaps a little too active a role, in lobbying the populace to reject the idea. Kearns was forced to publicly apologize to Reverend J.R. Hogarty, under threat of a $50,000 slander suit, for having accused the Reverend of bribing townspeople to vote for the referendum. Ironically enough, later that year John Kearns and others with an interest in the distilling and selling of alcohol, were fined for having bribed voters to oppose the referendum.

The Burks Distillery, near Loretto, Kentucky, c. 1960s. (Source:

Despite John Kearns’ best efforts, the town of Lebanon voted to become a dry community. While Kearns closed the Sunny Side Saloon, he continued his interest in distilling when he bought an interest in the nearby Burks Distillery. This distillery, started in the early 1800s, was located near Loretto, Kentucky along Hardins Creek. The distillery was operated by George Burks at the time and, according to a 1907 newspaper account, mashed 200 bushels of grain per day making over 800 gallons of whiskey a day. Additionally, the leftovers were fed to the distillery’s valuable livestock herds of 150 cattle and 50 hogs. Burks Distillery would go on to become the home of Maker’s Mark Whiskey after 1953.

John Kearns, a son of Irish immigrants, had amassed a considerable fortune by the time Lebanon voted to become a dry town. Rather than remain in Lebanon, Kearns purchased an interest in Louisville’s new Hotel Victoria (also referred to as the Victoria Hotel) that lay right across from the very busy Louisville Depot. The hotel boasted of a number of famous guests including William Jennings Bryan. Kearns also invested in Louisville’s Central Store Company, located at the corner of 7th and Market Streets. Finally, Kearns purchased a large home in Louisville, on 4th Street, where many in the extended family resided.

Two of John’s sons, Joseph Clarence and Patrick Leo, during first decade of the 1900s attended Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama. John and his wife made considerable contributions to the college, including the gift of a “beautiful marble alter” that contained the school’s collection of holy relics from several Catholic Saints. The donations from the Kearns family to Spring Hill were significant enough over the years to warrant a glowing obituary in one of the college’s publications when John Kearns passed away. Joseph Kearns went on to become a priest and President of Spring Hill College, and Patrick Leo Kearns became a well-known and respected Louisville dentist.

During the summer of 1910, 52 year old John Kearns would begin suffering from what he thought was a stomach ailment. As his condition worsened into the fall, he was forced to retire from the day-to-day activities related to his many business interests. What no one knew at the time was that he was suffering from Cholecystitis, an inflammation of the gallbladder. The condition would take his life on 17 October 1910 and he was buried a week later after a funeral attended by a number of his friends, business partners, and members of Louisville society. He was laid to rest in St. Louis Cemetery.

John H. Kearns’ gravesite at Saint Louis Cemetery, Louisville, Kentucky. (Source:

© Noel B. Poirier, 2021.


One thought on “John H. Kearns: Louisville, Kentucky

  1. I would love to see the documents backing up this research. (I grew up a mile from Maker’s – once Burkes).


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