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I. W. Bernheim

I. W. Bernheim

I. W. Bernheim was perhaps one of Schmieheim's most famous Jews.  Although he immigrated to the US with only about 4 dollars in his pocket he amassed a large fortune and became known for his philanthropy until his death at age 96.  A brief history of his family is summarized here.  Interested readers can find much more material in Related Links, Books and the timeline of his life and business.                  (Contributed by P. Dreifuss)

My great, great grandmother, Rosa Bernheim born in Schmieheim in 1821 had an older brother Leon, also born there in 1808.  Leon married Fanny Dreyfuss from nearby Altdorf, and their oldest living child was Isaac Wolfe Bernheim, who was born November 4, 1848 in Schmieheim.  When Leon died at age 48, Isaac was just seven years old and the oldest of three living children and one yet unborn child, who died in infancy.  Although his mother remarried (to Louis Weil) when Isaac was nine, the family lost much of the estate Leon had been able to establish.  In 1861, when laws regarding civil rights for Jews were liberalized, the Weil/Bernheim family moved to Freiburg.  Isaac's
sister Elise died, leaving Isaac with only one brother, Bernard, two years his junior from his mother's first marriage.  He was apprenticed in Freiburg eventually to learn bookkeeping and money handling until 1864 when at age 16, he first gained employment as a clerk in Mannheim and in Frankfurt am Main in 1865.  He gradually became somewhat independent in Frankfurt until the summer of 1866 when war with Austria eventually hindered business in Frankfurt.  It was during that time that he met an uncle who was visiting from the U.S. who impressed Isaac with the success that could be achieved in the United States with hard work, health and good fortune. The uncle also promised him a job in New York.

Isaac emigrated to the U.S in early April 1867 only to find his uncle's cotton factory near Broadway in New York City closed, which his uncle close to being bankrupt.  The country was in a state of flux from the effects of the Civil War and he could find no gainful employment in New York.  He therefore left New York for Pennsylvania to become a peddler, selling household items such as needles, pins, threads, suspenders, handkerchiefs and ladies stockings.  He thus became more fluent in English and American customs and by October of that year was able to enlarge his stock and to buy an old horse and a wagon.  In the winter he established winter headquarters in Overton, a small town
in Pennsylvania. When his horse died he moved to Paducah, Kentucky in May 1868 to become clerk for the same uncle whose business in New York had failed.  The uncle had moved to Paduchah to join business with another uncle of Isaac. Isaac was not very successful at sales and was to procure work as a bookkeeper for the wholesale liquor business of Loeb and Bloom.  It was here he began to realize greater success and was able to save enough money over a two year period to pay off his debts, buy some clothing and begin sending money home to his mother.  In 1870, he gathered some say with the firm and Isaac's brother Bernard was hired to replace Isaac as bookkeeper.  Isaac had become a traveling businessman for the liquor business of Loeb and Bloom.

In January of 1872, the two Bernheim brothers left the firm in a dispute with the owners over becoming partners with interest in the business. With money they  had saved plus a considerable investment from a silent partner they were able to open a competing business, called Bernheim Brothers.   The business was successful and the brothers bought out their silent partner and admitted Nathan M. Uri as a partner. The company was renamed Bernheim Brothers and Uri. Within 15 years their business trading covered the entire South and spread into parts of the West and Northwest.  The brothers later established the Bernheim Distillery Company. They produced a popular whiskey they named I.W. Harper.  I. W. Harper is still sold today (by Schenley) but exported entirely to Japan since they are willing to pay more for it. 

During the Prohibition era, Bernheim Brothers Distillery was one of only ten distilleries allowed to continue to make bourbon for medicinal purposes.  Bernheim sold the business to the Schenley Distilling Corporation in 1937. 
Bernheim became a notable philanthropist and member of the national Jewish Community in the U.S.  He financed two Kentucky statues in the statuary hall of the U.S. Capitol (the only two statues privately purchased there), a statue of Abraham Lincoln outside the Louisville Free Public Library and the statue of Thomas Jefferson outside the Jefferson County, KY courthouse.

Upon visiting his hometown of Schmieheim in the early 20th Century, he financed Schmieheim's first plumbing system and built homes for the elderly and for children. In 1928 he purchased
14,000 acres of farm land in Bullitt and Nelson Counties, Kentucky and established the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in 1929.

I. W. Bernheim died in 1945 at age 96.  A large collection of his financial papers, correspondence, speeches, photographs and more are stored at the University of Louisville and can be referenced here.

A timeline with additional details of I. W. Bernheim's life and the business can be found here.

Compiled by Pete Dreifuss (
Last updated 12 November 2013
Copyright © Peter A. Dreifuss 2012
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