Isaac Wolfe Bernheim
Isaac Wolfe Bernheim (November 4, 1848 – April 1, 1945) was an American businessman notable for starting the I. W. Harper brand of bourbon distilled at the Bernheim distillery in Louisville, Kentucky. The success of his distillery and distribution business helped to consolidate the Louisville area as a major centre of Kentucky bourbon distilling. Bernheim was also a philanthropist, establishing the 14,000 acre (57 km²) Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in Bullitt County.
Isaac Bernheim was born in Schmieheim, now part of Kippenheim in Germany and emigrated to the United States in 1867 with $4 in his pocket. He originally planned to work in New York City. However, the company where he wanted to work went bankrupt, and he was forced to follow a different line of work. He became a traveling salesman or "peddler" traveling throughout Pennsylvania on horseback selling household items to housewives and made a respectable living. However, he was forced to stop peddling when his horse died.
Following the death of his horse Bernheim moved to Paducah, Kentucky, where he worked as a bookkeeper for a wholesale liquor company, Loeb, Bloom, & Co. He was able to save money to bring his brother Bernard to America. He quickly moved on however, and with the help of Nathan Uri and his brother, Bernard Bernheim, was able to open up his own liquor sales firm called Bernheim Brothers & Uri in 1872. Mr. Uri was the brother of IW Bernheim's wife, Amanda. Because of their business's proximity to large waterways, the company grew rapidly.
Bernheim Brothers & Uri moved from Paducah to Louisville in 1889 for the purchase of a distillery in New Haven. In 1896 Bernheim Brothers & Uri bought the Pleasure Ridge Park Distillery and renamed it Bernheim Distillery Co. Following the purchase of this distillery, they began the production of an elite whiskey brand called I.W. Harper. During the Prohibition era in the U.S. [1920–1933], 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.
Isaac Bernheim was known as a notable philanthropist in Louisville. He established the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest on 14,000 acres (57 km²) in Bullitt County, 25 miles (40 km) south of Louisville and 5 miles (8 km) from Shepherdsville in 1929. He purchased the land in 1928 at $1 an acre ($247/km²) because most of it had been stripped for mining iron ore. The Frederick Law Olmsted landscape architecture firm started work on designing the park in 1931 and it opened in 1950. Bernheim Forest was given to the people of Kentucky in trust and it is the largest privately owned natural area in the state. Mr. Bernheim, and his first wife, Amanda are buried at the Bernheim Forest. After Amanda died, Mr. Bernheim married her sister, Emma Uri Levy. The lived in Denver, Colorado. The memorial "Let there Be Light" by George Bernard Grey graces over their final resting place. Mr. Bernheim's daughter and son-in-law were buried in the forest as well as several other family members.
Bernheim was a prominent member of the Jewish community active in the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the American Jewish Committee. He donated to establish the first library at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. In Louisville, he funded the first home for the Young Men's Hebrew Association and funded an addition to the Jewish Hospital. Mr. Bernheim, a member of the Reform Movement, continues to have great grand children who follow in his footsteps of the Reform Movement. In 2007 in his honor, his Granddaughter Amanda Roth Block, who resides in Torrance, California, donated to the Hebrew Union College in New York City to President Rabbi David Elinsion a lithograph, "Moses and the Burning Bush", which was inspired by her grandfather's dedication to the Reform movement. Mr. Bernheim's library at the Hebrew Union College was renovated to be the home of priceless documents and rare Torah scrolls.
Mr. Bernheim also financed two Kentucky statues in the statuary hall of the U.S. Capitol, making them the only two statues there to be privately purchased. In addition, he financed a statue of Abraham Lincoln outside the Louisville Free Public Library and the statue of Thomas Jefferson outside the Jefferson County courthouse.
Upon visiting his hometown of Schmieheim Germany in the early 20th Century, he discovered the village had no running water. He made an extremely large contribution, enabling the town to install its first plumbing system. He also built a home for the elderly and a home for children.
A new book will be published soon about the works and the history of the Bernheim Family.
- The Story of the Bernheim Family (1910)
- The Closing Chapters of a Busy Life (1929)
- Bullitt Memories: Isaac Wolfe Bernheim
- The Story of the Bernheim Family
- University of Louisville webpage on Isaac Bernheim's papers
- University of Louisville Jewish Life in Louisville collection
- Arboretum Information page
- Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest timeline
- Louisville Courier Journal article on Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest 75th anniversary, February 16 2004
- "The National Museum of American History Explores the Promise of America Through Three 19th Century Communities". National Museum of American History. Smithsonian Institution. "Press release about exhibition featuring Bernheim as part of a display of Jewish immigrants"
- Isaac Wolfe Bernheim at Find a Grave