Maggie’s spiritual journey of becoming a Tennessee Squire
Written by Maggie Kimberl
It was a cool February Sunday morning. I’d gotten up early to go back to the nursing home to be with my grandfather, but instead I was sitting on my dining room floor searching for a photograph for his obituary. I’d pause and study each article I came across: a photo of him in Japan visiting his college roommate, a Japanese prince; his high school diploma; his college Dean’s List certificate. Out of the bin of his most important items I lifted photos of his grandparents, people who were only theoretical to me. Under that I caught the familiar image of Jack Daniel.
I pulled out a framed certificate that looked like an old-timey property deed, yellowed with age. Across the top it said, ‘Whiskey Made As Our Fathers Made It’, and below that, ‘Jack Daniel Distillery’, and below that, ‘Lem Motlow, Proprietor’.
My grandfather was sharp right up to the end. Before he’d entered hospice care just a few weeks prior, he would read newspapers and business publications daily. He’d often send me clippings of whiskey business stories from the Wall Street Journal in the mail and I’d call him and we’d talk about it. As I studied the certificate in my hands, I wondered not only what it was and why my grandparents had it, but most importantly why I’d never known about it.
“Witnesseth, that the said party or parties of the first part for and in consideration of the said party of the second part’s avowed and generously expressed loyalty to and devotion for Jack Daniel’s ‘Charcoal Mellowed’ Whiskey and other valuable considerations rendered by the said party of the second part, the receipt of which is hereby acknowledged, does by these presents Grant, Convey and Confirm unto the said party of the second part the following title and rights of land pertaining to said title: Tennessee Squire.”
Jack Daniel’s is the largest producer of American whiskey. For decades, Jack Daniel’s alone outproduced all Kentucky bourbon producers combined. As someone who has been in the whiskey industry for more than a decade now, I fully understand the significance of Jack Daniel’s and the impact it has made on the American whiskey industry, particularly when it comes to exports. Still, I was puzzled about this Tennessee Squire thing that I had never heard of.
Below the Tennessee Squire title was, in fact, a deed for a numbered plot of land at the Jack Daniel Distillery made out to my grandparents in 1977, not only before I was born but even before my parents met. It was a message in a bottle from my grandparents.
I snapped a picture of the deed and emailed it to some people at Brown-Forman. Almost immediately I received a reply. It’s a special society for super fans of Jack Daniel’s – there’s even a special house on the distillery grounds for members.
I started to imagine my grandparents visiting a distillery. Distillery tourism wasn’t really a thing back in the 1970s; some distilleries allowed visitors to go on tours, but there were no visitor centers, museums, or tasting rooms back then. Maker’s Mark had a tour, but most places would just find someone to show you around and thank you for the interest.
I had never been to Jack Daniel’s and I made up my mind right there that I was going to change that, if for no other reason than I could see what it was that drew my grandparents there in the first place.
The Jack Daniel Distillery is in Lynchburg, Tennessee. It’s about an hour from Murfreesboro, Tennessee and a little over an hour from Huntsville, Alabama. To say it’s in the middle of nowhere is extremely generous. It’s not a place where you wind up on accident, yet they’ve had 200,000–300,000 visitors a year for decades.
“If you are a Tennessee Squire, you can nominate one and only one person to be another Tennessee Squire,” explains Phil Kollin, founder of Phil Talks Whiskey. “Apparently there’s a bit of an application process, you have to vouch for this person and say why they’d be a good Squire.”
I had tweeted a plea to anyone reading to tell me if they were a Tennessee Squire. Out of the thousands of people I’ve met while in this industry over the last decade-plus, Kollin was the only person who replied.
Kollin became a Squire in 2021. His friend had inherited a deed from his uncle and discovered it was transferable to heirs. I’d read the part at the end of the deed where it said, “and to the heirs and assigns of such party, forever” but felt like the program might have been on hiatus since I’d never heard of it. Kollin had piqued my curiosity.
“They don’t spend much time talking about it or marketing it, it’s kind of like the complete opposite of the Maker’s Mark Ambassador program,” Kollin says. “When we got down there, there’s a sign to the house, but there’s not much else there. You walk to the front door, and Goose is there. Goose pulls up a seat and sits and chats for a while. He looks like it hasn’t gotten out of that couch much in the last 10 years or so. He is the ambassador.”
For years, Goose Baxter was a regular fixture at the Motlow House, the official world headquarters of the Tennessee Squires, along with Randall Fanning. Goose and Randall retired in January of 2023 after each putting in 46 years of service at the Jack Daniel Distillery. They are on the cover of the 2023 Tennessee Squires Association calendar and appear together or separately in every month’s photo.
“When you’re a Squire, which is like a landowner, I thought you could see your patch of land, and that’s when I learned that it was over the hill,” explains Kollin. “Goose had a big laugh over that because we actually brought a pinwheel and I was planning on going and plunking it in the ground and taking a picture of it. He said one of our Squires sent him a package with a note that said to take care of my property and in it was a little tiny, itty-bitty push mower. It was about the size of a mini figure and Goose found it hilarious, so he kept it on display.”
When Tennessee Squires visit the Motlow House, they can expect a lot of storytelling. There are always ambassadors there to sit and chat with. Squires also get emails about special releases at the distillery, and, of course, there are the Squire events that include the Wyooter Hunt – the Wyooter is a giant mythical albino creature with claws which is said to live in Tennessee.
But even when Squires are not anywhere near Tennessee they can expect to be kept up-to-date on the goings-on around their plot of Tennessee land. When I mentioned to my Mee Maw, my grandfather’s second wife, about the Tennessee Squire deed I’d found she said that she was also a Squire and that she used to love the cute letters they’d send updating her on her property.
When I finally made it to the Motlow House, I pored through a stack of such letters, written by fictitious townspeople of Lynchburg. One lamented the loss of a hunting dog and pled for any information from neighbors, while another recounted how the neighbor’s hogs had broken through the fence and eaten his wife’s prized watermelons and “deposited” the seeds on the Squire’s property.
“Ever since the last election, I’ve been meaning to write and thank everybody for their support,” starts a letter from Lynchburg’s Sheriff. “There’s no major crime in Moore County, but every now and then I actually have to make an arrest. In a county this size there’s no such thing as a ‘simple arrest’. Not only do I have to deal with the person that broke the law, but there’s also at least a dozen friends and family members to contend with. That’s when things can get really sticky.”
These letters still come regularly to Squires whose registrations are up-to-date.
I learned a lot about the Tennessee Squire program while I was at the Motlow House. It started in 1956 as a way to reward loyal Jack Daniel’s buyers. The distillery had a deal with retailers across the country: if a person came in and requested Jack Daniel’s by name and none was available, the retailer would give them information to write to the distillery. The folks who wrote to the distillery became the first Tennessee Squires.
Prior to the 1980s, each Squire would receive the deed to one square foot of the Jack Daniel Distillery. After about 1980, that became one square inch. Another change to the program is that today each Squire can nominate up to three people per year to be Tennessee Squires instead of just one in a lifetime. Squires also get free Dry County Tours at the distillery as well as access to the Motlow House and specially designated parking for Squires only.
But you can’t just become a Tennessee Squire – you have to be nominated by another Squire. During my visit, I learned that oftentimes people will learn about the program and walk into the nearest bar and ask if anyone is a Squire. I also learned that tactic never works.
Becoming a Tennessee Squire is a point of pride among those who receive the designation. According to Motlow House lead Will Shavers, grown men will weep at becoming a Tennessee Squire, particularly when their Squireship has been inherited from a deceased relative.
Shavers’ own Tennessee Squireship is currently on hold as no one who works for Jack Daniel’s or parent company Brown-Forman is allowed to be a Tennessee Squire. But his beloved bassett hound, Sadie Lou, is also on the 2023 Tennessee Squires calendar alongside Goose and Randall.
If you want to learn more about the Tennessee Squires program, it’s best to ask a Squire. There’s very little information out there about the program other than the occasional news story about the Wyooter Hunt. If you want to become a Tennessee Squire, start studying Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey.
Tour guides at Jack Daniel’s have secret ways of knowing who on their tours is a Tennessee Squire and they will often share information covertly about the location of a Squire’s plot of land “up over that hill”. It’s done covertly because they don’t want others on the tour catching wind of the special status only to discover they can’t join without a nomination. It’s not a secret society, exactly, but it also isn’t advertised.
As for me, I ended my trip to Jack Daniel’s in the Motlow House transferring ownership of my grandparents’ one square foot of distillery property into my name. I brought a photocopy of my grandparents’ original deed with me, filled out some paperwork, and left with a calendar, a keychain, and a shot glass. Because it’s so old, Shavers wasn’t able to look up who nominated my grandparents or who they might have nominated in their lifetimes, but he’s looking to see if that information still exists anywhere.
Until then, I’ll be waiting for my deed to arrive.
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