During the most oppressive and racially divided era in our nation’s history, an unlikely friendship was born that gave way to the creation of one of America’s best known brands – Jack Daniel’s whiskey.
A young Jack Daniel, orphaned at the age of 16, went to work as a chore boy for a preacher and distillery owner in his hometown of Lynchburg, Tennessee in the early 1800s.
It was there that he met a slave named Nathan Green, known better as Nearest. After being sold and sent to Tennessee from Maryland, he was rented out to a preacher, Dan Call, for the price of $50 to work as a distiller. He later became one of the wealthiest and highest regarded African-American men in Tennessee, and the first master distiller of Jack Daniel’s whiskey.
Over the years, Nearest became Jack’s mentor and teacher. He showed him the methods he had painstakingly perfected of charcoal mellowing, the signature of all Tennessee whiskey, which became the process for brewing the famous Jack Daniel’s product.
Nearest’s name, however, was missing from the story of Jack Daniel’s. Despite it being widespread knowledge among the Green and Daniel families that remain in the small community of Lynchburg, it had disappeared from the nation’s collective memory and from the company's own telling of the Jack Daniel's story.
Nathan 'Nearest' Green was a mentor to Jack Daniel for most of his life. He was a slave in the early 1800s who taught Jack Daniel (pictured right of center in a white hat and his trademark mustache and goatee beard) how to make his famous whiskey. Seated directly to his left is the only existing photo some say depicts Nearest - though others believe it is more likely to be one of his sons. The photograph is significant because typically black employees would have been made to stand at the back
One author and researcher has made it her mission to change that. Fawn Weaver has begun to piece together the life story of Nearest Green after spending months living in Lynchburg and eventually purchasing Dan Call’s farm where Jack and Nearest met more than 150 years ago.
With a half-million dollar investment to fund the creation of his own whiskey brand, Uncle Nearest 1856, and the establishment of a scholarship fund to send Nearest’s ancestors to college, Fawn hopes that the name Nearest Green and his legacy can finally be immortalized.
When Fawn Weaver first read about Nearest Green, she felt it was a story she was destined to tell.
‘I’ve never done anything like this in my life, and I almost feel more chosen than as if I chose it,’ the 41-year-old African-American author told the DailyMail.com.
Fawn Weaver, a best-selling author, has been researching Nearest's life for the last year and has worked with his descendants to create a whiskey brand and scholarship fund in his name
Mrs Weaver shares a birthday with Jack Daniel – September 5th. Though the exact date of Jack’s birth is disputed among historians, it is the day most commonly celebrated.
She, like many others, was shocked by a New York Times article in June 2016 that first revealed the whiskey company’s slave history that was never openly discussed, despite being widely known among the community in Jack Daniel’s home in Lynchburg.
The story previously told was that Dan Call had taught his young apprentice Jack Daniel, how to run his Tennessee distillery.
Hoping to learn more about Nearest Green, Mrs Weaver bought the first biography written on the whiskey distiller: Jack Daniel’s Legacy. As she read, she was immediately struck by how frequently Nearest and his sons were mentioned in the book, which was published in 1967.
'Uncle Nearest is the best whiskey maker that I know of,' Call is recorded as having said.
She began to dig deeper, and found an article written in a local Tennessee paper in 1974 that listed Nearest Green as the first master distiller at Jack Daniel’s.
But when Mrs Weaver visited the Jack Daniel’s distillery in Lynchburg, there was no mention of Nearest during the facility’s tour. She went on the tour once more, and then again, just to be certain. Still Nearest’s name or influence weren’t discussed.
How, she wondered, had this story gotten lost in the passage of time? Why wasn’t it being taught as common knowledge to the public, despite being understood for generations among the people it involved?
‘To this day I don’t know how Nearest ended up being hidden. I really don’t,’ she said. ‘Because when Jack was alive he never hid him. When Jack’s descendants ran the distillery, they never hid who he was or what he did. The relationship between Jack’s descendants and Nearest’s descendants were one that was rare between blacks and whites. They would’ve stood out. In Lynchburg, they always knew.’
She decided to travel to Lynchburg – a town of about 6,000 people today, and was immediately confronted with the legacy of not Jack Daniel – but Nearest Green.
While getting a pedicure, she asked a woman working there what the reaction in the community had been when the New York Times article went viral.
‘She looked at me with this very blank face and said: “We’ve always known. It was no big deal”.’
Jack Daniel's Tennessee whiskey celebrated its 150th anniversary last year, and pledged to work towards incorporating Nearest's name into their celebrations
Jack Daniel, orphaned at 16, was sent to work as a chore boy for pastor and distillery owner Dan Call in Lynchburg where he met Nathan 'Nearest' Green, a slave who was a very skilled distiller. In this photograph Call is pictured standing with a guitar in hand on the right hand side of the image at his farm
The mission to tell Nearest’s story became a near obsession for Fawn, even driving her to purchase the farmland that once belonged to Dan Call to serve as a home base for her project.
After spending months poring over more than 10,000 historical documents and connecting with nearly 100 of Nearest’s remaining family members from across the nation – Fawn has pieced together what she can of Nearest Green’s life in her ‘research room’.
With peeling floral wallpaper and creaking floorboards, it sits in the farm house where the original distillery for Jack Daniel’s whiskey was built nearly 200 years ago.
When Jack met Nearest, the two took on what Mrs Weaver believes to be a relationship of mentorship and mutual respect.
‘When you consider a young man who has no parents, you’re going to gravitate to successful adults no matter what. Nearest, as odd as it may sound and seem to many, right after the Civil War was one of the wealthiest African Americans in Lynchburg and in the surrounding areas.
‘More importantly, he had a greater personal wealth than many of the white people who lived there. Nearest was highly regarded and highly compensated for his skill set,’ she continued.
Fawn mused on what their friendship might have looked like to others in Tennessee during the height of the Civil War.
With a booming laugh, she said: ‘You have to think about how interesting this must’ve looked, these two men going through town. Nearest, who I’m guessing was somewhere around 6 feet if not taller, and Jack, who was five foot two. The sight of that spectacle walking through town had to just be so interesting.’
She believes that Jack Daniel was a genius businessman, despite his lack of formal education.
‘I think Jack would’ve succeeded at anything he put his mind to. However, for this particular whiskey, I do believe that the relationship between Jack’s family and Nearest’s family is what truly propelled it to greatness,’ she continued.
Thus began a relationship that survived generations to come – and served as the base of a company that now nets approximately $3billion in annual revenue.
Fawn’s research found her traveling to Tennessee, Washington DC and Georgia to scour their public records, and gradually she began to compose the first comprehensive timeline of Nearest Green’s life.
The town of Lynchburg, home to the Jack Daniel’s distillery, is within the dry county of Moore.
Tennessee was the first state to implement prohibition laws in 1838, which made it illegal to sell alcoholic beverages.
The Jack Daniel’s distillery briefly closed down in 1910 during the restrictive time, and relocated distilleries to other places, such at St Louis.
In 1933, when prohibition was repealed, it was left to the discretion of the states to decide how to reintroduce alcohol.
In Moore County, it was decided that the towns would remain dry – declaring that alcohol cannot be sold within the county.
Ironically, this means that one cannot actually purchase Jack Daniel’s whiskey at the distillery in which it is made.
In the Tennessee state census, Nathan Green is listed as originally hailing from Maryland. His name is printed in the center of the page as the only name denoted as a Maryland transplant to Tennessee. It was first reported that his name was ‘Nearis’ – a misinterpretation of his common nickname of Nearest.
From the census data, Mrs Weaver surmised that this reveals some understanding of Nearest’s life before he came to the Call farm.
‘It is very likely that he at least recalled where he began, meaning he wasn’t sold as an infant,’ she said.
At the time, the slave trade route from Maryland to Tennessee wasn’t uncommon. However, if Nearest came to Maryland with any family, records of them disappeared when he arrived in Lynchburg.
The Green surname likely came from the ‘slave rental’ group that owned him at that time, Landis & Green, who sold him to the Call farm for his well-known skills as a distiller.
‘Usually $50 is that fee that they would charge,’ Mrs Weaver continued. ‘If there was a slave that was incredibly skilled in a particular area they would be rented to owners in those industries.
‘My guess was Nearest was a really skilled distiller before he ever made it to the Call farm.’
Little is known about the time frame in which Nearest arrived at the farm, how long he stayed there, or how old he was while he worked for Dan Call.
Mrs Weaver said a complicating factor in her research has been the absence of records, given that on paper, slaves had no roots in America.
‘I imagine he had siblings, I imagine he did not come into Tennessee on his own. But sometime between Maryland and Tennessee he no longer has any family,’ Mrs Weaver said.
However, it is known that Nearest went on to have 11 children, who became very close with Jack Daniel and his family in Lynchburg. Even to this day, the descendants of Nearest Green and those of Jack Daniel have a relationship of mutual solidarity – and have worked together with Mrs Weaver to compose the Green family tree and push Nearest’s story into the limelight.
Fawn became so enamored with the story that she bought the former farm that was home to Nearest and Jack and turned it into her 'research room' - home to more than 10,000 documents she has used to piece together Nearest's life
Every day, Mrs Weaver is in contact with at least one of Nearest’s ancestors. They are spread all over the country, from Indianapolis to St Louis to Nashville, in many locations that are associated with Jack Daniel’s distilleries
It seemed that the community jumped at the opportunity to share the history they were proud to uphold; one of divided races working together. Even the eldest of ancestors wanted to impart any pieces of oral history they could share that could be of help to Fawn’s research. Nearest Green’s oldest living relative, Mrs Weaver said, just turned 107 - and played a crucial part in providing details that strung the family’s history together.
Strangely, Mrs Weaver noted, most of the information that led to breakthroughs in her research came from members of the community who were white.
‘This is not a scenario where people ran and hid,’ Mrs Weaver said. ‘They all led me, black and white alike - most of the people who live in Lynchburg, by the way, are white - to get to truly tell this story. To see Nearest’s legacy I had to rely equally on whites and blacks.’
She believes this may have been because Nearest was so wealthy, he lived among significantly more white people than black people in the town.
‘There was not a black person within miles of him and Lynchburg was not that big,’ she said.