by Tim Gilmore, 11/18/2023
For half a century the “whiskey king” reigned. Don Tredinick began his empire of spirits, Jax Liquors, in the old Black neighborhood of LaVilla, poured liquor through the veins of North Florida from Jacksonville to Tallahassee, and buried his wealth in land across Duval County.
When he smiled, his eyes sank into his big square face, hair shellacked back from his forehead. In a casual suit and tightly knotted satin tie, he gripped one arm of a leather armchair and, with his other hand, rubbed a toothpick back and forth between thumb and forefinger.
“I was afraid to stay small,” he told business editor George Wachendorf of The Florida Times-Union in 1969. Dominating the market was the only way to feel “halfway secure.” By the time he sold Jax to ABC Liquors in 1990, Tredinick owned 36 liquor stores and sold $70 million worth of alcohol a year, a figure more than doubled in today’s currency.
Tredinick grew up on the good-ole-boy pinewoods Northside on Lem Turner Road, his father Cornish and his mother from Suwanee County, Florida. In 1941, in his late 20s, he left a position at Continental Distilling, moved back home from Miami and bought his first bar with a business partner, Herbert Hammel. The Deluxe Bar stood at Adams and Broad Streets in those dense old brick blocks of LaVilla when, on the eve of the U.S. entering World War II, Tredinick and Hammel remodeled it and gave it a German name, the New Hofbrau.
Forty years later, at least in the recollection of Jack Dreher, president of Big-A Liquor Dealers Association and owner of Eight Pearls Bar and Package Store at Eighth and Pearl Streets in Springfield, Tredinick already sounded like the kingpin he was on his way to becoming.
Dreher said the Broad Street location had included a small butcher shop. “The guy who owned it was a friend of mine,” he told The Jacksonville Journal on May 29, 1981. “Tredinick asked what he thought of the remodeling. The guy said, ‘It’s beautiful, but I don’t think I can afford the rent.’ Tredinick said, ‘What do you think you can afford?’ The guy told him. Tredinick said, ‘That’s fine. I’m in the liquor business. I’m not a landlord.’”
LaVilla was segregated Black, long the center of music and entertainment in Black Jacksonville, and was just on the cusp of sliding downhill. White Flight didn’t mean just white people. Eventually, anybody who could get out got out and left behind a concentration of desperation in a dense historic warren of crumbling old theaters and restaurants and taverns and barbershops and poolrooms and row houses and long wide deep porches.
Inversely proportional, Tredinick’s long rise spanned the length of LaVilla’s decline. As he later shifted strategies from taking over older urban enterprises to building new stores in new suburbs, LaVilla sank in affliction, poverty and addiction. The construction of Interstate-95 destroyed large swaths of the neighborhood and split it in two. Two years after Tredinick finally sold his kingdom to an erstwhile competitor, the City of Jacksonville demolished most of 50 square blocks of LaVilla.
Tredinick’s career also tracked through ever-changing American drinking habits, attitudes toward liquor and drunk driving laws, as post-World War II thirst in a population who indulged in three-martini lunches and drove Cadillacs with built-in tumbler holders, and for whom Prohibition was a recent memory, rose to an increasingly sodden 1970s, before the country sobered slightly and sales dropped in the more health-conscious ’80s.
If Tredinick ever saw irony in having begun his empire by selling liquor to the hearts and livers of Black Jax, no record remains. He was hardly alone. White liquor merchants regularly collected receipts in LaVilla before heading back home to wealthy white Avondale and Ortega. A generation earlier, Solomon Shad, “the whiskey man,” had built his home on Adams Street in LaVilla when it was still largely Black but more racially diverse, yet by the time he died of a heart attack, 36 years old in 1923, he sold gin in LaVilla and laid his head at night in Riverside.
Don Tredinick’s daughter, Jean Penny, says, “I teased him when he opened a place called The Snow White in the darkest part of town,” meaning LaVilla. He sold food at The Snow White, primarily a corn dog called “the pronto pup.” Penny says, “My mother made all the batter and our house smelled like a carnival ride.”
Malcolm X took to task white, and specifically Jewish, liquor merchants in struggling Black neighborhoods. Jean Penny says her father was “totally unprejudiced” and “loved everybody,” adding, “Lots of his financial backers were Jewish and their ethic of not racially discriminating rubbed off on him.” Regarding his beginnings in Black neighborhoods, Penny says, “He went where the opportunities were.”
Yet rumors that her father was a teetotaler, says Jean Penny, were untrue. “He drank, but not to excess. And he drank cheap stuff. He would bring home whatever didn’t sell. Like Red Hackle Scotch? Who would buy that? Well, apparently nobody. So he drank it because he just didn’t care what he drank.”
By the mid 1940s, Don and Frances Tredinick had moved south of Downtown to San Marco and would soon buy the house at 931 Holly Lane near River Road where they’d raise their family. By 1950, Tredinick operated the Silver Dollar Tavern at 1652 Main Street in Springfield and nine other locations. Hammel retired and Tredinick bought him out.
He’d soon claim to have “invented” the liquor store “drive-in,” more accurately a drive-through. By 1955, he’d founded and made himself president of General Trading and Drive In Liquors and picked up Enrique Liquor Shoppe (elsewhere called “Enquire”) at 1801 Davis Street and Tropicana Lounge and Drive In at 3027 North Myrtle.
“The drive-in became his signature,” his daughter says, “until that went south. There was too much liability. You’d drive right up and get an open container,” she says. “You’d say, ‘Give me three martinis and a screwdriver’ and drive off drinking them. Or they’d sell you the miniature, the cup, the ice and a small ginger ale and you could mix your own drink there in the car, your own rolling cocktail lounge.”
Tredinick had also begun to add new stores and bars outside the urban core, like the Lucina Lounge at 2621 Cesery Boulevard. Most of the old stores were in Black neighborhoods, but now Tredinick embarked on a new and more self-assured strategy in rural locations where he predicted suburban development.
“You know his Lake Lucina store?” said Jack Dreher in 1981. “I remember when he bought that store. It was a graveyard. There was nothing out there and I mean nothing but fields. But he was convinced that was the way the city was going. And for six or seven years he lost money on that store, and then it grew all around him.”
Throughout the ’60s, Tredinick learned to work the politicians and dismissed those he didn’t have in his pocket, claiming they scapegoated him for all the ills of alcohol abuse. “Many voters are against liquor,” he said. “If a politician wants to get their votes and still not alienate the rest of the voters, he doesn’t attack liquor itself, but a figure in the industry.” In ’69, smiling and squinting like the dictionary illustration of a tycoon, Tredinick acknowledged, “I’m the most conspicuous target around here.”
When Black businessman Isadore Singleton died in 1964, Tredinick paid his mortgage and business debts. Three years later, the restaurateur’s widow, Mary Singleton, became one of the first two Black women elected to City Council. When Tredinick sought a rezoning that would allow him to build a liquor store in a neighborhood in her district, Singleton, paragon of integrity, helped defeat it.
In 1966, Jax Liquors, as Don Tredinick now called his consolidated empire, went discount, reorganizing its warehouse and distribution system and “bringing in experts in the cut-rate field.” Tredinick lobbied for legislation to allow retailers to cut out intermediaries and deal directly with distilleries. Critics and customers alike said Jax sold whiskey “dirt cheap.” Tredinick said he saw price wars coming, so he went ahead and started them himself. A new era of the liquor syndicate had dawned, Tredinick said, because “the public demands savings” and “the individual retailer is living on borrowed time.”
On August 24, 1969, The Florida Times-Union and Journal said the “whiskey king” was “one of the most controversial figures in Northeast Florida,” a “big, pleasant and painstakingly courteous man,” seen alternately as successful businessman and “villain.” Already Jax Liquors held a quarter of the alcoholic beverage market in town. Critics charged Tredinick had used political influence and monopoly to create an artificial market for discounted prices.
Politicos and business insiders joked that Jacksonville had “a case of DTs,” not Delirium Tremens, but Don Tredinick, Daughtry Towers and Dallas Thomas. The attorney Daughtry Towers was the city’s political kingmaker. Dallas Thomas was the first of several city commissioners in 1966 to be indicted by a grand jury – 40 counts, for Thomas alone, of grand larceny.
Those were days when Kappa Tau Kappa’s yearbook fraternity photo wasn’t bad advertising at all. “Un-Reconstructed,” the frat boys called themselves, Jacksonville University “good ole boys.” Their 1969 photo showed fraternity members holding a large Confederate flag and one student, in jacket and tie, sitting in a Jax Liquors trashcan and holding an open beer can.
By 1970, Jax Liquors – using the motto “It’s Smart to Shop at Jax!” – headquartered at 3610 Beach Boulevard, operated 18 locations, including Jacksonville Beach, the Thunderbird Motor Hotel, Golfair, Arlingwood, Spring Glenn and Cedar Hills. “I’ve sold as many liquor licenses as I’ve bought,” Tredinick said. That included bars like El Chico in LaVilla and The Greyhound and Pastime on Bay Street downtown and San Marco Liquors. Tredinick operated the cocktail lounge at Jacksonville International Airport and a series of Happy Jax Lounges across the county.
On October 12, 1972, The Jacksonville Journal reported that Tredinick’s enterprise had grown from annual sales of $2.5 million in 1950 to $10 million in ’66, then doubled in the last six years. Jax Liquors had just purchased the five stores of Leon Liquors in Tallahassee.
Throughout the ’70s, Tredinick hired architect Ted Pappas, best known for libraries and churches, to design new Jax Liquors stores and refrofit a brick warehouse at 611 East Adams Street, which later became the I.M. Sulzbacher Center for the Homeless.
Pappas kept his headquarters upstairs at the old Doty Apartment Building at Adams and Washington Streets, when bigwigs and politicos frequented former City Council President Red Cannon’s downstairs barbershop. When Tredinick seated himself for a haircut and shave, Cannon would call the young architect downstairs to show the liquor mogul sketches and plans.
“There’s a funny thing about power,” Councilmember Nancie Crabb said in 1981. “You might not be able to get anybody elected, but councilmen are afraid you can get them defeated. It’s that way with Tredinick.”
Indeed, Tredinick’s son lost his bid for mayor. When Trednick, Jr. – who spelled his last name differently – took on Mayor Hans Tanzler in 1975, the mayor noted that his opponent was the whiskey king’s son and joked about levying a new liquor store tax. (Trednick, Jr. had shortened his last name, just as his father had shortened his own father’s name from Tredinnick to Tredinick.)
Tanzler “trounced” Trednick, as the newspapers put it, and Trednick set about to have Tanzler removed from office, bringing to light undisclosed donations to Tanzler including wedding gifts and a check from Governor Farris Bryant for campaigning in Black neighborhoods back in ’71. Tanzler beat Trednick this time too and dodged prosecution.
“Don has a long history of having involved himself in the politics of this city and state,” Jack Dreher said in 1981, then added, “all very legally.” Dreher said Tredinick “understood the nature of the way you do business in America. He made it his business to be in very close contact with his congressman, his senators and his city representatives and was friendly to them and used them in the good old Yankee way of special interests.”
Tredinick always said part of his success was the fact that his establishments were clean and safe. He had a “hats off” policy in his Happy Jax Lounges, because, he said, in Florida, walking into a bar wearing a cowboy hat meant you were daring somebody to knock it off. Despite Tredinick’s employing his own security guard staff, however, people sometimes seemed to think the presence of a liquor store meant it was daring somebody to rob it.
Victor Stanley McCord, for example, 23 years old, robbed Jax Liquors at Gilmore Street and McDuff Avenue at 7 o’clock, Monday night, February 28, 1977, when he shot and killed 30 year old store manager Michael Meyers and pistol-whipped a 37 year old clerk named Rosa Shinko in the face.
In the ’80s, when Ted Pappas’s brother Gator managed the McDuff store, kids tried to get him to show them the Playboy and Penthouse magazines he kept behind glass. Like the false rumors about Tredinick, Gator didn’t drink a drop himself. Some of those Klansmen who’d bombed the house of six year Donal Godfrey, the first Black child at formerly all-white Lackawanna Elementary School around the corner, still came in.
Liquor industry leaders, including the supposed inventor of the liquor store drive-through, Tredinick himself, almost unanimously saw the arrival of new drunk driving laws in the 1970s as a threat to liquor sales. No longer could you buy “three martinis and a screwdriver and drive off drinking them.” More progressive states like New York had enacted such laws as early as 1910, while Florida made driving drunk illegal in 1986.
Nevertheless, liquor-related lawsuits could rarely touch Don Tredinick. In 1976, Glenn and Leroy Bryant, father and son, unsuccessfully sued Jax Liquors for $5 million after Glenn, 16 years old, was paralyzed from the waist down following a Forrest High School hazing incident. “More than 20 youngsters being initiated […] were forced to drink intoxicating beverages,” the papers reported, and Glenn was injured “either falling into a pit or by the grille of a pickup truck.”
From the late 1970s to the late ’80s, American alcohol consumption decreased, as news of research into the health risks of alcohol abuse increased and groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving became ubiquitous. Sales of distilled spirits dropped more than those of wine and beer, with many consumers trading distilled for fermented drinks, so Tredinick increasingly shifted focus from liquor to wines.
With terrazzo floors, the Lakewood location, well south of Downtown, primarily a wine shop without a drive-through, became the jewel in the crown that dotted the J in “Jax Liquors.” On February 19, 1979, The Jacksonville Journal said it had “a wine cellar décor,” with a “worldwide beer department and a glassware department” including “a complete line of ceramic decanters and special interest bottles.”
By the late ’80s, Don Tredinick had been in the business for almost 50 years. Stagnated by America’s new drinking habits and laws, Jax Liquors seemed finally to have peaked. Tredinick no longer gave interviews, but friends said he could never retire and was paying more attention now to real estate, having bought large swaths of undeveloped suburban land for years.
In a 1987 corruption trial, Duval County Property Appraiser Robert Mallard, 72 years old, plea bargained for a maximum prison term of five years and heavy fines for destroying official documents and ordering illegal property appraisal reductions for Tredinick and other local business interests.
When ABC Liquors of Orlando bought Jax Liquors in 1990, the latter’s 36 Northeast Florida stores made a total of 210 for ABC, bringing it close to its main Florida competitor, Chicago-based Walgreens, which then had 215. Shortly thereafter – and nearly 30 years before a federal jury found Walgreens “substantially contributed” to the U.S. opioid crisis – the pharmacy store chain began phasing out its liquor departments, saying demand had dropped.
Don Tredinick had bought land cheap, just like he’d bought his first bars, just like he positioned later liquor stores in rural spots yet to be developed into suburbs. He called his real estate firm St. Johns Trading Company. He bought acres of depleted sand dunes where in the 1940s and ’50s Humphreys Gold Corporation strip-mined not gold, but titanium, zirconium and other minerals. In the late ’70s the dunes became a municipal waste site for “sludge,” the semisolid waste refined from processing sewage. Today, Tredinick Parkway anchors and stretches through new development in Regency, connecting a real estate development called Mill Creek North across the Southside Connector and Monument Road to hotels and apartments by Jones Creek at Interstate 95.
Meanwhile, American drinking habits have changed again. Americans now drink more than they did just before Prohibition. In 2022, the market share of liquor sales grew from 28.7 percent in 2000 to 42.1 percent, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, and liquor sales, for the first time ever, surpassed beer sales. Younger people, however, drink less and Generation Z drinks less than any generation before them on record.
The old bars are gone and ABC remodeled the stores designed by Ted Pappas beyond recognition. A parking lot replaced the Deluxe / New Hofbrau, a parking garage the Pastime, a mortuary the Tropicana, a Walgreens (with no liquor department) the Enrique / Enquire. The block where El Chico stood is now closed off and part of the campus of LaVilla School of the Arts. The rivers of scotch and rum and red wine have recycled their way back through the earth and its waters and atmosphere. Most of Tredinick’s drinkers are dead. Newer generations have inherited the wealth. Before we were ever alive, all of us were dead forever. An empire’s but an instant.