A Brief History of Billy Beer

Peter Keegan, Keystone/Getty Images
Peter Keegan, Keystone/Getty Images

When the national press descended on Plains, GA, during the 1976 presidential campaign, the journalists were looking for some insight into Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter’s character. They found something even better: Carter’s hard-drinking younger brother, gas station owner Billy.

The media quickly fell in love with the bespectacled, beer-chugging younger Carter. Billy’s Southern-fried buffoon character and over-the-top friendliness provided the perfect counterpoint to his brother’s earnest demeanor, and his wit kept the press stocked with sound bites like, “I got a red neck, white socks, and Blue Ribbon beer."

In 1979, the Associated Press described Billy as a “professional redneck,” and that’s a pretty accurate assessment of Billy’s activities in the early years of his brother’s presidency. He basically traveled the country drinking beer, making event appearances, and cashing checks. His most notable project, though, has to be the beer that bore his name.

The Birth of Billy Beer

billy beer

cactuscans, Ebay

As Billy Carter’s odd, beer-swilling star was rising, the venerable Falls City Brewing Company’s fortunes were fading. Louisville-based Falls City had enjoyed a good deal of success as a regional brewer since its 1905 founding, and the company even managed to prosper during Prohibition by making near beer and soft drinks. By 1977, though, the small brewer was having trouble competing with national brands, and its most recent attempt to win back some market share, a light-bodied beer called Drummond Bros., hadn’t buoyed the company’s prospects much.

Falls City didn’t want to simply fade into oblivion, so in 1977 the company approached the country’s most visible drunken redneck about forming a partnership. Never one to turn down free beer or an easy buck, Billy agreed to market his own brand of beer.

The exact terms of the partnership weren't clear, but various sources reported that Carter received $50,000 a year to license his name and provide promotional services. Billy also got to pick the beer; Falls City brewed up a set of test batches and let him choose the one he thought was the tastiest. Carter had high expectations for the project and even joked, “Maybe I'll become the Colonel Sanders of beer.”

It seems funny now that Billy Beer is an infamous failed brand, but Falls City had a major problem to address before it started making Billy Beer. The brewers correctly surmised that a beer endorsed by the President’s black-sheep brother would become a national sensation, and it would be impossible for a regional brewery like Falls City to meet so much demand. To sidestep this problem, Falls City licensed the Billy Beer brand and formula to three other regional breweries: Minnesota’s Cold Spring, Texas’ Pearl Brewing, and New York’s West End. Billy Beer was set to get the entire nation quotably tipsy.

Billy-mania Begins

Billy Beer drew an enviable amount of national attention when it debuted in November 1977, and Jimmy Carter’s supporters and detractors alike rushed out to buy a six-pack of the novelty cans. The 12-packs even came emblazoned with a photo of Billy and his buddies enjoying frosty cans of the brew. Each can – the only format in which the beer was offered – bore Billy’s signature and the promise “I had this beer brewed just for me. It’s the best beer I’ve ever tasted. And I’ve tasted a lot.”

This revelation might shock you, but Billy Carter – the same Billy who later registered as a foreign agent of the Libyan government and accepted a six-figure “loan” from Colonel Gaddafi – wasn’t being entirely honest about his beer’s smooth taste. Most contemporary drinkers felt it was apparent that Falls City had put more thought into the marketing plan than the brew itself, and even Billy would later jokingly describe Billy Beer as the reason he quit drinking.

Of course, even if the beer had been nectar, the brand had another major hurdle to clear: Billy Carter. Hiring a highly quotable, frequently drunk attention hound turned out to be a questionable decision for Falls City. Billy had a habit of attending promotional events for his beer and parroting the company line about how delicious he thought it was, only to later get sloshed and admit to reporters that he still drank Pabst Blue Ribbon at home. That’s about the best summary of Billy Beer that we can find; it was so noxious that not even Billy Carter would drink it.

Falls City had survived Prohibition, but it couldn’t survive Billy Beer. The brewers quickly learned that it’s hard to make a lasting profit on a product that tastes so bad nobody wants to buy it a second time. In October 1978, Falls City announced that it was closing its doors after less than a year of cranking out the first brother’s suds. The brewery’s president said that the fortunes of Billy Beer "sank with the popularity of the President," but many media sources, including Time, pinpointed the beer’s crummy quality as the true reason for its downfall.

Wisconsin’s G. Heileman Brewing Company acquired Falls City’s non-Billy brands and continued to bottle them at other breweries. Reynolds Metals bought 9 million unfilled Billy Beer cans and melted them down, and Billy Carter left the beer industry.

Billy Hits the Secondary Market

Jimmy Carter and Billy Carter
US National Archives bot, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This unceremonious death should have been the end of Billy Beer, but the short-lived fad caught a second wind in the early '80s. What caused Billy’s resurgence? Americans became thoroughly convinced that their unopened cans were 12-ounce gold mines.

At some point in 1981, classified ads began popping up in newspapers around the country offering $1,000 for any unopened sixers of Billy Beer. Anyone who was sitting on some unopened Billy Beer became ecstatic about turning horrid beer into big money. A week or two later, the same papers would run classified ads from someone who wanted to sell their Billy Beer for a mere $200 a sixer, a discount of 80-percent off of its “true” value!

This scam should have been fairly transparent, but it fooled a lot of people. Cans of Billy Beer became the booze-filled Beanie Babies of their day. By the time Ronald Reagan moved into the White House, people were convinced that their cans of crummy beer were more valuable than stock certificates. In December 1981, The New York Times ran a letter to the editor from a can collector who tried to explain that, no, these common cans weren’t precious commodities. He pegged the value of a can at somewhere between fifty cents and a dollar. Two weeks later, the Times ran a rebuttal letter that stridently decried the collector’s point and declared, “I wish to put the matter to rest by informing your readers that I was personally offered $600 for one unopened can.”

If that story is true, we hope the letter writer took the deal. As anyone who collected baseball cards in the '80s can tell you, Billy Beer perfectly fit the mold for a worthless collectible. It was made in giant quantities. Hordes of people had speculatively saved some. It had no intrinsic value. Rumors of the beer’s value persisted throughout the decade, though, and sellers found suckers, er, customers from time to time. In 1988 the Times even reported on a West Virginia couple who had bought a sealed case for a mere $2,000.

That poor couple probably wishes it had its money back. Although the “Billy Beer is valuable!” myth hasn’t totally died, the cans’ aren’t exactly demanding a king’s ransom on today’s collector’s market. A quick perusal of recent eBay auctions shows that an unopened can of Billy Beer tops out at around $10, while a six-pack might fetch $15-25. On the plus side, the beers probably don’t taste appreciably worse than they did in their 1978 heyday.

When Theodore Roosevelt’s Son Snuck a Christmas Tree into the White House

George Varian, Ladies Home Journal // Public Domain, Courtesy of HathiTrust
George Varian, Ladies Home Journal // Public Domain, Courtesy of HathiTrust

Mental Floss has a new podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.

On Christmas morning 1902, the children of Theodore and Edith Roosevelt woke up early, got dressed, and began banging on the door of their parents’ White House bedroom. It was there, Roosevelt explained the next day in a letter to James Garfield, grandson of former president James A. Garfield, that “six stockings, all bulging out with queer angles and rotundities, were hanging from the fireplace.”

The six members of the Roosevelt brood were not the only ones to receive gifts that day. Archie, the president’s second-youngest child, had a surprise for his parents, too: a little Christmas tree, which he had hidden in a closet and “rigged up with the help of one of the carpenters.” Hanging from the tree were gifts for the family and some of the Roosevelt’s veritable menagerie of pets: “Jack the dog, Tom Quartz the kitten, and Algonquin the pony, whom Archie would no more think of neglecting [than] I would neglect his brothers and sisters,” Roosevelt wrote.

Christmas trees laden with glittering decorations are now a central part of the White House holiday tradition. The official White House tree is formally welcomed by the First Lady and installed in the Blue Room—a custom that began in 1912. Some first families have opted to deck the White House halls with dozens of Christmas trees. But if Archie Roosevelt hadn’t ferreted his secret gift into the official residence in 1902, there may not have been a Christmas tree in the White House that year, the second of Roosevelt’s presidency.

"There will be no Christmas tree at the White House"

Newspaper reports from the time remarked with interest that the president’s family would not celebrate the holiday with a tree. The New York Sun, for instance, published an article in late December 1902 noting that while the Roosevelts would spend the morning exchanging gifts, “there will be no Christmas tree at the White House.”

White House Christmas decorations
A Christmas tree was set up in the East Room of the White House in 1936 at the end of President Franklin Roosevelt's first term.
Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publications

Rumors soon began to spread as to why a twinkling evergreen was not part of the family’s planned Christmas decor. A now-ubiquitous anecdote emerged: The president, a staunch conservationist, had imposed a ban on Christmas trees in the White House. And 8-year-old Archie found a way to circumvent the rule, bringing an extra dash of holiday cheer to the residence.

It wasn’t an outlandish theory. Roosevelt was indeed a leading figure of America’s conservation movement, which arose in response to the heavy exploitation of natural resources in the mid- to late-19th century. Though an avid hunter, Roosevelt was troubled by the mass slaughter of big game species like bison and elk. He recognized that the country’s natural resources were finite, its environment vulnerable and in need of protection. During his presidency, Roosevelt created the United States Forest Service and established 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, four national game preserves, five national parks, and, with the signing of the 1906 American Antiquities Act, 18 national monuments.

“We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources,” Roosevelt once wrote. “But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”

"The Forestry Fad"

Some environmental advocates in Roosevelt’s day opposed harvesting evergreens for use as Christmas trees. In late December 1899, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that Roosevelt’s predecessor, President William McKinley, had received “many letters … begging Mr. McKinley to refuse to have a Christmas tree.” The writers had “taken up the forestry fad,” decrying the “Christmas tree habit” as “an immense and lamentable destruction of young firs and spruces,” according to the publication.

But Jamie Lewis, historian at the Forest History Society, says he has not found evidence that the 26th president ever took a similar stance on the Christmas tree quandary. In fact, Gifford Pinchot, head of the U.S. Forest Service who collaborated closely with Roosevelt on conservation matters, did not believe forests would be harmed by cutting down evergreens at Christmas time.

“Ultimately,” Lewis tells Mental Floss, “[Roosevelt] had no ban on Christmas trees.”

Lewis thinks there is a simpler explanation as to why the president decided to forgo this particular holiday symbol: “As far as I know, it was family tradition that they just didn't have a tree.”

Christmas trees at the White House
Workers put Christmas decorations on the front of the White House in 1939, during President Franklin Roosevelt's second term.
Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

The Baltimore Sun reported as much in a December 1901 article, which explained that “[t]here will be no Christmas tree [in the White House], as a tree has never been part of the celebration of Christmas in the Roosevelt family.” In an earlier article, the same publication suggested that with six children and multiple guests traipsing through the White House, there simply wasn’t enough room for a tree.

“In the private part of the house conditions are such that Mrs. Roosevelt finds she cannot devote a single room to a tree and therefore it has been decided by the President and herself that the children must have their tree at the home of their uncle and aunt,” the Sun reported.

Robert Lincoln O’Brien, a journalist who served as the White House executive clerk during the Cleveland administration, echoes this sentiment in his account of Archie’s surprise Christmas tree, which appeared in Ladies Home Journal in 1903. “The main motive of Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt … is to enjoy Christmas as simply as possible,” O’Brien writes. “Almost every room of the White House at the holiday season, in a family of so many children, is overloaded with things; trees upon which to display them would only add so much more.”

"Pagan Symbols"

Today, this might seem like a rather Grinch-like attitude. But at the turn of the 20th century, not every home in America where Christmas was celebrated would have a bedecked evergreen. In fact, Christmas trees had only recently become a widely accepted feature of the holiday season. As late as the 1840s, many Americans, influenced by the country’s Puritan roots, saw Christmas trees as pagan symbols. Immigrants from Germany, where it was common practice to honor the holiday with a decorated tree, helped usher in a fondness for the custom. Even then, however, Christmas trees were typically reserved for households with children; presents would be stored under, or hung from, the evergreen.

Christmas tree at the White House
The White House Christmas tree was arranged in the Blue Room in 1961, during John F. Kennedy's first year in office.
Robert L. Knudsen, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library // Public Domain

The same was true of the America’s first families. “Presidents Grant and Cleveland both had Christmas trees in the White House only because they had young children,” Lewis writes on the Forest History Society website, “while presidents without young children had no tree.”

Roosevelt, of course, had multiple little ones living with him at the White House, which is perhaps why the family’s tree-less Christmas was remarked upon in contemporary newspaper reports.

“They were a dynamic, fascinating family that the press loved covering,” Lewis explains, adding that journalists may have been particularly eager for content as Christmas approached.

“Congress would have adjourned weeks before,” he says. “They weren't working right up until the week before Christmas. So [the media is] desperate for copy, and here we have this fascinating family. I think some of the myth and legend is born out of boredom, frankly.”

The tale of clever Archie flouting a presidential ban in 1902 certainly made for a good story—even if it wasn’t an entirely accurate one. In subsequent years, Lewis writes, newspaper articles not only remarked that the Roosevelts would once again not have a Christmas tree, but also speculated whether Archie would “pull a fast one” on his father.

“An Ideal Christmas”

If there was no ban, it seems more likely that Archie’s intention was simply to present his parents with a nice gift. In his letter to Garfield, Roosevelt describes the tree as a “surprise,” and doesn’t seem cross about the gesture.

“[A]ll the children came into our bed and there they opened their stockings,” he wrote. “Afterwards we got ready and took breakfast, and then all went into the library where each child had a table set for his bigger presents.”

Christmas tree at the White House
Lyndon Johnson set up a modest Christmas tree in the White House in 1963.
White House Photo Office, LBJ Presidential Library // Public Domain

Archie’s tree also may have planted the seeds for a new family custom. In late December 1906, Roosevelt noted in a letter to his sister that “Archie and [his younger brother] Quentin have gradually worked [up] a variant on what is otherwise a strictly inherited form of our celebration, for they fix up (or at least Archie fixes up) a special Christmas tree in Archie’s room.”

That year, the Roosevelt children decorated a second tree for their parents—perhaps to surprise them, now that Archie’s “variant” had become part of the Christmas tradition. While Roosevelt and his wife, Edith, were busy admiring Archie’s tree, “two of the children had [slipped] out,” the president explains, “and when we got back to our own room there was a small lighted Christmas tree with two huge stockings for Edith and myself.”

It was, Roosevelt writes, “an ideal Christmas.”

Scientists Just Created 3D Digital Replicas of John F. Kennedy’s Assassination Bullets

NIST
NIST

Part of the National Archives and Record Administration’s duty is to provide the public with access to its billions of pages of texts, maps, photos, film, and other artifacts of American history—but some of them aren’t so easy to view. The bullets from John F. Kennedy's assassination, for example, have long been considered too fragile for anything but sitting in a climate-controlled vault in Washington, D.C.

However, they recently took a field trip to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Maryland, where the ballistics team there used advanced microscopic imaging techniques to create breathtakingly accurate 3D digital replicas.

jfk bullet 3D replica
NIST

According to a press release from NIST, the collection includes two fragments from the bullet that killed Kennedy, the so-called “stretcher bullet” that hit both Kennedy and then-governor of Texas, John Connally; two bullets from a test-fire of the assassin's rifle, and a bullet from an earlier unsuccessful assassination attempt on Army Major General Edwin Walker that might have come from the same rifle.

As you can probably imagine, the two fragments from Kennedy’s fatal bullet are the most affecting pieces of the collection. They also give you a pretty good understanding of how difficult it must have been to recreate them—the bits of metal are twisted into gnarled, asymmetrical shapes that look different from every angle.

jfk bullet 3D replicas
NIST

To replicate each miniscule mark, ridge, and divot, NIST physical scientists Thomas Brian Renegar and Mike Stocker spent hours rotating the artifacts beneath the microscope, capturing images from all perspectives, and then combining parts of the images to create full 3D versions of them.

“It was like solving a super-complicated 3D puzzle,” Renegar said in the release. “I’ve stared at them so much I can draw them from memory.”

Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, has generated no small number of conspiracy theories over the years, but NIST and the National Archives made it clear that the project to replicate the bullets was “strictly a matter of historic preservation,” and not in any way a reopening of the case. But once the complete 3D scans are made available in the National Archives’ online catalog in early 2020, members of the public are free to analyze them however they like.

“The virtual artifacts are as close as possible to the real things,” Martha Murphy, the National Archives’ deputy director of government information services, said in the release. “In some respects, they are better than the originals in that you can zoom in to see microscopic details.”

And while Kennedy’s case is closed, the cutting-edge technology used on his bullets will be used in the future.

“The techniques we developed to image those artifacts will be useful in criminal cases that involve similarly challenging evidence,” NIST forensic firearms expert Robert Thompson said in the release.

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