~~ THE OVERHOLT FAMILY ~~

Written by K. R. Overholt Critchfield, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005
~~ Originally Published on Hometown AOL ~~
~~ Updated January 5, 2005 ~~


This web page was created to act as a signpost for long-lost relatives of the Extended Overholt Family -- and for any other visitors who are interested in the history of the individuals and families who founded West Overton, PA, and lived their lives as farmers, weavers, merchants and distillers of Overholt Whiskey.

With this article, I hope to introduce myself to you in a small way, and hope you will go on to find my other web pages at AOL Hometown and Yahoo! GeoCities, which feature stories about the Overholt Family and more photographs of today's West Overton [see the links below].


Karen & Portrait of Abraham Overholt, 1999  

Being a Wife and a Mother

My name is Karen Rose Overholt Critchfield. I'm a wife and a mother, and must confess to feeling awfully short these days. At fourteen, my son Matthew now measures 5' 9" tall, so he has gotten used to bending down to give me a hug! It appears it won't be long before he and his Dad (at 6' 4") will be seeing eye to eye -- literally! My husband, James Critchfield, is an imposing figure often seen on stage here in Pittsburgh, for he's a professional actor, singer and director. Jim started Actors Civic Theater a few years ago, and we are working to build up this fledgeling theater production company. To see photos of our summer theater workshop productions, visit the ACT web site at GeoCities [see URL below].

Myself, I have had an interesting life, though not as colorful as my husband's, whose whole adult life has been punctuated with the thrill of playing fabulous roles in some of the greatest shows in musical theater. However, I can be proud of a few of my own personal accomplishments. For instance, in my teen years, I earned four awards for my writing on the Goldsboro Hi-News (Goldsboro, North Carolina), I was an actual contestant in a real beauty contest (vying for the title of Miss Seymour Johnson Air Force Base), and I was a member of a church choir that won two Air Force world-wide competitions. Later on, and without fanfare, I was the first of my siblings to go to college, the first to graduate with a four-year college degree (B.A. in Speech Communication and English Education), and the first to earn an Master degree (M.A. in Religion for Christian Education).

However, my siblings have done better than I have, regarding establishing some kind of niche for themselves in the world. Despite all my goals and formal education, the only paying jobs I ever found were secretarial in nature. And my nomadic life became a major drawback, too, especially when I experienced a calling to be ordained and there was no one who knew me well enough to stand by my side and say, "I know this woman and she is truly called!" Ordination became another unfullfilled expectation. To date, my greatest accomplishment remains my giving birth to Matthew and being his mother.

I used all my talents and education to raise my son in the best way possible, while Jim tried to earn a living as an actor. In a strange twist of fate, it was Jim who became the professional educator of the family, but I certainly helped him get there by helping him with his projects. Throughout these lean years (which are not yet over), we have been striving to survive as a family, hoping to earn a better situation for ourselves and a more prosperous future for our son. Too quickly, Matthew became older and needed me less, and I wondered what I could possibly do for the rest of my life that might be considered worthwhile and beneficial to his future.


Launching a Life-Long Quest

I decided to research the Overholt Family and West Overton, and thereby help my son to see himself as a descendant and as a future father with a legacy of sorts to leave to his own children. My roots were his roots, and at least some of my ancestors appeared in history books, which probably would make my job (as amateur genealogist) easier. However, when I began this quest, utilizing the Internet resources of the world wide web, there was so much I did not know about my family!

I grew up knowing no other Overholts, save my parents, my siblings, and (on rare occasions) my grandfather. But we never really knew my father's father, for he was always someone who lived far away in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, an old showman who had grown up during the best years of Vaudeville, becoming a major talent on the piano. Sadly, George Overholt was as much a stranger to me and my siblings as he was to his own son. Somehow I would have to track down information about him and the other members of the Extended Overholt Family. Luckily, the Internet made this search possible -- for me and for thousands of other amateur genealogists. My first discovery was that there were more than a thousand addresses of folks named Overholt, and many of them could be found by e-mail. When I received e-mail back from a few of them, I began to learn a lot of neat things about the Overholt Family, and I began to believe that I was finally in the right place at the right time.


Becoming Ten Years Old

Like so many others of the Baby Boomer generation -- who were also members of military families and acutely subject to the great social experiment called the nuclear family -- my siblings and I mostly grew up without close family ties. For most of my life, then, I felt out of place and often out of time. Like other military kids, I was often described as precocious, and being ahead of my time, I was choosing to do things a young girl wasn't expected to do. For instance, by the time I was ten years old, I considered myself a serious writer, which actually gave me an identity of my own, other than oldest daughter, babysitter and dishwasher of the family. Of course, that was during the year I had my first eyeglasses. Before glasses, the world and everyone in it had been a blurred and confusing mystery. But once I could actually see the world around me, once I could see the individual leaves on the trees, once I could see a person's face clearly and behold the twinkle in someone's eye, I suddenly found I had plenty to write about.

Dad was in the Air Force and, as we were an Air Force family, we moved around quite a lot. For instance, I was conceived in Vallejo, California, born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, started school in Rabat, Morocco, finished second and third grade in Tripoli, Libya, and then found myself struggling with long division in a fourth grade classroom in Big Spring, Texas. With my new glasses, I quickly confirmed my opinion that despite my newfound abilitiy to see a horned toad in the sand three feet away from me, West Texas was literally in the middle of nowhere! At least, back in the Sahara Desert climate of Tripoli, we had date palms and the beautiful Mediterranean Sea practically on our doorstep! Big Spring, however, while it was the home of Webb Air Force Base, had only two curiosities that I knew of -- the big spring that had once been an important watering hole for Old West cattle drives (at that time, nearly bone dry), and the deep gullies which were good for exploring, particularly the one the local kids claimed had been the hideout of an infamous gang of outlaws.

But I wasn't interested in playing Cowboys and Indians all the time, nor did I ever warm up to the snakes and other wild creatures my brothers kept bringing home. My life seemed an endless repetition of going to school, and picking up after my messy brothers. My sister Stephanie came into the world too early and had to spend three months in an incubator. When she finally came home, no one was allowed to go near her, for fear she would get sick, but after that, a lot of my time was wrapped around my new baby sister. Yes, I was right at that age when a child begins to ask herself, "Who am I? Where am I? Where am I going? And how do I get there?" It was the summer of 1959, at about the time of my tenth birthday, when my mother talked to me about the agonies of becoming a young woman, but then ended with an upbeat tale about my interesting ties to a little bit of Pennsylvania history -- through my ancestor, Abraham Overholt.   Stephanie & Karen, 1958

Now, my father had often told us kids that we were direct descendants of the man who originally made Overholt Whiskey, and that the picture of the man on those bottles of Old Overholt was our great, great, great grandfather. Since my youngest brother looked very much like that man on the bottle, none of us doubted the truth of our Dad's assertions. But when my mother took me aside and told me I was "old enough to know" about the place near Pittsburgh called West Overton, where the Overholt Homestead was located . . . well, my imagination took over and I soon decided there would come a day when I returned to West Overton and reclaimed my home. As an Air Force kid, I never felt like I had a real home, so the stories about the Overholts, and the Frick connection, and actual links to actual historical events in our nation's actual history -- all of that made a very lonely pre-teen girl (me) feel better about herself.


Reaching the Year 1984

Fast Forward to the autumn of 1984, a whole lifetime later. I was finishing up my coursework at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (M.A. in Religion for Christian Education), when I decided to submit some poetry to an editor at the Mennonite Publishing House, which I deliberately chose because it was located in Scottdale, which was in the same neighborhood as West Overton. As unlikely as it may seem, after being back in Pittsburgh off and on since the autumn of 1976, I had never found a way to get to West Overton. This submission of some of my poetry turned out to be my best hope to get to that area, and (amazingly!) I got a ride to Scottdale from someone who actually worked at the Publishing House. I visited with a friendly editor about my poetry and then was given a tour of the building by a woman named Yoder, whose ancestors knew my ancestors, and I was treated like someone for the first time in my life! The people were so gracious to me, and much of that ambiance came from the fact that I was an Overholt. Heaven knows, for a few hours while I was there, I felt like a visiting princess! Not that anyone fluttered around me, or anything -- it was just a very pleasant experience. And that was the day I saw West Overton for the first time. The editor said he could arrange for me to be given a tour of the Overholt Homestead, and he made a few phone calls on my behalf. Luckily, the woman who had the keys was available, and she drove to the Publishing House to give me a ride to the site.


Connecting with West Overton

Now, this was the end of October, and the tourist season was over, so the place was deserted. The sky was overcast and the day was damp and gray. Gone were the colors of early autumn, replaced with the dull browns and dry crush of brittle leaves underfoot. But there it was -- Abraham Overholt's Homestead House -- looking far younger than its true age. My guide parked her car at the tall white fence that picketed the front yard. We walked up the path to the steps that led to the big porch. "You go up first," said the lady, motioning me forward, "and I'll go around and unlock the door from the inside." "Okay," I nodded, and started up the steps briskly.

About halfway up the steps, I suddenly wanted to stop and just look at the house to burn a picture of it in my mind, since I had no camera to take pictures. As I paused, I felt a strong hand push my left shoulder forward. My legs buckled a bit, but I righted myself. In one fleeting speck of time, two distinct thoughts simultaneously formed in my mind. "Oh!" I thought, "I stopped too fast and she bumped into me! I better apologize!" The other thought sounded like the voice of a cranky old man, saying, "What are you waiting for! All this belongs to you!" In the next speck of time, I swung around to apologize to the lady -- and was dumbfounded to see no one there! Where was she? Just then, I heard some rattling at the door above me, and I turned back around to see the lady pushing open the door and waiting for me. If she was up there, whose hand had shoved my shoulder with such force? Quickly, I ascended to the porch and went inside the house of my great, great, great grandfather, feeling like I had just met him on the stairs.


"All this belongs to you!"

On that autumn day long ago, I didn't realize the porch of Abraham's Homestead House did not extend to the rear (actually the formal front entrance) of the building. That is why I thought my guide was right behind me on the steps following me up. In fact, she had left me at the foot of the steps and gone around to enter the house from the real front door. And I was so shocked to see her there at the back door waiting for me to reach the porch! It was a strange experience, all right! And ever since that first visit to West Overton, I have carried with me the truth of the strange occurrence on the steps.

The voice had said to me, "What are you waiting for? All this belongs to you!" And ever since then, I've been wondering what those words actually meant. At the time, the house and the land belonged to Helen Clay Frick, who was then fading fast at her house in New York. As I was told that day by my guide, many people could hardly wait to take control of the property, because there was a great deal they wanted to do there, but that wouldn't happen until Helen died. As a matter of fact, Helen did die shortly thereafter, and I always felt bad because I never got to meet her. She had been my cousin, after all. But I was a poor seminary student, and an Overholt, so I never pretended that I was someone Helen would ever want to meet, even if she had been in good health, which she wasn't.

I cannot claim I ever figured out the riddling, "All this belongs to you!" Of course, Abraham's house and property at West Overton certainly did not belong to me or any other Overholt -- not in a material sense, anyway. And while I'm risking a great deal by publishing this little ghost story, the truth is, it did actually happen, and it happened to me, so I feel especially burdened by it, being a faithful Christian. And because the event actually happened, I started (several years ago) my genealogical searches for long-lost relatives, hoping to drum up their interest in the future of West Overton and the Overholt Homestead. I can suggest that Abraham wants us to know that West Overton belongs to those of us who bear the Family name. As I see it, we are now the Extended Overholt Family, and it would be a moral injustice if the Frick family gets to write the last chapter in the story of West Overton.


Go on to more Background in The Overholt Family Tree ~~ Karen's Branches, Page One.

Go to the first page of Karen's Branches for more photos and articles.