Sign of the Broad Ford Overholt Distillery, West
Only 55 Years to Get There!
Well, yeah, it took me just about exactly 55 years to set foot on the site that once meant so much to several generations of the Overholt Family. And it happened on the afternoon of May 17, 2004, one month before my 55th birthday on June 16. Imagine launching a weekend safari of academics and professionals -- a couple architects from the university, an archaeologist from the museum, a few graduate students accompanying their history professor, a local film maker, and the famous producer of Public Television shows about things that aren't here anymore with his camera crew in tow. Yeah, that is what I envisioned, and what I tried to arrange, but that is not what actually happened. Instead, on a rare bright Monday (no rain until we got back to Pittsburgh!), when the car was at my command (which is very rare!), and my friend Susan Karas (rarely free of major home or church or theater committments) could accompany me, my "safari" of two people arrived at the site. It was a lovely, beautiful, momentus spring day! It was a fabulous adventure, and all I had was a few "one-time use" cameras to record the event.
Entrance to the Ruins of the Overholt Distillery at Broad Ford, PA
a 3-Photo Composite. To the right is the neglected
Distillery Road crossing the railroad tracks; to the left
My Attempt at Making a L-o-n-g Story Short
Of course, it had taken years of on-and-off persistence to get to Broad Ford. I never had the luxury of ready transportation or the benefit of money that would have made the search quicker and easier. Therefore, it was a case of letting my fingers do the walking -- via the Internet -- to uncover enough information to locate the site, find the owner, and get permission to visit the property.
I started to get lucky in 2002, even though it was not clear to me at the time. Back then, I searched for the Overholt Distillery by surfing for web sites that gave information about Westmoreland County and Scottdale. I remember a phone conversation with a lady in a local government office of Scottdale, whom I questioned about Broad Ford. Did she know anything about the Overholt Whiskey Distillery? She vaguely knew that there were ruins somewhere, but didn't know the exact location, nor did she know how to locate the present owner of the land. She did not know anything about a Distillery Road, and questioned whether Broad Ford was even part of Westmoreland County. It turned out that Broad Ford was in Fayette County, even though it is situated on the north shore of the Youghiogheny River, and a geological stone's throw away from Scottdale. Don't laugh! Remember, I did not grow up around here!
I believed the key to finding the distillery was finding Distillery Road. In July of 2002, I found online the real estate data for everyone owning property on Distillery Road. I made a few phone calls and left messages on a few answering machines, but no one ever called me back. Time went by. Whenever I picked up the task again, there was a "brick wall" of one kind or other, and I began to believe there was nothing left to find, until I received an e-mail from Linda and John Lipman. Their ellenjaye.com web site featured articles about their ongoing explorations of American distilleries, past and present. Their photos and description of their trip to Broad Ford proved to me there was something to be found on Distillery Road. I missed a chance to learn more last summer, when they made a road trip nearby and invited me to meet them, but Jim and I were very busy with our summer theater program, so I had to decline the invitation.
Skip ahead to the end of March 2004, when I received a very nice e-mail from a man who had grown up "only one mile away from Broad Ford on the Narrows Road in Connellsville Township." He was curious about the history of the Overholt Distillery since 1935, the extrapolated date of the report I used for my feature, OLD OVERHOLT: The History of a Whiskey. His maternal grandparents had operated a general store across the railroad tracks from the Overholt Distillery from the early 1900s to "the Broad Ford flood of 1954." In fact, his mother and her sisters had worked at the distillery when it was being run by National Distillers in the 1930s to perhaps the 1940s. He was curious as to what happened since 1935, and wondered if I could tell him anything.
Well, there was nothing I could tell him on that subject! I had no information regarding the sale and resale of the Overholt Distillery, and certainly had no idea what occurred to bring an end to that business in Western Pennsylvania. Most of my own knowledge came from books, online sources, and individuals who had e-mailed me over the years. And this was the most intriging e-mail yet, regarding the Broad Ford site, because he was "intimately familiar with nearly all the references to roads, rivers, coke ovens, and towns" mentioned in the 1935 article. "At the time of my youth," he wrote, "the distillery was used as a warehousing facility by Seagrams. This was only for a few years probably in the late 60s. Beyond that I only know what my mother told me before she passed away in 1982."
Making This L-o-n-g Story Extremely Short
Spurred on by this correspondence, I suggested a safari. Then I pulled out my old file and started making phone calls again, and I didn't give up leaving messages until a few people called back. I located the present owner. I talked with him on the phone. He was not the least bit interested in the property, but he gave me permission to visit the site. I made phone calls and sent out e-mail queries to a few professionals and academics. In the end, as the weekend date got nearer, not one person could make it. I pretty much gave up my idea to go to Broad Ford, then I decided I would go by myself, then backed out -- and it went on like that for days. It rained Saturday. After church on Sunday, Susan said she was free to go with me, if I went on Monday. We went on Monday.
The rest of this page is dedicated to showing you what we found at Broad Ford on Monday, May 17, 2004 -- truly a day to remember. Please look for another feature I will be publishing regarding what I did to accomplish a really, really great thing for what is left of the Overholt Distillery, which includes the possible outcome of changing the course of history.
We just could not believe how tall this building
stood! It was huge! I doubted my little Kodak
would make a picture
When Susan stepped closer to look inside, I
realized this was my chance to
It was difficult to get the smoke stack framed
properly, for it was even taller than the multiple-silo
building! I felt
discovered a flatbed loaded with steel beams, or girders.
To the left of this long building was a yellow
building that was hard to detect
the multiple-silos building was a huge and beautiful
building -- overgrown and ravaged, but still amazing to
several photos of the building and was walking away
towards the next one, when Susan
And here I am, standing as tall as I'm able in the arch of the A. Overholt & Co. Building at Broad Ford, PA.
these three photos, I tried to show some detail. Above,
you can see straight through to where a water tower
left, you can see how the outer layer of yellow brick was
attached to the inner layer of brown brick. I wondered
The A. Overholt & Co. Building, May 17, 2004.
in the tracks of the unknown vehicle, I took this shot,
wishing I could
There was another building between these two, hardly visible through the foliage.
already mentioned, these huge buildings were very
impressive, very huge, and gave us feelings of
examined this shot, my eyes followed the bright streak
across the top window. I realized the bright light showed
picking our way amongst the buildings now,
portion of another building must have had a landing
attached, where supplies
coming to the end of the mowed trail, where much smaller
ahead, the trail curved around this small building on the
outskirts of the complex,
clear that the roof of this building had been trashed to
gain access to the
to the depiction on the Relic Sign, Susan and I
had entered the complex at the far left, crossed