Broad Ford Safari
Discovering the Ruins of the Overholt Distillery
Photographs and Text by K. R. Overholt Critchfield, August 15, 2004


Relic Sign of the Broad Ford Overholt Distillery, West Overton Museums
Photo by K. R. Overholt Critchfield, 8-10-04


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

This is a 3-Photo Composite. To the right is the neglected Distillery Road crossing the railroad tracks; to the left is a
trashed chainlink fence and broken gate, where a trail led us toward a building of multiple silos, seen to the left and
dwarfed by its distance from the road.


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.


Before we began our trek, just in case we encountered snakes or other
wild animals, I rummaged around and found two old tree branches we
could use as hiking sticks. Then we followed a nice path that brought
us to what clearly was a road. Before we went any further, I turned and
took a picture of the path we came from . . . just in case, you know, we
were never heard from again. After all, we were strangers in a deserted
area, and there might be snakes . . . .


 

We just could not believe how tall this building stood! It was huge! I doubted my little Kodak would make a picture
that would do justice to this structure! Of course, I recognized it as one of the buildings painted on the Relic Sign,
but the sheer magnitude was hard to believe!



When Susan stepped closer to look inside, I realized this was my chance to
provide needed perspective. Still, I was now getting that Indiana Jones kind of
feeling, like we had just stumbled upon the ancient ruins of a lost empire!


 

It was difficult to get the smoke stack framed properly, for it was even taller than the multiple-silo building! I felt
dizzy looking up at it, and I wondered how sturdy it might be, considering there appeared to be damage along its
length. Could it have been hit by lightning a few times? I was thrilled to see more buildings in the distance, for
someone had assured me there was nothing left of the place, and nothing worth saving out here. Plus, he had said
it was too dangerous. But those were real buildings in the distance, and I hoped to find something worth saving.


Here we discovered a flatbed loaded with steel beams, or girders. Obviously,
someone was engaged in salvaging steel from this building or others.


To the left of this long building was a yellow building that was hard to detect
through the overgrowth and trees. It appeared to have been built in a different
era than any of the surrounding structures.



 

Further down the road, I turned back to get these shots, noting the
location of the flatbed in relation to the multiple-silos building.


 

Next to the multiple-silos building was a huge and beautiful building -- overgrown and ravaged, but still amazing to behold.
What was so interesting to me was that as huge as it was in length and height, it was not very deep, something like two
average office lengths deep. I was again purely amazed at the structure, shocked that such a wonderful place had been so
ill-used by whomever systematically gutted the insides.


I took several photos of the building and was walking away towards the next one, when Susan
stopped me, saying, "Don't you want me to take a picture of you at the Overholt Building?"
"What's that?" Pointing up, she replied, "The name is right there, Karen. Don't you want a picture?"
And I gasped, for I had not seen the huge letters carved above the most overgrown arch of the
main entrance -- A. Overholt & Co.


And here I am, standing as tall as I'm able in the arch of the A. Overholt & Co. Building at Broad Ford, PA.


With these three photos, I tried to show some detail. Above, you can see straight through to where a water tower
once stood. Below right, you can see up through what used to be a floor, clear to the outside. There was so much
debris and trashed machinery, we did not dare venture further than the archway, though it would not have been far
to the empty windows on the other side of this long, narrow building. Again I was wishing I could have seen this
place when it was in excellent shape, for it must have been so very impressive!


 

Above left, you can see how the outer layer of yellow brick was attached to the inner layer of brown brick. I wondered
if the Overholts built with the brown brick, and the yellow brick was added later on during one of the several make-overs.
(Oops, was that a pun?) Anyway, when the yellow brick was new and shiny, the whole complex must have been glorious,
shining in the sun, it's "yellow brick road" image shimmering and reflecting off the Youghiogheny River! Indeed, anyone
standing in the shadow of these great buildings would have felt like a Munchkin.



The A. Overholt & Co. Building, May 17, 2004.


 

To the left, you can see the walkway that connected the Overholt Building
to the next building. In the distance is one of the very huge warehouse (?)
buildings. You can also see the tracks where a vehicle traveled through the
distillery complex, having mowed a path through the undergrowth of trees,
grass, weeds and wild flowers. The shot to the left struck me as haunting,
so I reworked the photo to the presentation below.



Standing in the tracks of the unknown vehicle, I took this shot, wishing I could
get closer for a look inside. Another big building was to the right, but we did not
any further in that direction. Considering we were alone out there, we were being
careful about what we did and how we did it.


There was another building between these two, hardly visible through the foliage.


 

As I already mentioned, these huge buildings were very impressive, very huge, and gave us feelings of unbelievable
loss. This was a complex of monumental accomplishment and monumental abandonment.


 

As I examined this shot, my eyes followed the bright streak across the top window. I realized the bright light showed
a wrecked roof where sunlight streamed in. I wondered how anyone could properly assess the damage to the roofs of
these buildings. One would need to charter a plane or a helicopter, or a hot-air balloon! Oh, wouldn't that be a sight?
Just imagine hot-air balloons drifting over a reclaimed and refurbished Broad Ford Overholt Distillery National Park!


We were picking our way amongst the buildings now,
finding wild flowers blooming in the shadow of the
huge deserted buildings. What fun a botanist would
have here amongst the ruins, a case study in nature's
reclamation of an abandoned corner of Western PA.


Behind us was the building of the wild flowers, and there was still more
to see. Along our way, we saw hunks of wrecked machinery, like this
amazing miniature locomotive lying on its side. I wondered what it had
been used for in that complex. Perhaps it was used to move supplies.
We stepped over other pieces of hardware from days gone by -- light
fixtures (from the 1930s?), telephones and adding machines (from the
1940s or 1950s?) -- every piece telling a story, if only someone cared.


This portion of another building must have had a landing attached, where supplies
were both taken into the warehouse and Overholt Whiskey was shipped out. The
Relic Sign (pictured at the top of this page) shows two railroad tracks, with one
train chugging along from left to right, and another coming across a bridge at the
far right of the complex. Since this structure was so high from the ground, it may
have accommodated a railroad train.


We were coming to the end of the mowed trail, where much smaller buildings were
visible. Just as with the big buildings, I wondered if there was anything inside.


Just ahead, the trail curved around this small building on the outskirts of the complex,
then ended. For no apparent reason, I felt drawn to it, so we began to pick our way
through the higher growth to get a look at the other side of the building.


It became clear that the roof of this building had been trashed to gain access to the
steel beams inside. Hampered by the undergrowth, this was as close as we could
get to take a picture of the place. The rusty steel is just barely visible. This may
have been the source of the steel on the flatbed truck we found opposite the silos.


According to the depiction on the Relic Sign, Susan and I had entered the complex at the far left, crossed
in front of the A. Overholt & Co. Building, turned right further on, and ended up behind the small building
at the far right, which is being salvaged for its steel. It is a very large complex, filled with many buildings
that could be -- that should be reclaimed from the ravages and neglect of man.


End of Broad Ford Safari . . . go on to Changing the Course of History,
or go back to the
first page of Karen's Branches.