OVERHOLT: The History of A Whiskey
~~ Part One Updated & Renovated 12-10-05 ~~
Disclaimer: I cannot vouch for the general accuracy of the authors commentary, since the information he worked from is unavailable to me. Whenever possible, I have supplemented his statements with additional information gleaned from other sources. -- K. R. Overholt Critchfield
OLD OVERHOLT: The History of A Whiskey
This is the story of Old Overholt Whiskey. Properly, it should be called the history of Old Overholt, for the details of its origin, and the numerous events that occurred throughout its existence, intertwine with the national and industrial history of our country in the same way that the wild grapevine intertwines with the white oaks of Western Pennsylvania, the region from which the product sprang.
This history is called forth as part of a formal observation marking the 125th Anniversary of the manufacture of Old Overholt Whiskey as a commercial product [i.e., 125 years at the time this article was written, circa 1935 -ed.]. The true genesis of the distillation of Old Overholt goes further back than the year 1810, but in that prior period, it was one of several farm products, and making it was just one of the farm chores. [. . . the sign on the Overholt Distillery gives 1796 as the date of the founding . . . . writes the author elsewhere in the extended article -ed.]
It was, however, in 1810 that the influence of the whiskey that was made on the Overholt farm expanded beyond their boundary lines and beyond mere home consumption. Its maker lifted it from the obscurity of being just one of several farm products, established it as a specific article of manufacture for sale, and gave it his name -- "Overholt."
Prior to 1810, in the cabins of the widely scattered settlers of Western Pennsylvania, the general discussion and comparison of whiskeys took precedence over most topics of conversation. Concerning the product of the 'still on the Overholt farm, many a pioneer said, "I don't know how 'tis but -- it's different." They all made their own whiskey, but it pleased them mightily to have a dram or a jug from the Overholt 'still. After 1810, when distillation on the Overholt farm became a business, they would trade for it or buy it. Such transactions produced records and book accounts, all of which now provides the basis for the present-day celebration of a very old whiskey's birthday.
It is natural that the marking of such an anniversary should arouse the interest or command the attention of those directly concerned with Overholt whiskey. With people in general, an announcement concerning the one hundred and twenty-five years of Overholt continuity in the whiskey business may excite wonder, but it would be a passing wonder. Those who know and appreciate Overholt would most likely consider the news of its antiquity as a compliment to personal taste, a certification of good judgment, a proof of one's powers of discrimination. But with those of the relatively small group whose business it is to know and to judge whiskey, such an anniversary generates those emotions similarly inspired in true artists by the sight of a great painting, or in jewelers when contemplating the value of a rare and beautiful gem. Considering the diversity of interests found in those groups of individuals who know whiskey, how can this particular whiskey, as a subject of discussion, command them to the same level of interest?
The answer may be found by disregarding, for the moment, Old Overholt Whiskey as a commercial product, and by considering the importance of the historical events that occurred prior to its formal entry into manufacture and development -- before that day in the year 1810. Ultimately, common ground for interest can be found in the events of our common national history, for such events and their surrounding circumstances have intrinsic value towards understanding the importance of whiskey, as recorded in personal histories of that pioneer period, as well as in our nations history in more modern times.
George Washington Effectively Begins the French and Indian War
On the 20th day of May, 1754, a young George Washington arrived at the "crossing-place" in the Youghiogheny River. As a young Major of Militia commanding three companies of troops recruited in the Virginia colony, Washington was wearied with the terrific task of cutting a path through virgin forests wide enough to allow the passage of swivel guns. The quoted words "crossing-place" indicate a place so named by the warriors of the Delaware tribe. Washington and Christopher Gist (his companion, guide and fellow spy), acting under orders of the English Governor, Dinwiddie, were the first white men to traverse this area. Aside from Gist, only one other white man (a German trader named Frazier) had a cabin in the entire region west of the Alleghenies. This "crossing-place" is today known as Broad Ford, the ancient and present site of the Overholt distillery.
Washington's mission was to drive the French from a fort -- Fort Duquesne -- which they had built on "The Point," where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers come together to form the Ohio River (the site which later grew into the city of Pittsburgh). It is well-known history how Washington attacked a raiding party sent from the French fort. The leader, Sieur Jummonville, and nine men were killed, and 21 prisoners were taken. One man escaped and reached the fort, and the French commander then sent out a large force to attack Washington, who had, with 300 men, moved to the only open field in the vast forest (known as Great Meadows Lands), about seven miles from Uniontown, Pennsylvania.
When Washington's supply source failed him, his Virginians became weak from want of food and could not leave their trenches. They fought on, sustained by whiskey, until Washington arranged a capitulation with all honors of war. On July 4, 1754, he led the march from the field, leaving behind 54 of his men in trench graves at a point historically known as "Fort Necessity."
Thus opened the war by which England at last won the Ohio Basin from the French, as written history records it, "far up in the mountain fogs near the head-springs of the Youghiogheny, in Fayette County, Pennsylvania, about seven miles from Uniontown."
The purpose of this seeming diversion into American history is not to provide atmosphere for the discussion of Overholt Whiskey through the use of an historical character; nor is it important, except in a sentimental way, that George Washington reportedly was the first white man to stand on the ground now occupied by the Overholt distillery at the Broad Ford "crossing-place." The key point of the narrative is to highlight the suggested attitude of George Washington toward the use of distilled spirits, which had a great deal to do with the establishment of the distilling business in an orderly fashion. It certainly was a direct influence in the founding of the Overholt distilling establishment at Broad Ford.
At Fort Necessity, while yet a tall stripling of a youth, Washington appeared to demonstrate his personal estimation of whiskey as a valued requisite to pioneer life by conserving it under strict discipline. No doubt that is why there was whiskey in kegs left in his supply wagons after the food supplies were exhausted and the rear-guard charged with the duty of replenishment had failed him. More of this in the order of proper sequence.
The clash at Fort Necessity was followed by the long, bloody conflict in the half-light of the forests stretching from the mountains to the banks of the Allegheny, Youghiogheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers and a score of streams of lesser volume. Hardly had this struggle begun in earnest before a thin line of pioneers were leaving their homes and farms in the seaboard colonies and crossing the mountains along the Indian trails, now widened to wagon roads by regiments of English Redcoats and Washington's Virginians . . . The French were driven out of the Ohio Basin and pushed across the Canadian frontier so effectually as to render pointless any further territorial claims . . . And then - - The Revolutionary War.
The Overholt Family: From Bucks to Westmoreland County
list of Militiamen of Captain Patterson's
While this notation is not the first record of the Overholt family in this country or in Pennsylvania (the first arriving here from Germany being Martin Oberholtzer (1709-1744), who settled in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, along about the year 1730), it is interesting to speculate whether or not the soldier Overholts (either during the French and Indian War or the Revolutionary War) had -- as George Washington did -- traversed the upland bank of the Youghiogheny and recognized that it would be goodly land for farming, if only the war-whoop of the Indian could be silenced for all time. It is logical to suppose there must have been some knowledge of the land gained from firsthand reports carried back to Bucks County and conveyed to the numerous Overholts farming in that region. In those days, western settlers were few, and only the most important intelligence was carried by couriers through the mountain forests. The curious or interested people in the East, if they wished to know what was "over the mountains," were compelled to go, themselves, and see.
That is what Henry Oberholtzer/Overhold (1739-1813), son of Martin, did. He was an intense but kindly man of the Mennonite faith, who came to Penn's land to enjoy religious freedom. After the Revolutionary War, he left Bucks County, where he had been a farmer and distiller, and moved onto the foothill country of the Youghiogheny. [On April 25, 1800, Henry and his wife, Anna, sold their homestead in Bucks County, and (along with their sons and daughters, and their families) trekked across Pennsylvania in Conestoga wagons to Westmoreland County, and settled on a track of then wild land, now known as the Overholt Homestead in West Overton, PA. -ed.] Where George Washington had once stood at the Indian's "crossing-place," Henry and his sons also stood and surveyed the land. Some distance away, they cleared a space in the forest and built cabins.
Here is the picture, then, in the year 1800. While the Overholt brothers hewed farmland out of 150 acres of primeval forest, Abraham (who had learned the trade of weaver in Bucks County) set up and toiled at the loom. The labor of the young man at the loom was equally important, if not more important, than the efforts of his brothers who swung their axes, for he provided the material for clothing for the family and the wide about neighborhood.
In those days, a pioneer had to help himself -- or perish -- and it was as much of a household duty to "tend 'still" as it was to milk a cow, grind meal or boil soap. Thus it was that Abraham, periodically leaving his loom to "tend 'still," learned the craft of whiskey making. Every farmer knew how to distill whiskey; every farm had its own distillery. Those early 'stills were as crude as the hand-wrought hoes they fashioned, and were no more pretentious than any other crude farm appliance of the times. Quite simply, beside one's cabin, there would be a grindstone and a 'still.
Whiskey as a Necessity
Whiskey, in that early period, was not a luxury; it was not merely a beverage. Whiskey was a requisite -- a necessity. Perhaps a better understanding of this fact can be attained by perusing an extract from an old record, and an observation made in preface, by Archer Butler Hulbert in his work, "The Ohio River." Hulbert writes, "The first white men in the West (Western Pennsylvania is meant) were subject to the same physical conditions as the Red man. Living in the continual damp and shade of the primeval forest, sleeping in part on the ground or near it, exposed to cold and rain as no succeeding generation has been exposed, the western pioneer became remarkably phlegmatic [i.e., "having or showing a slow and stolid temperament; impassive, apathetic, stoic" -ed.]; the blood was cold and slow and the animal spirits consequently in an habitual state of depression bordering on melancholy. The influence of strong drink on these men, as on the savages who craved it so eagerly, was acceptable and exceedingly exhilarating."
Similarly, an extract from the Diary of the Rev. David McClure, pp. 70, 71, reports, "An aged physician of my acquaintance, who died many years ago, in younger life went with a party of Indian hunters, far northward on a hunting expedition, and fared in all respects, in the excursion, as the Indians; on his return home, he felt an unsatiable thirst for rum and drank such a quantity as would at another time have laid him by, yet without any unfavorable effects."
The above comments approach the subject from different angles. The first speaks of the importance of whiskey to the forest-breaking pioneer, but trails on to the compromising observation that its influence "was acceptable and exceedingly exhilarating." The conclusion is that whiskey was important as a stimulating beverage, although it is clear that the author had in mind the importance of such stimulation as compensation for the weaknesses resulting from climatic conditions, exposure to the elements, and physical exhaustion. It must be remembered that in those days, a man entering the Pennsylvania forests -- unless he waded a shallow stream -- would travel all day in deep gloom, in damp and chilly air, even while the sun shone brightly the livelong day. The extract from Rev. David McClure's Diary, of course, also indicates (but does not fully ascribe) the importance early settlers attached to their whiskey.
The question might be asked, "Why this divergence from a history of Old Overholt to bring in a thesis on the pioneer's use of whiskey? Why discuss why men felt justified in their heavy indulgence? The answer is ready and simple: It was the common necessity and use of whiskey that provided the impetus for making distillation an important business. Moreover, it was the recognition of this reality that caused the first president of the United States to turn to this business for the financial support so vitally needed to put the new government on its feet immediately following the close of the Revolutionary War.
The Excise Tax and the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794
President George Washington turned to whiskey because he knew of its general use. He knew every farm operated its own little distillery, and he knew why. He could, himself, lay claim to a considerable competence in distilling; he had his own 'still house at Mount Vernon, and he had a cooperage for the manufacture of whiskey barrels. In that era, the government found it essential to raise taxes on articles of general usage, articles of necessity. (In more recent times, it is noteworthy to recall that following the end of the Prohibition period, one of the first sources of revenue exploited by the national government was the excise tax [i.e., "a tax on the manufacture, sale or consumption of goods within a country" -ed.], and so the repeal of Prohibition came more quickly than anyone thought it would.)
The federal government laid down an excise tax, and it was Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury from 1789 to 1795, who worked out the plan [i.e., "sponsored legislation to pay off the debt of the Continental Congress and to charter the Bank of the United States; to raise revenue, he advocated a tariff on imported manufactures and excise taxes" -ed.]. It is the same plan and is the basis of the liquor tax today [i.e., circa 1940 -ed.]. The first federal tax inspector west of the Alleghenies was General John Neville, who had a mansion on Chartiers Creek, west of Fort Pitt -- or "Pittsburgh," as it was then being called. The farmers made trouble for General Neville. They had fought against taxation without representation in the Revolutionary War, so they felt justified in fighting against the excise tax.
There had been trouble like this a few years before [i.e., "Shays' Rebellion" of 1786 -ed.], and it came near to being serious trouble in a much larger way.
This was serious business for the farmers at the headwaters of the Ohio River, those who farmed along the Monongahela, and even those in the region of the Youghiogheny. The people were stubborn about this tax; they would not pay!
One John Bradford, a lawyer, tried to organize the discontented element on the system used in the French Revolution. He advocated succession by the settlers of Western Pennsylvania and the western reaches of Virginia. He preached to them the setting up of a state independent of the United States (just what the southern states set out to do in 1861).
General Neville was a hard old soldier, and a friend of George Washington. Neville was adamant about the excise tax on whiskey. It was his opinion that if the farmers wanted to make whiskey, they would have to pay the excise tax, and he was there to collect it. When they refused to pay, Neville and Major John Lennox (a United States marshal from Philadelphia) took action by going to the farm of Oliver Miller. It was noon, July 14, 1794, and Miller was then at dinner, along with neighbors who were helping with the harvest; he resisted arrest, for it was harvest time and he could not afford the time it would take to be sent over the mountains to Philadelphia for trial. The harvesters had their whiskey jugs out, and they were refreshed; they jeered General Neville and the federal marshal, and drove them away with threats. Someone fired a musket, and that was the first shot fired in the Whiskey Rebellion.
After withdrawing a little distance, the old soldier, Neville, turned and yelled, "Ye damned idiots! Ye'd live in a cabin without a roof to it!" By this he meant to admonish the men who had helped to win a country, but were now ignorantly refusing to make it operable by refusing to support the expenses of government. They only laughed and jeered at him; a huge Scotch frontiersman cried, "But ye nae will tak Oliver Miller beyant the mountains!" The irascible General retorted, "By God, I'll take him and any other tax rebellionist across tied to my stirrup strap!" To the farmers, this remark made the incident serious. That night, a mob of settlers -- about thirty in number -- attacked General Neville's house. Several soldiers from Fort Pitt (and certain Neville slaves who were armed) fired several volleys with their rifles. Oliver Miller's 33 year old son, also named Oliver, was killed, and six men were wounded.
Obviously, great excitement ensued, and John Bradford, still plotting in the background to do what Aaron Burr later attempted (that is, to found an empire within the territory won by the Revolutionary War), urged the farmers on.
John Bradford advocated seizing federal dispatches to prevent lists of names getting into the hands of federal officers, for wholesale arrests were expected. General Neville's mansion was again attacked and burned, but the doughty old soldier had not been idle; he had sent a courier to President Washington with a letter describing the situation.
Right then -- animated by the farmers' defending their custom of making their own tax-free whiskey -- there developed in the hearts and minds of the pioneers an attitude, a spirit, an emotion, which has since grown into what we today call our national patriotism. But patriotism spurred both sides of this disagreement, for George Washington, the President, was as much a man of action as had been George Washington, the Indian fighter, the scout, or the soldier. He promptly ordered an army raised, and in a short time -- with his tax man, Alexander Hamilton, at his side -- he led [twelve] thousand militiamen [i.e., more men than he had ever commanded during the Revolution -ed.] into the shadows of the Tuscaroras [i.e., Indians who were part of the Iroquois Confederacy -ed.].
News of the approaching army was brought ahead by runners, relayed from cabin to cabin, and then a strange change of heart began to be apparent. First one man, and then many others, could be heard expressing new feelings, such as, "If the new government could act with such decision and firmness, it must be a good government, and a good government should be supported," and, "Maybe it was best to lay a tax on distilling, after all." John Bradford, the plotter, recognized the drift and fled to New Orleans.
Word was sent to Washington that the farmers were coming to their senses; he left the army at Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Alexander Hamilton was in command, and the troops marched into the mountains. Meanwhile, Hamilton was busy sending couriers out and having the farmers choose representatives for a convention to be held in Westmoreland County. At this pow-wow, the whole whiskey tax matter was amicably adjusted. In the end, President Washington wisely granted amnesty to all who had raised a hand against the authority of the young government, but this amnesty was not extended to Bradford, who lost himself in the French city at the mouth of the Mississippi.