OLD OVERHOLT: The History of A Whiskey, Part II
Author Unknown, Edited & Expanded by K. R. Overholt Critchfield, 9-1-1999

~~ Part Two Updated & Renovated 12-10-05 ~~

Abraham Sees a Future in Distilling Whiskey

So it was that in the early years of the nineteenth century, Abraham Overholt toiled at his loom and occasionally stopped to replenish the fire under the farm 'still, and thereby found that this modest farm apparatus furnished for him two things -- his most important topic of conversation, and his most interesting subject for mental reflection. One who "tended loom" in those days was quite likely to fall into the habit of thinking -- the monotonous click-ik-boom . . . click-ik-boom . . . click-ik-boom suggesting thoughts and phrases, just as the wheels clicking over steel rails exercise an influence on railroad passengers today. The important news of that period traveled very slowly across the mountains, and each installment had to suffice until a succeeding installment came along.

For Abraham Overholt, the news of the day probably went back and forth in his mind in time with the shuttles of his weaving machine. His careful ruminations probably followed the same channels as those of the farmers out clearing the land, but then went much further. If the federal government considered the commodity of whiskey to be of sufficient importance to warrant sending an army to enforce the regulations imposed upon its manufacture, then it would be worthwhile for an individual to regard whiskey with equal importance. Armies of [twelve] thousand men are raised only to enforce those systems which are expected to last for a long time. Therefore, there would be a future in distilling whiskey!

The whiskey now being made on the Overholt farm had the reputation of being the best in the whole region west of the mountains. And Jacob Yoder of Fort Redstone, on the Monongahela River (Brownsville, Pennsylvania), who floated produce down the Ohio to New Orleans, had said he could get twice the usual price the Overholts got for their whiskey, if he could take a flatboat load of it to some down-river points. A flatboat load! But that just couldn't be, for the Overholts made their mash in a druggist's mortar, and three gallons was the extent of a "run."

It is not difficult to supply a sequence of this process of reasoning having definite results a hundred and thirty-five years ago. practically the same motives impelled men then as now. They wanted to get ahead. Working at a loom, Abraham developed a more thoughtful mien than his brothers, who were physically at a low ebb when they came in from the clearings with their axes. It is logical enough to speak today of their conversations in the log house, as the parents and children sat about in the dim light of tallow dips and the flare from logs burning in the yawning fireplace. The flow of the conversation might run like this:

Wouldn’t it be a good idea to do like the other farmers are doing? That is, make whiskey on a larger scale and sell it! That’s the only way the crops raised in the clearings can be made portable. Grain can’t be packed across the mountains, nor floated down to New Orleans -- the cost of such transportation is prohibitive. That’s what all the fuss about whiskey’s all about -- farmers can barrel four times as many gallons of whiskey as the number of bushels of grain they mash. And whiskey can be sold all down the rivers, or even sent to Philadelphia -- with profit!

In that early day, the reasoning was sound, and curiously enough, it was the same reasoning as is used today in support of the ultimate conversion of raw materials into finished products for marketing at the point of production.

Besides, on the positive side of suggesting distilling on a larger scale was the acknowledged superiority of the product of the Overholt farm. Even in those early days, when jugs passed from one farm to another as a compliment, there was pride taken in its production. And while no one in the Western forests could -- by the widest stretch of the imagination -- qualify as a dilettante, nevertheless, they knew whiskey. And when the widely separated “neighbors” (whose cabins looked on the Western streams from the headwaters of the Monongahela, Allegheny and Youghiogheny to the beginnings of the Ohio) freely admitted that the Overholt farm turned out the “best likker” in the “hull kentry,” that was something in the way of a sound argument for expansion.

As farmers today “talk crops” and trade their knowledge of experiences and results, so did the forest farmers of frontier days talk of whiskey, and they spoke of it as a crop, not as a beverage. Many a brace of oxen swished flies for hours while their owners “neighbored” at the Overholt cabin, giving and sharing the current news -- and incidentally, but most importantly, probing into the methods employed in the distillation of whiskey on the Overholt farm.

The Overholts of that period disclaimed secret processes. Of course, they had an expert knowledge of distilling. This came down through the family. Old Henry had been a distiller, as well as a farmer, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. His father, Martin, brought both skill and knowledge when he left Germany to join Penn’s colony in the New World. There is also the fact that the Overholts, being Mennonites, were possessed of a knowledge developed by this serious-minded class of people, who kept to themselves, but shared knowledge and labor as one extended family.

Abraham, who “tended loom and ‘still,” and his brother Christian, acquired a special interest in the Homestead farm prior to 1810, and continued as co-partners for years. Eventually, Abraham bought out Christian’s interest -- 150 acres at $50.00 per acre, which was considered a high price in those days. Included in the original purchase was the original distillery, which had been set up in a log cabin. The cloth woven by Abraham Overholt during the years of his early youth had provided him with modest savings, but the ideas and conclusions that were developed during those years of labor -- which were as much a product of the loom as the cloth -- were as yet unused. However, the time had arrived, and Abraham began the distillation of whiskey for the market.

The beginning was small. The grain was mashed in the druggist’s mortar which had long been used for the family product. Three or four bushels a day was the limit of production, but this limit was exceeded after a new distillery building, constructed of stones, was built. Then the capacity went to 40 or 50 bushels a day, which would generate over four times those numbers in gallons of whiskey.


DESCENDANTS OF ABRAHAM OVERHOLT,
SON OF HENRY OBERHOLTZER
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Abraham Overholt (1784-1870)
m. (1809) Maria Stauffer (1791-1874)
8 CHILDREN
Henry, Anna, Jacob, Abraham,
Elizabeth, Martin, Christian, John.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Henry Stauffer Overholt (1810-1870)
m. (1846) Abigail Carpenter (1824-1898)
7 Children
Sarah, Benjamin, Maria, Abigail,
Abraham, Henry, Jennie.

Anna Overholt (1812-1866)
m. (1830) John Tinstman (1807-1877)
10 Children
Maria, Jacob, Abraham, Henry, Anna,
John, Elizabeth, Abigail, Emma, Christian.

Jacob Stauffer Overholt (1814-1859)
m. (1836) Mary Fox (1816-1895)
9 Children
Maria, Elizabeth, Abraham, Isaac,
Mary, Fenton, Christian, Jacob, Emma.

Abraham Stauffer Overholt (1817-1863)
m. (1844) Mary Ann Newmyer (1824-1877)
4 Children
George, John, Norman, Mary.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Abraham Stauffer Overholt, the
gg grandfather of Karen Rose Overholt;
George Washington Overholt, the
g grandfather of Karen Rose Overholt.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Elizabeth Stauffer Overholt (1819-1905)
m. (1847) John W. Frick (1822-1888)
6 Children
Maria, Henry Clay, Annie, Aaron,
J. Edgar, Sallie.

Martin Stauffer Overholt (1822-1899)
m. (----) Maria Wakefield (1827-1886)
6 Children
Hudson, James, Mary, J. Franklin,
Harry, Ida.

Christian Stauffer Overholt (1824-1911)
m. (1853) Katharine L. Newmyer (1831-1894)
6 Children
Alice, Charles, Mary, Elmer,
Anna, William.

John Stauffer Overholt (1826-1846)
No Issue


A Whiskey of Quality and Character

There were springs on the Overholt farm in those days, but there was hardly any difference between this source of water and the Youghiogheny River. The only difference was one of temperature, for the Youghiogheny, in the last analysis, was one great surface-flowing spring, comprised of thousands of small, trickling springs throughout its entire length. So, the water used to soak the mash was taken from the mountain-born Youghiogheny -- at a point just above the spot where Washington first came upon the river at the “Indians” crossing place, or Broad Ford. After 125 years, the source of water for mash soaking is the same, except that it is now necessary to go to the headwaters, which never have been touched by the trickle of sulphur water from mines, and where the black bass cavorts and splashes as healthily and happily today [i.e., circa 1935 -ed.] as before a white man ever traversed that territory.

There has been some reiteration in this history regarding the reputation borne by the product of the Overholt farm distillery during the pioneer period, which hindsight now appears to justify, despite the speculation as to the source or reason for its superiority. Prior to 1810, the settlers dulled the edge of their curiosity with the conclusion, “It must be the water!” And ever since 1810, the same guess ends any casual curiosity as to a reason for the unchanging quality of this particular whiskey. Unquestionably, the chemical ingredients of the water used in Overholt Whiskey mash have something to do with the character of the product. But if one stands on the banks of the “Yough,” contemplating this tumbling stream -- or better still, follows upstream to the many sources of the mountain-born river, one reaches the conclusion that the water is a repository of many, many substances carried out of the heart of the mountains by the innumerable springs and creeks which eventually become the Youghiogheny River.

Of course, there are other distilleries using water of the same region in soaking mash; therefore, it would not be correct to assume that the major share of the virtue for quality should be ascribed only to the water. Generations of men have worked all their lives in the Overholt distillery. Generations of men have directed the process of distilling. Generations of men have locked themselves in the yeast room to nurse cultures and worry about the health of the fermentative bacillus. But in the memory of the oldest inhabitants around Broad Ford, no one has ever been known to state definitely, and with authority, just which ingredient is responsible for the quality of Overholt Whiskey. This is interesting in the extreme, and justifies any amount of elaboration on the subject, because the Overholt Whiskey of today [circa 1935 -ed.] is made precisely the same as when it was first made, when the first family of Overholts settled on the western slopes of the Alleghenies.

To pursue the question a little further, it is even more logical to assume the mystery of the quality is to be found in the grain that is used for distillation, for this grain springs from fields underlaid with limestone at a shallow depth, with rich coal veins below that. And mountain fogs moisten the growing grain fields with every sunrise, so might the fogs contain a secret ingredient that makes a whiskey of outstanding individuality? A flavor from the breath of the cook mountains?

Concerning all this, the cynic may say, “Bost! The Overholts had a formula, that’s all!” Admittedly, this is true, too. But such a statement does nothing to diminish the wonder that is excited by a farm product of such peculiar worth that despite the passage of time, and the changes of greater and more modern manufactury, Overholt Whiskey is unchanged in character [circa 1935 -ed.]. The facilities and appurtenances of distilling were improved over time, and such improvements as were applicable were made in the successive Overholt plants, but these changes were in “handling” and in the interest of sanitation. The making of the whiskey is the same today [circa 1935 -ed.] as it was originally, beginning with the formula and method of distilling whiskey, which was developed by the early Overholt distillers and brought to Western Pennsylvania by Henry. When later applied by Abraham to the manufacture whiskey for sale, a train of elements were brought together and produced a whiskey so near perfect that no one has ever considered changing it. Consider that it would be difficult -- even an impossible task -- to find one other manufactured article in this country which, after 125 years, is made in the precise manner of its origination. A hundred and twenty-five years!

In the course of events spanning 125 years, the Overholt Distillery at Broad Ford was rebuilt three times, and its capacity increased three times, because of the additional building. Then the first stone distillery was built early in the last century. There existed a definite obstacle to enlargement beyond a modest capacity -- there was no mill in the immediate vicinity, and as was the case with the with the first log distiller, it was necessary to send grain to Jacobs Creek (near Scottdale) and Bridgeport (in the same region) to have it chopped.

Abraham Overholt’s sons were in charge of grain transportation, which they accomplished using a stout road wagon hauled by oxen. When grown to manhood, they often recounted the history of their long, weary, troublesome journeys by wagon, which included many delays, incidental breakdowns, mud-mirings, stubborn oxen, and just plain stallings. If a faraway wind drifted their way, carrying along the sounds of an ax blade driving into a white oak, those sounds might never be heard above the loud creaking of the wagon and the Overholt boys spurring the oxen with gad and voice. A breakdown would be bad, for there were few wheelwrights or blacksmiths in the wilderness. In 1834, the problem regarding grain hauling was settled for all time -- a brick flour mill was built handy to the distillery. Brick! The family business, along with the new country, was coming along!

At the new mill, grain for distilling was chopped quite handily. The oxen, whose cloven hooves had done much to tread a road through the wilderness, thereafter were confined to farm work. This mill was operated for 25 years, but in 1859 -- when its capacity was overtaxed by the demands of whiskey-making, plus flour-making -- the buildings were taken down and a structure to house both the milling and the distilling activities was erected on the same site. With the completion of this structure, the “plant” had grown from a log cabin to a substantial brick building that was 100 feet long, 63 feet in width, and six stories high. [This is the distillery building at West Overton, now used as a museum. -ed.] The grinding rooms turned out 200 bushels of grain and 50 barrels of flour daily. By now, the distillery’s daily capacity was 200 bushels of grain and 860 gallons of whiskey.


Abraham Discovers Coal in the Region

Shortly before this expansion, Abraham officially brought his oldest son, Henry Stauffer Overholt, into the business. With Henry’s purchase of a half-interest in the farm, flour mill, and the distillery, the clear-visioned, hard-working Abraham Overholt could devote his time to various businesses and land deals. He now had time to consider the “find” he had made many years before, while digging for a spring -- coal! Once discovered, Abraham enlarged the digging to a pit and then exhibited his “find” as a “curiosity” to occasional visitors from the East. And thus was bared to the world, for the first time, the enormous wealth of rich coal veins running beneath the territory now designated as Westmoreland and Fayette counties, although development of the resource came many years later.


The Discovery of Coal: Abraham Overholt was the first discoverer of coal in that portion of Westmoreland Co., and was the first to use it. Prior to its discovery, coal was brought from the other side of the mountain to the blacksmith shops, and [that which was found] stood over the finest strata of coal. Mr. Overholt used to exhibit his coal mines in [the early days] as a curiosity to visiting strangers from the east. [from “Descendants of Henry Oberholtzer, son of Martin Oberholtzer,” Oberholtzer & Nash Family Histories, A.J. Fretz, 1903, reprinted 1985 by Westmoreland-Fayette Historical Society, West Overton, Scottdale, PA 15683]


Abraham Overholt’s discovery of coal was of the greatest importance in the development of the distillery business. The only coal used in the region prior to that discovery came in from the East, packed on horseback, or shipped in bags on wagons, which came in for the blacksmiths and wheelwrights, who used it sparingly in their forges. The continued expansion of the mill and distillery made sense, for now power could be obtained for any capacity through the use of steam power. Therefore, in 1880, a third building project took place, which increased the capacity of the distillery to 800 bushels of grain -- 3,450 gallons of whiskey per day!


A Reputation Spanning American History

Other extensions to the plant were to come later, but right here is the place to make note of that element (aside from power and mill capacity) which entered into the Overholt Distillery’s growth over the course of its history -- specifically, the reputation of its product. Twenty years after Abraham began to manufacture whiskey for the market, Overholt Whiskey had established a reputation for quality throughout the whole known West. And it had been packed on horseback and carried in wagons back across the mountains to the East. It had been shipped downriver in flatboats, keelboats and steamboats. In 1846, it was taken along with the American troops into Mexico. It was among the most carefully guarded treasures in the wagon trains which poked their way into the Western flatlands. In 1849, small and large kegs of Overholt Whiskey went with those adventurers who swarmed Westward following the discovery of gold in California.

During the course of the Civil War (1861-1865), General Grant and innumerable other officers and soldiers drank Overholt Whiskey. [In the book, The Day Lincoln Was Shot, the author says Overholt Whiskey was President Lincoln’s favorite drink. -ed.] In the 1890’s, the gold-seekers mushing their dogs through Chilcoot Pass on the way to the Klondyke held onto their bottles of Overholt as grimly as they guarded their axes. During the Spanish-American War of 1898, Overholt Whiskey followed the American flag to Cuba, to Puerto Rico, and to the Philippines. Even after Prohibition (1919-1933), Overholt Whiskey as a medicine was rushed to the aid of the flu-stricken soldiers in training camps and concentration camps. One might go on interminably with such placements, for a product that has lived and has kept on increasing in volume through 125 years of American history goes into many places to become incidental to many different circumstances.

With this in mind, it is easy to understand that the 1880 equipment soon became inadequate, so in 1899, work was begun on the buildings now standing at Broad Ford. The entire plant was dismantled and reconstructed, and additional buildings were built as rack warehouses. This job was finished in 1905. The capacity of the new plant was 1,500 bushels of grain, or 6,450 gallons of whiskey daily.

Then ensued the Prohibition period, beginning in 1919, and while there were great stores of Overholt aging in charred white-oak barrels filling the rack houses, distillation stopped for the first time. Later, when distillation for medical purposes was decided upon by government, a few distilleries were sanctioned to resume -- the Overholt Distillery was among them. In 1931, the interests owning Overholt could see a change coming, and the people of the United States demanded the repeal of the eighteenth amendment. Thereafter, the capacity of the Overholt Distillery was increased to 1,800 bushels, or 7,700 gallons of whiskey a day....and once more -- the last extension -- a further increase to 2,270 bushels of grain, or 9,760 gallons of whiskey, was provided for. Today [circa 1935 -ed.], one day’s distillation, if dumped at once, could wash away the original log cabin distillery like a chip on a flood!


END OF PART II -- Go to Part III, or go back to "Karen's Branches"