OLD OVERHOLT: The History of A
Whiskey, Part II
~~ 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:
Wouldnt it be a good idea to do like the other farmers are doing? That is, make whiskey on a larger scale and sell it! Thats the only way the crops raised in the clearings can be made portable. Grain cant be packed across the mountains, nor floated down to New Orleans -- the cost of such transportation is prohibitive. Thats what all the fuss about whiskeys 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.
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 Penns 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.
A Whiskey of Quality and Character
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.
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 distillerys 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 Henrys 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.
Abraham Overholts 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 Distillerys 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 Lincolns favorite drink. -ed.] In the 1890s, 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 days distillation, if dumped at once, could wash away the original log cabin distillery like a chip on a flood!