by K. R. Overholt Critchfield, © 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002,
2003, 2004, 2005
The Overholt Family and West Overton, PA
These photographs were taken on Father's Day, June 20, 1999, at the Overholt Family's ancestral home in West Overton. My great, great, great grandfather was Abraham Overholt (1784-1870), whose position as the family weaver expanded to include the role of distiller of the family whiskey, in a region known for its fierce defense of whiskey-making. Check your favorite encyclopedia article about the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, and you will find: having recently fought to win a war rooted in unfair taxation, the farmers of Western Pennsylvania considered the new excise tax on whiskey to be a fighting matter. There is no evidence to suggest that anyone from the Overholt Family took part in the events surrounding the short-lived civil rebellion against President Washington's new government; however, this incident may have been the motivating force behind young Abraham's appeal to his family to expand their horizons regarding whiskey.
It was Henry Oberholtzer
(1739-1813), called Overhold, who led his wife,
sons and daughters (and their respective families) from
their Buck's County homestead to the "wild
country" in Western Pennsylvania. On April 25, 1800,
Henry (an established farmer and distiller in Eastern
Pennsylvania's Bucks County) sold his land and set out on
the perilous journey. To imagine that journey, just think
of a winding train of Conestoga wagons making slow
progress from the relative safety of the first enclaves
of William Penn's Palatine Germans and Swiss Mennonites,
through the settled lands east of the Alleghenies, and
then through the mountains to reach a tract of "wild
land" in the appropriately named Westmoreland
The Overholts cleared the
land and built log cabins, then cleared more land and
sowed the fields with the crops they needed to survive.
And when the wheat and rye were harvested, much of it was
converted into whiskey, for there was no way to take
surplus crops to market, the cost of transporting them
being prohibitive. At that time, every farm had a
"family 'still" that would produce four times
as many gallons of whiskey as the number of bushels of
grain mashed. Whiskey was easy to store, and it was
easier to transport, so (for these reasons and many more)
whiskey was a necessity in those days, not just one of
the few pleasures in a toilsome frontier life.
From the earliest
pioneering times, the whiskey made on the Overholt farm
was considered worth trading for, or outright buying! And
although the Overholts were pious Mennonites, Abraham's
excellent Pennsylvania rye whiskey had found such favor
(even back east of the Alleghenies) that in 1810, he was
given clearance to start producing it as a commercial
product. Beginning with a log cabin distillery and a
reputation of excellence, Abraham built up an industry
that led to a succession of larger structures, ending
with a six-story brick distillery and mill at West
Overton, a second distillery at Broad Ford, and a long
and incredible history of A. Overholt and Company.
The product eventually came to be known as Old
Overholt Rye Whiskey.
West Overton is located in East Huntingdon Township, Westmoreland County, in Western Pennsylvania. Now called West Overton Village and West Overton Museums, the place is advertised as "a 19th Century Historic Village," but these photos show most of what is left of the once-thriving hometown of the Extended Overholt Family. Since 1999, several structures have been renovated and made available to the general community for civic meetings and other gatherings. Abraham Overholt's Homestead House is still standing, looking much younger than its years, and his 1856 Distillery building is still intact, though it now houses regional museum pieces, instead of racks of white oak barrels of whiskey aging to a mellow golden color. The Springhouse, where Henry Clay Frick was born, remains a focal point, and a few other buildings are still firmly on their foundations, including the largest brick barn in Pennsylvania. The folks running the site (founded by Helen Clay Frick as the Westmoreland-Fayette Historical Society) give guided tours and schedule special programs, like their annual Quilt Show and a Christmas at West Overton dinner. The tour season runs from May through October, and visitors pay a small admission charge. Their current e-mail address is email@example.com.
As far as I know, there
are no Overholts living in the immediate vicinity, and no
Overholts involved with the preservation of the site. I
do not believe there are any Overholts involved with the
daily operation of the museums, or with the future
reclamation of the land and buldings. From the numerous
contacts I have made on the Internet, however, there is
no shortage of Overholt descendants in Pennsylvania and
elsewhere. The amazing number of names available from Web
search engines generated my first revelation -- the "I
am not alone!" realization -- when I first
began my genealogical search for long-lost relatives.
Yet, as far as I know, there are no Overholts to be found
around West Overton! How could this be so?
I would be happy to hear from you! Send e-mail with just one click!
Continue on Page Three of Background: The Overholt Family Tree ~~ Karen's Branches.
Go to the first page of Karen's Branches for more
photos and articles.