They Made Whiskey by Rodney G. Cavanaugh

Posted by Daniel Mast on

Originally published in the January 2016 issue of Mennonite Family History

    Before temperance and abstinence, whiskey was the common drink. Wealthy people drank wine, while the lower classes drank rum which is a whiskey made from sugar cane. The use of grain was the expertise of the Scot-Irish that made whiskey cheaper and more available.
    Among the earliest immigrants in the 1600s and early 1700s, making distilled liquor was common. This was quite as legitimate an enterprise as milling. There was so much whiskey produced that in 1684 a tax was imposed, but was not used.
    Distillers sprang up everywhere. “In many parts of the country, one could scarcely get out of the smoke of a still-house.” So much of the wheat and rye were used for whiskey that there was a scarcity of bread and forage.
    The result of this initiated a law in November 1778 that prohibited distillation of all kinds of grain during part of the year. Later you could use rye and barley, but this was repealed.


 bombergers whiskey pa pennsylvaniabombergers distillery






Bomberger’s Whiskey was made by Abraham Bomberger, a Mennonite in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania. His family ran the longest continuously-operated distillery in America after purchasing it from Mennonite John Shenk and his brother Michael who had built the distillery in 1753. Handed down within the Shenk family for more than a century, it was sold in 1860 to Abraham Bomberger who was a Shenk descendant through his mother, Elizabeth Shenk Bomberger. In 1866, Abraham married Catherine Horst.


     One of the reasons so many farmers distilled their grain was the difficulty to move 24 bushels of milled rye across the Alleghenies. It would require three-pack animals. By converting this grain to whiskey, it could be transported over the mountains on one animal in two eight kegs.
    The high quality whiskey could sell, in 1790, for .25 to $1.00 ($3.42 to $13.71 in 2014) per gallon. After the middleman had taken his share, the profit could be as much as $16.00 ($219.34 in 2014).
    The best whiskey made in the west was known as “Monongahela Rye.” So much of it was made that 100,000 gallons were shipped down the Ohio River to New Orleans. There, they bribed the Spanish army to permit their passage down the Mississippi River. In 1840 in Westmoreland County, there were 53 distillers producing 175,480 gallons of whiskey.
    In Fayette County in 1840, there were 17 distillers producing 129,298 gallons of whiskey. Most farmers had a barrel, or more, of whiskey in their cellar. All had free access to their use. This was in 1840 and even later.
    Many small farmers distilled seasonally, and the product was used by all men, women, and children, at all times of the day and at every sort of gathering: at muster, church, election, work, dance, and fight. Often after a funeral, a cup of heated whiskey was passed around on the cold trip to the cemetery and home. The churches were not heated then.
    A lot of whiskey was shipped east or down the Ohio River. The new government needed money so Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury, thought a tax on liquor was a good idea. There was antagonism against the tax. Much can be read in the Whiskey Insurrection of 1794. Six of the counties included Allegheny, Washington, Fayette, Washington, and Bedford in Pennsylvania, and Ohio County, Virginia, were the seat of the insurrection.
    Philip Reagan was the collector of the tax for Westmoreland County. His home is about two miles from our home today.
    There were several steps to converting mash into whiskey. Wash was the call of the liquid after the mash was drained from the liquid. The mash could be used to feed animals. In fact, it has been said that Abraham Overholt fed as many as 2,000 hogs at one time.
    A number of these men who were distillers were Anabaptists, and some were also ordained men.
    I am the seventh generation descended from a Bullskin Township, Fayette County, distiller. He was John Miner. Evidently, he made money from this since he gave his only child as a wedding gift a new house that is still in the hands of a descendant today. This was about 1825.
    I find it interesting that one of the men who went to church with us always mentioned “old Miner being a moonshiner” (John Miner Jr. had given that church the ground for a building and cemetery).
    Amish Bishop Benedict Miller in the Casselman Valley also distilled liquor. Benedict Miller (Nov. 19, 1781-June 11, 1837) (ML232+) was born in Berks County, Pennsylvania. His first wife was Catherine Bitsche (Nov. 20, 1778-Sept. 24, 1834) (BL12). After her death, he married Catherine Eash (Jan. 23, 1799-Oct. 21, 1889), the widow of Nicholas Keim (Feb. 2, 1768-Oct. 17, 1830) (KM1+). He fathered 24 children with his three wives. Miller was ordained minister in 1809, and in 1813 he was ordained bishop. He was a craftsman and a good farmer.
    White Jonas Stutzman (Jan. 31, 1788-Oct. 18, 1871) (ST52) built a schoolhouse in 1813 in Holmes County, Ohio. For two years, it was used as a house, and in 1816 it became a distillery. Whiskey was necessary for medicine and to trade with Native Americans for meat.
      Martin Mellinger, a deacon for over 50 years, wrote a letter to a relative in Germany: “In 1816, we gave up distilling whiskey last spring.” Mellinger/Mollinger (1752-1842) was ordained as a Mennonite deacon in 1790. He served in the Mellinger area in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
      The financial crisis of the 1820s caused many of the small distillers to close. Some converted to United Brethren such as Abraham Herr of Manor Township, or to Evangelical Association such as the Oberholtzer brothers of Terre Hill. Henry Becker of Kissel stayed with the Mennonite Church. He expanded his distillery and even submitted a patent for an invention of an improved still.
      There was some question about the use of alcohol. Tradition says the sons of Bishop John Graybill filled “drunkards graves.”
    Martin Oberholtzer of East Earl Township was also in distilling. He built his own stone mansion in 1795, and had no less than four distilleries on his farm. Over the years, he bought six more farms, and gave one to each of his seven children. Several of his children joined the Evangelical denomination.
    Jacob Nessly moved west into the Panhandle of what we know now as West Virginia, next to Ohio. There were no other Mennonites there, so he was won over by itinerant Methodist preachers. He took enough interest in that group that he built a chapel for them and melted enough silver coins to make communion ware. The Methodist group did not approve of him becoming wealthy from distilling; therefore, he was dropped from membership. He became so rich that he was able to buy a large tract of land at other places. Rather than ship grain east, it was easier to convert grain to whiskey, and it also meant that they had mash to give good feed to the hogs.
    “Thus, again, economic values took precedence over spiritual ones,” according to note #180 (page 1275), quoted by Ruth to Minister Henry Brenneman (1764-1847) who was ordained in 1792. He was in the distilling business. One time while he was at the ministers table at a meeting, he temporarily left the meeting to see what the whiskey price was from men passing by from Baltimore on a wagon.

old overholt whiskey mennonite
    In the early days, whiskey was an item to trade as well as to use as medicine. I was born in 1936, and I remember folks using Old Overholt Whiskey when they had an illness. In the mid 1950s, I worked on a farm, and the lady there would have a problem with gall stones. Her cure was a tablespoon of Old Overholt in a cup of hot tea to make her feel better. But there was a problem—she would worry that she had lost her salvation because of using the whiskey!
    In the late 1960s, I had a cough, and the doctor told me he had given everything he had, but could not give me any relief. Finally he told me to go to the state store and buy a “bottle” and go somewhere and drink it. I did not buy the “bottle,” and I did survive. The state stores are owned by the state of Pennsylvania and are in the business to buy and sell liquor and wine.
    There were a number of distilleries in Westmoreland County owned by Mennonite families. The two largest were Abraham Overholt and Samuel C. Dillinger. Abraham Overholt (Apr. 19, 1784-Jan. 15, 1870) was married to Maria Stauffer. When the Overholt family traveled west to Westmoreland County, they were weavers and farmers. Abraham did not start distilling until 1810. He used a small still that could process the mash from one and a half to two bushels of grain a day.
    It seems the story of whiskey in West Overton is not yet over. The West Overton Village and Museums, the new name for the area, now has a license for “Old Farm Pure Rye Whiskey.” I find it interesting that two members of the Board of Directors and the Managing Director who are working on this project are members of Scottdale Mennonite Church. They are hoping to grow the new Old Farm Rye the “antique” way on land near West Overton, owned by the Fort Allen Antique Farm Equipment Association, Inc.
    I found Abraham   Overholt’s obituary interesting: “On Saturday morning January 15th, at his residence in East Huntingdon Township, Westmoreland County, Pa., Abraham Overholt, in the 86th year of his age. He arose in the morning in usual health and took the lantern and went out, and not returning, the family went to look for him and found him in an outhouse and the lamp of life almost extinguished. He was buried on the 18th in the Mennonite burying-ground in said township, followed by a large concourse of relatives and friends. The occasion was improved by ____ Woodbury of the Baptist church in the English language, and by Bro. Blough in German. Bro. Overholt was a faithful member of the Mennonite church for many years, and the church has great reason to mourn for him. His seat was seldom vacant at public worship, and he was one of the most benevolent men the church had. When any benevolent purpose demanded it, he was always willing and ready to give of his abundance. C.S.” The C.S. was probably Christian Stoner. He would have been the deacon and the undertaker for the funeral.
    There is no obituary for Maria, but there was a very long memorial printed in the newspaper. It may have been written by a person of the Mt. Pleasant Institution. She gave $5,000 ca1870. That would be worth $92,242.53 in 2014. She was the mother of eight children, and only three survived her. She was survived also by 48 grandchildren and 25 great-grandchildren. She lived peaceful, kind, and gentle, loving, and beloved, and then she died.
    The Overholts were buried in the cemetery beside the Mennonite Alverton Church. At a later time, their bodies were moved to the Mount Pleasant Cemetery. The graves of the rich people of that time were marked by a fancy monument. But, Abraham and Maria are instead marked by white marble, flat by their grave. However, a grandson is interred in a nice mausoleum in the Scottdale Cemetery.
    Abraham was not the only Overholt to be involved with whiskey. Jacob S. Overholt (Oct. 18, 1814-Apr. 20, 1859) was the second son of Abraham Overholt. He had a common education and was employed on the farm. He learned the peculiar skill of distilling which he had learned from his father. At an early age, Abraham entrusted the business with older brother Henry S. Overholt (Aug. 10, 1810-May 18, 1870). In 1855, the brothers dissolved the business in West Overton. Jacob and a cousin, Henry O. Overholt (June 11, 1813-July 20, 1880), built a new distillery and sawmill in Broadford, Fayette County.

old overholt rye whiskey
    Jacob’s wife was Mary Fox, the daughter of Christian and Elizabeth Funk Fox. The wife of Henry O. Overholt was Elizabeth Bachtel.
    Samuel C. Dillinger (Oct. 23, 1810-Aug. 1889) was a distiller. His wife was Sarah Loucks (Nov. 30, 1808-Oct. 19, 1898). His father was Daniel Dillinger (Aug. 8, 1787-Feb. 9, 1845), married to Mary Myers from Lancaster County, and they were the parents of ten children. Samuel and Sarah were the parents of 11 children, and they lived in Bethany which is in East Huntington Township, Westmoreland County.
    About 1830, Dillinger started a small still on his farm. In 1851 or 1852, he erected a frame distillery at Old Bethany. In 1856, he added a grist mill that operated until 1881 when it was destroyed by fire. Samuel and two of his sons, Daniel L. and Samuel, erected a new three-story distillery that began distilling in March 1882. It had the capacity of 200 bushels a day. His product was sold in Pittsburgh and in the East. All of the grain came from the west.
    Samuel Dillinger owned nearly 1,000 acres of land in the township, and half of this land is full of undeveloped coal. He was involved in the coke business. At Tarr’s Station, there were 64 ovens, and at Hawkeye Station, there were 51 ovens. He was involved in building the South Penn Railroad in 1870 and 1871. Later he and his sons had 70 ovens at Pennsville.
    The name of the works at Pennsville was Elderoda. It was owned earlier by his father-in-law, Abraham Sherrick. Dillinger later sold it to A.O.Tinstman. He was a grandson of Abraham Overholt.
    Many of the distillers in Westmoreland County were Mennonite. On page 474 of The Earth is the Lord’s, one of the Funks is recorded to have been converted by local revivalists and gave up his still. David Funk (Dec. 28, 1757-Oct. 4, 1833) was born in Bucks County. He was a farmer and distiller. After being converted, he became a great preacher.
    David Funck [sic] (Dec. 28, 1765-Oct. 4, 1833) was a Mennonite bishop in Westmoreland County. He was a farmer and distiller, and son of Isaac Funk. David’s wife was Catherine Godshalk, the daughter of John and Christina Hendricks Godshalk.
    Christian Overholt (July 18, 1786-Jan. 11, 1868) was born in Bucks County, the son of Henry and Anna Meyer Overholt. He was a farmer and distiller and moved from Westmoreland County to Fostoria, Ohio. His wife was Elizabeth Stauffer (Jan. 19, 1797-Nov. 21, 1887), the daughter of Abraham and Anna Nissley Overholt.
    John M. Stauffer (May 24, 1813-Jan. 15, 1862) was a distiller and grist mill operator. His parents were Abraham O. and Elizabeth Myers Stauffer.
    Christian Stoner was ordained deacon at the Pennsville Mennonite Church. He had been an undertaker for 35 years and buried nearly 1,000 people. Christian Stoner (Sept. 5, 1811-Jan. 16, 1892) was a farmer, cabinet-maker, undertaker, and distiller. His wife was Sarah Overholt (Jan. 9, 1815-June 30, 1837). Her parents were Christian and Elizabeth Stauffer Overholt.
    Mrs. Stoner must have been a very wise person. It is reported that Christian replied to her that they must increase the output of the still or go out of business. Her reply was, “Christian, let’s stop it altogether before we lose our sons. They are learning to like it too well.”



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