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On the Whiskey Trail

Jasmine Gehris/Tribune-Review
By Jerry Storey
Sunday, May 22, 2005

Grant Gerlich, executive director at West Overton Museums, near Scottdale, would like to establish a small distillery at the site where Old Overholt whiskey had its beginning.

The curators at the Oliver Miller Homestead in South Park, and at Woodville Plantation, in Collier Township, Allegheny County, have more modest projects in the works to celebrate their whiskey heritage, building a barn to house an 18th-century still and planting rye, respectively.

The southwestern Pennsylvania museums are linked as three of the seven historic sites on the new American Whiskey Trail.

The others are the George Washington Distillery site at Mt. Vernon, Va., the centerpiece of the effort; Fraunces Tavern Museum in New York City; Gadsby’s Tavern Museum in Alexandria, Va.; and the Oscar Getz Museum, in Bardstown, Ky.

Also included on the tour are four operating distilleries in Kentucky — Jim Beam, in Clermont; Maker’s Mark, in Loretto; Wild Turkey, in Lawrenceburg; and Woodford Reserve, in Versailles — and two in Tennessee — George Dickel, in Tullahoma, and Jack Daniels, in Lynchburg. There are also two rum distilleries, Bacardi, in Catano, Puerto Rico, and Cruzan in St. Croix, the Virgin Islands.

The Web site for the American Whiskey Trail describes it as “a cultural heritage and tourism initiative of the Distilled Spirits Council in cooperation with Historic Mount Vernon.”

The three sites in southwestern Pennsylvania represent two different eras in whiskey making.

The Oliver Miller Homestead and the Woodville Plantation highlight the lives of early settlers, the importance of whiskey to commerce and the independent spirit that led to a short-lived rebellion in 1794 after the federal government taxed whiskey. The owners of the Miller and Neville homesteads were on opposite sides of the rebellion.

The homesteads are two of only eight sites in Allegheny County listed as National Historic Landmarks.

West Overton was developed after the Whiskey Rebellion. Although rye whiskey was made at the site in a log house as early as 1803, the 1838 distillery building, and the village that surrounded it, represent a tipping point in the nation’s transition from agriculture to industry, according to Gerlich.

None of the three area museums have extensive exhibits on whiskey making yet. But that doesn’t concern Dennis Pogue, associate director at Mt. Vernon, who invited the three museums to be a part of the American Whiskey Trail.

“There is more to the history (of whiskey) than just making whiskey,” he said.

Motorists speed by 18th-century history every day on Route 50.

The Woodville Plantation, also known as the John and Presley Neville House, is hemmed in by highways and surrounded by office buildings. The plantation, once spread out over 400 acres, now encompasses about five acres of land.

“It’s our little bit of Williamsburg,” said Julianna Haag, the president of the Woodville Plantation Associates, referring to the restored Colonial capital in Virginia.

The original log cabin was erected by Neville in 1775, making it the oldest domicile in Allegheny County. Now covered in clapboard, two small doors can be swung open to show visitors the original logs. The original cabin’s kitchen room, with its hearth and period utensils, is the most popular stop on the house tour, according to Haag.

John Neville and his son, Presley, had distinguished records in the Revolutionary War as a general and aide-de-camp to Lafayette, respectively.

John Neville had built a new mansion at Bower Hill and given Woodville to Presley by the time of the Whiskey Rebellion.

But then, his friend, President George Washington, asked him to collect the new tax on whiskey in western Pennsylvania. After angry neighbors burned his new mansion to the ground, John Neville had to move back in with his son.

Succeeding owners made several additions to the home, including, in the late 1820s, a wraparound veranda set off with latticework.

The dining room walls are painted in a bright verdigris green popular in the late 18th century. The bedrooms are papered in a replica of an 1815 pattern.

Early occupants of the Woodville Plantation made their mark by etching their names and messages in the windows with diamond rings, a 19th-century custom akin to later homeowners tracing their initials in wet cement.

There are few exhibits showing the home’s direct connection to the Whiskey Rebellion, although it is emphasized in tours.

Rob Windhorst, a member of the Woodville Plantation Associates, recently added a living connection to the era by planting some rye on the grounds.

Volunteer docents, dressed in 18th-century garb, give tours of the Woodville Plantation on Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m.

“We try to put ourselves in John Neville’s era,” Haag said.

Haag, who discovered the site when she helped her daughter with an eighth-grade history project, said associates emphasize educational programs, particularly for children.The group also published a collection of personal letters and documents from the Whiskey Rebellion.

One interesting outside exhibit is John Neville’s original tombstone, although he isn’t buried at Woodville Plantation. The most recent reconstruction project is an 18th-century privy, built by Julianna Haag’s husband, Doug, who modeled it after plans from Williamsburg.

In 1976, Woodville was acquired by the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation. It is operated by a board made up of representatives from the foundation, the Neville House Associates, the Allegheny County Committee of the National Society of Colonial Dames of America and individuals.

In addition to the Sunday tours held May through October, appointments for private tours and school groups are available.

The Oliver Miller Homestead is in the middle of a park. Stone Manse Drive, which leads to the homestead, is just off Corrigan Drive, the main road in South Park.

According to a history of the homestead, Oliver Miller emigrated with his family to America from County Antrim, Northern Ireland, in 1742. He purchased a tract of land on Catfish Run in 1772 and settled on the site six years later, building a two-story log cabin.

The cabin was replaced in 1830 by the current Stone Manse, which stayed in the family until the 1927 formation of South Park.

Visitors in shorts, T-shirts, sweats and bicycle helmets mingle with docents in Colonial dresses and bonnets at the homestead, often wandering unaware into the 18th-century world.

Mary Olesky, president of the associates, said neighbors who live near the homestead often don’t know it’s there.

But those who find their way to the Stone Manse are greeted by guides in period garb conducting tours and discussing history. On any given Sunday, visitors will find quilters, wool spinners, chair makers and blacksmiths demonstrating pioneer crafts. Volunteers also prepare a meal from the era, such as catfish cooked on the griddle on April 17, opening day.

There is a series of programs that run from opening day through a Dec. 11 frontier Christmas. On July 17, a skit titled “Serving the Writ,” will be performed several times to dramatize the outbreak of the Whiskey Rebellion.

Three of Oliver Miller’s sons were involved in the outbreak, according to the homestead’s history, when on July 15, 1794, Gen. John Miller and a U.S. marshal went to the home of William Miller near the homestead. The officers attempted to serve a writ which imposed a $250 fine for Miller’s failure to register his still.

As the rebellion spread throughout western Pennsylvania, Washington, in turn, formed an army of 12,000 men who quickly put an end to it.

Guides at the Oliver Miller Homestead retell the story of the Whiskey Rebellion to visitors.

“We try to educate people,” said Noel Moebs, 78, a retired geologist who has been involved with the associates since it beginning 30 years ago.

In addition to the presentations, a number of books on the Whiskey Rebellion are on sale at the log house.

While Allegheny County owns the Oliver Miller Homestead, the associates have been responsible for operating the site and making all the improvement on it for the past 30 years. The group receives no tax revenue from the county for the improvements.

“It’s all donations,” Moebs said.

In addition to the Stone Manse, the property includes a springhouse, a reconstructed log house, a blacksmith forge and various heirloom gardens. The most important Whiskey Rebellion artifact on display at the homestead is the bottom half of an 18th-century still that belonged to the Millers.

“It is a real museum piece,” Moebs said.

A new barn is being built to house the still and other exhibits depicting the Whiskey Rebellion.

Moebs hopes the honor of being part of the American Whiskey trail will guide more visitors to the Oliver Miller Homestead, which is open Sundays through Dec. 11 from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. The last tour begins at 4 p.m.

West Overton is an agriculture village founded by Henry Overholt in 1800 and expanded by his son, Abraham, located on Route 819 near Scottdale. The collection of stone buildings, the Overholt mansion, the distillery building and an enormous barn is hard to miss.

Gerlich said that Abraham Overholt, living in eastern Pennsylvania with his father at the time of the Whiskey Rebellion, was captivated by it. He said Abraham realized “that’s where the future was.”

Soon after the German Mennonite family moved to southwestern Pennsylvania, Henry Overholt established a distillery in a log building.

“They had a recipe they brought from Germany,” Gerlich said.

After Henry Overholt’s death in 1813, Abraham expanded the distillery, bricking in the log building and erecting a gristmill. With his rye crop, the gristmill, and distillery, he had everything he needed for his product.

“You could grow it, mill it and distill it,” Gerlich said.

The brand Overholt made at West Overton was Old Farm Rye Whiskey. He also made Old Monongahela Whiskey at a distillery at Broadford, Connellsville Township, Fayette County.

The name was changed to Old Overholt after his death in 1875. It became a popular national brand.

Gerlich pointed out that a true Manhattan or Old-Fashioned mixed drink has to be made with Old Overholt.

During Prohibition, the distillery was shut down at West Overton, but “medicinal whiskey” was made at the Broadford site. Old Overholt was distilled at Broadford until a 1965 fire; the brand is still made at the Jim Beam Distillery in Kentucky.

The new makers of Old Overholt have made at least one change, however. Gerlich pointed out that they’ve added a slight smile to the portrait of the dour Overholt on the label.

As the birthplace of Henry Clay Frick, West Overton was also at the center of the Connellsville coke industry. Frick, Overholt’s grandson, was a towering, controversial figure in the coal and coke era. In recognition of this, a coke oven was reconstructed and set in front of the museum.

Helen Clay Frick, Frick’s daughter, donated the West Overton site to a nonprofit association.

As important as the coal and coke heritage is to the area, Gerlich said he doesn’t want the whiskey era in southwestern Pennsylvania slighted. He said whiskey also would have broader appeal to many tourists than coal and coke.

The most prominent reminder of whiskey making at West Overton is the museum building, which is the shell of the old distillery and gristmill. An exhibit inside the museum also chronicles the era.

The museum sponsors a series of programs throughout the year, including a quilt show June 4 through July 1.

Someday, Gerlich would like to set up as a tourist attraction a small-batch distillery that would also sell its product. In the meantime, he said the whiskey era would play a more prominent role in presentations and programming at West Overton.

The museum is open May through Oct. 1, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays.

The Jim Beam Distillery tour features a museum that shows how whiskey is made. There are also a number of historical exhibits such as old rack houses and what may be the oldest moonshine still in America, according to Doris Calhoun, who heads up the visitors center.

In addition, the tour offers an inducement to visitors that the three historic sites in southwestern Pennsylvania can’t match — at least not until West Overton gets its distillery.

Calhoun said visitors 21 and older can attend tastings of the product. The visitors are served one-half-ounce glasses of two different “ultra-premium” bourbons, which is “the maximum amount state law will allow,” she said.

Samples may be available at other distilleries on the tour. Although Old Overholt rye whiskey is made at the Jim Beam distillery, it isn’t offered in the tastings.

“Some do tastings, some don’t,” Calhoun said.

The centerpiece on the historic portion of the whiskey trail is the distillery Washington built in 1797 at Mt. Vernon, his Virginia home for 45 years.

An operating gristmill has been reconstructed at Mt. Vernon. A five-year archaeological dig at the original distillery site is complete and a reconstructed distillery is being erected there, with funding from the Distilled Sprits Council.

The council is not the first to recognize the appeal of a whiskey trail.

The Scottish Whisky Trail has been around for decades and has become a popular tourist destination. Pogue, Mt. Vernon’s associate director, acknowledged that it has one advantage over the American Whiskey Trail in that there are a number of historic sites and distilleries in a small area that tourists can visit in a few days.

Even if all the sites on the American Whiskey Trail can’t be taken in a few days, Pogue said that individually or collectively, they have an important story to tell.

Jerry Storey can be reached at or (724) 626-3581.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

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Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633