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West Overton

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West Overton Distilling Company, north elevation of the red brick distillery building, PA 819, East Huntingdon Township.

This exceptionally well-preserved, mid-nineteenth-century agricultural and industrial community northeast of Scottdale was founded in 1800 by a group of Mennonites from Bucks County led by Henry Overholt. When Overholt purchased his farm, it already had two small distilleries, since making rye whiskey was already well established in western Pennsylvania. Henry Overholt's son Abraham added a gristmill to process grain for distilling and to serve the adjacent farms. The West Overton of today is primarily his work. Abraham and his son Henry arranged the vertical integration of their own farm by manufacturing what they needed, such as barrels, and reusing whatever they could, for example, mash from the distillery to feed the pigs. These lessons were well learned by Henry Clay Frick, who was born in the stone springhouse adjacent to the large main house (1838–1839), and ultimately were applied by him and Pittsburgh's industrialists to the steel industry. The West Overton barns are enormous brick buildings that rival the six-story red brick distillery (1859) for pride of place in the village. The two larger barns were used for livestock (1826) and as a dairy barn (1832). Although they do not have decorative brickwork, the dairy barn has an arched loggia supporting its forebay. Brick barns, often found in southeastern and south-central Pennsylvania, were more expensive to build than the log or timber-frame barns prevalent in western Pennsylvania. The technically difficult masonry of the smaller stable (1838) with the wheatsheaf or hourglass designs required a considerable investment. The brick openwork allowed ventilation and some light into the haymow.

Mennonite farmers were progressive and often used up-to-date machinery, crop rotation, and fertilization. A line drawing of the village in the 1876 New Illustrated Atlas of Westmoreland County, Pennsylvaniadepicts the coke works as secondary to the farm, but this was a nostalgic and idealized vision. In fact, by 1880, West Overton had become a coal patch town dominated by coke ovens and a rail line. Of the nineteen structures visible in the drawing, sixteen remain intact. The distilling business ended here in 1919 with the onset of Prohibition, although Old Overholt whiskey is still made in Kentucky. Forty-five acres of the village are now part of a museum complex established in 1927, when Helen Clay Frick donated the house and distillery to the Western Pennsylvania Historical Society.

Writing Credits

Lu Donnelly et al.

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