Friday, February 8, 2013

Old Overholt Spirits

Image from Karens Barnches
 
"West Overton is the only pre-Civil War village still intact in the state. The exhibits explain the history of the family who first settled here and the thriving industrial complex it grew to be. Tours include the largest brick barn in Pennsylvania and the birthplace of Henry Clay Frick," per the state historic plaque that honors the distillery grounds, now home to a museum and some buildings amidst the historic district.

Around 1810, Abraham Overholt and his brother Christian began to distill whiskey at their family's farm in Westmoreland county. It started from a few barrels of hootch to a big business; the West Newton plant was expanded a couple of times to increase production, and was one of the first to go vertical, with its own supply of grain and lumber with grist and saw mills to make everything on site.

Abraham bought his brother out and went into business with two of his sons, Jacob and Henry.

In 1846, Abraham Overholt hired John W. Frick, a Swiss immigrant, to work in the grist mill located in the village. While working, he met Abraham’s daughter, Elizabeth, and they were married in 1847. On December 19th, 1849, their son, Henry Clay Frick, was born in the springhouse; maybe he picked up the his future business model from his thrifty and hard-driving grandpap. Frick eventually ended up owning the area coal fields, coke ovens, and the distillery, while his family set up the museum...but we digress.

In 1854, Jacob teamed up with his cousin Henry O. Overholt to open a new distillery in Broad Ford, near Connellsville. This, by the way, is where the famed rye whiskey known as Old Overholt was made (West Newton distilled "Old Farm"). It was said to be Abraham Lincoln's favorite whiskey, only taken, of course, in medicinal doses by Abe. (The Broad Ford distillery, abandoned for years, burned down in 2004.)

OK, if you all haven't headed to the nearest tavern for a quick snort, here come the ghost stories.

According to local lore, Jacob and his dad had an altercation over business and money while at West Newton; Abraham was said to be famously tight-fisted. During the fight, the father allegedly killed the son in the heat of the moment. Now we can't verify the legend; the best cause of death we've found in researching Jacob is that he succumbed to his "last illness." Don't we all? But the legend is a better tale, and we'll stick to that.

Anyway, following Jacob's 1859 death, Abraham inherited Jacob's 2/3 share of the Broad Ford distillery and added it to his operation. Soon afterward, workers reported seeing a figure who resembled Jacob watching over them, along with other unexplained phenomena. Two fires at the distillery, in 1884 and another in 1905, were claimed by some to be Jacob's revenge. Jacob Overholt is still said to been seen haunting the distillery.

But the star spook here is Clyde, the last Overholt to live in the ancestral house. He committed suicide by shotgun in his bedroom in 1919 after his older brother ended up with the Overholt estate following the death of their father. People have said over the years that they've heard noises in the attic and people running up and down the steps when they're the only ones in the house, along with other otherworldy mischief blamed on Clyde.

He's not entirely at fault for the spookiness, though. Tales claim that one Overholt hung himself on the property, and another died in a room now used as a storage area, with reports of his face peeking out of the room's window. There are also tales of a rude ghost that's found by the springhouse who reportedly asked an investigator "Why are you in my house?" There are also stories of floating objects and things disappearing from one place only to be found in another.

The ghosts and the legends are chronicled in the book "Weird West Overton" by Mary Ann Mogus and Ed & Brendan Keleman.

Looking for a day trip with a little history? Not only are their ghostly remnants of the old Overholt days, but the museum also features the rough-and-tumble steel making age of Henry Clay Frick. Frick? Hmmm, about that rude ghost by the springhouse...?

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