Display of woven blankets at St. Vincent College extends Overholt family legacy

| Tuesday, June 17, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Before a prominent family in East Huntingdon became known for their whiskey, weaving was a part of their trade.

Henry O. Overholt, born in 1813, was a part of the family who lived at what is now West Overton Village, the historic homestead where Old Overholt rye whiskey was distilled.

Before the family began the distillery in 1810, Overholt would take to a loom and weave coverlets, charging $3 to $7 for one to two days of work.

“He was known for really bold patterns and colors of the time,” said Stephanie Koller, registrar at the site.

Koller has collaborated with the Foster and Muriel McCarl Coverlet Gallery at St. Vincent College to display a number of Overholt's woven blankets to weave a picture of Westmoreland County history.

Lauren Churilla, curator of the gallery, said this is the first time the two sites have collaborated.

“It's really essential for different cultural institutions in the area to work together because we're all working toward the same common goals,” Churilla said. “We want to expose the public to as much of the culture and history of the area as we can, and the best way to do that is through collaboration.”

Churilla and Koller are longtime friends who met while attending the college in Unity. Then both earned master's degrees in public history from Duquesne University.

Five coverlets by Overholt, alongside others from his family and local weavers, will be on display, beginning with an opening reception from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday.

When West Overton Village reopened in 2012, members of the public brought coverlets made by Overholt, which are identifiable by a corner block where often his name, date, client's name and “West'd, Penna.” were usually added, Churilla said.

“It's something that is of interest to people in the area and something people can connect to,” she said.

One coverlet lists Overholt's recipient as Elisabeth Frick, whose son Henry Clay Frick was born and raised at the Overholt homestead before becoming Andrew Carnegie's business partner at H.C. Frick Coke Co.

Overholt was one of the famous Frick's cousins.

The exhibit will tie that connection to industrial history, Churilla said.

“One of Henry Clay Frick's coal mines ... was actually here on campus. There's a picture where you can see the mines and the basilica in the background,” she said.

Coverlets were popular in the mid-1800s because they were practical when used as bed coverings, as well as beautiful.

Some featured geometric patterns. Most of Overholt's creations were “figured and fancy” patterns with flowers and curved flourishes.

The gallery, which has a database of 14,000 weavers and a collection of 300 coverlets, opened in 2004 in the Fred M. Rogers Center on the Unity college campus as a place to preserve the McCarls' donation to St. Vincent.

Weavers like Overholt would sit at a Jacquard loom that used a series of punch cards to weave the colored wool “weft” into the natural cotton “warp.”

He created some of his own patterns, which are on display in the exhibit, Churilla said.

West Overton Village displays Overholt's coverlets in a small gallery, along with maintaining a museum dedicated to the distillery.

“We're hoping that by doing this we can swap visitors and expose visitors to all the different places in Westmoreland County,” Koller said.

Churilla said the gallery allows visitors to delve more into the coverlets' history while West Overton Village helps place them in the time they were produced.

“People come here and see coverlets, but you don't realize you can go right down the street and see where the coverlets were actually woven, so it gives you a bigger piece of the story,” she said.

The exhibit will be on display through Sept. 12.

Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6660 or sfederoff@tribweb.com.

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