West Overton museum tells story of Overholt family, distillery
The West Overton Distillery Museum continues to add a shot of uniqueness to its exhibits featuring the lives of the Overholt family and the West Overton Distillery.
“What makes this museum really unique is how we use the broader subject of whiskey to tell the story of how the Overholts used it to build their lives here,” said museum registrar Stephanie Coller, 28, of Pittsburgh.
“This is actually the third distillery on the site,” added museum docent Aaron Hollis, 22, of Scottdale. “It was built here in 1859 and started out small, but Overholt built their own grist mill on site. This allowed them to grind their own local grain for the whiskey, which was a type of vertical merger that streamlined their production.”
The building itself has three levels, of which the distillery museum itself takes up only one.
Underneath the museum is the Overholt Room, a space used for private events such as weddings or whiskey tastings following private tours. The space above the museum is currently being used for archival storage as more research is conducted on the distillery.
“We're currently kicking around options for the space upstairs for in the future,” said Jessica Kadie-Barclay, the museum's managing director. “We're trying to figure out how to be the best museum we can be for this community.”
Inside the museum, life-sized dioramas serve as reproductions of an office and warehouse space that would have been found within the distillery — complete with whiskey barrels donated by the manufacturers of Jim Beam.
“One of the most interesting exhibits we have right now is a collection of coverlets made by Henry Overholt himself,” said Kadie-Barclay. “We're collaborating with the McCarl Coverlet Gallery at St. Vincent College to show these coverlets, which were interestingly woven by men during this time.”
The exhibit will run through Sept. 12 at the distillery museum.
Other exhibits include a replica of a pot still, the type of distiller used in legitimate whiskey-making process, alongside a moonshine still as well as prints of photographs of the Overholt family.
“The main person of interest in the museum is Abraham Overholt, who ran the distillery,” Hollis said. “Overholt inherited the village and lived in the homestead with his family. The village is also known for being the birthplace of Henry Clay Frick, the son of Abraham's daughter Elizabeth.”
When the distillery was purchased by Frick's daughter Helen in 1922, she began preparing collecting artifacts that would be used when it became a museum in 1944.
“The property has had a distillery on site since day one,” Hollis said. “In 1870, the distillery would have grossed around $40,000 a year.”
“The whiskey produced here was made using rye because the Overholt family was German,” Collier said. “There were a variety of brands that were produced over the years either here or at the Broad Ford distillery, including the Old Farm brand.”
During the late 19th century, whiskey was marketed as a cure-all for ailments and could have been traded for just about anything, so it was particularly valuable — until Prohibition hit.
“Prohibition hit the West Overton distillery hard,” Hollis said. “Overholt's other distillery in Broad Ford continued producing whiskey that was marketed as medicinal, which was a loophole, but this distillery never recovered.”
Today, the distillery continues to serve as a testament to the industry here in Pennsylvania. Visitors to the museum can learn about the rise and fall of the distillery from the Whiskey Rebellion right up to the fateful Prohibition.
The museum is open Friday through Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. during the months of May through August.
More information about the museum and planning a visit can be found on the museum's website, www.westovertonvillage.org, or by calling the museum at 724-887-7910.
Kaidia Pickels is a contributing writer.