A FORGOTTEN INDUSTRY: INVESTIGATING A NINETEENTH CENTURY RURAL DISTILLERY

Matthew E. Becher

Gray & Pape, Inc.

Ohio Archaeological Council © 2000

Rural landscape is being consumed at an alarming rate by modern development. While agrarian industries such as grist- and saw-milling have been studied at length and there is even an organization dedicated to the conservation of mills (Society for the Preservation of Old Mills), others have received scant attention. During the nineteenth century, thousands of small distilleries operated throughout rural America almost exclusively in tandem with gristmills. However, precious few distilleries have been documented by trained researchers, and there are few contemporary interpretations of the economic viability and technical operation of the industry.

The above observations were made following the archival and archaeological investigations of a rural distillery located in Greene County, Ohio. During the summer of 1996, Gray & Pape, Inc., of Cincinnati, Ohio, conducted Phase III investigations at the Harbine Distillery and Millrace (Sites 33Gr914 and 33Gr916). Data recovery of the sites was completed in advance of proposed improvements to the Greene County Wastewater Treatment Plant. The work was performed under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 for Black & Veatch, Inc., of Cincinnati for the Greene County Board of Commissioners under a permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -Louisville District. What follows is intended as a reference for others who are faced with the management of similar resources.

In order to effectively mitigate the adverse effects of the wastewater treatment plant expansion on the Harbine Distillery and Millrace, a combined program of archival and archaeological investigations was implemented. The investigations resulted in a summation of the mechanics and methods of nineteenth century distilling as well as a review of the economic and social systems under which the industry grew and collapsed. The final products of the investigation included a technical report delivered to the client, the Ohio Historic Preservation Office, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - Louisville District, as well as a separate public document. The public document, The Distiller's Tale, was a synopsis of the investigations designed for distribution to local libraries and school districts and received a Public Awareness Award from the OHPO in 1997.

The field investigations at the Harbine Distillery included mechanical removal of the overburden from half of the site area to reveal extant features. Unfortunately, the distillery was consumed in an 1888 fire, and the site's integrity was further compromised during the 1970's when all remaining surface structures were bulldozed. Nonetheless, a number of buried features were encountered and excavated, including the remains of a brick stillhouse and three wood frame structures. In addition, a large trench was excavated through the millrace to expose its profile and facilitate documentation of its construction.

The fieldwork permitted a reconstruction of how the distillery may have operated, though most of the production details and feature functions could not have been surmised without an extensive review of nineteenth century distilling methods and technology. This part of the investigation proved to be the most exciting, as surprisingly little research into this industry has been published. The most valuable sources consulted were three practical manuals written by distillers between 1804 and 1819 (Krafft 1804; Hall 1813, 1818; Boucherie 1819). Primary information from several other contemporaneous distilleries in southwestern Ohio was also helpful for estimating the layout, capacity, and production of the Harbine Distillery, since such records from the Harbine facility could not be located.

The fieldwork permitted a reconstruction of how the distillery may have operated, though most of the production details and feature functions could not have been surmised without an extensive review of nineteenth century distilling methods and technology. This part of the investigation proved to be the most exciting, as surprisingly little research into this industry has been published. The most valuable sources consulted were three practical manuals written by distillers between 1804 and 1819 (Krafft 1804; Hall 1813, 1818; Boucherie 1819). Primary information from several other contemporaneous distilleries in southwestern Ohio was also helpful for estimating the layout, capacity, and production of the Harbine Distillery, since such records from the Harbine facility could not be located.

An extant photograph of the nearby Staley Distillery depicts how small operations such as the Harbine's may have functioned (Figure 1). Today, the Staley Farm and Distillery is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is among the most well-preserved rural milling and distilling complex in the country (Simmons 1990).

Figure 1.
Figure 1.
 


The archival work included a summary of the development of distilling in America to about 1900. It is important to note that most of the early nineteenth century distilleries were anything but backwoods stills producing illicit moonshine in an effort to avoid taxation. Rather, these concerns were essential to farmers, as they permitted the reduction of bulky grain crops into whiskey, which was easier to transport and quick to sell. The distilling profession was respected as something between an art form and a science until sometime in the middle of the nineteenth century when temperance movements began to color the public's view of both the product and its producers. Widespread illegal distilling did not become common until taxes soared during and after the Civil War. In fact, the rise and fall of rural distilling was inexorably tied to temperance and taxation, although transportation also played a role. Indeed, the railroads robbed rural distillers of a part of their local raw material base by making it easier for farmers to transport bulk goods to market.

As noted above, distilleries were often operated in tandem with a gristmill, simply because the first step in distillation involved reducing the grain to a course meal. Indeed, one authority recommended building a small mill next to the distillery solely for the purpose of grinding grain on site (Krafft 1804:45). The grain (usually barley, rye, corn, or a blend) was infused with warm water into a mixture called wort, to which yeast was added. This concoction was fermented in large wooden vats or open barrels for several days before being directed to the stillhouse as beer or wash. The spent grain was itself considered a valuable commodity, since it could be sold off as fertilizer or feed or used to maintain a herd of livestock on site. In fact, the Harbines not only raised swine, but also operated their own pork packing house. The grist mill-distillery-hog farm combination was very cost effective, as the output of one step in the system formed the raw material of the next step.

The still was the most important and valuable part of the industrial process. Most of the technological advances made during the nineteenth century in this business were concerned with the development of new stills and related apparati. The earliest type to be used in America exclusively in the production of spirits was the simple pot still, which was first used by gin makers in the early 1700s.

A shift in preference toward whiskey making was made by 1800, and changes in technology followed on its heels. Pot stills were soon supplanted by patent stills, which were more efficient and easier to clean. At the same time, the concept of steam heat was introduced, which spurred the development of a unlimited array of steam stills. By the middle of the nineteenth century, massive column stills were widely in use at the commercial level of production. Column still technology, which employed steam, was vastly superior to the earlier patent and steam stills in terms of production, though the flavor and character of the end product suffered somewhat. For the most part, the expense of large column stills precluded their use outside of big city distilleries like those clustered in and around Cincinnati.

Once distilling was complete, the product was typically decanted into wooden casks for shipping or aging. Many small distillers in Ohio opted to sell their whiskey to large producers in Cincinnati, Ohio, or Maysville or Louisville, Kentucky, where it was refined, aged, and distributed as a finished product. Bottling at the rural level was virtually unheard of, though some rural distillers barreled and aged some of their whiskey on site in bondhouses. This portion of the whiskey "run" was then sold or traded locally, assuming the position of an acceptable cash substitute.

The information gleaned from archival sources, coupled with archaeological investigations, allowed for a reconstruction of what the Harbine Distillery may have looked like during its heyday between 1832 and ca. 1870. Material remains encountered at the site included a variety of architectural debris, but aside from a few burned copper fittings, no intact traces of the equipment used to run the distillery were recovered. By far the most common artifacts recovered from the site were nails and bricks and, based on the condition and distribution of these items, it was clear that most of the structures at the distillery were destroyed beyond repair by the 1888 fire.

The most significant feature at the Harbine Distillery was the stillhouse, which minimally consisted of a series of brick footers, a limestone pavement, and a massive brick hearth and chimney (Figure 2). The Harbine stillhouse probably did not include a superstructure; a simple shed or suspended gable roof designed to keep rain off the distilling equipment was employed instead. The heat generated by the furnace and still(s) would have made a well-built wooden structure impractical.

Figure 2. Artist's reconstruction of the Harbine Distillery, based on excavations and archival research conducted by Gray & Paper, Inc.
Figure 2. Artist's reconstruction of the Harbine Distillery, based on excavations and archival research conducted by Gray & Paper, Inc.
 


The compact footprint of the stillhouse probably would have accommodated only a patent or steam still, though it is difficult to say exactly what type of equipment was used. The floor plan is comparable to plans for an 1816 distillery patent known as Gillespie's Improved Steam Still (Figure 3). Gillespie's plan consisted of a large square brick furnace,upon which a copper boiler was set. The wooden still was located adjacent to the boiler, though the Harbines could have easily used a copper still to greater effect.

Figure 3. Plans for Gillespie's Improved Steam Still, a design patented in 1816.
Figure 3. Plans for Gillespie's Improved Steam Still, a design patented in 1816.
 


A second, somewhat larger building (Structure B) was situated immediately north of the stillhouse. The function of this building is unknown, though it could have been used as a malthouse or to barrel finished whiskey. The largest building on the site was of frame construction set upon limestone footers (Structure C). Over half of the interior flooring of Structure C was designed to support a great deal of weight, as evidenced by a series of heavy piers which braced the floor. If the Harbines aged their whiskey on site, this would have been the bondhouse. However, the structure could have also been used as a mashing and fermenting room, processes which would also have required a sturdy floor.

A dense scatter of wrought nails and one limestone footer suggest that a fourth building (Structure D) once stood along the western edge of the site. It is impossible to say how large this structure was or what purpose it may have served. The only other feature which may have existed at the site during its occupation was a drainage ditch consisting of a channel lined with gravel and cobbles. Such a feature would have been useful for carrying waste water from the stillhouse or other buildings to the nearby millrace. While it is likely that the millrace was used as a water source by the distillery, no evidence for the method of conveyance was found.

The Harbine Distillery was initially constructed during a time when distilling was an accepted and honored profession. Grist and saw-milling, hog raising, and pork packing were ancillary industrial concerns that made efficient use of the infrastructure and byproducts of the distilling process. Temperance and the development of a widespread and functional railroad system precipitated the decline of this industrial system by the mid-1800s. The crushing blows to rural distilling occurred during the Civil War, when federal excise taxes soared from nothing to $2.00 per proof gallon on whiskey and other distilled spirits. By 1868, when the excise taxes were finally reduced, most of the rural whiskey making ventures had either suspended production or simply ceased. The advent, operation, and demise of the Harbine Distillery parallels the once widespread rural practice of whiskey distilling, an extinct and largely forgotten feature of the American landscape.

References Cited

Boucherie, Anthony
 1819  The Art of Making Whiskey, so as to Obtain a Better, Purer, Cheaper and Greater Quantity of Spirit, from a Given Quantity of Grain: also, the Art of Converting It into Gin, after the Process of Holland Distillers, without any Augmentation of Price. Worsley and Smith, Lexington, Ky.

Hall, Harrison
 1813  Hall's Distiller. John Bioren, Philadelphia.

 1818  The Distiller. By the Author, Philadelphia.

Krafft, Michael August
 1804  The American Distiller, or, the Theory and Practice of Distilling, According to the Latest Discoveries and Improvements, including the Most Improved Methods of Constructing Stills, and of Rectification. Archibald Bartram, Philadelphia. Library of Congress Microform - American Culture Series II, Vol. VII: Economics, 5. Industry. General, Particular Industries, Reel 61.

Simmons, David A.
 1990  The Miller's Tale: Staley Farm. Timeline: October/November.