History of West Overton

From Old Overholt Whiskey to the birthplace of Henry Clay Frick, learn the fascinating history behind West Overton Village. 

West Overton: From Agriculture to Industry

The story of West Overton began with Heinrich Oberholtzer (whose name was anglicized to Henry Overholt), his wife, and their twelve children emigrating from Bucks County, PA, to the Jacobs Creek area of Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, in April 1800. They settled with other Mennonites in the area. In 1803, Henry acquired 263 acres along what is now Route 819 between Scottdale and Mount Pleasant. The Overholts raised livestock and constructed a springhouse that is still on the property today. They also began distilling rye whiskey in a small, two-still distillery.

After Henry’s death in 1813, his son Abraham, a master weaver who later became an elder in the Mennonite church, took over the farm and distillery. He and his wife, Maria Stauffer Overholt, lived permanently at West Overton. Over the next forty years, Abraham developed the agricultural village into an industrial enterprise centered around whiskey production. The village expanded to include the 1838 Overholt Homestead, the 1859 combined distillery and gristmill, several brick barns, a cooperage, shops, worker housing, and numerous outbuildings. Abraham demonstrated his business acumen by maximizing profits, investing wisely, reducing waste, and maintaining self-sufficiency. As the business grew, the Overholts emerged as managerial class with employees divided into skilled workers and laborers, the majority of whom rented housing from the company. 

After the deaths of Abraham and Maria in the early 1870s, several of their children and grandchildren lived on the property and managed the business. Like many Pennsylvania landowners in the late 19th century, the Overholts invested in coal mining and coke production. Abraham and Maria’s great nephew, Aaron S. R. Overholt, constructed sixty-four coke ovens along Felgars Run and added a rail line through the village in 1873. By the 1880s, the coal and coke operation was more profitable than the distillery. As the business diversified, so did the village. The Overholts hired immigrant workers from Sweden, Ireland, and Germany, as well as more Pennsylvania-born workers, to extract coal and process it into coke. The coking operation lasted until the early twentieth century, while coal mining continued in different capacities through the 1940s. 

For over a century, the Overholts maintained the tradition of distilling Monongahela rye, considered the quintessential American whiskey. Prohibition caused the distillery to shut down in 1919. In 1927, the Overholt Company was acquired by National Distillers. National Distillers & Chemical Corp’s distilling division was in turn acquired by American Brands and its subsidiary James B. Beam Distilling Co in 1987. Today, Beam Suntory produces Old Overholt in Kentucky.

West Overton Village began producing their own rye whiskey on the historic property in 2020, reviving a tradition that dates back to Henry Overholt’s first whiskey stills in 1803.

The Birthplace of Henry Clay Frick

West Overton is notable for being the birthplace of Henry Clay Frick, whose coke company made him one of the wealthiest and most significant industrialists in American history.

In the mid 1840s, the Overholts hired additional laborers to accommodate the distillery and gristmill’s increased output. In 1846, Abraham Overholt hired John W. Frick as a laborer in the gristmill. The Fricks migrated from Switzerland to Philadelphia in the early 18th century and settled in western Pennsylvania several decades later. John Frick met Abraham’s daughter, Elizabeth, and they were married in 1847, presumably at West Overton. John and Elizabeth’s second child, Henry Clay Frick, was born in the springhouse adjacent to the homestead on December 19, 1849.

Henry Clay Frick spent much of the first thirty years of his life at West Overton. While his father’s work required the family to move around the area, the Fricks routinely returned to West Overton. In his youth, Henry was often too sickly to work as a laborer on the farm, and accompanied his grandfather, Abraham, as he oversaw the village industries. Abraham taught him the importance of a strong work ethic and the inner workings of business, including shrewd decision-making and risk-taking. As a teenager, Frick worked as a bookkeeper at the village’s general store run by his uncle, Christian S. Overholt, and later at the family’s Broadford Distillery in Connellsville. It was at the Broadford Distillery where Frick first ventured in the coal and coke industry.

Aware of the industry’s rising profitability, Frick and his cousins developed a coal and coke operation on 125 acres adjacent to the Broadford Distillery, with Frick serving as manager in 1871. The H.C. Frick Coke Company in Scottdale became one of the largest coke producers in the country. Frick was a millionaire by 1880, allowing him and his wife, Adelaide Howard Childs, to purchase the Clayton mansion in Pittsburgh. He also acquired a majority share of the Overholt distilling company in 1881.

The coke operations of rural Pennsylvania fueled the iron and steel industries of Pittsburgh. In 1882, Henry Clay Frick partnered with Pittsburgh industrialist Andrew Carnegie, whose steel mills relied on a constant supply of fast-burning coke. Over the next several decades, Frick was entrusted with consolidating several companies into Carnegie Steel, investing in railways, and suppressing organized labor. This business partnership soured after the Homestead Strike of 1892. The last leadership role of Frick’s career was as director of United States Steel, which consolidated H. C. Frick & Company, Carnegie Steel, and several other companies in 1901, forming the primary steel producer and largest corporation in the world at the time.

Henry Clay Frick died in 1919 and left his fortune to his daughter, Helen Clay Frick. She purchased West Overton in 1922 to preserve and share the history of her family.

Preserving West Overton

Members of the Overholt family lived in the homestead until 1922, when Helen Clay Frick, daughter of Henry Clay Frick, purchased the homestead to create a museum. The original purchase included the 1838 mansion, along with 11 acres and outbuildings, including the springhouse in which family tradition maintains her father was born. The museum opened as the Westmoreland-Fayette Historical Society in 1928. Throughout her lifetime, Helen acquired more buildings in the village as they became available for purchase. 

Helen was a patron of the arts and managed her father’s art collections, galleries, and a reference library in New York City. Preserving West Overton was part of Helen’s early efforts to honor her family’s Pittsburgh legacy, which would later include the Clayton mansion, now part of the Frick Pittsburgh museum. 

West Overton Today

Today, West Overton Village has 19 buildings original to the property. We retain about 40 of the 263 acres originally purchased by the Overholts.
 
West Overton Village is one of only two pre-Civil War industrial villages remaining in the United States. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a stop on the American Whiskey Trail.

Sources:

“West Overton, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania.” Survey (photographs, measured drawings, written historical and descriptive data). Historic American Buildings Survey, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1993. From Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (HABS No. PA-5654; https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/pa2298/ accessed December 9, 2022).

“West Overton Historic District.” National Register of Historic Places. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, 1985. From National Archives and Records Administration (85001572 https://catalog.archives.gov/id/71995341 accessed December 10, 2022).

“Henry Clay Frick.” The Frick Collection. Accessed December 10, 2022. https://www.frick.org/about/history/henry_clay_frick 

Sanger, Martha Frick Symington. Henry Clay Frick: An Intimate Portrait. New York: Abbeville Press, 1998.

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