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Throughout the 19th century, West Overton transformed into a company town home to agricultural and industrial workers.
In addition to the 1838 Overholt Homestead and its outbuildings, the Overholts constructed numerous houses, barns, mills, and other structures to accommodate their transition from agriculture to industry. Today, the 19 historic structures surviving at the village demonstrate the economic and social significance of West Overton. The village is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a “historic district” because these structures, collectively, are an “exceptional example of mid-19th century western Pennsylvania vernacular architecture.”
West Overton was a productive industrial village in 19th century Westmoreland County, contributing to the growth of its businesses and community. In 1850, for example, of the twenty manufacturers listed in East Huntington Township, nearly a third were enterprises of the Overholts, producing whiskey, flour, barrels, and woven coverlets and managing a general store. In the 1870s, the Overholts’ coal and coke operations diversified use of the land. The Overholts’ enterprises required workers, transforming West Overton into a busy company town.
The following highlights some of the primary surviving structures and their broader significance.
By 1859, Abraham Overholt had expanded the family distilling operation into a professional business. Outgrowing a stone distillery and separate gristmill built in the 1830s, he invested in constructing a 5.5 story brick building to serve as a combined distillery and gristmill, each occupying distinct sections of the building. Like earlier iterations of the distillery and gristmill, the new building used steam to power operations. The Overholts hired Jacob Booher as the steam engineer, who lived at West Overton with his family.
Inscriptions on the distillery exterior identify the company and date of construction: "A. & H. S. Overholt Co., Overton Mills, Built 1859,” and the names of its builders: "Built by D. P. Patterson, millwright; M. Miller, senr., carpenter; [Alex] Gilbert and [Andrew] Dillon, bricklayers."
Learn more about the history of whiskey production at West Overton here.
West Overton began as a farm, and Abraham Overholt used the property’s agricultural resources to build a successful distillery and industry-focused village. Several barns across West Overton are a testament to the importance of agriculture through the 19th century.
The largest barn, known as the “big barn,” is considered the largest standing brick barn in Pennsylvania. The stock barn features the words “Overton Stock Farm” painted on the side. Both built before 1867, these barns have been adapted for modern use as a wedding venue and the Educational Distillery.
On the opposite side of the Overholt Homestead is another brick barn built in 1855. The Overholts boarded their horses on the bottom floor of this barn and stored grain on the 2nd and 3rd floors.
Throughout its history, West Overton relied on workers to maintain operations. In the 1840s, growing businesses demanded an increased workforce, leading Abraham Overholt to construct worker houses and tenement apartments that shaped the landscape of West Overton. A worker house that remains on the property was built around the 1850s or 60s. It is believed that vacant tenement houses were demolished for road construction during the 1930s and 40s.
By the mid-19th century, West Overton developed a hierarchy among classes of skilled and unskilled laborers, artisans, and managers, a common business structure at the time. The divisions among workers were both social and economic. The wealthy Overholts, who lived on the property for more than a century, had a more permanent presence than lower-paid workers who came and went as income and expenses required. Historical records such as censuses and business ledgers show this income disparity. Additionally, these records reveal that the scale of West Overton, when compared to the substantially larger and more stratified factories of Pittsburgh, made sharing tasks between classes more common.
Workers made it possible for various stages of whiskey production to operate, working as distillers, farmers, millers, coopers, and general laborers. Other businesses, including a coverlet factory run by Abraham's nephew Henry Overholt, general stores, and boarding houses, provided opportunities for work and supported the community. Life at the village was ruled by seasonal work patterns and fluctuations in earnings.
The Overholt enterprises predominantly employed men, as no women were employed at the gristmill or distillery. Skilled laborers, such as millers, the malter for the distillery, and the engineer who ran steam power on the property, performed specialized tasks and paid wages for their time. Artisans, such as coopers, worked and were paid by the piece. By contrast, unskilled laborers made substantially less, performing general tasks such as feeding hogs, harvesting, and cleaning machinery.
The village, however, was home to about an equal number of men and women in 1860, with single male laborers offset by single female domestic servants. Single women often worked as domestic servants and lived at their place of employment. The only woman listed as a head of household in census records was Margaret Hait in 1870, whose occupation was listed as "tollgate keeper.” Rebecca Kough ran a boarding house after her husband died, accommodating the transient worker community at West Overton.
The community evolved from one centered around the distillery to one drawn to coal and coke production, drawing workers of different backgrounds and occupations. From the early to late 19th century, nearly all of West Overton’s residents were born in Pennsylvania. In 1860, for instance, there were just seven people born outside of Pennsylvania, all of them from the same town in Germany, out of a total of 106 residents. The coal and coke industry diversified the community. The population of West Overton grew from a little more than 100 in 1870 to more than 200 in 1880 and a boarding house was constructed to accommodate the new residents. Unlike earlier residents who were largely from Pennsylvania, 20% of late 19th century residents were born in Europe, including Sweden, Germany and Ireland. By the 1880s, the village had transformed into a coal company town, like many in western Pennsylvania.