American Whiskey: A Visit to the Frantz Distillery in Berlin, Somerset County, Pennsylvania
IN MARCH OF 1946, Winston Churchill was visiting Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. The occasion was his acceptance of an honorary degree, and he used that opportunity to speak about what he perceived as happening in Europe with the close of the second World War. It was in that speech that Mr. Churchill famously warned the world that, from “… Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.”
He meant, of course, the European Continent. But there is such a curtain dividing the North American Continent as well. Only, this one is made of rock, covered with dirt and forests. It is a very tall curtain, over half a mile high in some places, and very wide. It does not have barbed wire and military troops to prevent or control crossing it; it is guarded by gravity, a far more formidable opponent. It’s name is the Appalachian Mountain Range, and it extends, virtually unbroken, over 1,600 miles from the St. Lawrence River of Canada southwest-ward to Georgia and Alabama in the United States. Even today there are few major highways that cross this wall in an East-West direction, and even fewer that do so without spending many diverted miles traveling North-South in the process. In the 17th and early 18th centuries there were even fewer. Although the Great Conestoga Road between Philadelphia and Lancaster (still on the eastern side of the mountains) was opened as early as 1741, it would be another seventeen years before a thoroughfare to Pittsburgh was completed.
The other major east-west route, the Cumberland road, would connect Baltimore, by way of Maryland’s western outpost Cumberland, to the Ohio River at Wheeling, in western Virginia. But that wouldn’t happen until 1818.
The commercial whiskey industry in western Pennsylvania had never been the target of the Federal authority-enforcement action known as the Whiskey Rebellion. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that the commercial distilleries (whose taxes and licensing were proportionate to their capacity and who simply passed those costs on to their customers) could not have been as successful had they needed to compete with hundreds of independent distillers who were not being taxed. Their product, known as Monongahela Rye, was unique and distinctive to their region and very different from the rather harsh, clear spirit which was available east of the Alleghenies. What it had more in common with was the aged, red-brown, New England rum so beloved by the well-to-do tavern patrons and social leaders all up and down the Atlantic coast. Many of the qualities for which Monongahela was appreciated were the result of its long and arduous journey to market, whether by mule team across those awful mountains or by flatboat down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and then by ship from New Orleans. And the days and weeks of constant rocking and jostling were often interspersed with long delays in storage warehouses, waiting until seasonably impassable river sections or trails cleared. These conditions were remarkably similar to those endured by New England rum. Rum made in New England from molasses purchased in the West Indies was shipped to the West African slave markets and exchanged for fresh slaves, which were then sold to the West Indies sugar plantations in exchange for molasses. The repeating cycle became known as the Triangle Trade. The barrels of rum that were loaded aboard the ships in Rhode Island were the property of the slave-agent, and were intended to be used as barter for purchasing slaves. The number of slaves to be purchased was finite, there being only so many that the ship could hold. A good agent would be able to fill the ship for much less than all the rum he had available, and whatever wasn’t needed would be his to sell for cash when the ship returned home. In the meantime, it would have spent months sloshing around on a rocking ship, mostly in intense tropical heat, followed by possibly a chilling few weeks on its way to New England and perhaps further storage there. So, when New England rum was ordered in a tavern, what was expected was a spirit that had a deep copper-brown color, with the rich flavors acquired from all that barrel contact.
Around 1807 the notorious Triangle Trade came to a sudden halt (officially, at least). And although traces of the trade continued for much longer, New England rum, which was never financially feasible except for being subsidized as pre-paid “leftovers” of the slave trade, disappeared as an American consumable. Monongahela Rye whiskey, however, filled the need quite nicely, and western Pennsylvania had a virtual monopoly on its production.
Other methods of maturing and mellowing liquor were available as well, including adulteration with coloring and flavoring. Rye whiskey, red rye whiskey, was by far the dominant American spirit through the second half of the 19th century, especially in eastern Pennsylvania and in Maryland. Dozens of brands of “Pure Rye” whiskey competed with one another, many of them renowned for their excellence and high quality. The passage of national prohibition in 1919 is often given as the reason for their demise, but the truth is that most of those brands – even the most highly-respected names – vanished immediately after the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906.
The commercial distilleries of the west – Overholt, Thompson, Large, Dillinger, Gibson, Guckenheimer – were not much affected by all that. The Appalachians are not just tall; they’re wide as well – up to 200 miles across at some points. And that provided a sort of cultural insulation between West and East. As for settlers within that mountainous zone in between, well, they made whiskey just like everywhere else, selling mostly locally.
At least they did until civilization caught up with them…
About thirty miles northwest of Cumberland (Maryland’s gateway to the frontier) lies the little town of Meyersdale, Pennsylvania, whose population even today is around 2,473. According to a Meyersdale Commercial newspaper article dated August 7th 1890, the area around this community boasted no less than twelve whiskey distilleries. We learned this, and much other information, from archivist Cynthia Mason, of the Meyersdale public library, who offered unlimited time to help us locate a completely different distillery, which, unfortunately, there did not seem to be any records of (but we’ll keep looking and update the site as we find new stuff!). To Ms. Mason we owe most of the next paragraph… and then some!
As I said, from the records Cynthia provided, it seems that there were no less than a dozen distilleries in the Meyersdale/Berlin/Turkeyfoot area by 1890. One of these was first built sometime before 1830, by a man named Baer, about five miles southeast of what is now known as Berlin, Pennsylvania in Somerset County. His was a small but commercial operation, selling locally. The area was a land of thick forests; wood was cheap, selling for as little as a dollar per hundred feet, and around 1850 a “mud-free” plank road was built from Cumberland, Maryland, to West Newton, Pennsylvania. The road just happened to run past the distillery, which provided a nice business in itself, and also allowed word of the Baer Distillery to spread to Cumberland and from there to Baltimore. About this time a man named D. Schultz bought the distillery and operated it into the 1900’s. It was then sold to a man named Minor, who in turn sold it to another named (Walter?) Hawking – while all the time the distillery remained known as “the Schultz Distillery”. An interesting note that we learned from the Berlin Area Historical Society is that Hawking completely remodeled the plant, installing pot stills and initiating “the same process as in making moonshine”, including stirring the mash “until the boiling process began and then it was capped to complete the evaporation process necessary for distilling”. This description seems to apply to the type of pot distilling generally thought to have been universal for small distilleries at that time; the more “modern” method would have been to install a continuous (or “column”) still, such as the type invented in the early 1830’s by Aeneas Coffey. That method is often referred to as “cooking with steam”. The August 1890 Meyersdale Commercial article pointed out that four of the twelve distilleries mentioned used that method, which meant that the other eight (including Schultz) did not.
Hawking was very successful with this distillery. During 1908 to 1910 there was much railroad construction and coal mining, and that meant lots of hard-working, hard-drinking men. Hawking offered a delivery service. He would fill a dray wagon with jugs of his whiskey (almost certainly unaged, or he would have just dispensed it directly from the barrel) and make his rounds to the different work camps. Again according to the Berlin Historical Society’s bicentennial edition (1977), “There were rules. The least amount you could buy was a gallon. After buying the prescribed amount you were then free to purchase any amount extra, such as a pint or half gallon”.
It’s possible that he made his fortune and retired in 1915, or perhaps there were internal problems, but in that year the business was sold to a man named Leech, and its name changed from Schultz to the Leech Distillery. For some reason Leech was never able to maintain the quality level of his predecessor and before he could get those problems worked out the entire industry was doomed by national prohibition.
In 1933 the 21st amendment to the Constitution brought an end to national prohibition, making the 18th the only constitutional amendment ever to have been repealed. Shortly thereafter, a Pittsburgh man named Frantz bought the remains of the old distillery, completely overhauled the equipment and buildings, and began producing what is said to be some of the finest whiskey ever made in the United States. Unfortunately, that didn’t last long. Soon after the outbreak of World War II the Frantz Distillery was pressed into service as a supplier of industrial alcohol used in making methyl rubber. More structures were added, including a 100-foot tiled tower for storing grain, which still stands. At this time the distillery was producing 2,500 gallons of alcohol a day, working 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Potatoes were used for making the industrial alcohol, and it was reported that every railroad siding in the area was taken up with cars full of potatoes from all over the country. When the war ended, the distillery’s prosperity continued, as the potato flour production – some 30,000 pounds daily! – was sent to Germany as part of the Marshall Plan.
In 1946 the old drier house caught fire and burned down, ending the potato flour production. At the time, the Frantz Distillery was listed as one of the largest industrial plants in Somerset County. Regular whiskey production, which had resumed after the war, continued until after Frantz’s death. Distilling operations ceased in 1952, although warehousing and bottling continued until 1956.
On our visit to the Frantz Distillery in 2005, we are accompanied by our friend Sam Komlenic. Sam had been by here briefly a few years ago, and what he most remembered was seeing someone driving along the road pull to a stop next to a concrete box and a hose sticking out of the ground. The driver got out, opened his trunk, and pulled out a couple of empty plastic gallon milk jugs, which he began filling from the hose. When Sam went over to find out what was going on he learned that this was a direct tap to the spring that fed the distillery. Apparently people in the area often come here and fill up containers with the purest and best-tasting spring water you could ever obtain. Of course, we have to immediately check to see if the “spring hose” is still here, and it certainly is. The hose doesn’t turn off or on; water flows through it constantly, just as it would if there were no hose. The constantly-moving stream, tapped into a larger pipe underground, is thus perfectly clean, and the water is very delicious. We’re not sure of the purpose for the concrete box you see in the photo (and which is cracked in two pieces), but we think it may have been for the use of horses.
There are only a couple of buildings still standing, the main one being what we think was once the office and bottling house. A portion of it is now being used by a firm that manufactures iron woodstoves. Other surviving structures include at least a portion of the tiled storage silo, a corrugated-steel covered wooden Rick house, and (barely) a large wooden building that may have been the distiller’s living quarters. That building also has rooms that appear to have been individual apartments or transient quarters. The rest of what we find here consists of partial walls and foundations for several other buildings, mostly overgrown with weeds.
Story and original photography copyright ©1999 & 2005 by John Lipman. All rights reserved.