The grave of George Beck, the founder of Becks Mill and an early Hoosier miller-distiller.
The year is 1808 and the area now known as Washington County, Indiana seemed rife with opportunity for those willing to travel the Monongahela to the Ohio; or walk and ride the trails North and West, from out of Kentucky. The area was abundant with wildlife and rich soils, mineral resources, timber, and plenty of frontier danger to boot. The chance to cultivate a better life with more independence and the seduction of the very idea itself attracted many strong backed men (and their families) of a free will loving character, the vast majority of whom were of German ancestry; proud people with deeply rooted traditions.
Becks Mill, now fully restored.
Among those early settlers was a small assemblage of earthly goods and belongings, usually no more than what could be carried easily or loaded on a small flatboat. These men would trade and barter for what they needed as they traveled and occasionally picked up equipment that would be essential to the farm when they finally arrived to claim their new land (often registered by planting a fruit tree as evidence to the government they intend to settle long term). The real value they carried with them was their intense knowledge of farming in all its various facets. Paramount among them are the men who take agriculture to its highest order; the Farmer-Distillers. These farmer-distillers entered the Indiana territory bearing their family pot-still or acquiring one from traders on the Ohio (some of which actually tied up flat boats to the banks there of to peddle their wares!). Crude Alembics, often turnip shaped and built of hammered and riveted copper complete with a Pewter worm. More important than the still itself however was their experience and expertise. These men were craftsmen, the same as blacksmiths, coopers, and masons; they plied their trade to make the labors of others less dismal by evening firelight and to jovially warm and lubricate the social mechanisms of a society that will still for some time be stitched together only by hope.
It has been written by one and repeated often:
The English came and built churches.
The Germans came and built barns
And the Scotch-Irish came and built still houses!
This is only partially true as the Germans who came to Southern Indiana (or Hoosier-Occupied Northern Kentucky as Kentucky Bourbon Historian Michael Veach is fond of saying) would prove over the coming decades. The truth appears to be that Germans simply preferred nicer (sometimes rounder!) still houses for the production of their traditional brandies and whiskies.
They came with names like Brock, Fleenor, Bixler, Green, Prow and Beck. They settled along streams, creeks, and springs. Not hidden, but out in the open and amongst the other merchants as by this point strong spirit had not yet come to be considered a hazard by society at large. President Jefferson had repealed the whiskey tax in 1802 and that had so outraged these very same families to the extent of taking up arms against their newly established government and retreating to the Kentucky frontier when the rebellion was put down by George Washington himself. Often, they brought with them seeds of judicious crops such as Roman Rye, a seven-foot-tall variety now long extinct and favored for whisky production, as well as fruit tree saplings to be used to provide the raw material of their trade.
Much has been written of the men themselves over the years, as an example, the Fleenor family; brothers John and Abraham. It is a well-regarded fact that John ran a distillery producing both rye and peach brandy but not much elaboration upon why such materials were used nor the methodology of his production nor of the family history of distilling itself or the origin of the small white clingstone peach which still to this day graces Washington county with its fruit (and some enterprising soul might find, the brandy derived thereof). Likely because few in our county are themselves distillers, or minded as such, so that it might all seem simply coincidental, but very few things in a highly superstitious distillers mind are coincidental, not the least of which are the items or methods by which one makes his trade pliable.
In the annals of Washington County history, you will find the names of many such distillers and the product of their “Whiskey Machines” and often will find a repeated reference to their whiskey of rye or corn in composition. You will however more often than not you also find repeated references to that other spirit, Brandy, whose popularity is now suddenly on the rise again. The repeated brandy references aren’t just happenstance or a reflection of available material and have instead everything to do with the ancestry of those German settlers.
The German people have a long history of brandy/Schnapps distillation dating back to the 14th century and tied closely with their European neighbors in France and Spain, where clear and unaged Eau-De-Vies, as they are known, have long been distilled as medicines, aperitifs, and just good old drams. As people tend to stick with what they know, brandy distillation made the trip from the old world to the new and from the old state to the frontier along with the art of producing fine, “old” rye whiskey which was yet another staple of U.S. citizens of Germanic background. It was tied specifically to the east coast of the U.S. until its downfall during prohibition, particularly in Maryland and Pennsylvania where it is still remembered fondly and making a comeback. Indeed, when you see “Old” rye whiskey referenced in the history books you can almost guarantee this is a whiskey produced in a style similar to “Old Monongahela” which would have been popular at the time our county distilleries were thriving and long before.
Of course, the other facet of Washington Counties brandy distilling heritage must be considered as well: sustenance and availability of resources. While grain is an annual crop with a presumed yearly return, fruit, on the other hand, tends to take a bit to become established and perishes quite quickly meaning that to create a measure of brandy one must first have mature trees and then work quickly to ferment and distill the fruit before it begins to rot (whereas grain is far more store-able). This would seem to suggest that grain would have been far more useful to the farmer-distillers but fails to realize that those distillers were fighting the elements and pests of the time for every kernel of corn (see the Squirrel Invasion of 1822) and often needed their grain production to feed themselves, their families and their livestock, placing grain, particularly corn, at a premium. How then did the early distillers of the county afford fruit to sacrifice to the still? By making due with what they had on hand; sand plums, pawpaw’s, crab-apples, and berries. As well, many French trappers in the early days had left behind a wake of apple pips to grow into wildling trees and the natives occasionally were known to plant small wildling orchards. This would suffice until such time as extensive orchards could come to mature. Distilling was not only about sustainability and frontier medicine, but was in fact just another farm chore that needed attending, although one whose importance cannot be stressed enough.
In the case of the Fleenor family, distilling was in their blood. Their father Nicholas was well revered in their old home state of Virginia for his Apple brandy which was always in high demand. In the very same state where John Banister wrote that “Peaches and Nectarines I believe to be Spontaneous … for the Indians have, and ever had greater variety, and finer sorts of them than we.” And Luigi Castiglioni noted in 1787 that, “Peach trees are so abundant in Virginia that often, upon cutting away a pine wood … they cover the whole terrain.” Likely Nicholas would have taken advantage of this fruit as well, particularly if he had discovered an extra fine, white, clingstone type that came true to type from seed and readily sprouted. These trees would have been worth the hassle of transporting to the frontier by way of John and Abraham to establish a thriving distillery trade there which is exactly what they did with Abraham tending the orchard and John the still.
Christian Bixler is another of the counties early Distillers, better known for his platting of Old Pekin, Indiana rather than his time in front of the still. None the less he plied a trade which no doubt saw plenty of commerce come across the knobs near the then Pekin Inn (Inns and Taverns are often interchangeable words in the early days). The recorded reference to Bixler, in particular, is interesting as it places him producing Paw Paw brandy, a fruit he would have found abundant, along that branch of the Blue River.
Perhaps the largest producer of Brandy in the county was John Hammersly of Clifty Mills (now better known as Cave River Valley) who ran a distillery in conjunction with his grist mill from the water flowing from the cave. This distillery seems to have been functioning in some capacity, including a commercial capacity, from 1811 to 1890 under both Hammersly and later John Robertson. It would seem from almost all accounts that the product of this still house was mostly Apple Brandy or Apple Jack as at one point a sluice box was built from the top of the hill entering the valley to the bottom where the distillery was located to save those carting wagon loads of apples the trouble of having to navigate the treacherous hill to deliver their produce to the distiller. Hammersly and a man by the last name Hammer worked together for the first five years of the properties productive period before Hammer became owner of what is now Spring Mill where he too would build his own distillery which was famed for its apple brandy as well.
Of the technology of the time and the process, these folks made do with what they had. Most orchards were started from seeds and pips of fruit trees by way of a stratification period (freezing and thawing of seeds) in small nursery beds. The beds were burned off, turned, and harrowed and then surrounded by makeshift fencing composed of whatever cut down brush had been leftover on the newly cleared land. In the case of the Fleenor peach, an entire methodology of cultivation arose since the peach pits readily sprout without stratification and because they are short lived as far as productivity would go. The method was to lay out a field and plant the pits by hand on 11 foot centers, two years later you would start a new orchard on an adjacent field, 2 years later another, and so on, until the trees in the first field had reach about 12-14 years of age when productivity started to fall and the trees were cut and used for fire wood, the stumps dug/plowed/pulled out and the process started all over.
Of fermentation, most often a wooden cask (similar to a modern whiskey barrel) was used with its head knocked in. The fruit was made into a mash (as opposed to extracting the juice) by using either mill stones or a large pounding stick and water was added to bring the volume to the top of the barrel. The yeast was generally what was already wild and on the fruit although some would have opted to have kept their own “Donna” or “Mother” from yeast captured from the wild or previously purchased from a brewer. Fermentation was generally completed in one or two weeks depending on the weather (too hot kills the yeast and spoils the wine, too cold causes the yeast to go dormant).
Sanitation of fermentation vessels was questionable at best as both fire and frost were considered to have the same capability of “scalding” a vessel of unwanted impurities. Those who were truly initiated in the arts might well have used sulfur candles, but it would have been rare.
The distillation most often would have been of the European double distillation methodology, being twice distilled. The first run is the striping run, the second a doubling or finishing run. The system of “x’s” often parodied on old ceramic whiskey jugs hearkens back to this, each “X” represents one distillation. Most distillers only had one fully functional copper pot still and generally it was very small and included a porcelain worm. In order to hurry the distillation of hundreds of gallons of wine, the distillers turned to their innovative spirit to solve the problem. Many distillers used a process known as “running on wood” to create a “striping” still on the cheap. They would find a hollowed-out beach gum log and add a copper cape and cap to it. Then they would run the porcelain worm of their small doubling still through the middle of their log still and heat water in their small still to create steam to power their wooden still!
A striping still of the day was commonly 100-120 gallons while doubling still was right around 30-50. More than enough to keep one farmer-distiller busy during the season!
Markets were not hard to find in the earliest days as both brandy and whiskey mostly served as trade and barter fodder. In latter days most of the product could be sold to local taverns or
transported via flat boat to Louisville to be blended or “rectified” or sold further down river in the bustling city of New Orleans via the Tarascon brothers (two brothers of French extraction well known for the milling and liquor selling business on the KY side of the big river near what is known now as Portland). The firm of Malotte and Mcpheeters did a big business in the trade of buying and blending distillate from this and adjacent counties and delivering it down south, oftentimes buying several distillers entire stock for the year.
The county mills were always bustling with business locally and from as far away as Beargrass (Louisville). They were often powered by a near endless supply of cold water from springs and cave streams which made the mills prime territory for distillers to set up shop, as many were the owners and operators of both enterprises, such as the Beck family. Corn was traded as raw material and based on a share system with the mill so that corn was traded to the miller/distiller in exchange for grist and whiskey or brandy. Early on, Near Becks Mill, there was a distiller, Thomas Green, an early itinerant preacher of the Christian persuasion who would latter have his own mill just down from where Mill Creek empties into the Blue River. Although the two trades, distiller and preacher, today may seem to be at odds with one another, it was not the case in those days. Liquor was considered a medicine, spiritually and physically, and was available at nearly all social occasions including voting, auctions, harvesting, militia musters, and barn raisings. To not have liquor available to a guest was a grave discourtesy, particularly as an aperitif to a preacher after a large meal as he may need to ride through the evening to make his next appointment. In the 1850s, as the temperance movement and religious intolerance for hard drink collided, men like Thomas often became the fodder for jokes and many rhymes and poems were devised to remind the distiller of his obedience to God over his tending the still. One such,
Tommie Green, prettiest man I ever seen
Soul Saver, Sinner Skinner
was often repeated by one of the residents of the bustling mill town affectionately known for some time as Hells Half Acre. Yet others (although not credited to be about anyone in particular) appear in Horace Heffrens “Pioneer Pickings”.
Distilling has just a rich and moving heritage here in Southern Indiana as it ever did anywhere in Kentucky. The only difference: we have only not had the publicist that our neighbors down south have enjoyed.