Clifty Mill and Distillery – Cave River Valley’s “Spirit”ual heritage.


River Cave or Wet Clifty.  The source water for Hoosier Whiskey of that district and power for the mill.

One of the most interesting distilleries from the history of Washington county was once known as Clifty.  Located in what is now commonly known as Cave River valley.  Clifty boasts a long and complicated history that like most other distilleries of the region has not been very well documented.  As a distiller, I would maintain that I cannot imagine any place in Indiana, let alone on god’s earth, that would be better host to the production of fine spirits made in the way of the old traditions than that which is available in this verdant valley.

In no way does the valley seem to be a place that could possibly exist in Southern Indiana and yet there it sits, idle, waiting for the Indiana DNR who purchased it in recent years, to find some type of valuable use for it, short of the enter at your own risk hiking currently offered.  The valley itself is steep walled and fairly narrow, well situated with its own water source, twin creek, once declared navigable by the state government, and from which that creek draws is source.  The head of the valley is home to two large caves (Wet Clifty, also known as River cave and Dry Clifty, also known as Endless cave).

Matthew Coffin originally entered the land in this area but quickly sold his share off to a New York based entrepreneur and mill owner by the name of John Hammersley.  Hammersley was a mill wright by trade and had sent his apprentice Hugh Hammer (later of Spring Mill fame) down to the Southern Indiana hills to find him a fine place to build a mill and subsequent distillery.  Hammersley and his two brothers were notified of the “paradise” and immediately set out for the then territory and arrived in haste, unfortunately one of Johns daughters was lost in the move; either run off or abducted by Indians, the history is not clear.  The mill was built in 1818 and a distillery was added shortly thereafter.


Cabin added by later owner Victor Greene.   The Cabin sets on the foundation of the old mill as seen in the pictures below, the long building in front of the old mill in that photo is where the gearing for the mill and possibly the distillery were located.

It seems that John’s skills as a mill wright were in deep demand as thereafter he set to work building a number of unique mills in the area including one which was comprised of two flat boats running an undershot wheel between them with the gristng taking place in the stream itself, this one lasted until a spring freshet washed it down stream where it broke apart near “New Palestine”.  John held another mill on sugar creek for a number of years in the mid 1820’s near Bono, a then thriving and now non-existent town in that section of the county.

Hammersley’s two brothers Ike and George as well Hugh Hammer and his brother Thomas set to work turning Clifty into a productive mill and distillery while work for John continued to flow in including the building of a new Montgomery Mill (now Spring Mill) which Hammersley took under his wing to retrofit with new equipment.  At this time, the primary product of the distillery was corn whiskey, probably utilizing some proportion of other small grains as were available although apple and peach brandy would have been made as the fruit was available.  For Hugh Hammer this work and the knowledge gleaned from it would prove indispensable as years later he and his brothers would purchase Spring Mill and his name would be well known for the “Old Hammer” whiskey produced from his own establishment and distilled by the expert hand of William Dalton who worked the distillery for 40 odd years.

As an interesting side note, it is around this time in history that another New Yorker by the name of Joel Caulkins made his way to the same district, having heard that distillery businesses were booming in the region and acting off of information gleaned from early American distilling literature and the word of distillers back east which detailed hops having been used by some distillers as an antibacterial in their yeast starter, sold or traded his property back in New York for a supply of hops that he had hoped to sell at a large profit upon arrival near Campbellsburg Indiana.  He was sadly disappointed that the hops were not in demand by Hoosier distillers and lost his bet substantially.  The local school district then became known as the Hop school district and was latter combined with the Thompson school district.  The Cemetery not a mile south of the valley and where my wife’s grandparents and great grandparents were laid to rest still bears the title Hop-Thompson.


Hammersley eventually sold the Clifty property to his son James and headed to Avon Indiana where he set up yet another operation in the same business.  The property passed hands multiple times until it came into possession of Henry Robertson in 1876.  Robertson made multiple upgrades to both the mill and the distillery including the conversion of power for both from the water wheel to that of a turbine system and the building of a large and beautiful home as well as the instillation of a large pipe for the delivery of water as opposed to the old wooden flume.  Robertson found both the milling and distilling to be highly profitable ventures for himself and held the property until his death in 1891.

Under Robertson’s watchful eye brandy become much more the focus of his distilling efforts and apple orchards were planted on nearby Clover hill to feed the distillery, as well, apples and grain were bought from the local residents.  At this time accessing the mill and still house was still (and remains so) difficult at best as the steep valley walls didn’t provide a good road and what roads were built into the valley were constantly damaged by heavy rains.  To accommodate the arrival of corn and apples to the valley a wooden flume was built on the south side of the mill by which delivery of the produce was effected, wagons could pull up on the overlooking ridge, drop their corn or apples in the flume by which they would roll down the steep slope and find themselves in Robertson’s bins for processing.  The book Blue Echo Memories comments on a child falling down this flume during a celebration at the valley, though he lived he was apparently pretty skinned up for his effort, something I’m sure he never forgot!

Peach brandy was a very much sought after commodity in the far-off markets as well as at the local taverns and nearly every Southern Indiana distiller produced peach brandy in the greatest possible abundance that he could at that time, hindered only by years with bad crops or the otherwise unavailability of that type of fruit.  As we have detailed here the Fleenor peach had long ago been introduced into the Hoosier frontier and had become a stalwart varietal all over southern Indiana, known for being incredibly adaptable, productive, easy to grow, and for making the best peach brandy known in the Southern Hills.  At one point in time the peach was being offered by nurseries as far away as Michigan and much stock was shipped to orchardists and home gardeners via the railroads.


Robertson had apparently had much trouble sourcing peaches for many years and had decided to take it upon himself to rectify said situation by purchasing and planting several thousand Fleenor peach trees on the hills south of the mill.  Through disease, misfortune, or outright bad luck, not a single of these trees produced for Robertson, a situation unheard of anywhere else in the county regarding that most reliable of fruit producers.

Another story comes down to us from the account of Mr. Donald Foutch, an orchardist near Campbellsburg who grew many acres of apples.  At this time, the Temperance movement was gaining much steam and would eventually drive the last of the coffin nails in the Hoosier distilling industry, even at the time in the late 1800’s there were many people of devout faith who swore the Devil himself lived in the local “Whiskey Machines” and refused to do business with those who might “corrupt” gods crop to further corrupt man’s soul.  Apparently, Mr. Foutch was not having any luck moving his apple crop that season and as such the apples fell to the ground to rot, he was preparing to leave for a few days and left his son with explicit instructions that under no circumstances should these apples be sold and delivered to Mr. Robertson to feed his still.  After the father left the son set to picking up the apples and placing them in the trailer for delivery yet to that scoundrel stiller, just as he was finishing up his sinful chore his father arrived back at the orchard whereupon he made the boy dump the apples back on to the ground to rot!

During the Robertson years, the local fourth of July celebration was held on the property, although it was a Temperate event and Robertson and the other distillers would not sale liquor to patrons during the event the moment the festivities ended the still house was opened to revelers to carry out with them however many gallons they pleased.

After Robertson’s death in 1891 it took a number of years to settle his estate but by 1897 William Reyman with his miller on John Hopper re-entered the business native to the valley.  They ran the mill and distillery for another four years until Reyman passed and Hopper took over for one more year.  After this the mill and distillery were abandoned, although rumors persist of Moonshiners using the valley for their operations for many years prior to being busted by revenue agents.

As an aside there seems to have been a rivalry between Robertson and another local distilling family, the Brewers, as to who in fact made the best whiskey and brandy.  More will be written on this rivalry and the Brewer family as facts are discovered.

These stories again elaborate just how important distillation was in the young Hoosier state/territory and highlight the fact that not only milling but distilling too was a trade, as respectable as any and more profitable than most that deserves more research and attention.  For those interested in a bit of literature of the day regarding mills I suggest the book: The Young Mill-wright and Millers guide and The Compleate Distiller

A quick recipie and notation about apple brandy.  Although apple presses were common for cider in those days, making quick and efficient use of the apples and the amount needed thereof would have necessitated a very different method of extracting the spirit from the fruit and one as old as the distillation technology itself.  The method is primitive but works well and is still used in many places in Europe and by a lot of home distillers/moonshiners.  The apples are placed in a barrel, usually of 50 gallon capacity and are then mashed by way of a sledge hammer, stick, rock or other heavy object to expose as much surface area as possible to the mechanics of fermentation, the barrel is then topped with water, sometimes an equal weight of grain is added with boiling water to break down the starches into sugar, and it is allowed to ferment (iehte by way of natural yeast in the atmosphere/on the apples or by way of added yeast) until dry, at which point the wine is filtered and solids removed, the wine is then placed in the still, the alcohol boiled off and set aside to be added back to the still where it can be “finished” or “doubled” to remove toxic alcohols from the first portion and to rectify the drinkable portion, the hearts.  Sometimes the still tail, or the cooked wash is saved in small proportion to add to the next batch of wine in order to sour it, sometimes new ingredients entirely are used.


An old running stone lying near the cabin, the former site of the mill.

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