Hells Half Acre Distillery

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From left to right: Rev. Thos. Green, Brother “Stretch” Grover, “pop” O’Dale Bishop. Hells Half Acre @ Hells Half Acre.

This past Saturday the gang from Hells Half Acre Hellbilly Burlesque Show attended the annual Becks Mill May Day festival to give a performance related to the history of distillation in the area.  For those who are not familiar with the area (located in Washington County)  I will give a brief overview of it’s history as relates to distillation. Between the years 1812-1860 the hill and mill ere known as a pretty rough area that was home to all manner of vice including but not limited to gambling, women of ill repute, and murder, all of which were fueled by (of course! What Else?)whiskey and brandy!  The name Hells Half Acre is what the area became known as to the locals and is where we as a demonstration group draw our inspiration for telling the stories of Southern Indiana’s distilling past.

Back in those days it might have taken up to two to three days to get your corn ground at the mill as there was such a backlog of folks from all around (as far away as Louisville KY actually!) waiting to have their corn turned into meal or whiskey.  The milling and distilling was usually performed on the basis of shares but sometimes on contract.  The mill literally ran 24 hours a day and 7 days a week.  Millers would work in 12 hour shifts and switch off as needed.  As that backlog increased and traffic to the area became common a small community came up around the mill and on the hill (Becks Hill) nearest the mill to accommodate the foot traffic.  Most of this foot traffic was of the male persuasion, usually made up of whichever brother in a given farm family was the oldest or most responsible and subsequently (Much to the chagrin of Momma I am sure) the one most likely to wish to taste of the wares of the world, be they sinful or not.  As you can imagine, with mom and dad out of the picture for a day or two  and no chores to busy idle hands this was a pubescent farm boys wildest dream.  Boys will be boys after all.

A lot of characters developed out of this rough and tumble place, including the one I present during the demonstrations; Rev. Thomas Green.  Thomas as I have mentioned was an early Campbellite itenrant preacher (Church of Christ) and would have perfomed at many of the revivals and ordinary church services of the day as well as at individual homes and weddings, wakes.  However, Thomas was just as well known as the owner of Greens Mill and was the owner and distiller of the local still house.  In those days, it wasn’t all that uncommon to see Preacher-Distillers around, not until the reformation and the rise of temperance in the 1850’s did the practice become frowned upon.  In fact, in the earliest days it was considered downright uncourteous if the preacher stopped at your home for you not to offer him a drink of ardent spirit.  It leads one to wonder;  if the more conservative Christian, Methodist, and Baptist congregations in this county knew how many of their houses of the holy were built under the influence or from the economy of liquor if they might change their tunes substantially about judgment and damnation.

For as important as what the corn meal itself was the whiskey distilled from it carried even greater economic, medicinal, and social inclinations for the farmer.  Often at least part of the corn they carried to the mill was distilled and more often than not the local miller was also the distiller. Early books on milling published in this country usually included a short chapter, a crash course if you will, on the art of distillation and on setting up still houses.  Generally  cash was short on supply so the miller would trade his grinding services for a portion of the corn (usually 1/5 of the total amount), most of which he would then distill into whiskey and sell down river as a at least slightly aged product at a much higher price than he would have garnered at home.  For those interested in the numerics of the business; an average acre of corn at that time would have produced 70 bushels of grain, an average family would have produced a couple of acres.  1/5 of that production would be 28 bushels.  A good distiller in those days could produce 2 1/2 gallons of whiskey to the bushel, a gallon of which would have sold for around 25 cents each (at proof) so for each family the Miller-Distiller bartered with he was looking at the potential to gross $17.50.  Pretty good money in those days.  On the other hand the corn itself was worth about twelve cents a bushel meaning it’s not distilled value was only $3.36.

As the temperance movement came into vogue the church eventually sought to settle any conflict of interest by forcing the Preacher-Distillers to choose; Church House or Still House, but not both.  Poking fun of the Preacher-Distillers became common cause for the church kids who crafted rhymes to point out what they saw as hypocrisy from God fearing yet spirit selling profiteer preachers.  One such rhyme about Tommie:

Tommie Green

Purtiest (sic) man I ever seen

Miller, Stiller

Soul Saver, Sinner Skinner.

 

Luckily for Thomas, perhaps, he passed away before the mantra gained too much traction and left behind well over a hundred acres of land, the mill, and the still house which was later sold to the Rudder family.

I have long known the location of his mill to be on Blue River, just upstream from where the current bridge on Vincennes Trail crosses the river before the Crossroads at Becks Mill and for just as long have known that the house set to the other side of the bridge on the property belonging to the Ponsford family.  The mill and house are both gone, the mill having burned to the ground in the late 1800’s and the house in the 1990’s.  The foundation for the home and the front rock wall is still visible and a single foundation stone from the mill can be spotted still midway of the river along with what I believe to have been the damn for the millpond.

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Sorry for the fuzzy picture.  This is the second spring across the fence from the first.

Regarding the distillery, no apt descriptors exist to tell us exactly where it was located nor its size, though for the era and area it was located and to have serviced two local mills it must have had a decent capacity.  What I have long speculated and believe to be true is that the stillhouse was located upland near the house and away from the mill due to the fact that the millpond was on a major flood plain and literally held back the entirety of Blue River at the branch where Mill Creek dumps into the river.  This being no small amount of water and the damn made of dredged river bottom and known to wash out suddenly with the mill having an undershot wheel always made me doubt that Thomas would have risked his expensive and rare distilling equipment being anywhere near that water source.  However between the home and mill sets a property where I had often spied a large spring (turns out there are two) but who’s owners I didn’t know, until this past weekend.

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The Neff family are well known in the area and only recently discovered through a land survey that they own the property.  Angie, who is a volunteer at Becks Mill and a good friend, and myself have often spoken of the prospect of one day opening up a legal representation of Hells Half Acre, so when she offered me the opportunity to go and walk the property I couldn’t pass it up.  I met her on the ten-acre plot her family had just opened up as a community “pollinator field” where many types of forage plants have been drilled from seed to create an ideal field for feeding pollinators.  From there the trip began.

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The property where I believe the still house to have been is very interesting indeed, over the years it appears that there have been some modifications using heavy equipment and later farmers have certainly made use of a lot of the building stones that originated around the area nearest the large spring.  Mostly for tightening up fencing as the previous tenants had horses on the property.  The spring itself is gorgeous and has been built out, not in modern times, but in the period style that matches the era when Thomas would have been distilling.  The spring comes forth from a limestone outcropping in a bowl-shaped depression up the hill from the previous Green home but what makes it interesting is the fact that there is a manmade rock keyhole pool with a fall of about a foot which the stream continues to fall in elevation rather quickly.  Next to the spring begins a rock wall from what appears to have previously have been a building complex which eventually gives way to what looks to have been a cold room/spring room/or cellar, although the dimensions are a bit different and that continues with another rock wall to the other side of the cellar.  Another 30 feet away, across the fence on the Ponsford property lies yet another built out limestone spring.

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Although speculative at best I do think that this area and the dilapidated remains are the best possible place for Thomas Greens still house to have occupied.  As a distiller, I can outlay in my head what he likely was doing and the production methodology he was using and as I told Angie yesterday; “If I lived there and wanted to distill, this spot would be ideal in every way imaginable.  I do think the “cellar” was part of the distilling structure, it is well known that Thomas was distilling brandy which is a summer job but one that requires the fruit mash to ferment at a cooler temperature and that cold house would have been ideal for such a task, particularly for a distiller who clearly wasn’t operating only seasonally.

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The keyhole spring that I think most likely fed Rev. Greens distillery.  

The opportunity for the future development of this site is ideal as is the opportunity for historical preservation thereof.  I think that from what I took note of yesterday that nearly all the blocks making up the foundation of the site are still there although they are scattered about a bit, they could indeed be put back into working order. For myself visiting this site was pretty special considering all the historical research I have done on the fellow and the fact that the character I play is a tribute to him.  Standing in that area I could “feel” the spirit of the place.  That is something hard to convey in words and something I’ll spare you of here on the blog, but to say I was enthralled to experience it is an absolute understatement at best.

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A cold room or cellar with rock walls extending out on both sides from a wide entrance which is not common in most cellars.  This is part of a larger building that was definitely not a house.  This would have been an ideal place to have kept fruit mash barrels and corn whiskey barrels cool in the heat of the summer.

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