The Wolfe Valley Distilling Complex of Orange County Indiana

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Andrew Wolfe and wife.  The last distiller of the Wolfe family distillery.

If you have been following the Alchemist Cabinet for a while you will know I have written here several times recently of the Wolfe family distillery in Stampers Creek Township of Orange County Indiana.  My most recently post got the attention of one of our readers who was kind enough to put me in contact with a Mr. Howard Wolfe, the last remaining descendent of the Wolfe family of distillers.  Mr. Wolfe lives on the property which was homesteaded by his Great-Great Grandfather Mr. Henry Wolfe who started a fruit brandy distillery on this same property shortly after arriving in the county and produced fine Apple and Peach brandies from local produce.

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Sorry for the low quality picture here.  The pig is not the point.  In the background is the Wolfe family home and at the end of the fence is the gauging room whereupon apple and peach brandy was sold to consumers by pint, quart, and gallon.  The only known picture related to the facility itself.

Mr. Wolfe was a pleasure to meet and speak with and was a wealth of information on the area.  He in fact knew where the last distillery was and also put me in contact with the man who owns the property where the Wolfe family cemetery is located.  As I have mentioned before the Wolfe distillery produced 400 barrels of apple brandy as late as 1914, an astonishing amount for an industrial “farm” distillery as you would be talking nearly six and a half tons of apples per one 48-gallon barrel (the standard pre-prohibition barrel size) meaning the distillery had to have some size to it.

Mr. Wolfe even spoke of wanting to get back into the distilling industry with his brother some years back and bring back the old Wolfe apple brandy.  He knew his grandfather and the last distiller in the family Andrew Jackson Wolfe very well and spent much time with him and was kind enough to share a few pictures with me.  The whole valley is a true beauty lying squarely between Millersburg, Hardinsburg, and Chambersburg and it is littered to this day with both modern apple and peach trees grown by the bustling Amish community as well as many apparent old apple trees and wildling types which are likely the descendants of the industry carried on in this area.

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Distiller Andrew Wolfe and grandson Henry Wolfe taken in Orange County California where Andrew and a son moved post prohibition.

Mr. Wolfe actually tore down what was left of the old distillery in 1953 giving us a tiny glimpse of what the production consisted of and what the last product run there likely was as he said he cleaned up an innumerable amount of barrel hoops and nearly two pickup truck loads of peach pits, none of which were crushed.  Both of these are huge clues as the barrel hoops likely belonged to the barrels used to “mash in” the peaches, a process by which the peaches are placed in a barrel and a large tamping tool is used to bust them down for fermentation before water is added to the barrel to top it off.  The peach pits not having been busted and located centrally to the distillery tells me that they weren’t run through a grinder or mill as was sometimes done and the fact that they were intact tells me they weren’t pressed via an old-fashioned screw press.

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Andrew Wolfe and son taken in California

According to Mr. Wolfe the old boiler was still on hand as well and when asked of matters of water says the boiler and the worms for the pot stills were run via water from this well.  There is a small very seasonal spring in the vicinity also and this distillery was located near to Andrew Wolfe’s home.  Amongst the other interesting “peach pit” discoveries were a small cylindrical blue bottle which Mr. Wolfe was informed was a proofing bottle.  When he first mentioned this bottle to me I was trying to wrap my head around what he intended and it finally hit me that likely the distillers did not have access to hydrometers or perhaps could not afford them so may have been reading the proof by the bead of the alcohol, an old moonshiners trick that had to be learned from somewhere (I’m beginning to see a trend in Southern Indiana between out of work due to prohibition distillers and still hands and their set up of illicit moonshine operations, all of which I plan to research very soon, but suffice it to say despite the loss of a job and income the demand for liquor didn’t go down after prohibition and those skills were worth their weight in gold to a public willing to break the law).  The Wolfe Valley complex also consisted of a large barrel house as well as a separate facility whereby barrels could be gauged and the general public could buy pints or quarts of apple or peach brandy on the spot directly from the barrel.

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View of Wolfe Valley from the Wolfe family cemetery.  At left a little knoll rises whereupon the distillery and Andrew Wolfe’s home was located.

Mr. Wolfe was not aware of Thomas Batman, the large buyer and blender of brandy in Louisville Kentucky, but I am fairly sure that Mr. Batman would have been the purchaser of most of this delicious Hoosier brandy for his business pursuits. Mr. Wolfe noted as well that he had been told that wagons would line up for miles and miles filled with peaches and apples brought by local farmers for sale to the distillery and that the Apple brandy had a good name all over the country.

A combination of the first world war and prohibition eventually shut down the distillery operation which had it passed to Howard’s father would have marked four generations of apple brandy distillers in the same family and on the same property, as I told Mr. Wolfe “there would be a parallel between the Wolfe’s and their Apple brandy and the Beam’s and their Bourbon.”  Mr. Wolfe seemed a bit unaware that his great grandfather and great-great grandfather are denoted as distillers on the property as well in many historical resources but he did inform me of something upon I think I may speculate.

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Apparently, Alexander Wolfe owned two distilleries in the valley, the first, a legal one, the second an illicit one.  The legal distillery is the large manufactory we have just spoken of within shouting distance of the Wolfe home and the second was located a bit North nearer to the Wolfe family cemetery close to where Mr. Henry Wolfe had built his own home.  When I asked Howard if this was run off of a spring he said that it ran off of a fairly large spring but wasn’t associated with a building but that the “Holler” was called Still House Hollow.  Two things here strike me as interesting; first that Alexander Wolfe was both a legal apple brandy distiller and an illegal moonshiner and the second that the hollow where he distilled his illicit spirit also had a name.  Now “Stillhouse Hollow” is actually a fairly common name in the distilling regions of the United States but it has been my experience that generally the name refers to the location of the sites of once legal distilleries and is associated with the cultural oral tradition of there having been a distillery in that location, this is where my speculation begins.  I think it is entirely possible given that the hollow has a name associated with a distillery and was located very closely to the elder Henry Wolfes cabin that in fact the original legal distillery ran first by Henry Wolfe Sr. and later by his son Peter Wolfe was likely located on this spring.  It makes sense given its proximity to the first home as well as a good spring stocked with cold water as opposed to running a distillery sans pumps off of a well.  This is something I plan yet to investigate.  Of course, being as curious as I am I had a go at “Still house Hollow” Orange County Indiana and found that there is a road currently named as such right outside of West Baden as well, if any readers have information on the story that informed the naming of that road I would be forever grateful.

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In closing Mr. Wolfe talked a bit about his Grandfather Andrew and the kind of fellow he was.  He also ran a large sawmill down from the distillery and was well known for his black horses and buggy along with his black suit and hat.  He often carried silver dollars on his person and Howard pointed out that when he would ride the buggy money would fall out of his pants and behind the seat whereupon his son, Howards father, would retrieve the coins to keep for himself, perhaps a Pappy Van Winkle of apple brandy!

Below are some video clips from my interview with Howard Wolfe, you will have to forgive that it is in three parts as I was having some technical difficulties with my phone.  In closing I love meeting people who can speak directly to the history of which I am so passionate about, they are becoming harder and harder to find and their memory is often hazed by time so it is rare for me to have the chance to speak with someone such as Howard Wolfe who is such a great wealth of information.

 

 

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