John Mcpheeters final resting place at Horners Chapel Cemetery.
Getting back to some of our Hoosier Occupied Northern Kentucky history here at the Alchemist Cabinet, the weather has finally started to warm up and subsequently I’ve been able to get out and do a little more field research finally! For whatever reason this past winter really seemed like the movie Groundhog Day with Bill Murray came to life, by April I began feeling like the main character and thinking to myself that “there is no way that this winter is ever, ever going to end”, throw that desperation on top of an injured knee and the only cure I could imagine is to see that Fat Old Sun rising above the horizon earlier and setting latter! That confessional out of the way, we resume our research……
I’ve not delved too deeply yet into the history of distilleries in the Fredericksburg and Hardinsburg (Washington County) area yet as my source and friend Ben Weathers who grew up in that area passed away a while back. Ben was the authority when it came to Fredericksburg and I could mention a few of the moonshine stories he was kind enough to share with me, however they would be from memory and likely contain many wrong details, so essentially, we are starting our research in this area from scratch.
Jacob Horners Stone in a lonely corner of the Fredricksburg Cemetery overlooking Blue River.
Both the Centennial History of Washington County as well as the History of Washington, Orange, and Lawrence County mention a number of distillers in the general vicinity of the place(s). Three areas in particular have my attention at the moment as they are distinctly connected by the people, culture, trade, and geography and are located on the historic Vincennes Trail (or nearby). Becks Mill (as always), Organ Springs, and Fredericksburg. We will start our most recent field research with Fredericksburg and with the name of one John McPheeters.
John McPheeters was of Scotts-Irish ancestry and as to be expected likely had distilling in his bloodline when he came to this territory from Shelby County Kentucky via Virginia around 1813. McPheeters was a revolutionary soldier serving in Huglers Regiment of which I’ve yet found no real history unfortunately. Once McPheeters came into the Mutton Fork of the Blue River Valley McPheeters set about building a mill and subsequent distillery on the river near the modern-day Horner Chapel Bridge.
The McPheeters family ran this mill for 75 years and were known to do abundant business even with many other mills operating on the same river and quite close to one another. At some point however, John McPheeters decided to rid himself of the distilling burden and subsequently sold his operation to his neighbor atop the high hill nearby, a Mr. Jacob Horner who we will come back to shortly.
View of Blue River from Horners Bridge from the opposite side of where the mill once stood.
The McPheeters family however continued in the line of spirits in Jefferson Township via George McPheeters in the form of the firm Mallotte and McPheeters of whom the Centennial History records the following:
It was once the boast of this section of country that it contained more distilleries than could be found in any other part of the county As fast as they got enough land in cultivation to raise a surplus of corn or fruit they either distilled it themselves or sold it to others to distill into whisky or brandy Almost every hollow that had a good spring in it had its little copper still where the pure liquor was made From 1820 to 18 3 5 more than half the land in Jefferson township was paid for by the sale of whisky Some of it was sent south by flat boats down Twin creek and much of it went to Salem Malotte and McPheeters purchasing all that was for sale had it hauled to Louisville in wagons and from thence sent south in boats There was no government tax on it then and it was sold at from twenty to fifty cents per gallon according to age.
Other distillers were widespread in the Fredericksburg/Hardinsburg area to boot including one owned in conjunction with a mill in Hardinsburg by Peter Peyton, a large one with three copper pots at the Mitchell Spring owned by Nicholas Smith, and James Ferguson owned an extensive distillery that relied on the bottom land near the river in Fredericksburg to provide him with ample corn to conduct his business. William Lofton located one on the Salem Fork of Blue River above the town of Fredericksburg, and Edwin C. Hunter sat one right next door to McPheeters. Of course, Benjamin Radcliff has been mentioned in writing via this blog many times and operated out of Hardinsburg. The products of these still houses it is presumed was likely corn whiskey which was most often shipped south (to Louisville and on to New Orleans) as this section of blue river is navigable (you can actually rent a canoe and explore it) although it is highly likely that brandy, particularly apple and peach played a pivotal role as well and that much of the product ended up in the local Inns on the trail.
Though this grave bears no relation to the story at hand Horners Chapel Cemetery has a lot of “Zinky” markers made of Zink metal. It is included here because during prohibition Bootleggers would often make dead drops in cemeteries where they would remove the bolts from the name/decorative plates of the Zink markers which were hollow and fill them with jars of bootleg whiskey.
This brings us back to Jacob Horner (from Pennsylvania via New Jersey and of German heritage) who moved into the area around 1816 and bought the land now known as Horners Hill from a man named Mr. Linthicum (who came in 1806 and purchased the property from a band of Shawnee Indians led by Chief Four Toes for $25.00). Mr. Horner wasted no time in erecting an “Inn” (Known in those days as a “house of entertainment) of the day (read a tavern and a room to pass out in) which being close to the Buffalo Trace and Vincennes Trail did a considerable business for its time.
As is the case with most of the early settlers in Southern Indiana, Jacob Horner was ever the entrepreneur and in short order saw opportunity to purchase the distilling works of John Mcpheeters which he relocated onto the adjacent hill (near Horner’s Chapel) and likely continued to utilize the grist produced by the McPheeters family mill in his operation. Here in this newly erected stillhouse he produced ardent spirits to be sold to travelers stopping at his inn, a very convenient business plan for a man in his line of work. Jacob Horner would also become the first post master of the little town of Fredericksburg. An interesting aside regarding Horners Hill was written and researched by Washington County Indiana Historian Jeremey Elliot concerning an Indian Princess and a haunting and can be found here http://www.johnhaycenter.org/washington-co-land-of-the-indians-pt-2-the-blue-river-legend-of-the-shawnee-princess-eva/
This brings us of course to the subject of Organ Springs. Despite the fact that it was once a bustling little mill town the area has not been well documented by history and no records of distilling on the site are known to exist, we will cover Organ Springs more in depth in our follow up post later this week.
Spring and partial foundation of the gearing room at the old Organ Springs Mill.