I have made mention of The McCoy Distilling family of Stampers Creek Township in Orange County Indiana many times in the past including the posting of the “100 years in the McCoy family” document not long ago.
We have established familial connections between the McCoy and Wolfe family as well as the Solomon/Howard/Belle Scott family of distillers in Orange County as well. All were at one time heavily engaged in the distillation of Hoosier Apple mash Applejack; The Wolfe’s in nearby Stillhouse Hollow/Wolfe valley, the Scott’s with Johnathan Turley at Daisy Spring (now Spring Mill) and in conjunction with Vernon Wofe in Mitchell Indiana), and the McCoys one mile East of Millersburg at the aptly named Stillhouse Corner.
Like so many old time Distilling stories I was afraid the McCoy story would be mostly lost to time as I continued to search for the location of the distillery and any relevant info. I drove many back roads in Stampers Creek in my evenings after work looking for tell tale signs and asked both Howard Wolfe and Phillip Easterday who knew of the Distillery but not it’s location. I speculated many times that it’s location had to be a farmhouse just east of Millersburg with a spring that feeds Stampers Creek but was latter informed that was the Coulter property (while researching Chester Smith, yeah, this gets more interesting, trust me!).
However, recently I posted to the Slices of Orange County Facebook page and was contacted by Cathy Qualkenbush and Scotty Hutchenson, both direct descendants of Distillery Founder George B. McCoy Cathy contacted me with a great deal of information regarding the distillery and the family including the location of the aforementioned “Stillhouse Corner” which as it turns out was located exactly where I thought it was, directly on my route to and from work daily.
As it turns out Scotty has in his possessions a sample of yeast (unknown viability) and a photo of George B McCoy as well which I will post about in the very near future. Cathy’s brother is also open to an interview which I hope to conduct and post next week.
Cathy told me about the details she and her brother remembered of the operation as well as the oral history passed to her from her father. We had an excellent conversation on the phone and you can imagine my delight when I discovered not only the location of the distillery but that the original distillery building was still standing and that I literally look right at it daily!
The old Distillery after having been shuttered had been converted to a residential garage but the inner structure behind the modern doors and metal still stood; a great feat of strength against the tides of time, weather, and even the temperance movement! Inside this building Cathy explained to me there had once been a 8x8x6 concrete trough where apples were stored (potentially for after ripening) on the northwest corner, to the southwest was a corn crib. Cathy’s brother remembered that out front of the garage doors stood a concrete platform and scales by which the wagons full of apples and peaches were weighed for payment to local farmers who delivered their wares directly to the distillery throuout the September-January fruit Distilling season annually. On the North and South sides had once stood large drive through doors and Cathy related the story of how there was once a large Walnut tree between the home and garage which had rotted and died and had to be cut down due to a daily visitor to the brandy works tying his mule or horse to the tree and whom subsequently ate a hole in said tree! True Southern Hoosier Distilling history if ever I heard any!
After securing permission to visit the site from Cathy I made plans to do some initial research and stopped by that evening. Upon initially roaming the outsides of the old out buildings I could tell pretty quickly the barn and current springhouse we’re 1920’s vintage but that the barn itself had reused many much older pegged and hand hughed Chestnut log elements and that the foundation of the springhouse certainly outdated the structure above. Once entering the “garage” I was immediately taken by the age of the beams and the wood siding and an overwhelming sense of history, I would even argue I could still smell applejack in the air 102 years after all the Distilling equipment had been auctioned off!
At the back of the garage along the drip line of the building I found a ton of scattered and broken glass bottles of vintage make (air bubbles and all) as well as the remnants of broken plates. All of these are signs of distillery works as many of the small distilleries in the remote countryside were not well monitored by the excise and often the new make as well as aged stock was sold by the distiller illegally to the patron on the spot during celebrations, in fact occasionally a distiller would sale shots directly from the proofing jar freshly off of the still to the consumer!
Surveying the spring I noticed a depression leading to the spring where in it appeared a building had once been pushed up to burn or at the very least a dump had been begun. In this depression I located a rich deposit of iron slag (perhaps a forge was operated nearby) and a large glass bottle dump made up of broken highly vintage bottles of mostly brownish black coloration. True artifacts!
Inside the springhouse I turned up two more exciting finds! The first an old piece of rough cut lumber with graffiti notating: 1905, 1916, 1919 and the initials A.W.. Those might not mean much to anyone else but to me they are a gold mine knowing the familial relationship between the Wolfe’s and McCoys and their shared line of business as well as the importance of the dates. 1905 was one of the last huge apple crops for distilling in Indiana, and 1916 is the year the equipment was auctioned off. A.W. could have potentially been Andrew Wolfe or Alvis Wolfe. Either of whom could have visited or helped with work during th production year and whom could have visited again during the auction in 1916 (The Wolfe’s sold their Stampers Creek concern the same year).
On the floor under some old lumber was a 40 gal. (standard size for Applejack in Indiana) barrel, dry and broken apart with hand beaten hoops. The head had been removed at some point in the past but white paint on the chime says to me the barrel heads were likely painted white. The inside of the barrel was certainly uncharred and the wood was too faded to say it was toasted but toasted barrels were the norm for brandy storage of that time.
Excited I made plans to return the next day and film some videos and subsequently set some yeast traps in an attempt to capture and resurrect the yeast George McCoy had used more than 100 years before.
Around this time my very good friend Patty Drabbing of the French Lick/West Baden Museum kindly gave me access to a fantastic newspaper resource from which I pulled many Wolfe and McCoy Distilling items to share here and in the upcoming history book. Among them were advertisements looking for local apples, confirmation of a 20 horse power apple grinder, confirmation of the large concrete vat, details about fermenting apple mash in hogshead barrels, an article stating no peaches were wanted this year, and an article about a tornado that ripped through the property in 1912.
On to that tornado…it would seem that the tornado destroyed the original house by removing it (with occupants) from the foundation and slamming it against a walnut tree (same tree as mentioned above?). It also removed the distillery roof (which explains why the current roof doesn’t line up with the old hand hewn Chestnut support beams), destroyed a chicken coop, and the roof of the old barn (explaining the mixed antique and modern construction of the current barn, it as well destroyed the original springhouse (explaining the modern building and old foundation as well as the gaps in the blocks of the foundation and potentially the location of the building/bottle dump near the spring. As well an advertisement for the auctioning off of the farm and Distillery equipment was found and an add for the stud services of a champion horse on visit to the Distillery. So, here we have distilling, limestone water (used in topping up barrels of mashed apples for applejack and touted as a reason for Hoosier applejack popularity and quality), and horses! Sound familiar? It should!
The next day I dropped off four yeast traps for 48 hours. A yeast trap is basically an unfermented beer or wine which one hopes will attract a yeast with qualities positively attributed to alcohol for consumption. Yeast, particularly strong alcohol strains, can remain dominate in an environment for very long periods of time, particularly in the presence of porus material such as wood which was exposed to open air fermentation for many years. An appropriate strain will convert all available sugars to alcohol and provide a pleasant smell and taste. Within 48 hours all of the traps were bubbling, the resultant liquid after 4 days was “dry” and contained excellent aroma and flavor compounds. Subsequent fermentations using apple juice has been vigorous and produced the same results! Do I know I have the McCoy apple brandy yeast 192 years after it was last used? No. Do I suspect that is what I am culturing? Damn right I do! Will there subsequently be McCoy apple brandy experiments? I never start something I don’t intend to finish!