Washington County Distilled, Part 2
From 1812-1862, small farm distilleries producing brandy (mostly apple) and grain whiskey popped up all over Southern Indiana in addition to larger, steam-outfitted, operations. Indiana, not yet having become a state, had missed out on the earlier excise tax that Hamilton had suggested to Washington to pay for the revolution, and had become a safe harbor for many distillers of German and Ulster Irish blood who were avoiding the tax and looking for more unsettled territory to make their homes. Thomas Jefferson, upon taking the office of the president, would almost immediately repeal the burdensome excise tax that the distillers (many of whom had also fought for the independence of our nation during the revolution) so loathed and thought to be a slap in their face, given their service to the county. Of course, the old quote about the tree of Liberty being refreshed from time to time by the blood of patriots and tyrants said plenty about Jefferson’s feelings on the whiskey tax.
Our focus here is mostly on Washington County and Orange County, though there were plenty of other larger distilleries in Southern Indiana. Several of these distilleries centered around Lawrenceburg, Tell City, Evansville/Vincennes, and Indianapolis, of which plenty has been written and documented for those who are curious. We prefer to focus on those lesser known souls, who while crafting a commercial product were also simply living by the traditions of their ancestors; paying homage to “Tom the Tinker” (an alias used by Ulster tax protestors during the whiskey rebellion) and making sure that “John Barleycorn” exercised his natural and God-given liberty to bring joy to the common man.
The lack of excise taxes and abundance of grain and fruit made the trade very tempting, particularly in areas where there were few good roads and prices for a bushel of corn or apples or peaches stood at roughly $0.10, not worth the time or money to deliver to far away markets (in the case of corn) and the fruit would not fare the journey well enough to warrant. Liquor, on the other hand remained a medicinal and social staple, available at the local taverns and houses, at voting time, and of course as a hospitality to house guests. Its price, as well, remained a premium, particularly for brandy at 12 1/2 cents to 20 cents a gallon. A good distiller would coax at least 2 to 2 1/2 half gallons from a bushel of grain. Of course, a grain distillery had other added benefits such as rerouting waste mash to fatten cattle and hogs or trade value. As you can see the profit margin was more than justifiable to the local producers.
Few places could compete with the amount of liquor being produced in Delaney’s Bottom in Washington County, which boasted of 9 distilleries and no churches for quite some time, with the Pugh and Bro’s distillery advertising in the Polk Gazetteer of Indiana Businesses all the way into 1885. As discussed in a previous article, some of this liquor was produced for local consumption while much of it was shipped downstream and made its way to rectifiers in Louisville, KY while the better sorts ended up in ports downstream such as New Orleans to be served to the final consumer.
In Orange County, directly across the Washington County line, a similar trend was found in the Stamper Creek Township, made up mostly of expatriate Washington County Citizens. The township boasted eleven distilleries, documented from roughly 1812-1890. The largest of these were two steam fitted plants one mile east of Millersburg known as the McCoy distillery, which produced as many as 400 barrels of apple brandy annually, and the Wolfe distillery which was connected to a mill of the same name and produced primarily corn whiskey using the local grain of the region. Most of these long-gone distillers found their final resting area at the Stampers Creek Primitive Baptist Church, not surprising considering their familial ties nor surprising that so many found the same final resting grounds and took up the same vocation.
The death knell for the distilling complexes of Southern Indiana was twofold: first, the growth of the religious temperance movement; and second, the return of the dreaded excise tax, which short of a period after the war of 1812, had remained off the books until 1862 when the federal government began trying to recoup money to pay for the civil war. The religious temperance movement had always lingered in the back ground, going back to puritanical days, but began to get some lift and speed in the 1830’s and really peaked in the 1850’s. As mentioned previously, many early distillers in this region were also preachers, deacons, or elders in the churches and by the mid 1850’s they were directed to make a choice between the still house or the church house.
The area of Valene in Orange County boasted many orchards and subsequently many fruit distilleries which came on line after the implementation of the excise tax in 1862. Most of these small distilleries were dedicated primarily to apple brandy and secondarily to peach brandy. The C.S. Lambdin distillery was started about 1866 and ran for 10 years (alongside at least three others in the region) feeding off of the local orchards. Mr. Gordon Lambdin of Paoli, Indiana still owns his grandfather’s branding iron which was used to mark the barrels of his brandy before they were sold to local merchants or on to brokers. By the late 1800’s the temperance movement had become a force to be reckoned with locally, as can be seen in the following excerpt from History of the Methodist Episcopal Church at Orleans, Indiana by John Poucher:
“Though intoxicating liquors in farbygone days were sold in the groceries one of the stipulations to be recorded in transfers of property in the neighboring village of Orangeville from which the Shirleys Ritters Bruners and several other good citizen families originate was not to make sell or dispose of or permit others to make sell or dispose of spirituous liquors except for medical purposes on a penalty of five dollars fine for every day in which this covenant shall be violated Samuel Hicks a Methodist preacher and once pastor in Orleans s Harvey Denny and Nathaniel B Wilson were parties to this covenant which is in marked contrast to the attitude of another neighboring township where distilleries abounded.” [sic]
Clearly the closing sentence was a shot across the bow to neighboring Stampers Creek township. The history of Lawrence, Orange, and Washington Counties also reveals the following tidbit about our neighbors in Orange County:
Distilleries were such a big business in early county history that the large number of taverns and liquor stores resulted in much drunkenness thorough the county. In 1833-34 the citizens of Paoli petitioned the county board to stop issuing liquor licenses. Issuing licenses for $50 a year was profitable for the county and the commissioners denied the petition. [sic]
Many distillers simply continued the vocation on a smaller scale at home, ignoring the excise tax and the temperance folks. For them those obstacles would not stop them from following the vocation of their fathers, grandfathers, and great grandfathers. Their ancestral distilling family had already been up against much the same back in the old country and again on the east coast as Washington/Hamilton’s “gaugers” probed, taxed, and tried to regulate what the distillers saw as their natural right. In many ways, the coming prohibition would become the single most effective method of securing financial gain from their chosen profession, and give them chance to effectively and efficiently “stick it to the man.”