The Portrait of Abraham Overholt




When word hit the street this afternoon that Liz Campion was putting out some junk on the sidewalk, or, in her more delicate phrase "deaccessioning numerous objets d'art", I hustled on over right away, knowing that I could count on snapping up some bargains.


When Liz holds her "porch sales", there are always bargains to be had, due to her extravagant but wildly uneven system of pricing. Thus while she had a couple of Ming vases for sale at $1700 the pair, she also had a silver cow creamer, which my practiced eye told me was Modern Dutch, available for five bucks. I picked up a couple of Warhol silk screens of Marilyn Monroe for fifty cents each -- even if my appraiser tells me they aren't strictly authentic, the possibility was certainly worth paying a buck for.


There was a large canvas smeared with magic markers which looked as though a five-year-old had discovered Jackson Pollock. This, for some bizarre reason was priced at a hefty five thousand dollars.


"Whoa, Liz, what's this?" I inquired. Turns out it was a painting done by an elephant which had been given to her as a wedding present by one of the in-laws.


"Fucking in-laws," she grumbled. "Don't know whether they were trying to tell me I look like an elephant, or paint like one, or have the taste of one."


Not wishing to tread on the delicate topic of her in-laws, which I know is always a touchy subject for Liz, I declined to comment. Just then I saw something which took my breath away. It was one of those antique bar mirrors, with the legend on top in block capitals "Our state license is a valued possession. Please do not jeopardize it by unseemly conduct," and signed "Proprietor" in a flowing cursive script.


But what really grabbed me was the ghostly imprint on the mirror of an old bearded man who looked rather like Martin van Buren. Underneath in large gold letters was the name of the whiskey -- "Old Overholt", and in smaller letters "A Pennsylvania Product: Pennsylvania's Favorite -- Bottled in Bond -- Straight Rye Whiskey."


Liz was asking two dollars for this valuable antique.


"Um, Liz," I said, picking it up, "where did you find this one?"


She looked at it with distaste. "Some Russian ballet dancer left it behind when the KGB came to pick him up. Why? Ya want it? Take it. I'll give it to you free. Otherwise it goes to the Second Mile Center."


I thanked her profusely, and launched into the story of Abraham Overholt, the famous early 19th-century Mennonite whiskey distiller from Westmoreland County out in western PA. He was the great-grandson of Marcus Oberholtzer, a refugee from the Palatinate wars who arrived in Germantown in 1710. The family moved west, and by Abraham's time were prosperous farmers raising bountiful crops of rye.


The story goes that Abraham was a deacon in the Scottdale Mennonite congregation, but was reproached by the bishop board, not so much for actually *distilling* the whiskey but by leading some weaker brothers astray by selling it in bars. Various versions of the story are extant, one being that Overholt cooled it with the church elders by donating large barrels of whiskey to the bishops every Christmas. Another iteration was that Overholt led like-minded Mennonites out of the mainstream Mennonite church to form a branch known as the "Whiskey Mennonites", thus adding to the many variants and mutations of Mennonites and Amish to be found in rural Pennsylvania to this day.


Two facts, however, are beyond dispute. The first is that Abraham's children left the Mennonite church, and that one of his grandsons was Henry Clay Frick, the notorious industrialist, union-buster, and organizer of a massacre of strikers, which earned him the title of "Most Hated Man in America." The other is that the site of one of the original Old Overholt distilleries is now, appropriately enough, the grounds of the Westmoreland County Association for the Blind.





--Ross Bender


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