Editor’s note: This is the sixth article in a Highland County Historical Society Focus on Agriculture series.
While Lynchburg will never compete with “The Kentucky Bourbon Trail” as a center of whiskey production in the United States, it does have its own significant history in the industry. For over 60 years Lynchburg was the home of the Freiberg and Workum (F&W) Whiskey Distillery, having been purchased from John Bowen of the Pricetown area, who had begun building the distillery in 1855. The Lynchburg distillery was one of several such facilities that the partners operated.
When the Cincinnati-based F&W Distillery purchased the Lynchburg facility from Bowen it had a capacity to mash in only 100 barrels per day – a far cry from the 3,000 bushel capacity later at the height of its production in 1910, with a storage capacity of over 100,000 barrels. As the Lynchburg facility grew, F&W introduced several new brands such as Lynchburg Rye, Lynchburg Extra Fine Whiskey, Highland Pure Rye, and later Clinton Whiskey.” The company advertised these labels vigorously with full page ads in national publications. In 1860, the company was reputed to have produced an amazing 1,125,000 gallons of whiskey.
The 1910 census recorded that The F&W Distillery was the largest employer in Lynchburg that year. According to the documents, 87 of the 923 residents (250 households) in Lynchburg were employed by the F&W Distillery.
In fact, the distillery had become very much a self-contained operation. The distillery employed warehouse workers, bottlers, carpenters, malters, packers, night policemen, coal wheelers, and the local farmers who produced corn, rye, wheat and barley for the distillery. The distillery also employed engineers and proof-makers, mail room clerks, stenographers, bookkeepers, and labelers.
The distillery had its own corn cribs for storing grain and owned its own cattle herd that consumed a portion of the “slop” left over from the whiskey production. The facility also maintained its own coal storage buildings and even had elaborate underground “heat tunnels.” Coopers employed at the facility built their own whiskey barrels to store the whiskey. These were constructed with wooden stays and hoops just outside of Lynchburg.
While the distillery was the major employer in the area, residents were not enthralled with the fact that the local stream (East Fork of the Little Miami River) was being polluted by the distillery operation. In 1888, declaring, “The refuse from the distillery so pollutes the stream as to make it unhealthy for those living near it,” area residents filed petitions against the operation of the distillery.
This concern grew to such a level that in 1906, the U.S. Geological Survey conducted a study entitled, “The Prevention of Stream Pollution by Distillery Refuse” in Lynchburg. They researched and documented the distillation of the grain, treatment of slop, disposal of distillery effluent, the fermentation process, and the evaporation methods used. Some of the results of the study included:
• About 45 gallons of waste slop liquor are discharged for each bushel of grain mashed.
• Nearly 10 percent of the slop may be converted into a dry cattle feed at a high rate of profit.
• Stream pollution by such refuse may be wholly avoided by means of evaporation recovery of cattle feed grains from the slops.
• Distillery refuse discharged into a stream of moderate fall will produce a serious pollution for a long distance below the point of its introduction and may at times render the stream waters unfit for any use.
Several incidents just before and after the turn of the century eventually led to the closure of the distillery.
In September 1893, one of the largest distillery fires occurred. The fire destroyed the large malt house, distillery and redistilling house. The night watchman was the first to find the fire, but its origin was never determined. The warehouse was saved from the flames, and 1,250,000 gallons of distilled spirits were kept from the ravages of the fire.
The News Herald of Hillsboro covered the fire in its Sept. 14, 1893 edition. In part, the newspaper said: “A fire was discovered in a ventilator shaft of the Freiberg & Workum Distillery, at Lynchburg. In a very few minutes the main building was a seething mass of flames. Messages were sent to Blanchester and Hillsboro for the fire departments. The alarm was sounded and the department rallied. A train consisting of two flats and a boxcar with three horses shot out of Hillsboro like they had been fired from a gun. The horses of the department were being thrown about from side to side in the old boxcar, and were frantic with fright, endangering the lives of their attendants. Yet we made fair speed the balance of the way, and stood still at the Lynchburg depot in exactly twelve minutes after beginning to move from the Hillsboro depot, ten miles away. The people of Lynchburg hailed the Hillsboro department with joy, and treated the boys handsomely during their stay. Fortunately, however, the wind had suddenly shifted from north to east. And, instead of blowing the flames over the town, they were carried toward the creek on the west. The loss of the fire amounted to about $50,000.”
Even after this immense fire and tremendous damage to the Lynchburg facility, it continued to produce bottled spirits from the massive warehouses. In 1894, the year after the fire, 35 barrels of whiskey from the Lynchburg facility were exported to Bremen, Germany.
Taxation of spirits was becoming a reality in the United States and in 1895, new taxes were being placed on whiskey. This resulted in taxes being paid on some 350,000 gallons of whiskey from the Freiberg & Workum Distillery that year.
Additional legislation impacted the operation of the production of spirits in the United States:
• The Bottled in Bond Act of 1897 set forth a set of legal regulations regarding the bottling and advertising of whiskey/spirits.
• The 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act further laid out governmental regulations on how whiskey was to be produced, what ingredients could be used, and how it could be sold.
• The 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act created regulations on food, such as how tomatoes could be canned, how meat should be canned, and what chemicals could be used as preservatives in food.
Distillery co-owner Julius Freiberg was born in Bavaria, Germany and immigrated to the U.S. in 1847. He married Duffie Workum, daughter of his partner, in 1856. Duffie was reputed to have been the first Jewish child born west of the Allegany Mountains. The Freiberg’s had five daughters and two sons who continued in the distillery business.
Freiberg’s partner, Jacob Workum, was born in Amsterdam, Sweden. Jacob and Sarah (Levy) Workum had two children, Duffie and Levi. Their son Levi J. Workum graduated from Harvard, served as a private in World War I, and was said to have become the “brains” of the Workum and Freiberg Distillery.
Several of the Freiberg children and grandchildren continued in the business, starting other distilleries such as the Freiberg & Kahn and the Freiberg and Myer companies, most of which continued to blend whiskey from Lynchburg in their products.
Prohibition (The Volstead Act) became law on Oct. 28, 1919. In the years leading up to and following that enactment, all whiskey makers, sellers and distributors went out of business. Even though the sale of spirits was illegal, in 1923, the collector of Internal Revenue moved 99,000 gallons of whiskey to the F&W facility in Lynchburg for storage, as all liquors were moved into central warehouses.
With Prohibition in full effect, in December of 1923, 400 cases of liquor from the “bonded” Lynchburg warehouse were “transferred” by motor trucks in a caravan to Washington officials. The transfer was later termed “Holiday Cheer Arrives” by the Cincinnati Enquirer on Dec. 12, 1923.
The distillery was offered for sale many times, including to the residents of Lynchburg for $30,000. Several sales were reported in the 1930s, including a lawsuit by the infamous George Remus, a Cincinnati lawyer and bootlegger during the Prohibition era. It has been claimed that Remus was the inspiration for the title character Jay Gatsby in “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Remus claimed he had put up $325,000 for the purchase of the F&W Distillery in Lynchburg.
For anyone wishing to learn more about the distillery and other local Lynchburg history, contact the Lynchburg Historical Society. Insurance maps of the distillery are available to view on Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Submitted by John Kellis, Highland County Historical Society trustee, and Christine Wilbanks Hamlin, researcher, on behalf of the HCHS Agriculture Outreach Committee.