Last Sunday, Lynchburg Historical Society President Christine Hamlin presented on Lynchburg’s former whiskey distillery.
Hamlin, who owns property where parts of the distillery used to be, can see the remaining building from her house.
“We have people who have lived in Lynchburg longer than I have, and they didn’t know about it,” Hamlin said. “They’ve always said, ‘I just thought that was a feed mill!’ To look at it now, it looks like a feed mill. But back in the day, there were between 16 and 18 buildings, and they were big — two, three stories.”
A man named John Bowen from the Pricetown area began building the distillery in 1855, but it was purchased by German immigrant Julius Freiberg and Swedish immigrant Jacob Workum. Lynchburg’s Freiberg and Workum (F&W) Whiskey Distillery produced whiskey for the next 60 years.
When the Cincinnati-based F&W Distillery began producing whiskey in 1857, it had a capacity to mash in only 100 barrels per day. At the height of its production in 1910, it could process 3,000 bushels daily with a storage capacity of more than 100,000 barrels.
As the Lynchburg facility grew, F&W introduced several new products, such as Lynchburg Rye, Lynchburg Extra Fine Whiskey, Highland Pure Rye, and later Clinton Whiskey, which the company vigorously advertised, taking out full-page ads in national publications.
In 1860, the company was reputed to have produced 1,125,000 gallons of whiskey.
The distillery developed into a self-contained operation, employing warehouse workers, bottlers, carpenters, malters, packers, night policemen, coal wheelers, engineers and proof-makers, mail room clerks, stenographers, bookkeepers and labelers. The distillery’s coopers built their own whiskey barrels, which were constructed with wooden stays and hoops just outside Lynchburg.
“I think it’s neat that there were jobs for everybody, whether they believed in drinking whiskey or not,” Hamlin said. “The annual salary was higher than the average U.S. salary back then. Back in the day, a lot of women didn’t work, but there were women who worked there, mostly in office jobs, but it gave everybody a way to make a living.”
The F&W Distillery was the largest employer in Lynchburg in 1910. According to census data from that year, the distillery employed 87 of Lynchburg’s 923 residents (250 households).
The distillery also bought the corn, rye, wheat and barley for its whiskeys from local farmers.
“It got to the point where the distillery was using all of the grain that the farmers around town could grow,” Hamlin said. “They had to expand and use horses and buggies to haul grain in because the farmers couldn’t keep up with the demand they had for whiskey.”
The distillery helped more than just Lynchburg residents.
“I would imagine it probably didn’t do much for Hillsboro because it was the big place for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which really opposed whiskey,” Hamlin said. “But farmers from all the surrounding small towns ended up bringing grain to Lynchburg to sell to the distillery.”
The distillery also had its own corn cribs and a cattle herd that consumed a portion of the “slop” leftover from the whiskey production.
The distillery eventually closed for several reasons.
Residents were upset that the distillery operation was polluting the local stream, the East Fork of the Little Miami River. In 1888, they declared, “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.
In September 1893, a fire destroyed the distillery’s large malt house, distillery and redistilling house. The fire’s origin was never determined, but the warehouse was saved from the flames, and 1,250,000 gallons of distilled spirits were safe from the fire.
On Sept. 14, 1893, The News Herald of Hillsboro published an article on the fire that read: “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 the fire, the distillery continued producing whiskey.
“The production was still there, but they didn’t bottle as much there,” Hamlin said. “The company that owned our distillery actually owned one in Cincinnati and one in Petersburg, Ky. By having those three, they were able to haul whiskey around. They were shrewd businessmen.”
When new taxes were placed on whiskey in 1895, the distillery paid taxes for approximately 350,000 gallons of whiskey.
Other legislation also impacted the distillery, like the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897, which regulated how whiskey and other spirits were bottled and advertised, and the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, which regulated how whiskey could be produced, including the ingredients and preservatives distillers could use in their products, and affected how whiskey could be sold.
By the time the Volstead Act passed on Oct. 28, 1919, many whiskey makers, sellers and distributors had already shuttered their facilities. The act, which marked the beginning of Prohibition, put the remaining distilleries out of business.
But that wasn’t the end of the Lynchburg F&W Distillery’s connection with whiskey. In 1923, the collector of Internal Revenue moved 99,000 gallons of whiskey to the distillery for storage. All liquors were moved into central warehouses.
“Lynchburg became the largest bonded warehouse in this area,” Hamlin said. “People across the U.S. were breaking into small distilleries to steal alcohol because nobody was allowed to drink it, sell it or anything. They thought, ‘Let’s move all the whiskey into centralized places, so we don’t have that many places to guard.’ Our distillery had nightwatchmen to keep people from breaking in. We had a lot of break-ins.”
In December 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 Prohibition-era bootlegger who some claim inspired the titular character of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” Each deal fell through, Hamlin said.
Since the distillery closed, the facility’s buildings have served as a feed mill and a grain storage facility among other things.
Today, only one of the buildings from the Freiberg and Workum Whiskey Distillery operation remains. It’s privately owned, Hamlin said. The store, Back In Time Stove Shop, only occupies a portion of the first floor of the building.
“The other parts, you really don’t want to walk in,” Hamlin said. “It’s not very sturdy anymore.”
Anyone who would like to learn more about the distillery and other local Lynchburg history can contact the Lynchburg Historical Society through its Facebook page, “Lynchburg, Ohio Historical Society.”
On April 19 from 2-4 p.m., the historical society will host its third “Reminiscing in Lynchburg” session in the Lynchburg Firehouse’s Community Room. For the program, Lynchburg senior residents will share stories about the village’s past.
Information for this story was provided by John Kellis and Christine Hamlin.
Reach McKenzie Caldwell at 937-402-2570.