The Eichelberger Distillery at Dills Tavern will resurrect the dreams of two immigrant families as they stood at the crossroads of a changing American era. The Eichelberger family spent three generations crafting distilled spirits to thirsty American frontiers in rural Dillsburg, Pennsylvania.
Now more than 200 years later, the “new” Eichelberger Distillery at Dills Tavern will carry on that legacy by distilling whiskey with an 18th-century recipe, technique and attitude. The building will be as close a reproduction of what an actual 18th-century distillery would have looked like.
The Eichelberger Distillery at Dills Tavern will share the taste, feel, and history of 18th-century American grit.
The Eichelberger Distillery at Dills Tavern spanned several eras on the timeline of American history. Dills Tavern was established before the American Revolution near the northernmost gap of the South Mountains. Settlers heading west to the frontier, passed through the crossroads with local farmers and drovers who all stopped into the tavern for meals and whiskey on their travels. In 1794, amid the controversy of the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania, the third generation of Dills, converted the log tavern to the stately stone tavern seen today.
At the transition of the 18th to 19th century, a new nation emerged. Colonists were now citizens responsible for their own government. An entrepreneurial spirit flourished in the country as immigrant families like Dills felt enabled by freedoms in their new country. They used grit, opportunity and determination to pursue their vision of the American Dream. Central Pennsylvania was populated by German, Scots-Irish and Quaker immigrants. The mix of ethnicities and immigrant cultures of hard work, risk taking, and self-sacrifice for future generations became the American culture. The country dug itself out of debt, began to prosper and assumed a leadership role in the world. In 1800, the Scots-Irish Dills sold the tavern to the German Eichelbergers.
Before 1800, small farm distilleries operating copper pot stills, dominated whiskey making in America and provided whiskey and other spirits for local consumption. However, taverns were much more than a place to have a whiskey. They were, in fact, the center of social interaction. Most towns built a church first, followed by a tavern. Births were toasted and funerals conducted at taverns. Local farmers, craftsmen and drovers dined with traveling judges, doctors, and merchants. Laborers and people of means shared gills of whiskey as respite from the hard physical labor needed to build a country. But ,drunkenness and unlawful gaming was not tolerated and could cause a tavern keeper to lose his license. Women may have had a “medicinal dram” at home or a bracer in the parlor but were infrequent visitors to the taproom. They were not specifically banned like enslaved people or protected from debauchery like natives, but why would a female traveler hang out in a roomful of sweaty drovers and farmers with manure laded boots? At Dills Tavern, locals learned of events from distant towns and shared news and views of the nascent and tumultuous country. It was a place where “you wanna have a whiskey?” was an invitation to linger by the fire, engaged in conversation and a rye whiskey.
After 1800, farm distilleries became less widespread and production more dominated by larger, efficient distillers. The Eichelberger Distillery was no exception. Prior to the purchase of Dills, the Eichelbergers had been tavern keepers and wagon builders, in addition to distillers. These additional assets helped them expand the distillery business and take advantage of the means to transport their rye, corn, barley spirit to distant markets like Baltimore. Economic opportunity for Dillsburg flourished as more grain, wood, distillers, waggoneers and laborers were needed to meet the growing thirst for distilled spirits in America. Between 1810 and 1820 the gallons of distilled spirits consumed in American tripled. No wonder, by 1826, temperance societies appeared in an effort to deal with the drawbacks of a society where the average adult male consumed 5.1 gallons of spirits per year. After the 1820’s, diversification enabled the Eichelbergers to continue to prosper. As Americans cut back on spirits consumption the role of merchant goods transported on return trips from Baltimore became more important.
Today you can still travel to the crossroads of whiskey and history at Eichelberger Distillery at Dills Tavern. You can see, hear, smell, touch, taste and learn about the distilled spirits of your ancestors. All are now invited to visit the 1794 taproom. But be prepared. You won’t find the hurried pace and omnipresent multi-tasking of modern society. Here at the junction of history and whiskey if you “wanna have a whiskey? “pull up a chair by the fire and join the conversation. Whiskey and history take time.
Most 18th century farm buildings were not constructed with beautiful architectural detail. They were ordinary buildings where function dominated form. In South Central Pennsylvania small farm distilleries were common and sometimes little more than a shack. But craftsmanship in those early buildings was true artistry. I want to share some of the “artistry in the ordinary” of the reconstruction of the Eichelberger Distillery.
Building an 18th century building in the 21st century is fraught with challenges. Meeting code requirements while keeping true to historical accuracy creates diametrically opposed situations. A sprinkler system is hard to hide. Apparently, 18th century distillery customers could find the door without an EXIT sign. However, this innate ability has not been passed on to descendants… at least not in the eyes of Codes folks. We have a large EXIT sign. Some things were not negotiable. Below are three examples of artistry.
It would have been cheaper, but not accurate, to use shingled plywood or a tin roof. NYCHAPS’ vision is to be accurate in construction as well as the distillation processes. At the Eichelberger Distillery wooden lath was attached to 3” x 8” Douglas Fir rafters. Cedar shingles were then attached to the lath. Plywood covered with shingles does not allow the shingles to dry out after a rain. Lath allows airflow below as well as above, facilitating quicker drying and extending the life of the shingles. The overlapping, symmetrical cedar shingles, hand-planned back in the day but machine made today, make an impressive, aesthetic, overhead protective covering.
The stonework on the Eichelberger Distillery is not only historically accurate but beautiful. Most modern stonework is thin stone veneer. Here we re-purposed sandstone from an old barn circa 1810. The stone is cut to 8 inches thick. The lead masonry contractor is Bruce Trostle. He is a third-generation mason and like many vintage stone masons, part artist and part builder. Despite “only 43 years of experience” his craftsmanship is readily apparent. He paces between the rows of stone on the ground searching for the right stone for the right spot. The “coins” or cornerstones are culled from the pile. Next, he gets a mental picture of how the pieces in the wall will fit together. He muds the wall and starts “putting the puzzle together”, leveling each stone as the wall rises. The final step is pointing. After the stones are “set” or dry he fills the joints with cement “mud” from a “pastry bag” and uses a small pointing trowel to fill the gap. On this building he is using a “raised V” style of finish pointing that was typical in 18th century stone buildings.
The roof and stone walls are splendid examples of artistry in the ordinary on the outside. The massive 11 feet, six inch fireplace in the tap room is an example of artistry on the inside. This massive fireplace serves several purposes. Not only will it heat the room, allowing multiple fires for cooking or heating drinks, but it also houses the openings to the fireboxes on the still side of the building. The openings are covered by cast iron doors, one decorated with patrons enjoying drinks. This keeps the “fireside” separated from the “still side”. The masonry fireboxes on the other side of the wall are sealed so that fire and alcohol vapor do not have an explosive meeting. Modern code folks liked this aspect! The fireplace, when plastered, will be an unadorned yet dignified focal point of the tasting room.
Each day progress is made toward completion. Artistry in the ordinary is evident throughout each phase of the project. Hopefully, when the distillers finally get to run mash through the copper pot stills the rather ordinary distilled spirits products will be worthy of the artistry displayed in the Eichelberger Distillery.
The Eichelberger Distillery at Dills Tavern had to be constructed according to the International Building Code. This means that we have to essentially build a modern structure and then add all the 18th century details to it. The stonework is already underway in the back of the distillery. The stone masons are doing a wonderful job. It will take them a while to get the whole building covered.
The next early feature that will appear soon, is the wood shingle roof. The lath has already been installed by the carpenters on the rafters. The lath is evenly spaced to allow the cedar shingles to be nailed to them. Traditionally, wood shingles were fastened to lath so that when the shingles got soaking wet, they could dry out from the inside and the outside. This extended the life of the shingles.
People often think that wood shingles were rough split and put right on the roof. Actually, early tradesmen put each shingle in a shaving horse and used a drawknife to smooth both sides of the shingle and taper them. It was a tremendous amount of work to do this. Often older men would be employed to shave shingles, as it was easy but tedious labor. The closest we can come to having a period looking roof today, is to use nicely sawn shingles. That is what we will use on the distillery.
The wood shingle installation should begin very soon. The dormer will have standing seam metal on it. The masons will continue to veneer the building with stone and the heavy wood widow and door frames will get installed as the stone goes up. It will shortly begin to look a lot more like an 18th century distillery. All good things take time.
The proposed Eichelberger Distillery at the historic Dills Tavern will be a significant addition to a site where visitors can experience the life of a small farming community in early America. Immigrant families tested their new freedoms using grit, ingenuity, and determination to chase the American Dream. As a new nation emerged, the distillery played a major role in the development of the community.
NYCHAPS is following in the footsteps of local pioneers by embarking on its most ambitious project ever – to recreate the production of distilled spirits at the dawn of American Whiskey. The new Eichelberger Distillery will demonstrate how York County led Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania led the nation, in distilled spirits production as 18th century economies paved the way for 19th century growth. As the state’s first Distillery of Historic Significance, NYCHAPS will show how whiskey and freedom intertwined.
The distillery’s construction will be based on rare, documented plans of an early Pennsylvania distillery featuring wood-fired copper stills encased in a masonry envelope. Ledgers kept by the original Eichelberger owners detail what was sold, and an obscure early 19th century manuscript describes mash bills and distilling techniques used specifically in Pennsylvania. These references have been meticulously studied for years by founders Sam McKinney and Murray Small, and will be used to accurately produce spirits that would taste familiar to someone from that period.
Existing historic structures – the Dills Tavern, wheelwright shop, and log barn – create a multifaceted opportunity to demonstrate how farmers, tradesmen, merchants, and laborers contributed to the overall economy. The Dills Tavern tap room is where the products created in the distillery were served. The wheelwright shop allows a visitor to examine the skills and tools necessary to build and repair the wagons used to transport distilled products to Baltimore. That commerce expanded the rural economy into a regional one while the delivery of new products from Baltimore contributed to the local culture.
Our story is one of early entrepreneurs who overcame obstacles, seized opportunities, and built a better future for their families and community. Much as the early settlers of Dillsburg flocked to the tavern and distillery two centuries ago, it is the hope of NYCHAPS that the Eichelberger Distillery at Dills Tavern will continue to be at the heart of this vibrant community.
All of that comes at a cost. Since the initial 2003 purchase of the property for $175,000, NYCHAPS has stewarded $1.5 million. The first project was to transform the tavern, which had suffered from decades of neglect, into a landmark for the Dillsburg community. To further the educational value of the property, the wheelwright shop and log barn were added. Additional smaller but significant interpretive elements include a free-standing squirrel tail oven and hearth, smokehouse, and woodshed. Brick walkways and ADA compliant bathrooms increase overall accessibility, and a commercially licensed modern kitchen allows NYCHAPS to offer historic foodways programs in a safe manner. Most recently, NYCHAPS purchased an additional 1.14 acres of adjoining commercial property, allowing construction of a parking lot which reduces on-street parking and provides handicapped accessibility for the Dillsburg Farmer’s Market and NYCHAPS events.
The vision of building The Eichelberger Distillery at Dills Tavern began over 15 years ago. NYCHAPS’ mission is to complete the stories of how two immigrant families met the demands of a quickly changing world. Over $550,000 has already been committed to the project. Our challenge is to raise an additional $500,000 by May of 2023. We expect to meet that challenge the same way they did – with grit, ingenuity, determination, and the active support of the community we serve. Help us tell this incredible story of freedom and the pursuit of a better life by donating today.