Podcast Episode: The Making of a Whiskey Ghost Town
From Pottinger's Creek came one of the great centers of bourbon whiskey - a place that has been lost to time and circumstance.
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What Happened to New Hope, Kentucky?
One of the great centers of the bourbon industry in the late 1800's started with humble beginnings in the deep woods of Kentucky near present day Pottinger's Creek. But drive around the area today and you would hardly know that this place was once the home of upwards of nine distilleries - selling whiskey from Boston, Massachusetts to San Francisco, California.
This is the origin story of New Hope, Kentucky and the surrounding area. It features the names Basil Hayden, J.W. Dant, George Willett, and other bourbon whiskey legends.
Featuring special guest Wally Dant of Log Still Distillery in New Hope.
Listen to the full episode with the player above or find it on your favorite podcast app under "Whiskey Lore." The full transcript is available on the tab above.
Driving into New Hope, KY
Driving down state road 247, also known as Monks Road, about 20 minutes south of Bardstown, I drive through rolling farmlands and countryside. As I drew nearer to my destination, the trees on this little backroad started crowding in. Then suddenly a clearing, where the skies opened up a white stone fence appeared on the left..
Up on the hill behind the fence and trees there as a steeple and rooftops. I realized I was passing by the Abbey of Gethsemani, a community of Trappist monks who had moved to this spot in 1848 on land donated by John Baptist Dant, or James as he was better known. A man strong in faith, and the originator of the Dant family name in this area. James was the great grandfather of Joseph Washington Dant, the namesake of the J.W. Dant brand of bourbon you may have seen somewhere near the Old Crow's and Kentucky Gentleman in your local whiskey shop. He is also the seven times great grandfather of the man I'm traveling to see, J.W. "Wally" Dant.
Before going to see him, I drive up into the nearby town of New Hope. You wouldn't know by looking around today, but at one time, there were upwards of nine distilleries within 3 miles of this area. As I curve around on state road 52, I'm greeted my more sprawling farmlands, trees, hills, wooden fences, and a few scattered houses. As I come to the turn that will lead me down into town, I'm thankful for my GPS as there aren't any signs that say New Hope, only the highway 52 road sign pointing to the right. After a few more farms, I cross over a bridge with cement barricades on each side and think nothing of it. My mind is fixed on the town ahead and what I'll discover. Just past the New Hope Food Mart, I turn to the right - down state road 457. Little do I know that to my left a short distance away, once stood two distilleries, the E.L. Miles Distillery and New Hope Distillery.
As I travel up hill, I seem to heading more into forest, than into a town. Trailers and houses fill the spaces between large groups of trees. The road forks and suddenly there are a mix of 19th and early 20th century homes. Two blocks up and if I didn't have GPS, I might have missed the town all together. To the left I see the New Hope post office, I turn up Church Street, the only direction I can, climb the hill and to my right is St. Vincent de Paul's Catholic Church. The land for this church was donated by the distillery's namesake, Edward Leo Miles, the owner of the once thriving distillery that stood in a spot not far from where I just passed.
After walking around the parking lot and taking a few pictures, I walked down the street and tried to imagine what this town looked like 125 years ago, when the area was at its peak. When most of the towns people were either employed by a distillery or were providing grain and supplies to support the distilleries. Today, all I could see where a couple of houses, a church, and a post office. Not a single human being was out an about.
What happened to this community? And how did it grow to generate so much bourbon, only to turn into a forgotten piece of history? What happened to the families and the distilleries? The easy answer would seem to be Prohibition and the Great Depression, but history is never that simple.
After turning back up the road and heading back and turning left Dee Ford Road, I immediately turned right and saw the first signs of life...a construction zone where Wally Dant’s Log Still Distillery is currently being built out of the shell of the area’s only remaining piece of that bygone era. A tall black watertower, that has stood proudly since the 1930s, proclaims the return of the Dant Family to the area. The spot where that tower now stands, was likely the very same spot John Baptiste Dant stood on in 1785 after his move from St. Mary's, Maryland to the shores of Pottenger Creek, that little seemingly insignificant waterway I had just crossed over moments before.
Before I talk to Wally and his family about their recollections of New Hope, the reasons it became a ghost town, and their plans for this distillery and the community, let's go back to the founding of this bourbon rich area and see how three prominent families brought it from wilderness to a thriving whiskey community.
Around 1774, former Marylander Samuel Pottenger and his friend James Harrod were out scouting the countryside for some prized lands. Residents of the Cox Creek area, they followed Rolling Forks River past present day Bardstown down to a little waterway they would name Pottenger Creek.
The surrounding lands were rich with trees, fertile ground, and stocked thick with wild animals including bison herds. It seemed a promising spot, but for Samuel, at the ripe age of 23, migrating to this location would have to wait. The colonies were taking up arms against England and he was drawn to the cause. He enlisted as a private and served as an infantryman for 6 months. When he returned to Kentucky, he split his time between military duties and attending to his family. Released from the army as a Captain around 1781, he remembered that little creek in the woods, set up a fort, and made his home there.
Pottenger Station was a fort with 2 log cabins, a stockade and a meat cabin for feeding the inmates. Natives were very active in this area, and they weren't too happy a the loss of their land and their food supply. Raids weren't uncommon and on one such raid, one of the men at the station, John Gilkey met his fate and was scalped during one of the uprisings. It would be Gilkey's widow that would soon marry Captain Sam - and make him the father of five inherited stepchildren.
As Pottenger Station became more stable, a large influx of Catholics moved in from Maryland, including many forefathers to the bourbon industry, men like Basil Hayden, Jeremiah Wathan, Philip Mattingly, and John Baptist Dant (1745-1808) who arrived in 1785.
This growth in the community meant that the fort could no longer hold Captain Sam and his growing family, so he set about building a brick mansion, quite an unusual site in the thinning out wilderness of Kentucky. It was a home built off of his memories of the homesteads from his youth in Maryland. He called it Walnut Hill. Below it, he would build a grist mill and set up a whiskey still.
Within a few years, the population would grow rapidly, as Basil Hayden would bring in 60 families and Father Stephen Badin of Holy Cross Church would recruit over 300 families to the area around Pottenger Station in 1793. Many of them made their living through farming and in that day, farmer distillers would harvest their corn in the fall and then turn the excess into corn liquor. By 1811 the state of Kentucky would show no less than 2000 legal distilleries on her tax rolls.
With Kentucky now founded as a state and Nelson County firmly established, the area needed land commissioners to establish titles and boundaries. Captain Sam was appointed along with another recent Maryland transplant Henry Miles. Henry would soon take up the craft of distilling, establishing his business in Pottenger Station around 1796.
At the turn of the 19th century, the seeds had been planted by three distilling families, the Dants, the Miles, and the Pottengers, seeds that would explode in growth some 7 decades later creating one of the centers of bourbon whiskey production in Kentucky.
But while the population had grown exponentially, the distilling business was still small-time in the area. It wouldn't be until 1836 that the great grandson of John Baptist Dant would begin to develop his whiskey business, using an unusual method. J. W. Dant’s historic method of distillation would be the inspiration for the name of the new distillery Wally Dant and his family are working on - near the site of the old Pottenger Station.
Wally Dant of Log Still Distillery - "I don't know if you know the name I don't know if I included in that email but it's called Log Still this right just Distillery is what we're calling this place and that harkins again back to the original JW Dant who started out distilling in a hollowed out log.t And so he's one of those old what they call the old time distillers it actually you know they didn't have a whole lot of money to rub between the fingers by you know any sort of copper and so he started out in a hollowed out you know oak log with tubes running up to the top of it. And so that was his column still and what they used to you know manufacture consistent product and and so prior to him having any money from making it that's why he started and so we called our company that to harken back to that history and legacy of our family being here. And quite frankly we thought that it was a pretty cool little name for us to be able to utilize and riff on and make sure that our Dant family heritage was included."
Let’s turn the clock back to 1838, and the start of the Dant family distilling legacy in Kentucky.
Joseph Washington Dant better known as J.W. quickly became a success in the distilling business as his log-distilled whiskey quickly gained a positive reputation. The farm where he distilled what would become J.W. Dant Bourbon was just a few miles east of Pottenger Station on the way to St. Francis and Loretto, the site of the modern day Maker's Mark Distillery.
When the Louisville & Nashville Railroad's Lebanon Branch was built through the area in the late 1850's, the stop at his farm became known as Dant Station. A few years after the Civil War in 1870 J.W. Dant Bourbon whiskey was popular enough that he decided it was time to increase capacity by building a very unique state-of-the-art distillery. One of its innovations was the use of gravity. His mash tubs were elevated above the fermenters and gravity would push the mash down into the fermenters. The family's success would begin to fin branch off, as some of J.W.'s sons would continue on both inside and outside of Dant, Kentucky.
Meanwhile, halfway between Dant Station and Pottenger Station, the town of New Hope was being established. It had gained its first post office in 1844 and as word of a potential railroad stop grew an industrious young distiller and real estate investor Edward Leo Miles started buying up land in the area. Edward was the son of land commissioner and distiller Henry Miles. Between 1849 and 1853 E.L. Miles purchased the area that today encompasses a large portion of the modern townsite of New Hope. His mother Ann Miles would complete the land grab just after the Civil War, snagging over 1000 acres south to Sulphur Lick Creek.
During the war, E.L. Miles spent time with his wife living in New Orleans, but at the close of the war, he decided to come home and start his life as a distiller in his own right.
Edward's distillery would be built on the same farm that his father had settled on in 1796. The war had stopped his father's production, but his son was soon able to ramp up production and get things moving. Soon, E.L. Miles was being sold from Boston, Massachusettes to San Francisco. The trainline greatly enhanced his ability to move barrels. It would become one of the largest distilleries in the state of Kentucky. Edward was also a gentleman and a well respected man around the community. It is said that he deeded part of his land to St. Vincent de Paul for the site of their new church.
E.L. Miles Distillery was successful enough that in 1875, he drew the attention of a Louisville commission merchant named Thomas H. Sherley, he proposed a partnership in a second plant that would be called New Hope Distillery, with Sherley taking over as the chief distiller.
Not to be outdone by the Dant's or the Miles family, in 1872, Thomas Jefferson (or T.J.) Pottinger, grandson of Captain Sam, opened a distillery not far from the newly established Gethsemane Station. T.J.’s whiskey would be a successful local brand, but he would make his mark in the whiskey industry by patenting a warehousing system in 1881 that aided in the stacking of barrels.
By 1880, the growth of the whiskey industry in this three mile radius was exploding. The next twenty years would be a golden era for the area around New Hope.
Coon Hollow and Big Spring
Two new distilleries opened up right next door to each other to start the decade, in an area called Coon Hollow. In an effort to get themselves a foothold in the area, the distillers of Coon Hollow who made a sour mash bourbon and Big Spring Distilleries who made a fire copper bourbon created a newspaper called the Coon Hollow Herald and they used it to to promote the medicinal nature of their whiskey through local pharmacists and physicians. Both of these distilleries were under the parent Nelson County Distillery Company. They were prized for their making of open fire heated pot still sour mash whisky. They had six massive warehouses and used hydrolic elevators to shift their barrels around for more even aging.
Another founding family for the region was about to make a major splash in the area. But the details are scattered at best and may become one of the regions biggest mysteries. And interestingly enough, the home of this mystery is the very spot where Wally Dant is building his current distillery.
Apparently J.W. Dant's eldest son Joseph Bernard Dant is credited with building Cold Spring Distillery in 1854. This distillery would go on to produce a whiskey that would become legendary - a whiskey that left the family for a while, but is currently being produced by a descendant of J.W. Dant. That whiskey is Yellowstone.
But here is the rub. Joseph Bernard Dant would have been 4 years old in 1854. Building a distillery would have been quite a feat for someone of his age. There is little doubt that the property where Cold Spring Distillery was built was in the possession of the Dant family. But young J.B. was an unlikely source for its creation. There are two other likely sources, but neither one can be proven as far as I can find. The most obvious choice would be J.W. Dant's father John Baptist Dant, born in 1799. If true, that would add to the line of distillers in the family. However, it could also be that J.W. Dant started the second distillery and later on turned it over to his eldest son J.B. Another statement suggests that J.B. Dant's whiskey was popular enough that it's main distribution was taking notice in 1865, just as the Civil War ended and J.B. was 15 years old.
Because of the mess in this timeline, I started looking closer at the origins of Yellowstone bourbon and found its introduction to the market being mentioned by various dates between 1871 and 1882. The story goes that a salesman for the firm D.H. Taylor & Co. named Charles Townsend, went on a cross country trip out west in 1871. Along his path, he encountered the newly formed Yellowstone National Park. He was so impressed that he polled his customers, asking if the name Yellowstone would be a sellable name for a bourbon and soon some of J.B. Dant's bourbon produced at Cold Spring Distillery was branded as Yellowstone. Yellowstone didn’t become a National Park until 1872, so if Townsend was traveling in 1871, was he getting a sneak preview of the park or was his trip so long, it lasted two years or more?
Lack of records make this very hard to nail down.
Around 1876 or 1877, J.T. Williams joined Taylor firm which became Taylor & Williams. Looking for a distiller, it is suggested that sometime in the early 1880's a contract was set between J.B. Dant and Taylor & Williams to produce Yellowstone along with two other bourbons, Rich Hill and Honey Dew.
However it happened, Yellowstone would take off and Cold Spring Distillery, also referred to as the Yellowstone plant become a quick success.
The distillery also produced a sour mash whiskey called Cold Spring and a rye whiskey called Nelson Country Club. They were known for quality over quantity, maybe in response to the mass production going on over at E.L. Miles. By 1888, J.B. would hire a New Hope native Crittenden Clark. Clark's maternal grandfather was another pioneer of Kentucky bourbon and an original settler in the area, George Willett). Clark would rise quickly in the company and within three years he would serve as the chief distiller.
Meanwhile, E.L. Miles was quickly recovering from a major tragedy. On Saturday, May 19, 1883, a fire engulfed both the E.L. Miles and New Hope Distilleries. The dairy distillery saw their grain and cattle going up in flames. Half a million dollars worth of whiskey was saved when the fire reached the warehouse but was extinguished before the entire complex was leveled. Luckily the distilleries were insured and both were rebuilt near their original spots. Apparently not too afraid of a further fire, the new rebuilt New Hope Distillery gained the distinction of becoming the first distillery in the area to feature incandescent lamps and electricity.
Head & Beam
Also in 1883 T.J. Pottinger decided to get out of the business and sold out to Francis Head and Minor Case Beam. If that second name sounds familiar, it should be. It would be the start of a family line that would begin to intermingle with the Dant family and would produce the last two remaining Beams with direct ownership of a distillery.
Minor Case Beam had been working for his uncle Jack Beam at his Early Times facility at Early Times Station near Bardstown. He would take over as master distiller at the new Head & Beam distillery, producing brands like F.M. Head, Head & Beam, Old Trump, and T.J. Pottinger & Co.
By 1885 another new distillery would be built, the Belle of Nelson Distillery was the creation of Bartley, Johnson & Co, newcomers to this thriving area. They had just acquired the Belle of Nelson name from Mattingly & Moore in Bardstown. An impressive facility, the large warehouses graced the hills, while the distillery sat in a revine, just above a picturesque stream and pond. The distillery was situated between the E.L. Miles/New Hope complex and the Coon Hollow/Big Springs Distilleries.
By the last decade of the 19th century, if you were a resident of the area, you were likely tied into the distillery business some how, either as a distiller, an employed family member, distillery employee, coopers, coopersmiths, US government taxmen, botting house employees, labelers, whiskey dealers, millers, millwrights, and farmers.
The town that existed then was much different that what exists today.
Wally Dant - "New Hope had probably at that point in time probably two banks I believe from what I at least what I was told anyway and you know none of that exists today they had a number of hotels in that area and none of that exists today."
One of those hotels was Sulphur Springs, and in next week's episode, we'll take a closer look at the peak of New Hope, and hear much more from both Wally and Charles Dant on their memories of Sulphur Springs, how their family survived Prohibition, and their recollections of New Hope after the whiskey industry started to fade into memory.
I'll also pinpoint some of the critical events that took this area from upwards of nine distilleries to none. And we'll hear what plans the Dant family have for the old distillery at Gethemene Station.
Next time on Whiskey Lore
Whiskey Lore is a production of Travel Fuels Life
Research, stories and production by Drew Hannush
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I want to send a big thank you out to Mike Monahan of Preservation Distillery. When I told him I was looking to tell the story of a town that was greatly affected by Prohibition, he told me about his home in New Hope and set up my interview with Wally and Charles. And I thank him immensely for that connection. This is a great story and one that needs to be told. Join me next week. And until then.
Cheers and Slainte math
- https://www.americanwhiskeytrail.com/american-whiskey-historyProhibition in Bardstown: Bourbon, Bootlegging & Saloons - Doris Settles & Dixie Hobbs
- Nelson County Library Resources from Geneological Roundtable
- A Rough Sketch of Gethsemene based on the recollections of Lovell B. Pottinger 1983
- The Nelson County Record - Illustrated Historical and Industrial Supplement - Dixie Hobbs
- Dead Distillers: A History of the Upstarts and Outlaws Who Made American Spirits By Colin Spoelman, David Haskell