West Overton Village is in a unique position. We have existed as a historic site since 1928, but due to irresponsibility and managerial turnover, what little relationship the site had with the public had been largely severed and soured. We have been working since the current director came on in 2012 to steer the organization in a better direction, striving to rebuild our relationship with our community and regain trust, while still trying to reinvent ourselves as a more modern, progressive site. Further, we are trying to convince our largely conservative community that whiskey is inherently agriculture. Mostly a challenge, whiskey has provided us with particular advantages in trying to generate interest in agriculture. With that said, because our efforts to interpret agriculture are so recent, my submission includes projects that are underway and those we plan to implement in the future.

Our approach to public history and agriculture has three strata. The first stratum changes the appearance of the site to make it look and feel more like a living farm again. First, we partnered with a neighboring antique farm equipment organization to create a natural pollinator strip along a busy road. In the future, we hope to build on that partnership. Second, we recently collaborated with a local apiary group to organize the West Overton Beekeeping Association and will have bees on site within a year. Also, we are now working on partnering with a local 4-H organization to bring farm animals back to the site. Though there were at one time a variety of animals on the farm, we have chosen to begin with hogs. Hogs were
important for food on the farm, but they were also critical to the complementary distilling business. To prevent waste, distillers fed used mash to hogs, which fattened them up over the distilling season. By year’s end, the distillers would sell the hogs for further profit or keep them for their own family’s food supply. Finally, after finding a diagram of the family’s nineteenth century garden in our archives, we are working with our volunteer garden society to at least partially recreate the family’s garden.

Our second stratum of action is to create an agricultural co-op on sections of our forty acres of land. This is a new plan; we are currently in the planning stage and are searching for partners and funding. Our short-term goal for this co-op is generate revenue and draw visitors. Long-term, we hope the co-op will spark interest in visitors by enabling them to talk to modern farmers and purchase local produce in a cohesive public history network.

Third, we plan to offer new programming and events to build on our other projects. So far, we hope to include historic trades weekends, hands-on-history programs, and nineteenth century cooking classes. As we develop these programs, it is a requirement that they do more than demonstrate. I want our audience to take part in the program and, if possible, leave with something in their hands.

Because these are all such new initiatives for us, we face many challenges and still have much to consider as we move forward. We are working on building relationships with our audience and community, so we do not yet know how they will respond to our new projects. Also, it is much easier said than done to start an agricultural co-op, and doing so has proven to be a great challenge itself.

Above all, our most unique and most difficult connection to agriculture is whiskey. Because of the boom in craft distilling, we have a new audience that is interested in agriculture only because of its connection to whiskey. For those visitors interested in alcohol, we have the opportunity to share with them its roots in the region’s culture, and they have been so far proven interested and responsive. On the other hand, we are in danger of losing touch with our local, more conservative audience. Because of our recent push to open a distillery, some community members have attacked us and spoken out against us publically for “embracing drunkenness.” Though there are folks that will never accept our changes and connections between alcohol and agriculture, we are hoping our other agricultural projects will be a gateway for us to have that conversation with our community.

Ultimately, because we are not building upon decades-old programming, we have the opportunity to create modern, progressive programming and to get it right the first time. We can increase visitation and simultaneously engage our visitors in deeper conversations, encouraging them to connect with ongoing issues about health, sustainability, and even alcohol. If we find a responsible way to do so, a goal of mine for our agriculture and alcohol programming would be to connect that conversation to our region’s modern opioid epidemic. Because alcohol is often considered a gateway drug, that conversation would be a difficult one for us to embrace, but is a conversation our community needs to have. We can explore issues of gender and ethnicity at our site and challenge the patriarchal stereotypes of agriculture by researching and incorporating the role of women, children, and the village’s two hundred inhabitants into the second and third strata of our project. I look forward to developing these projects over the course of this working group.

Return to this working group’s homepage.


  1. Julia Brock says:

    Aaron, this is a very interesting case of being able to start over–not quite a tabula rasa but a chance to build new connections through exhibitions and programming. In terms of your projects in the works, the focus on equipment and processes (and bees!) seemed in line with the changes Debra Reid is implementing at the Henry Ford, which were catalyzed by assessment (see her ALHFAM piece in the Google drive). I wonder if you have done any front-end assessment to get a sense of what visitors hope to find? And does your sense of the community’s resistance come from direct communication or other means?
    On the latter, I explored your website to learn more and it’s interesting that Henry Overholt was a Mennonite as well as a whiskey distiller. Perhaps that revelation will complicate the story for detractors and suggest that religious faith and the production of alcohol have not always been seen as being at cross-purposes?
    I look forward to hearing more, especially about community resistance and the process of beginning a co-op.

  2. Cathy Stanton says:

    There are so many fascinating possibilities (and challenges) here! I particularly like the way this site and its history link with the question “what is agriculture?” Like just about everything to do with food production, this turns out to be much harder to define once you start thinking about it, so there’s a real opportunity to open it up for audiences as well as for yourselves.

    I agree that starting a “real” agricultural co-op is likely to be one of the bigger challenges here. Are you working with an existing network of farmers or distillers, or building one up from scratch?

  3. Al Hester says:

    Aaron–I was fascinated to read about your reinterpretation of West Overton Village, which includes so many great projects. Since you mentioned it as a central challenge, I kept thinking about why the local community might have concerns about distilling and how those concerns may be rooted in the area’s history, religion and culture (we’re probably all going to weigh in on this part of your case study since it’s so compelling). Your idea of connecting that past to the modern opioid epidemic seems like it might be a feasible one, provided you can get your local audience to engage and contribute. Possibly one way to do it is to have some more organized, facilitated discussions with distillery-resistant community members, and see where it goes. It may naturally end up focusing on pressing current problems like opioid addiction, and if so, then maybe they’d be willing to help you get that idea out there to your other visitors. Or it may go other helpful places. While celebrating heritage whiskey could be great from a marketing standpoint and sounds interesting to me as an outsider, the most meaningful conversations may center on the more resistant local community members. We’ve had some success at our sites inviting the public to take part in developing our interpretive plans, usually in the form of one or two-day stakeholder meetings. You may have already done something similar—but if not, it’s just another method to solicit input and foster engagement.

    1. Debra Reid says:

      Al Hester raises the important point that museums can provide opportunities for civic dialog about controversial subjects. Drys and Wets could find common ground in discussing opioid additions. Public forums on legalizing marijuana might be another subject warranting such community dialog.

  4. Debra Reid says:

    Aaron – Your case study of West Overton Village offers a perfect example of connections between family farming and larger issues affecting a place at a particular time (and over time). From the museum name – Village – I assume this site has more resources than a farm house and barn complex. Other buildings can factor into the story to add depth about local markets (grocery/general store), finance (bank), church (culture and ethnicity). Each of these, in turn, provides additional bridges between then and now, and all have potential to contribute to understanding of agriculture and distilling as you have laid it out. I am interested in class and ethnicity documentation. Do the “drys” farm? if so, where did they sell their corn? Do distilleries have records that you can use to track how far afield they had to go to secure what they needed to meet demand? Did “wets” go to the same churches and frequent the same social clubs? What happened during prohibition? Local breweries and wineries went out of business (and the rebirth took 50 plus years). Did the same thing occur with distilleries? And if so, what changes occurred in farming when farm families lost the corn-whiskey market. Did they stop raising hogs? Did they stop farming all together?
    Interpreting Prohibition at Museums and Historic Sites by Jason S. Lantzer, summarizes prohibition history and its consequences. Your site’s case study indicates how museums can interpret the ways that farmers can get caught in the crosshairs of cultural conflict.

  5. Leisl Carr Childers says:

    I really like the idea of whiskey as agriculture. Perhaps there is reason to consider creating a whiskey distillation landscape that connects West Overton Village with the larger distillation landscape in the early nineteenth century? This kind of agriculture was really important to the economic growth of towns located on the so-called frontier (when was the last time you thought about Pennsylvania as the frontier?!). It plugged the village into the region and country’s trading network.

  6. Amrys Williams says:

    I, too, love the idea of treating whiskey as agriculture—since of course it is! I like how your effort has the potential to engage with the social and cultural aspects of alcohol as well. I echo Debra’s encouragement to think about how broader markets (or their absence) affected farming in the region. I’m also thinking about the grain-hogs-whiskey combination, which I imagine is pretty typical of the region. This could be a way to open up a conversation about getting crops to market in different forms, and what factors influenced farmers’ decisions to sell grain as grain, grain as pork, or grain as whiskey (or mash as pork). You could encourage visitors to think about changes in transportation, as well as preservation methods. There are lots of allied food/drink conversations that this connects to.

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