Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Born Free — Three Generations of a Rye Distilling Family

For more than 62 years a Pennsylvania family named Free perpetuated a whiskey-making tradition that ended only with National Prohibition.  From Adam to Henry & Augustus to H. Kister & Ralph, three generations of Frees gave America a rye whisky that claimed to be: “Always the Same.”   Their hometown was always the same — York, shown below as it looked in 1890.

The progenitor and first distiller of the Free family was Adam, of Scotch descent who began life in Maryland about 1795 and relocated to Pennsylvania in 1818.  After spending several years working as a carpenter and saving his money, about the age of 30 he purchased a farm near a crossroads called Emigsville, adjacent to York.  Early on, Adam Free began distilling, using his excess grains to make whiskey and selling it locally.  That trade proved highly lucrative and having started with virtually nothing, he built an estate in property worth the equivalent of $1.8 million today and was elected a York County commissioner.  Adam died in 1854, age 54.

Thus was the pattern set for the next generation of Free sons.  Adam had married a Pennsylvania woman of German ancestry seven years his junior named Mary Hake.  Over the next fourteen years their union would produce eleven children, among them were sons, Henry and Augustus.  Henry, born in August 1831, was educated in local schools and lived on the family farm.  His first occupation was buying and selling livestock but apparently soon tired of that trade.  In 1856 he joined with younger brother Augustus in a partnership to distill whiskey.   

Calling it H. Free & Company, the brothers located their facility on the turnpike along the Susquehanna River that linked York to the state capitol at Harrisburg. Initially the site of a tavern that had been an important stopping place on the stage coach route, the crossroads became known as Free’s Distillery.  The brothers began with the capacity of mashing 100 bushels of grain daily, a major step up from the production of their father and other local farmer distillers.  With the coming of the York and Cumberland Railroad to their vicinity, Henry and Augustus were able to ship their rye whiskey to other parts of Pennsylvania.

The brothers bottled their rye in amber-hued glass, as shown here. It was heavily embossed with “Established 1887, H. Free & Co., Free’s Pure-Rye Whiskey, York, Penna.”  The bottle was covered with a black and white paper label that contained the Free logo and declared:  “Pure Rye, fully matured in wood before being bottled, unsurpassed in purity, flavor and mellowness.”

Not long after establishing the distillery, Henry married Leah Rutter, the daughter of John Rutter, a well-known figure in York County.  Not a young woman when they married, she bore him four children and died in 1881 at the age of 50 when the younger ones were still in school.  Despite the burdens of a single parent Henry found time to do public service, as his father had.  A Republican, Henry repeatedly was elected township auditor.   His wealth from liquor allowed him to buy three “fine farms” near the Free distillery, and to help organize the State Capital Oil Company and serve as a director.   

Meanwhile his brother, Augustus, also was prospering from the distillery.  The 1870 census gave his net worth at the equivalent today of $247,000.  During the mid-1860s, Augustus had married Jennie Kister, a local woman about five years his junior.  Their first child, Harry, was born in 1869, to be followed by a daughter, Annie, in 1874 and a son, Ralph, in 1878.  

As the brothers aged, they looked to a new generation of Frees to take over the reins of management.  Henry’s sons, all of them with advanced education, including one who became a doctor, apparently had little interest in the distilling trade.  By contrast, Augustus had groomed his sons, Harry — now known as H. Kister — and Ralph, for the business.  When Augustus died in 1900,  Henry Free was semi-retired and living on a small farm one mile north of York where his daughter was keeping house for him.  He died four years later at the age of 73, his monument shown here.

Upon his father’s death H. Kister immediately had taken the reins of management and changed the name of the firm to his own.  Now the embossing on the amber bottles read:  “H. Kister Free, Successor to Established 1857 H. Free & Co., Free’s Pure Rye Whiskey, York Penna.”   With the help of his brother Ralph he was vying with the William Foust Distillery at Glenn Rock for the rye whiskey market in York and surrounding counties.  Given Billy Foust's reputation for multiple giveaway items to customers,  the Frees issued a number of shot glasses advertising Free’s Pure Rye, proclaiming it “Always the Same.”

The sons of Augustus successfully maintained the distillery for the next nineteen years, until forced to shut down by National Prohibition.  H. Kister then moved into restaurant management, according to the 1920 Census.   By this time he was married to Annie M. Stallman.  They would have two sons, both of whom died in childhood.  Eventually H. Kister would engage in selling insurance.  When Repeal came in 1935, the Frees made no effort to return to distilling.  H. Kister died in 1952 at the age of 83 and is buried in Prospect Hill Cemetery, York, where many of his ancestors lie. 

The 62 years the Free Distillery and Free Pure Rye existed, while impressive, is not a Pennsylvania record.  But if the distilling of Adam Free is considered, the tradition stretches back an additional 25 years — a truly astonishing story of a family devoted to making rye whiskey.

Note:  Much of the material on Adam and Henry Free is from the 1886 volume, “History of York County, Pennsylvania,” edited by John Gibson and published by the F. A. Battey Publishing Co., Chicago.  My vignette on the Billy Foust and his distillery was posted June 9, 2011.

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