Monday, July 22, 2019

The Pennsylvania Steins Put Their Faith in Whiskey


With memories of religious discrimination in Europe, at least four generations of a “Pennsylvania Dutch” family channeled their efforts over three centuries to make and sell quality rye whiskey.  As a consequence the Steins of Greenwich Township, Berks County, wrote themselves into state history.

The story of the Stein family began in Evangelish, Siegen, Westfalen, Prussia in 1735 when their progenitors, Jacob (I) and wife, Anna, had twin boys.  One they named Jacob (II), the other John.  When Jacob (II) reached maturity he emigrated from his homeland to the United States and to Pennsylvania where religious tolerance had attracted many of his fellow Evangelical Germans and other dissenters from traditional Lutheranism. 

Jacob (II) married and raised a family while occupied as a farmer on the rich lands of Berks County.   There his son,  Johannes “Jonas” Stein was born in 1766.  He like his father was a farmer, tilling the soil in a district called Greenwich that had been incorporated as a township in 1755.  He and his family likely worshiped in freedom at a nearby Reformed Lutheran congregation in a primitive log church that was replaced by a second log house of worship in 1790.

The concept of distilling was common among these immigrants.  In Europe, dissenter from established religions often were discriminated against in the common trades of the time and excluded from craftsmen guilds.  As a result, having no religious scruples about alcohol, some turned to making strong drink; others to running saloons.  No evidence exists that Jonas Stein had any background in distilling but the picture changed with the next generation. 

In 1791, a baby boy was born to Jonas and spouse unknown.  Unsurprisingly, they named him Jacob (III).  He grew up on his father’s farm, eventually owning five hundred acres that he divided into five properties, building houses and farm buildings on each and leasing them. He also built a schoolhouse to accommodate his tenants’ children.  

Known as the Stein family “whiskey pioneer,” Jacob, shown right, in 1830 built the original distillery in the southern part of  Greenwich Twp. and began producing “Stein’s Pure Rye”  Meanwhile one of the two major cattle driving routes in Pennsylvania had brought prosperity to the area spurring a large cattle auction, three stores and seven taverns to service the thirsty drovers.  Although other distilleries operated in the area, Jacob Stein’s was the largest and best known, celebrated for its quality whiskey.  Twenty years later he started a tavern called the Three Mile House not far from his distillery.


Religious faith had continued to animate the Stein family down the years.  Log structures as churches increasingly were becoming obsolete.  Jacob and his neighbor religionists in 1861 banded together to build a substantial house of worship in Greenwich, known formally as the Bethel Zion Church.  Shown here, it was originally constructed of bricks and replaced by stone in the 1920s.When Jacob (lll) died in 1874, age 80, he was buried in the church cemetery.

By that time he had been replaced as the family distiller by his son, Adam Stein, born in 1819 of Jacob and Susan Sontag Stein.  Shown here, Adam bought his father’s property in Greenwich, including the farm and the distillery.   He continued to make the rye whiskey whose fame was spreading across Pennsylvania.  About 1847, at the age of 28, Adam married Floranda Bieber, a woman eight years younger.  He would be married twice, with both wives dying early.

Like his ancestors, Adam was a doer.  In 1857 he built a four story Federal style mill on a site where earlier mills had been owned and operated.  Shown here, it stands today as one of the oldest buildings in the township and on the Federal Register of Historic Places.  He also continued operation of the Stein Tavern on what became Pennsylvania State Highway 737.  In addition to distilling a popular applejack, Adam continued to produce the family rye.  According to an obituary, he “…kept up the reputation of that famous distillation in this section during the time when very little other spiritous liquor was used.”


Adam was known for his civic work, particularly his interest in education.  Following in his father’s footsteps, when the Keystone State Normal School at nearby Kutztown was envisioned, the farmer/distiller saw the need for an advanced education to train teachers and gave “liberal encouragement and support.”  As a result he was named one of the school’s first trustees and served for eleven years at the institution, shown above in a postcard view.  In 1864 Adam was elected a Berks County Commissioner for a three years term.

As he aged, Adam’s health declined and he died in May 1897 at the age of 77.  He was buried adjacent to his father Jacob in the cemetery at New Bethel Zion Church, the place where he had worshiped his entire life.

Adam’s first child had been a son, born in 1848 and baptized Isaac.  As soon as he reached maturity the Isaac had been brought into the management of the farm, distillery and tavern.  As his father faltered, the son took charge, buying the distillery outright in 1893 and continuing production of Stein’s Pure Rye.  Shown here, Isaac is credited as an innovator among the Steins.  Although farming had been the major occupation of his Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors, Isaac was primarily interested in distilling.  

According to a biography:  “Having years of experience in the business, he started out with more progressive ideas.”  Among them was updating the whiskey-making technology of his forefathers.  “The Old Stein Distillery was replaced with an entirely new plant, introducing all the latest equipment known in the distiller’s art.”

In 1876 at the age of 28 Isaac had married, his bride Tillinia E. Sechler, a local Pennsylvania woman.  They would have four children, the eldest a son, Charles, born in 1879, and three daughters.  As Charles advanced in age Isaac saw the need for more education in the 20th Century and sent him to the Keystone State Normal School, where he graduated in 1900.  After a brief teaching career, Charles joined his father in running the Stein distillery,  designated in Federal records as RD #79, Pennsylvania Tax District #1.



Father and son formed a new firm of I. B. Stein and Son, Distillers and Wholesale Liquor Dealers.  Indicative of this move into the wholesale whiskey business is a metal tray that carried the color portrait of a winsome young woman and advertised the slogan, “For Goodness Sake Drink…Stein’s Pure Old Rye.”  This lithographed object would be given to special customers like saloons and restaurants featuring the Steins’ whiskey.  Not meant as a carrying tray it was configured on the back to hang on the wall of a drinking establishment. 

Shown here, Charles rapidly established himself as a Kutztown businessman.  In addition to his post at the distillery, he helped organize the Kutztown Telephone and Telegraph Company, a business that could count 345 subscribers in 1916.  Charles was also a director of the Farmer’s Bank in Kutztown and active in local fraternal organizations.  In 1902 he married Nora A. Dietrich in Kutztown.  One son, Russell, was born from this union.

In 1915, a publication compiled for the Kutztown Centennial (1815-1915) paid special tribute to the family.  Under the headline “The Stein Family:  Distillers for Four Generations,”  it featured a full page of photos of Jacob, Adam, Isaac and Charles along with short biographies.  The coverage and lauding of Stein’s Pure Rye Whiskey must have been a source of pride for Isaac and Charles.  At the same time, however, they could see the advance of National Prohibition and knew that almost ninety years of distilling good Pennsylvania rye would soon come to an end.  The exact date of the shutdown I have not found, but the 1920 census recorded Isaac living in Kutztown, where the family had moved in 1905, and giving his occupation as “merchant.”  He was living with wife, Nora, and three daughters — all unmarried in their 30s.

Neither Isaac nor Charles lived to see the end of Prohibition. Isaac died in July 1928 at the age of 80.  Charles, only 52, died three years later.  Both are buried in Hope Cemetery at Kutztown.  Their adjacent graves are marked with a monument.   Thus a family dynasty of whiskey-makers that began in the early 1700s apparently because of a search for religious freedom in America ironically was ended by a religious crusade determined to stamp out any freedom to imbibe spiritous beverages.

Note:  Although this post was compiled from a number of references, as cited above a principal source of the Stein photos and biographical materials was “The Centennial History of Kutzown, Pennsylvania,” compiled by the Historical Committee of the Kutztown Centennial Assn., Chairman, W. W. Deatrick. 


















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