Shown right in maturity, Sam was born in Westmoreland County in October 1810, the eldest child of Daniel and Mary (Myers) Dillinger, and bought up on a farm. His father had emigrated from eastern Pennsylvania and evidence exist that the family was of Swiss Mennonite origins. The name Dillinger was pronounced “Dilling-Grrr” not “Dillon-Jerr” like that of the notorious gangster. With only a limited education, as a young man Sam apparently had several occupations, including trading in cattle and horses, and as a wagoneer cross the Appalacians. Seemingly more important was a stint working at a grist mill and distillery where Dillinger learned how to make rye whiskey and also, it is thought, something about marketing it.
In 1831 Dillinger married Sarah Loucks, related to the famous Overholt distilling family, and soon their wedding after they purchased and located on what became known as “Home Farm” near Alverton, Pennsylvania, shown above. Sarah was accounted a woman whose “energy, faithfulness and frugality” were a definite asset to Sam. The couple would go on to have a family of ten children, seven girls and three boys.
Perhaps it was the financial requirements of a rapidly growing family that caused Dillinger to expand his enterprises. In 1850 he purchased a grist mill in nearby West Bethany and soon added a distillery, shown here. This he operated with success to a regional clientele for some thirty years, bring his sons into the business as they matured.
In 1881 the West Bethany distillery was destroyed by fire. When he rebuilt, it was nearby at a locality known as Ruff’s Dale. By this time Sam had been joined by sons Daniel and Samuel Jr. Shown above, this distillery was operated as “Samuel Dillinger & Sons.” It became one of the best known in Pennsylvania, second in production only to the Gibson Distillery [see my post on Gibson, July 2014].
In time the distillery had a mashing capacity of five hundred bushels of grain daily, producing 50 barrels of whiskey, and six warehouses with a combined storage capacity of 55,000 barrels. The Dillingers also operated several bottling operations for their retail sales. The family name appeared proudly on ever flask and quart of their flagship Pennsylvania Straight Rye Whiskey.
Meanwhile, Sam had been expanding further. With growing prosperity he purchased additional farmland adjoining Home Farm until he owned more than 600 contiguous acres, all of it on top of rich fields of coke coal. That spurred him in 1872 to erect a number of coke ovens, eventually said to total more than 100. One author has opined: “Dillinger and Sons are therefore entitled to rank among the pioneer coke producers of Pennsylvania.” Sam also was one of the founders of the Southwest Pennsylvania Railway in 1872 and served as a director for years.
Denied book learning himself, Dillinger was portrayed as an “untiring worker” for the “free” public school system and he served for years on the county school board. In addition, he did contract work to build school houses, churches, and other local buildings. Affiliated with the Democratic Party, Dillinger opposed slavery, but as a Mennonite and a pacifist, was opposed to the Civil War believing that, as a biographer has noted, “…That slavery would terminate its existence by the education of the people to the fact that it was wrong and that this course would better prepare the slaves for their freedom.”
Marked by extraordinary vigor throughout his life, at age 79 Dillinger in 1889 very suddenly was felled by a paralyzing stroke and never regained consciousness. With his large family including children and grandchildren grouped around his grave, he was interred in the Mennonite Cemetery at Alverton. His monument, shown here, was inscribed “Erected to the Memories of an Honest Man and Constant Friend.”
Dillinger’s sons, Daniel and Samuel Jr. continued to operate the highly successful distillery their father had founded until they were forced to close by National Prohibition in 1919. At some point during America’s fourteen year “dry” period, the family sold out to the Rosenbloom family who earlier had operated a liquor dealership on Pittsburgh’s North Side. The Dillingers had known the Rosenblooms for a long time, providing whiskey for their rectifying operation. As shown here on a post-Prohibition label, the Rosenblooms kept the Dillinger name on their whiskey but now it had become a “blend.” They also changed the name of the company name to “Ruffdale Distilling Company” The distillery later would change ownership several times before terminating business about 1966. Sam Dillinger’s whiskey-making, begun in the 1850s had extended down into the 1960s — a run of more than a century.
Summing up the life of this extraordinary distiller, a biographer echoed the sentiments found on Dillinger’s tombstone: “He was an honest man, and never feared to express the convictions of his conscience. He was a constant friend and neighbor, and was ever ready and willing to lend a helping hand to the weak and erring or downtrodden.” Sam also proved without a doubt that a former wagoneer also could “haul and deliver” quality Pennsylvania rye whiskey.
Note: Much of the material for this article and of the quoted material above comes from an article written posthumously about Dillinger for the 1906 publication, History of Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, Volume 2, edited by John Boucher for the Lewis Publishing Company, New York.