One cannot talk about the history of Pennsylvania’s distilleries without mentioning Bomberger’s Distillery. It was, in fact, the oldest operating distillery in the United States until Valentine’s Day, 1990, when its doors were locked for the last time. It joined the rest of America’s distilleries when it halted operations during Prohibition but was one of the few distilleries to return to large scale whiskey production after Repeal. Modern whiskey historians have plenty to say about Michter’s Distillery, which was the name given to Bomberger’s in the late 1970s, but the name Michter’s does not encapsulate the legacy of one of the pillars of Pennsylvania’s distilling history. The longer legacy belongs to the descendants of John and Michael Shenk who been distilling rye whiskey there since 1753. The tradition and history of Bomberger’s Distillery is older than our nation. Its stills were lit the same year that a 21-year-old George Washington was receiving his first military appointment before the escalation of the French and Indian War. Pennsylvania would not even become a state for another 34 years!
The first men to distill on the site were John and Michael Shenk, early settlers of Lebanon County. They were descendants of the first Swiss Mennonite settlers in Pennsylvania. The Mennonite tradition of distilling and their association with liquor was so deeply rooted back in Europe that the terms “Mennonite” and “tavern” had become synonymous in northeastern Germany. The Shenk brothers set up their still house along Snitzel Creek, a branch of Hammer Creek. Michael Shenk is listed among Heidelberg Township’s tax payers in county records from 1753.* The area where they settled was a dangerous place in the mid-18th century for European settlers due to the constant threat of violence from the local Native Americans. The distilling operation conducted by the brothers would have been for their own benefit and that of their neighbors. It would have served as an extension of their farm and mill work. In fact, by 1779, Michael is listed as owning 2 mills and the two men appeared (on paper) to be thriving. Michael Shenk’s son-in-law, Rudolph Meyer (married to Barbara Shenk), saw the potential in the distillery and recognized the demand for the whiskey that was made there. When he became proprietor in the 1780’s, Meyer expanded the facility adding two new stills and began to turn the property’s focus toward distilling. By 1782, 2 stills were in operation, and by 1790, a third was added. The distillery’s principal product was rye whiskey. Rudolph operated the distillery, shipping whiskey by pack horse to buyers, until his death in 1823.
The next notable owner of the property was John Kratzer who served as proprietor from 1827-1860. He came to own the property after his marriage to Elizabeth Shenk, the great-grand daughter John Shenk. (The Lebanon Courier listed a Joseph Kratzer as being the distillery’s license owner in 1852. This may have been a misspelling, but it is more likely a relative. A 30-year-old Jacob Kratzer was listed as “Distiller” in Heidelberg Township’s census listing from 1860. He was listed as living with a 60-year-old widow, Elizabeth Kratzer. Elizabeth was likely John Shenk’s widow and Jacob’s mother.) The whiskey, whether produced by John Kratzer himself or by a close relative, was recognized for its high quality. Anecdotes from the mid-19th century show that “Old Kratzer” was a whiskey reserved for special occasions. Even years after Kratzer was no longer the owner, his whiskey is mentioned in local publications as being a rare and prized bottle for its owner. Elizabeth Shenk Kratzer came to own the distillery after John’s death. It is often stated that Elizabeth sold the property to Abraham Shenk Bomberger around 1860, but he may have only held a lease. Though the names changed as the distillery changed hands, it consistently remained within the family through marriage. Abe Bomberger’s mother, Elizabeth, was a Shenk before her marriage to John Bomberger, making her children descendants, as well. Over the next decade, A.S.Bomberger firmly established himself, earning a trusted reputation at the distillery. The original deed to the property shows him officially taking ownership in 1872, the year his eldest son was born.
Abraham Bomberger, born November 10, 1837, was raised on his father’s homestead in Lebanon Township. His grandfather, John, settled the family’s land after immigrating from Germany. Abraham attended the local schools and worked his family’s farm for a short while before assuming proprietorship of the old Kratzer still house. He partnered with his elder brother, Israel, and traded under the name A.S.Bomberger & Brother. Together, they ran the distillery and maintained a wholesale business out of the retail house on the property. Abraham married Catherine Horst in 1866 and they had their first son, Horst H. Bomberger, six years later. The first-class rye whiskey produced by the Bomberger brothers along with the low prices they maintained earned them an excellent local reputation. Their handmade sweet-mash rye whiskey was aged in one of their 22x50 ft. bonded warehouses. The warehouses, one brick and the other ironclad, sat side by side and held about 300 barrels each. The facility, a 2 ½ story frame building, ran about 6 months of the year with an average mash capacity of 18 bushels, yielding 4.2 gallons per bushel. The Bombergers also kept hogs and cattle on the property that they fattened on the distillery’s spent mash. Abraham was noted as being the active distiller, and he began teaching his sons the trade as young men. Horst took on an active role alongside his father in the 1890s. In October of 1897, the local newspaper describes Abraham falling through the floor of the distillery into the basement and dislocating his shoulder. The local doctors could not replace the joint, so he had to make a trip to Philadelphia to seek medical treatment. This episode shows that he had clearly been very “hands on” in the daily activities at the facility. Just after the turn of the century, Abe Bomberger took on his 28 year old son, Horst, as his partner and changed the company’s name to A.S. Bomberger & Son. Abraham’s second son, Samuel, was 7 years younger than Horst, but worked in the distillery and learned the business as well. In 1901, they were running 35-38 gallons per day and had 300-400 barrels of whiskey on hand.
Abraham Bomberger died on November 19, 1904 at the age of 67. By the following week, the distillery had been transferred to his sons. Horst and Samuel would now conduct business as A.S.Bomberger’s Sons. There must have been construction underway to expand the business again before Abe’s passing as this Lebanon Daily News article from Nov. 28, 1904 explains: “The new still and warehouse are almost completed, and by next week the place will be started in operation for the winter. Hereafter there will be six fermenting tubs instead of three as previously. The distillery is one of the best known in the section and the product of the plant has attained a reputation that is spread wide.” The distillery was now running at full capacity and on a larger scale than ever before. In October 1907, Horst filed the licenses under his own name and began using his name in advertising and labeling.
Around 1912, Horst began to suffer from advancing Parkinson’s disease. He continued to run the business with Samuel, but it is likely that he brought his sons, Leon and Paul into the trade as well. Paul Bomberger, for whatever personal reasons, was not interested in remaining in the family business and ran away in December of 1919, cutting off communications with his family. It was rumored he changed his name to Frank Smith and joined the circus! The Bombergers continued to distill rye whiskey until 1917 when the nation ceased production for the war, at which point the distillery was inactive and effectively abandoned. Horst maintained his wholesale license for the distillery until April of 1920 and continued to sell the contents of his warehouses. As the tale goes, on the final day of sales at the distillery, the line to purchase liquor stretched for 2 ½ miles. In October, Horst suffering a stroke, complicating his failing health, and he was transferred to the Lebanon Sanitarium. He died a week later on October 27, 1920.**
Bomberger’s Distillery boasted 167 years of consecutive ownership by one family before the 18th amendment went into effect in 1920. To compare, the Beam family (also originally from Pennsylvania, by the way) owned its Kentucky distillery for 125 years before new owners took over. Bomberger’s distillery site would experience another 57 years of accumulated history after Prohibition before its ultimate bankruptcy in 1989, but the true legacy of the distillery remains in its early years. The post-Prohibition iterations of the distillery were based largely upon what the Bomberger’s had done in the late 1800’s. In fact, in October of 1950, workmen enlarging the modern facility broke into an old, sealed-off attic containing Abe Bomberger’s old records. A big part of the process and the advertising used by the modern distillery was largely based on the processes used by the Bomberger family many years before. Tradition and legacy remained closely tied to new distillery built on the land that John and Michael Shenk settled in the mid-18th century.
*Heidelberg Township was a much larger territory at the time and was divided as the counties in southeast Pennsylvania were formed. Lebanon County was not formed until 1813 from parts of Dauphin and Lancaster Counties.
**Horst H. Bomberger’s death certificate shows he died of chronic valvular heart disease, mitral insufficiency.
Once Prohibition went into effect, the Bombergers accepted defeat. The idea that distilling would return to Lebanon County was not a consideration in anyone’s minds at the time, so Horst’s widow, Mollie Bomberger, began selling off personal property at the distillery in February of 1921. They watched as prices for whiskey skyrocketed. It must have seemed unbelievable to watch the price of practically unaged moonshine soar to over $12 a gallon knowing that just a few years before, the Bombergers sold fully mature rye whiskey for $2 a gallon! In 1922, perhaps to focus on a fresh start, the Bomberger clan hosted their inaugural family reunion event in Schaefferstown, gathering hundreds of Bombergers together. At least at first, sly comments and laughter would erupt when family members referenced their relatives’ distilling legacy during speeches. As time wore on and the annual reunion grew, less associations were made to the family’s distilling history. The local population, however, did not forget. Police raids on large distilling operations began to take place around Heidelberg Township. These illegal stills had been filling the void left by the closure of Bomberger’s.
In September of 1923, more distilling equipment was sold and the property was divided to sell as separate tracts. The property value was assessed at a greatly reduced $4200, but it is not clear what the sale price was in the end. This 1923 sale appears to be when Ephraim Sechrist purchased the distillery. Suspiciously, 2 years later, a man named Raymond Sechrist was arrested by Pennsylvania’s state police after his ownership of a large-scale distilling operation was discovered near Bomberger’s. Raymond was running four 20 and 30 gallon stills and producing hundreds of gallons of moonshine for the black market. When the raid took place in October of 1925, the pot stills were still warm from activity the night before. Though Raymond may have had no actual connection to Ephraim, the very fact that his illegal operation had such an active and enthusiastic local customer base showed how much the Bomberger plant was missed in Lebanon County during those dry years.
When Prohibition neared its end, Leon K.Bomberger, who had been living in the Hotel Boscobel in Atlantic City, N.J., saw the inevitability of Repeal approaching and recognized the need to secure the name of Bomberger’s Distillery. Through his attorney, Clarence D. Becker, Leon filed a fictitious name certificate for Bomberger’s Distillery on August 11, 1933. This action put the business’s name and its owner’s identity on public record almost 4 months before Prohibition came to an end. Though many moonshiners existed in Lebanon County, Leon remained the only existing professionally trained distiller. His mother, Mollie Bomberger, applied for the patent for Bomberger’s whiskey in October of 1933. The listing in the US Patent’s Office Official Gazette in 1933 shows that the brand had been in use since 1872, the same year A.S.Bomberger’s signed the deed to the property.
Ephraim Sechrist began renovations on the distillery after Repeal on December 5, 1933. He added a 3-story brick bottling plant north of the distillery and returned modern equipment to the still house. In August 1935, the federal authorities were making their final inspection of Sechrist’s renovated buildings, now called the Lebanon Valley Distillery. The distillery began operations, but complications that included the advent of WWII shut down production and set back progress. In 1942, Ephraim Sechrist was killed in an auto accident in Lebanon, Pa. He was seated as the passenger as his son drove when they were struck by a truck loaded with defense materials. Ephraim’s widow, who also survived the crash with her son, sold the distillery to Louis Forman soon after her husband’s death.
Louis Forman was a liquor broker in Philadelphia that had his eye on the distillery since he surveyed the property in 1937. Unfortunately for Louis, the year he came to own the distillery, he was drafted into the military (US Navy). Unsure of his future, Louis sold the distillery to some Philadelphia investors who later became the Logansport Distilling Company. In 1946, they demolished the Bomberger’s farmhouse and replaced with a 100-foot distilling tower and cistern building. A new grain facility, a separate fermenting and granary building, and a machine shop were added, as well. Meanwhile, Louis Forman had returned to Philadelphia after his military service, reassumed his role at his liquor brokerage where he continued to expand his holdings. On November 11, 1947, The Logansport Distilling Company sold the property to Schenley Distillers Corporation. Schenley clearly did not place much importance on the property because less than three years later, in April of 1950, they sold the distillery to Kirk Foulke. Foulke changed its name to Kirk’s Pure Rye Distillery Company. Louis Forman, who had never lost his interest in the property, partnered with Foulke, and regained his control of the distillery. They began immediate renovations. 2 large cement block aging warehouses were built, each able to house 20,000 barrels. Much of the existing original construction (distillery, warehouse, and jug house/retail house) was maintained and repaired. It was during this renovation that Louis Forman came across the treasure trove of Abraham Bomberger’s records from before Prohibition. The discovery of these historic references redirected Forman’s focus toward historic preservation and influenced his Pennsylvania Dutch themed marketing.
Louis Forman hired Charles Everett Beam as master distiller and consulted Beam throughout product development. Together, they created a niche market making old fashioned pot-still mash whiskey that he sold in porcelain crocks. The recipes and jug yeast fermentations claimed to follow the tradition of the Bomberger distillers, but as with most modern whiskey advertising and marketing, it only very loosely applied. The recipe decided upon by the men for their “sour mash pot still” whiskey recipe was 38% rye, 50% corn and 12% barley. It was not a bourbon, so they had more leeway in their production process. Used cooperage, for instance, would be much more cost effective. Forman began his first batch of Michter’s pot still whiskey in 1951, but in the six years it took to age, he found his new business in the throws of a recession. Toward the end of the decade, Kirk’s Distilling Company, Schaefferstown, was sold to Pennco Distillers, Inc. for $60,000. Ownership was transferred in a deed and placed on record on January 10, 1958.
Forman maintained his ownership of Michter’s whiskey formula and the stock of sour mash whiskey he had aging in Pennco’s warehouses. While Pennco Distiller’s Inc. kept the business running by doing contract distilling of rye whiskey for companies like Old Overholt and Wild Turkey, Louis Forman was able to sell Michter’s as a specialty item. On March 10, 1971, Forman was named president of Pennco Distillers, Inc. After 30 years, Forman was finally at the helm again. By 1972, Forman had a new $200,000 bottling plant up and running and new storage tanks installed that held 12,800 gallons each. C.Everett Beam, now vice president in charge of production, was getting ready to retire after over 20 years with the company. Beam’s well-trained protégé, Dick Stoll, was positioned to take over as the facility transitioned again. The distillery was on its way to becoming as much a tourist destination as it was an industrial production plant.
Pennco maintained ownership of the distillery until 1975 when they sold the property in a foreclosure sale. Louis Forman, with the help of some Lebanon Valley businessmen, purchased the plant and reorganized the company as Michter’s Distillery. The name Michter’s may sound very Pennsylvania Dutch, but it was actually the melding of Louis’ sons’ names- Michael and Peter. To celebrate his newly christened Michter’s, Forman commissioned Vendome Cooper & Brass Works in Louisville, Kentucky to construct two copper pot stills, a worm tub condenser and cypress fermenters to be installed in the property’s original still house. Louis Forman would finally have his historic whiskey distillery of a bygone era. Though the main production facility would continue to run a large column still and doubler to produce Michter’s whiskeys, the copper pot stills would run daily for the tourists and produce one barrel of pot still whiskey per day. On the year of America’s bicentennial, the distillery was named to the list of National Historic Places. In June of 1980, it was designated a National Historic Landmark by the Department of the Interior. Officially the oldest distillery in America, there was no other in the United States producing whiskey in a similar manner. The Historic Landmark designation also came with perks. The distillery could sell directly to the public on premises seven days a week! The sales were made in Michter’s Jug House (the original Bomberger’s retail house) which also served as home to Michter’s International Collector’s Society. Collectible bottles and decanters, many of which celebrated local history, were sold directly to tourists and Society members. By 1985, the distillery was the first to accept credit card sales and the first to be able to ship full liquor bottles and decanters via UPS throughout the state of Pennsylvania. These unique sales opportunities for Michter’s Jug House set the precedent for the adoption of new, state-wide laws applying to Pennsylvania’s craft distilleries over 30 years later.
One of the enduring legacies of Michter’s remains its connection to Lebanon and Lancaster County’s local economies. Not only did the distillery serve as a large tourist destination, but it also supported local farms by purchasing large amounts of corn and rye from area grain producers. The distillery relied on four kinds of raw materials: rye, corn, barley malt and limestone well water. The rye grain used was a specialty varietal called Rosen rye which was initially sourced from Michigan but was later supplemented by local producers. The barley malt was shipped in from Wisconsin in the early 1970s and later sourced from North Dakota’s Red River Valley. The corn was grown locally by farmers that could meet the distillery’s grain quality specifications. In 1971, records show that over 120,000 bushels of corn, 50,000 bushels of rye, and 25000 bushels of barley malt were used in whiskey production. Pure limestone water was tapped from deep wells reaching though 3 limestone ledges: the Buffalo Springs, Snitz and Schaefferstown ledges. The calcium carbonate rich water that was pumped from the wells beneath the distillery maintained a constant 54 degrees Fahrenheit. The limestone water below Michter’s remained an enviable resource even after the property closed to the public. In fact, in the 80’s, some Kentucky distilleries looked into the possibility of drawing off the water for their own use.
Over the course of the next decade, sales fell from 40,000 cases to 10,000 cases sold annually. In 1989, Michter’s was producing 50 barrels of whiskey per day, six days per week, 3-4 months (beginning in late fall) of the year. It was the last functioning whiskey distillery in all of Pennsylvania. It came as a surprise to Dick Stoll when he was instructed by the bank on Valentine's Day 1990 to shut everything down and lock the doors. The distillery would not reopen.