York Town Square

Part of the USAToday Network

With all those stills, the York County hillbillies?

York County residents better not place the hillbilly label on the likes of West Virginians and Kentuckians.
Consider this: By 1840, York County had more distilleries – stills – than any other county in Eastern Pennsylvania. And only Lancaster County produced more gallons of spirits… .

This level of whiskey production explains York County’s vehement reaction to the Whiskey Tax in the 1790s. The tax poisoned the county against acts of the federal government considered heavy handed – a view held by many residents to this day.
A tax on a source of liquidity for farmers, no pun intended, turned county residents from Federalists to anti-Federalists — later Jeffersonians and Jacksonians and Democrats. Simply put, York countians have distrusted big government from early on.
The pervasiveness of distilling in the county’s first 100 years becomes clear in additional stats from a journal article.
Between 1810 and 1840, 20 percent of county farms operated a still.
“Farms advertised for sale in that period often boasted either a still or spring water suitable for the operation of one,” Jo N. Hays wrote in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography in July 1992.
All this makes sense. York County was a major U.S. grain producer, later surpassed as the midwest and plains states developed. And county farmers found a ready market in Baltimore.
Hays explained that no evidence suggests that York residents drank more whiskey per capita than those elsewhere.
They simply grew the grain, set a little aside for family use and shipped the rest via rail or wagon to thirsty consumers in Baltimore and abroad.
Supporters of temperance and taxes? No.
Pragmatic businessmen? Yes.
Hillbillies? You decide.