UNIVERSITY ROWING TEAMS tend to prefer straight rivers. Wide,
smooth, straight rivers, with plenty of room to maneuver their long racing
Schuylkill River suits that need perfectly as it passes the beautiful old racing
club boathouses as it runs along the western side of
Philadelphia, but on its way there from the factory outlets out in Reading it's
a lot more, well, interesting. It twists. It turns. It changes directions
radically, and often. In some places it almost threatens to cut itself off and
disappear into an endless circle. One place where that happens is the site of
the old Kinsey Distillery, near the village of Linfield, Pennsylvania, and less
than eight miles from where we once lived.
We learned about the Kinsey
distillery while exploring the story of the giant Publicker Industries Corporation, a story nearly as twisty
and full of switchbacks as the
Schuylkill River itself. The Kinsey Distillery was operated by the Continental
Distilling Corporation beginning shortly after the end of prohibition up until the
mid-1980s. Continental was a subsidiary of Publicker.
People also tend to assume that Continental distilled
The publication doesn't refer to this site as the "Linfield Distillery".
In fact, it isn't very specific about just where their Kinsey Distillery was
located. Continental did market a Linfield brand of whiskey, a bottled-in-bond straight
bourbon, whose label states it was "Bottled for the Kinsey Distillers Company,
Philadelphia, Penna.", but that brand isn't listed among their spotlighted
brands in the early promotional brochure. And there was the Kinsey brand itself;
but that was a blended whiskey which would more likely have been produced at the
Philadelphia location and which required no aging beyond that required of the
component ingredients. Interestingly, a secondary label on the
purports to be an assurance of fine quality and "a half century" of personal
supervision, over the signature of J. G. Kinsey, himself. Not an insignificant
feat for a gentleman who would have been in his late seventies in 1933 when the
Continental Distilling Corporation was formed.
Angelo? Who's Angelo??
The other gentleman is not a hunter, though; We can see that, because he isn't wearing hunter's garb. He appears to be the farmer who owns this land.
There is a large "No
The artistry of this painting is evident in the subtle expression on the farmer's face, indicating that the whiskey is (1) strong, (2) good, and (3) cause enough to forgive this stranger his trespasses and wish him good hunting.
Thus, it appears these gentlemen have just reached a temporary
land-use arrangement that suits them both better than the farmer had expected
when he went out to have a word with the hunter. And the writing on the fence in
the foreground make it clear that sharing fine Kinsey Pure Rye Whiskey (bottled
in bond) has been a contributing factor to the resolution of this situation.
The firm is included in Philadelphia's 1886 List of Leading Merchants and Manufacturers. At that time the only brand mentioned was Schuylkill.
They appear in the 1910 and 1915 Philadelphia city directories, too, nearly a quarter century later. During those years they'd developed or acquired several other brands of whiskey. And what brands of liquor did A. & H. Myers market? Well, Myers Pure Malt shouldn't be too surprising. Nor, considering its Philadelphia location, would be Independence Hall, Neshaminy Rye, Oglethorpe Club, or Old Schuylkill Choice Rye.
But wait, there's more! What do we have here? How about Kinsey and Kinsey Special ?
In addition, by the mid-teens production restrictions in support of World War I materiel needs polished off many of those distilleries that remained. Especially the small ones.
And then there was also the growing public temperance and
anti-saloon sentiment, and the spectre of national prohibition looming overhead.
We tend to think of Prohibition as "The Great Experiment", a term popular with
those who opposed it. It's easy to lose sight of the fact that the impact of the
18th Amendment was not a fourteen-year
moratorium; it was the total and irrevocable elimination of all alcohol
beverages in America. From sea to shining sea. Forever. One could hardly
fault an astute Philadelphia liquor merchant in 1918 for taking the opportunity to sell off his stock and
get out while still profitable.
So, is there anything left of this interesting distillery, an important part of Linfield, Pennsylvania's economic base for nearly a hundred years? Is there anyone who even remembers that such a distillery ever existed, as recently as thirty or so years ago? We often find that the second question brings only a puzzled expression, followed by something along the lines of, "Well... I wouldn't know 'bout no distillery being 'round here. Mighta been, though. We're not drinkers, you know."
But Linfield isn't like that. People in Linfield accept the abandoned Continental or Linfield distillery as a local landmark, and every once in a while there's discussion of what can be done with it. You can find references to it on Montgomery County's web pages. The site was known as Linfield Industrial Park for awhile, but no other industries ever moved into it.
Photos of the distillery have also been featured on several private websites. Art photographers love the post-holocaust, abandoned, crumbling, weed-covered buildings look. And they all seem to be especially fond of the fact that you can incorporate the (very) nearby Limerick New-Color plant into the background. Really intensifies that "morning after Three-Mile-Island" image; know whattamean, Vern? Many of these pages contain truly awesome work -- do an internet search on "linfield industrial"; select "images" if you use Google (bottom of this page has a link). The photos you see here that we took are more informational and "souvenir-ish" than artistic.
Back in 1966, a young man just out of high school, and not yet old enough to even touch whiskey, got a job working with the maintenance crew at the Kinsey distillery. Well, all right, it wasn't really a "distillery" anymore; mostly it was a storage facility and bottling plant for Continental. But his job brought him into daily contact with all the old distillery buildings and equipment as well as the current storage warehouses and bottling lines. Kinsey was a HUGE storage site; it was also the largest bottling facility on the planet in its day. It also brought him into daily contact with people who made the plant a living, breathing organism and not just a "liquor factory". These people never spoke of "Linfield", only "Kinsey", and their lives and memories provided an unbroken line connecting all the way back to its glory days.
Dave Ziegler grew up working for Publicker/Continental at Kinsey. He worked there for many years; he says they were the best years of his life. The distillery itself had gone dark long before, back in 1951 (when Dave's father was working there). The bottling line shut down for the last time in 1979, although Kinsey continued to serve as a warehouse site until 1986.
Dave might not have been the last guy out; he was probably not the one who switched off the lights as he left. But for several years now he's been collecting those lights, and switches, and papers, barrelheads, advertising promos, explosion-proof telephones, and historical knowledge. A one-man treasure chest of information about the Kinsey distillery, Dave is fearless in his quest to salvage and preserve as much as possible before the wreckers, the vandals, and even Mother Earth herself dissolves it all back into the Pennsylvania countryside from whence it sprang. Armed with camera and flashlights (and snakebite kit), he has collected the most comprehensive set of photographs imaginable of a facility that has laid derelict for decades, entering alone into pitch-black and dangerously insecure caverns where one false step would certainly leave him without any hope of rescue or even discovery. Under the screen name "kinseyworker", he has posted many of his photos, along with those of a portion of his memorabelia collection, on the Bourbon Enthusiast bulletin board forum. His work is extensive, and provides probably the best understanding available anywhere of the American whiskey industry as it really was until just day-before-yesterday. Dave is a gregarious sort today, and there's no reason to think he was any less so thirty years ago. He has an insatiable thirst for lore and stories and the things that people bring to and take from where they work. Years later, those wonderful stories are a big part of Dave's memories, and of his conversations. The details of his stories bring the listener right into the picture, as though you were actually sharing with him your own memories of being a young man and of working there -- even though you weren't. You should visit his "My Days at Kinsey Distillery" topic at http://bourbonenthusiast.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=17&t=4923
The following are thumbnail
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Story and original photography copyright ©2006 by John Lipman. All rights reserved.