West Overton Industrial Village Reveals the Humble Beginnings of American Industrialist Henry Clay Frick

A large, three-story red brick mansion sits on the hillside behind a white, picket fence.
Henry Clay Frick had much to be proud of accomplishing in his life, but like most people, he left a complicated legacy.

First, all that he can be proud of: he was an American industrialist, financier and art patron. After having founded the H.C. Frick & Company coke manufacturing company, he became chairman of the Carnegie Steel Company, financed the construction of the Pennsylvania Railroad and owned a lot of real estate in Pittsburgh, as well as throughout Pennsylvania.

When he died, he willed his Manhattan mansion, its contents, and extensive collection of Old Masters art, furniture, and decorative objects, as a public museum, now known as the Frick Collection and art museum.

But with all the good he brought to America and created as a skilled businessman, he brought significant failings as well. As a founding member of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, he was also in large part responsible for the inadequate alterations to the South Fork Dam that caused its failure, leading to the catastrophic Johnstown Flood and deaths of thousands of working class men, women and children — check out this article MidAtlanticDayTrips published about a daytrip visit to the Johnstown Flood Museum and National Memorial. After the catastrophe, he and other members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club formed a relief committee to provide assistance for victims, but they also collectively stymied and obstructed any serious investigations into the causes of the flood. This tactic worked spectacularly, and they avoided being held liable.

Also, as a rich industrialist and capitalist, he really liked the money he made and wanted to keep as much of it as he could. He vehemently opposed unions, which negotiated national uniform wage scales; helped regulate working hours, workload levels and work speeds; and helped improve working conditions.
Frick’s opposition to Amalgamated Association of Steel Workers caused violent conflict, most notably in the Homestead Strike, which resulted in the deaths of at least 6 steel workers and the injury of a number of others at the hands of the Pinkertons, who had been called in by Frick. It is worth noting that two Pinkertons died as well. This incident helped break the hold unions had over steel workers in the late 1800s and early 1900s, ensuring that miserable wages and unsafe working conditions would continue in the steel industry for at least another generation.

But Frick came from humble beginnings — he was born in a two-room springhouse in West Overton Village, across the street from the original site of distillery of his great-grandfather Henry Overholt and grandfather Abraham Overholt, the namesake of Old Overholt rye whiskey.

He was born in that springhouse because his mother’s family disapproved of her relationship with his father, John W. Frick, an unsuccessful businessman. Luckily for him, Frick inherited his business acumen from his mother’s side of the family.

West Overton Village was established in 1800 by German Mennonites from Bucks County, who were led by Henry Overholt, Frick’s great-grandfather.

Today, West Overton Village operates as a museum that protects this valuable example of a 19th-century rural industrial village and tells the story of the Overtons and Frick’s humble beginnings.

The museum focuses on the Overholt industries of whiskey distillation, grist milling and coal and coke operations. It also details the weaving industry of the early 1820s, and a variety of beautiful coverlets form part of the exhibit — Henry Overholt Overholt, Frick’s uncle, was a skilled weaver, who created more than 800 coverlets, which were in high demand.
The buildings that form part of West Overton Village are clearly in need of restoration and preservation, although in their deteriorating condition, they are FABULOUS to photograph, but it’s interesting to walk among the structures and imagine a thriving village, driven by the Overholt enterprises.
The house tour of the historic Abraham Overton Homestead, preserved by Frick’s daughter as a museum to honor her father, is fascinating, although changes she made to the house detract from the historic nature.
Soon, too, Overholt rye whiskey will once again be available, as the museum is working on bringing a modern-day distillery back to life, honoring the Overton legacy.
The Christian S Overholt Store and house.