Woodford distillery's past comes to light with archaeology dig

archaeological dig at early distillery yields valuable insights

jpatton1@herald-leader.comOctober 14, 2013 

VERSAILLES — One of Kentucky early distillers, Oscar Pepper, is making history again, this time about what early farm life was like in the Bluegrass.

Brown-Forman owns the Woodford Reserve Distillery near Versailles, on the site of the original Pepper distillery. Late this summer, archaeologists began excavating around the 1812 log cabin built by Elijah Pepper on a hill above Glenn's Creek, where the first distillery and grist mill were built.

"We hoped to find any artifacts or architectural remains that would help fill in the picture of life there at the Pepper house," said Dr. Kim McBride, co-director of the Kentucky Archaeological Survey, which is a partnership between the University of Kentucky Department of Anthropology and the Kentucky Heritage Council.

McBride and the other archaeologists located an area just to the side of the house, which is still standing, that proved a surprisingly rich source of one of archaeology's best resources: trash.

"It's other people's garbage we are working with but we use that to get a picture of the culture, the socioeconomic status, such as how much they were spending on material goods," McBride said. "By combining the archaeology with oral history and documentary research, we can get a picture of 19th-century life."

They knew that Elijah and Sarah Pepper built the cabin around 1812 and used the nearby limestone springs for a grain mill and for making whiskey. Stone buildings built from 1838 are still used today by Woodford Reserve, along with post-Prohibition warehouses.

Elijah Pepper's son, Oscar, and Scotsman James Crow in the 1830s revolutionized the bourbon industry by using scientific and hygienic practices and writing down their processes, said Chris Morris, present day master distiller at Woodford Reserve.

"Oscar Pepper was born in that house, as were so many other Peppers, and James Christopher Crow probably ate dinner in that house, slept in that house," Morris said.

Elijah Pepper passed away in 1825, and Oscar Pepper took over the farm and distilling, Morris said.

"He built our current distillery between 1838 and 1840, that beautiful limestone building. He hired James Christopher Crow to be his distiller, and Crow worked most of his life in that stone building," Morris said. "Historians credit Pepper and Crow with pretty much defining bourbon as we know it today. They have no claims on any inventions — they did not invent the sour mash process but they perfected it. They did not invent charring and using new barrels but they perfected it. ... And the most important thing they did was they wrote this down. ... We owe those two gentlemen a lot."

Through oral histories and documents, the archaeologists knew that a long-lost structure, built at the same time as the cabin, once stood at the side of the house. But when they began digging they soon realized it was much larger than they had thought.

"We were really surprised and delighted to find the mirror image of the structure," McBride said. "The eastern room had been really heavily turned over to yard use. There was a drilled well in there, and it was right near the back door, so that area had been heavy yard work area. That didn't lead us to expect that this was really twice as big as what you could see on the surface. ... Often what you find underground is more complicated — when you find out what you thought was an end wall is a divider wall."

They eventually uncovered stone walls measuring 44.5 feet from east to west by 17.5 feet north to south, with chimneys on the east and west ends and a dividing wall in the middle.

The chimney on the east end was probably for heat but the one on the west end had a substantial fire box with a stone platform, probably large cooking pots, she said.

"This was probably a combination kitchen and slave quarters," McBride said, which were common in that era. Records indicated the Peppers had six slaves when they settled in Woodford County and acquired more.

"After 1865, we have the death of Oscar Pepper and the estate is in transition, and with emancipation the structure was probably no longer needed," McBride said.

Many of the most interesting artifacts the archaeologists found were probably dumped into what became a rubbish tip.

Yesterday's trash, today's treasure.

Lots of toys — especially marbles and doll parts — smoking pipes, coins, fasteners including hooks and eyes from corsets, and buttons were unearthed, as well as an inkwell, a salt shaker, broken glass stemware, pottery, eating utensils such as bone handled forks and knives, and what they think might have been a pool cue ball.

There was a tremendous assemblage of animal bones, including some with bullet holes, "so that will give us good insight into diet," McBride said,

"The excavation is just the beginning. We bring everything back to an archaeology lab, where it's cleaned, sorted, and cataloged. ... We hope Woodford Reserve will find some of them useful for exhibits interpreting life at Pepper house, and they will be available for other scholars to use."

Morris' dream is to display the artifacts, possibly in the distillery's popular visitors' center. He also would love to use the stone foundation and the cabin in some way, possibly in another public distillery space.

With bourbon again on the rise, the Woodford distillery is expanding and Brown-Forman will be building several new barrel warehouses, including one very close to where the house is. They haven't determined whether the cabin will be moved.

"We're still working on plans for what we're going to do with the house," Morris said.

And the archaeologists aren't done: Morris said they will be coming back to dig around the original distillery and grist mill site along the creek.

"I can't wait to see what they find there," Morris said.

Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: janetpattonhl

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