News From Terre Haute, Indiana

October 20, 2013

HISTORICAL TREASURE: Terre Haute’s rich distilling tradition

Chris Weber
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Recently, while perusing the archives at the Vigo County Historical Museum, I found an entry related to the Merchants Distilling Corporation. One of my areas of particular interest is the long history and strong tradition of brewing and distilling in Terre Haute, so this caught my attention.

While I was aware that Terre Haute had many distilleries throughout the pre-prohibition era, I was unaware that there was a distillery in operation after the 18th Amendment was repealed. That the distillery was eventually destroyed by fire, after sitting empty for a number of years, is even more tragic. To my knowledge, that leaves only one distillery building in Terre Haute, at the corner of Ninth and Cherry streets, in Building 2 of Hulman and Company, where Hulman and Beggs was formed in the 1890s.

Besides the Merchants Distilling Corporation and Hulman and Beggs, there were a number of other distilleries operating in Terre Haute before the Prohibition. Possibly starting as early as the 1820s, but definitely by the late 1830s, Terre Haute’s many distilleries grew from what were likely small frontier operations to some of the largest in the world. Many of them were along the riverfront, including the Majestic Distillery, the Terre Haute Distilling Company, Indiana Distilling Company, Wabash Distillery, Commercial Distilling Company and Merchants. The Terre Haute Distillery actually sat in the center of where Fairbanks Park is today, while Merchants was just north of the intersection of Prairieton Road and First Street.

In this archival folder, there are a few great renditions and pictures of what the distillery looked like when it was operational. A large complex, Merchants was able to produce 15,000 gallons daily. While this was a large operation, other distillers in Terre Haute actually produced more per day. Merchants is notable though, because it resumed operations after Prohibition, seemingly the only local distiller to do so.

Much of the archival information covers the final days of the complex: the bankruptcy that ended operations and the fire that destroyed its main buildings.

However, I find the connection to the earliest days of mercantilism in the city to be more valuable. When taken in context of our earlier vibrant and nationally important city, I cannot help but think that we are on the cusp of a similar renaissance to the era when the Merchants Distilling Corporation was founded.

The next time you are at the Vigo County Historical Museum, take a look at where we have been. Terre Haute’s rich distilling history is only a portion of its vast manufacturing and business history, and it can all be found in the museum’s archives.

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The Vigo County Historical Society’s museum is at 1411 S. Sixth St. Hours are 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesday through