Delf’s Wintergreen Distillery

Quarry Creek in south Marquette where the Delfs had their distillery, now known as Orianna Brook, is pictured. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

MARQUETTE — Over the years Marquette County has been home to several well-known industries like mining and shipping. But, the area has also been home to many smaller ventures that have been forgotten and lost to the mists of time.

It usually happened that one or two men would hit upon an idea to provide a necessary service or develop a commodity that would help them financially, give employment to a few people, and thus boost the community.

A few of these hardly got under way, others lasted a year or two, but some factor, such as a depression, fire or lack of market, always seemed to spell a rapid end. The wintergreen oil distillery, only a two man business, was one that looked as if it could not help but prosper, but actually was wiped out by synthetics.

Wintergreen is a low growing, evergreen shrub with a creeping stem. It has dark glossy leaves, white, waxy, bell-shaped flowers and round red berries. It is found in shady locations in the forest. Traditionally Native Americans would brew a tea from the leaves which was used to alleviate various aches and pains and to keep the blood in good order.

The therapeutic effects come from wintergreen oil’s primary ingredient, methyl salicylate, which is metabolized as salicylic acid, a proven NSAID that is also metabolized from acetylsalicylic acid, commonly known as aspirin. Wintergreen oil can be toxic even in small doses. A single teaspoon (5 ml) of the oil is roughly equivalent to 20 30-mg aspirin tablets.

The story of Marquette’s wintergreen distillery came from the late Arthur E. Delf, who said that shortly after the family arrived in Marquette in 1870, he and his father started looking for a site right on a small creek of some kind, to put up a small building which would house a still.

In travels around town and the nearby area by team, they had noticed the abundance of wintergreen plants for miles around that could be gathered easily and distilled with time, patience and hardly any equipment.

Besides, it would make them a handsome profit, because the price of wintergreen oil was $8 to $10 a pound, and the project would also furnish seasonal employment to a number of men, women and children, as huge quantities of leaves would be needed.

As soon as the snow was off the ground, they hired as many pickers as possible. They would get their sacks early in the morning and comb the whole area from Green Garden to Middle Island Point and Sugar Loaf. Late in the day the Delfs would hitch up their wagon, pick up the sacks and haul them to the plant where they were weighed and the pickers paid off by the hundred pounds.

As just mentioned, the little creek had a good, fast flow of water as it came down from the quarry and still does as it goes under the present U.S. 41. Old maps show it was called Westren Brook, Burt Creek, or Stone Quarry Creek and its course used to almost parallel lower Hampton Street, it is now called Orianna Brook.

The plant itself contained only the apparatus, similar to a whiskey still, the necessary jars and a warehouse. There was a big firebox or cook stove, crudely constructed, which burned wood. On top of this was a cauldron at the top. It had a spout on the cover, connected to a worm or coil of pipe or tubing, submerged in the creek bed, and the product, after being distilled, was caught in jars.

The little wintergreen still cooked merrily on all summer and leaves were also stored for winter operation, the price of the oil remained good, the costs were low and for a while this two-man plant prospered. Then, just as the future began to look even better, the inevitable happened, when chemists, in their constant search for synthetics, found a way to make a substitute as a coal tar by-product that met the requirements and sold for half as much. The Delfs had heard rumors of this, but kept right on that winter manufacturing the real product until forced to quit.

They used up everything on hand, sold the oil for what it would bring, disposed of the still, equipment and of course, lost money on the venture, besides cutting off the summer employment of numerous pickers.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper *

Starting at $4.62/week.

Subscribe Today