But it isn't only distillations made from parts of the witch hazel shrub that have mysterious histories.
The Mohegans are also believed to be the first to show English settlers how to use Y-shaped witch hazel sticks for dowsing, an ancient method for finding
underground water. In fact the name witch hazel is believed to have come from the Middle English "wicke" for "lively" -- the dowsing stick bends toward the
ground when water is detected below -- and "wych," an old Anglo-Saxon word for "bend."
A lot of people poo-poo the idea that a witch hazel stick can actually detect subterranean water. "They say it's a bunch of witchery," says Curtis Strong,
a fourth-generation witch hazel harvester, better known as a "brush cutter." A native of East Hampton, Connecticut, Strong's family has been in the area
long enough that his ancestors had land grants from the King of England before America was a nation.
"An Old Timer showed me how it works," says the 72-year-old Strong, "and I have used it to find water, 20 to 30 wells, and every one of them had water
right where I told them it was going to be."
When he's not dowsing for water or enjoying retirement from his career as an electrical engineer and farmer, Curt Strong and his sons can be found -- at
least in the late fall and early winter -- in the "boonies" of eastern Connecticut, harvesting the 80 tons of witch hazel they sell each year to
American Distilling. The world's largest manufacturer of witch hazel products happens to be right in their hometown of East Hampton.
Naturally an American company whose business revolves around a product with the mystical qualities and long history of witch hazel would need a mystique
and interesting story of it own. So it is with American Distilling.
Baptist minister Thomas Newton Dickinson wanted a new venture after making a fortune supplying uniforms to Yankee troops during the Civil War. People in
the area often had a stand of witch hazel in their backyard, and a still to cook it down, bottle it up, and sell it. Figuring a consortium of small operators
would add up to a big business, Dickinson in 1866 opened a distillery in Essex, Connecticut.
Unfortunately, his sons disliked each other and broke apart the company when their father died and left it to them. Their sons in turn continued the family
spat and operated rival Dickinson companies, one in Essex and the other in East Hampton.
Forty years ago, Ed Jackowitz first bought the T.N. Dickinson brand and distillery in East Hampton, then bought the competition, E.E. Dickinson, in Essex.
Consolidating operations in East Hampton, Jackowitz hired none other than Curt Strong -- wearing his electrical engineer's cap, rather than his brush
cutter's -- to automate the plant.
Decades on, the automated network is a marvel to behold: The hoppers filled with witch hazel chips; conveyers that move the chips to the augurs and into
the stills; three deep wells from which water used to steam the chips is triple-filtered, removing minerals and anything else there might be down to the
microscopic size of a virus; tanks that purify and then infuse a 14 percent ethyl (grain) alcohol into the witch hazel distillate as a natural
preservative; 10 massive 25,000-gallon storage tanks filled with the re-liquified witch hazel that will be shipped in containers ranging from five-gallon
jugs to 6,000-gallon tankers to become a key ingredient in cosmetic and first aid products around the world.