A review of
Crooked Lake and the Grape
by Richard Sherer
140 pages, 220 illustrations in color and b/w, index, hard covers, jacketed, 9" x 11"
reviewed by Bill Treichler
Who better could write about grapes and Crooked Lake than Richard Sherer who grew up nearby in Bath, tended his own vineyard of 30 acres in Pleasant Valley, learning grape culture firsthand from neighbors like Gerald Smith, and coming to know personally the vineyardists and vintners who carried on the grape traditions of the Finger Lakes?
His thirst for local history led him to read completely through every issue of the Hammondsport Herald. He read the reminiscences of Josiah Prentiss and the Rev. William Bostwick on their grape growing experiences, and he heard of the exploits and achievements of the grape men from repeated stories by their descendants.
Richard Sherer is a hoarder and all these years he has been saving bundles of grape labels, photographs of vineyards, wineries and packing houses, and postcard views of lake boats and docks covered with grapes in boxes. He has kept whatever he found, promotional leaflets, price lists, sales receipts. The best of them are reproduced here in his new book.
On the front of the jacket is a full-color reproduction of a box label used commonly by grape shippers in the 1880s and 90s. Just inside, the double-page end paper has a copy in color of a full-sized label for Lake Keuka Grapes with a scene showing points of interest around the lake. Inside the back cover, is a copy of a similar label. In the book there are pages of labels reproduced in color: 23 grape labels, 11 wine labels, some from early times. There are five more box labels and 25 bottle labels in black and white and 149 other illustrations through the book showing people pressing grapes, corking wine bottles, and standing proudly in front of their winery for a group photograph.
The grape story is told in five chapters: Early History, Table Grapes, Wineries, Prohibition, The Comeback.
The first chapter tells of the introduction of grapes here, probably first by Richard Sheffield who brought cuttings from the Hudson Valley when he came to Hammondsport, and of W. W. Bostwick's first plantings, then of Hammondsport merchant William Hasting's terrace of grapes. Next Josiah Prentiss at Pulteney gets started and successfully markets grapes. Then the grape acreage expansion accelerates: From Sheffield's first plantings in 1827 and Rev. Bostwick's setting out a garden-sized plot about 1829, to 200 acres by 1860, 3,000 by 1870, 5,000 by 1879, and 14,500 acres by 1889.
Ancillary businesses were booming, too; grape packing and shipping houses grew and used tremendous numbers of boxes. Box and basket factories started. In 1860 20,000 baskets were filled, and by 1870 350,000 were needed. The lake steamers carried the baskets of grapes to packers and the railheads at both ends of the lake. On the third Saturday of October, 1894, the Bath & Hammondsport Railroad moved out 268 tons, 24 carloads. In 1895 625 carloads were shipped by Keuka Lake packers in a time of less than two months-early September to the beginning of November. In 1896 only 500 carloads moved for the same period. By the teens the table grape business was losing out to western competition and to higher prices paid by the wineries.
In chapter three, Sherer relates histories of 27 winemaking operations around Keuka Lake. Some of these did relocate and many of them changed ownership and name several times. He lists 46 different company names that at one time or another identified wineries. He also mentions seven isolated references to wineries about which nothing more is known.
The first winery listed is the Wheeler Wine Company that started just before 1860 and went through name changes to become the Hammondsport Wine Company. The Pleasant Valley Wine Company was organized in 1860. In 1962 it was bought by Taylor Wine Company. The Taylor Company had survived the 13 years of prohibition by delivering wine-grape juices to residences and adding yeasts to begin fermentation to make wine for family use-this was allowed. The comeback of the wineries didn't really happen until after the second World War.
Available at the Steuben County Historian's Office, Balcom House, Pulteney Square, Bath, and at local bookstores in the area: Longs in Penn Yan, Browsers in Hammondsport
© 1999, Bill Treichler