January 1989

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Finger Lakes

Grape Pioneers


Richard Sherer

The Reverend William W. Bostwick is credited with introducing grape growing to the Finger Lakes region and paving the way for development of the commercial vineyards of the area. But when he traveled by horseback in 1825 from Albany to the Townsend home at Cold Springs, near Pleasant Valley, he had no grape cuttings with him. It is known that his first vines were shipped up from the Hudson River area by canal boat, which means it was at least 1830 before the first cultivated grapevines were introduced to the Hammondsport area.

In the meantime, Rev. Bostwick had organized the Episcopal Church Society in Hammondsport and was provided with a rectory in which to live. It was in the garden of this rectory that he planted those first grapevines. He had become interested in the development of agricultural products for commercial purposes, and it wasn't very long before he succeeded in interesting some of his neighbors in planting some vineyards of their own.

The first local people to take cuttings from Bostwick's vines were Lemuel Hastings, George McClure and John Poppino. In 1835, Hiram Gleason set out a plot of grapes in Wayne township on both sides of the road leading up from the ferry landing so as to attract the attention of everyone using the ferry. About the same time, Andrew Swartout established a vineyard, approximately one acre in size. And around 1836, Josiah W. Prentiss (who would later have the distinction of being the first commercial winemaker in New York State) obtained some cuttings from the grapevines growing at the Bostwick rectory. According to some accounts, Prentiss obtained one Isabella and two Catawbas; other sources have it that he took one of each, plus a "sweetwater".

As the years rolled on, other adventurous souls set out grapevines in anticipation of the day when adequate grape crops would lead to the establishment of a local winery and contented themselves, in the interim, with a limited market for table grapes and jelly and their own private stock of grape juice.

In 1847, Lemuel Hastings made history by shipping a quantity of table grapes and jelly by canal to New York City, where John Taggart, then the city agent of the Davis warehouse people in Hammondsport, was able to sell them. Proceeds from the sale covered the shipping costs. In 1850, Hastings shipped another batch and made some profit above and beyond the shipping costs, but the family history indicates that shipments in other years produced dismal results.

In 1852, with the Erie Railroad linked to Bath, Andrew Swartout sent out the first shipment of grapes to New York City by rail. Actually, it was a three-stage journey: the grapes were carried by boat to Hammondsport, thence by stage to Bath, and finally by rail to New York City. Unfortunately, this historic journey was marred by the fact that by the time the grapes arrived in New York City, they had spoiled and the venture was a total loss.

In 1856, J. W. Prentiss of Pulteney sent out the first large shipment of table grapes to New York City. He packed a ton of Isabella grapes in thirty half-barrel tubs and shipped them by rail. The only hitch was that it took three days to dispose of the cargo once it arrived in the City. The grapes were, however, finally sold without mishap, and the dealer sent for another ton, which found a ready market. The two tons of grapes netted Mr. Prentiss 16 a pound. Needless to say, this successful marketing venture served to awaken a new interest in grape growing in the area, and the following year saw many more acres of grapevines being set out.

In the fall of 1858, Aaron Y. Baker of Pleasant Valley went to Ohio and examined the vineyards at Kelley's Island. There were probably 400 acres of vineyards there at that time bearing grapes. He brought back 30,000 cuttings and an enthusiastic report of what he saw, which served to further stimulate the interest of his fellow farmers. In 1859 and 1860, a full 200 acres of new vines were set out in the Hammondsport area. By 1870, Hammondsport boasted a total of 3000 acres of vineyards; by 1879, 5000 acres; and by 1889, 14,500 acres.

Rev. Bostwick not only got the grape industry going in the Finger Lakes, he also gave his neighbors a nudge in the direction of wine making by encouraging local farmers to experiment in making wine from their grapes. This stirred up some sharp criticism of the Reverend by the rather strong local temperance society, which accused the innovative clergyman of inventing tools of the devil. Feelings ran so high that when Bostwick left Hammondsport for Illinois in l843, someone ripped his grapevines out of the ground. Later on, in 1851, vineyard vandalism surfaced again, a bit more subtly, in the form of a man by the name of Jenks, who claimed to be very knowledgeable about trimming grapevines. Those vineyardists who believed his claim and let him trim their vines lived to regret it, but the vines he trimmed did not. They all died. It was afterwards learned that he was a radical dry and unbalanced to boot.

By 1857, the irrepressible J. W. Prentiss was sufficiently enthusiastic and confident about his wine-making experiments to bottle and ship two varieties of wine to his commission merchant in New York City. The wines were made from Catawba and Isabella grapes and were marketed under the label of Highland Cottage Wine.

Josiah Wright Prentiss was a many-sided man. He was an artist of no small ability, a ready writer who wrote much for the press on important themes and current issues, and also, of course, a dedicated vineyardist. His experiments in grape growing for profit set the pace for the emerging grape industry in the Finger Lakes area. As a winemaker, however, he was perhaps less than memorable, and no mention is made of his wines after 1860. Perhaps he simply found the wine business less profitable than the vineyard business. It's certain that he continued to expand his vineyard as additional markets for grapes opened up, and in 1860, he was the third largest supplier of grapes for the new Hammondsport and Pleasant Valley Wine Company. Records for that year show that Prentiss sold the winery 2936 pounds of grapes for $80.40.

But what J. W. Prentiss started in the way of commercial winemaking, others in the Hammondsport area continued, and by 1865 there were five commercial wineries in New York State making wine and champagne and shipping their products throughout the East. And by 1920, before Prohibition sounded the death knell for most of New York's wineries, there were 17 wineries in operation in New York State and they were successfully establishing a reputation for superior wines and champagnes.

© 1983, Richard Sherer
This article originally appeared in the Autumn 1983 Vineyard View.
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