Recollections of the Grape Business
as told to
John McMath lived from 1883 to 1959 and was in the business of buying grapes for shipment until 1932 around the northern end of Lake Keuka. His father Samuel McMath lived from 1842 to 1918. Frank Swann was a former Yates County Historian. Virginia Gibbs, the present Yates County Historian, supplied the manuscript for reprinting here.
As time went on, the receipts of grapes each year kept increasing so much that various commission merchants in the large cities had agents here to solicit consignments. Their duties were to post the price that grapes were selling for in the various cities on a big blackboard in front of their place of business. This information was telegraphed to them daily.
If any one particular market price was better than the others and enough grapes were going to that market to make up 1250 baskets, the railroad would furnish a car known as a ventilated produce car and deliver to the market direct. In this way the shippers could get a much better freight rate than single shipments by express, and therefore get a better net return. This method went on until each day's receipt of grapes was a large enough quantity that the various shippers were enabled to buy outright from the growers at a specified cash price per basket here.
I recall my father telling me about the first car of grapes that he ever bought, sold, and shipped under his own name. It was in 1875. His car was all Catawbas and shipped late in the season. He had saved his money carefully and it took every cent he had to pay for this first car of grapes. The cars that they were shipped in, in those days, were very inadequate compared with present-day cars, especially in respect to being frost proof. His shipment went to Chicago and was caught in a blizzard in transit, and, of course, arrived in an unsalable condition, and was a complete loss. But that did not deter my father from continuing in the business of shipping grapes and fruits of all kinds until his death.
I think this car set a precedent in establishing a cash market to the growers by buyers in carload lots. It wasn't long after this that other cash buyers followed suit, and competition for grapes became very keen and active. The price fluctuated daily and sometimes during the day. Because of this very competitive market, it was a case of "survival of the fittest." By that I mean that the buyers who had the best markets and connections on the other end, and could therefore pay the best price to the growers, stayed in the business. This soon narrowed the field down to a few buyers.
Because of the large amount of grapes received each day, a big outlet was needed. Between N. Wise & Co., the Andrew McKay Co., and Samuel McMath & Sons, grapes were distributed from Seattle to Jacksonville. We had a customer for our respective brands in every city large enough to buy a car of grapes.
By this time a few of the growers and shippers had labels printed with various designs and with their name on them to paste on the covers. In order to dress the package, a colored paper was placed between the bottom of the cover and the grapes. These labels and papers were supposed to be used on only the highest quality grapes. Most growers took great pride in packing as attractive and good quality a package as it was possible to do.
Later, as the receipts of grapes here and in all grape-growing sections increased, the general markets (like those in the big cities) were unable to absorb the many grapes and it became necessary to find other markets. To do this the buyers found it was necessary to have a brand name of their own because the receivers of these grapes insisted on having the exclusive sale of some particular brand in their particular city. Shippers soon furnished labels to the growers, free of charge, with the understanding that they would use them only on the best quality fruit, or package, and not sell that brand to any other shipper. Each grower was given a number to stamp on the label so that the receiver would know whose grapes were well packed and whose were not. This was the only way you could get and hold a customer for your brand. Our firm went even further in making our brand especially attractive by having the top band of the basket dyed red and the bottom dyed blue with all white veneer sides. To make the colors in the labels stand out and show to better advantage, we had the labels varnished. This extra expense, we soon found out, was a good investment because our brand was given preference over the less attractive "run of the mill" packages.
Connections in the city were obtained by the buyer going there direct and having personal contact with his customers. Another method was for the buyers to advertise extensively in all the fruit-trade papers which had large circulation. Practically every commission merchant in the country was a subscriber to these papers. At the beginning of the season both my father and Mr. Wise used to write articles for these papers about the condition of the grape crop here. We both carried full page ads for our brands in these papers. We also used to go to the annual meetings of the Commission Merchants League which were held in different cities. Buyers came from all parts of the country. There you could meet your old customers and make new ones.
Our business grew big enough for the telegraph companies to furnish us with a private wire and operator right in our office, free of charge. We used our own code which we furnished to our customers on the other end for their use also. In this way we were able to write long telegrams with very few words. The buyers were in the business every day of the season from start to finish regardless of the weather, whether the market price was high or low, whether the receipts were heavy or light. In other words, we took the "bitter with the sweet" the whole season through. For reasons mentioned above, Lake Keuka grapes were given preference over those of all other sections and brought a better price to the growers year after year.
When the growers first started to draw grapes to market, they had to haul them by horse and wagon. They drew a load proportionate to the size of the vineyard they had. The smaller vineyards, and ones closest to market, used to draw one-horse loads averaging from 300 to 450 baskets. The larger growers used a two-horse rig and drew a larger load, up to a thousand. Later W. H. Whitfield & Sons manufactured a wagon especially for the grape growers designed to carry a thousand baskets.
As the tonnage became heavier, the growers living close to, and on the sidehills, of the lake drew their grapes down to the nearest steamboat landing or dock, of which there were very many all along the lake. From there they were loaded onto the steamboats and brought down to Penn Yan where they were unloaded on the dock for the various shippers they were sold to.
At first these grapes had to be carried from the dock to the boat by hand and also taken off here the same way and piled on the dock. Later the steamboat companies had four-wheel trucks made which could be drawn by hand. The trucks, made by the Commercial Iron Works, had a platform that held thirty baskets to a tier. These trucks were left at the various docks by the steamboat company so that when the growers brought their grapes in, they could load them onto these trucks in various amounts, sometimes as much as 300 baskets, or ten tiers high. Then all the deckhands had to do when the boat stopped at the docks was to draw these already loaded trucks onto the boats which made a much quicker and easier operation. Usually the grapes were unloaded directly from the trucks to cars.
These boat trucks were insufficient in quantity to take care of the grapes being shipped every day so the different buyers had trucks made with their name stenciled or branded on them which they sent up the lake on the boats for the shipments which were to be sent to them. I remember the first ones our firm bought cost $5 complete. You could not get the same thing today for less than $30 to $40, even in large quantities. The shippers had at least 500 trucks in use.
By this time there were four of what we called the big boats, (the Halsey, the Holmes, the Urbana, and the Cricket) besides some smaller boats. My father had the Cricket built in 1894 by Lon Springstead of Geneva who was the same boatbuilder who constructed all the other wooden boats on Canandaigua and Seneca lakes as well as the other three boats mentioned above. She was named the Cricket after my oldest sister, Mrs. Frank Douglas. The boat was built and launched at the foot of the lake on the Oscar Conklin property. She was 90 feet over all and licensed to carry 250 passengers and was run by twin propellers instead of side paddlewheels. Her first captain was Philo Lee of Branchport who had considerable lake experience. He continued in this capacity until 1905 when he left to live in Brooklyn. At that time my brother Sam took over the management of the Cricket. He was fortunate in getting the services of Howard Stone as captain because of his long experience on the lake.
The passenger fare at that time to any dock, or the length of the lake, was ten cents. In fact my brother Sam had a trip called "around the loop" in conjunction with the trolley company which meant you could go from Penn Yan to Branchport on the Cricket, then from Branchport to Penn Yan on the trolley, for a total of 30¢. Throughout the summer this trip was patronized by a great many societies and groups who enjoyed the lake ride, with sometimes a picnic at Honeysuckle Point near Branchport and the return trip by trolley. This made a very enjoyable and inexpensive outing. It was also due to Sam's efforts that the lighthouse was erected at the mouth of the channel, because, on a dark and stormy night, it was almost impossible at times to see the mouth of the channel.
There were times, at the height of the season, when even these four boats had to make double trips, two to each side of the lake, in order to get all the grapes on the docks for that day's shipments. Sometimes it would be after 9:00 pm before they arrived in Penn Yan with the second load. It would take at least two hours to finish loading the cars that had to go out that night, and draw the balance into the fruit house.
There was another boat called the Mary Bell that was of steel construction and was by far the nicest boat that was ever on any of the Finger Lakes. She was used almost exclusively for passenger traffic, moonlight rides and light freight. I recall only one year when she was used to carry grapes in any amount.