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.
Starting with the year 1910 the passenger automobile kept increasing each year. This soon had its effect on the passenger traffic of the trolley line between Branchport and Penn Yan. Car owners often picked up people waiting for a trolley ride and it was not long before the passenger part of the trolley business did not pay. Later as the grape growers began to buy trucks to draw their grapes to market, the trolley's freight business fell off. Eventually the trolley had to fold up. The same situation held true relative to the passenger and freight service offered by the lake boats. A very picturesque era on the lake closed.
In 1917 my brother Sam and I consolidated our business with that of W. N. Wise and Co. which then consisted of Mary E. Mead and Edward Garvis. That year was the swansong and the beginning of the end of the table grape business for this lake.
We had an order for a large number of carloads of grapes to be shipped to market when ripe. This was a jughandled bargain for ourselves and the growers, but all these contracts read "ripe and free-from-frost." Here's what happened. There was a big crop and the grapes did not get more than half ripe. Some not even that much, especially those grown further inland. Then the grapes were frosted which made them useless for table grapes or sweet juice. That automatically cancelled all the orders we had on hand. We were caught with an inventory of one million 2-quart Climax grape baskets. It took five years before we disposed of them.
That year the prohibition law was passed prohibiting the sale and use of all alcoholic beverages including wine. But that same year a wartime measure went into effect which allowed each member of a family to make 250 gallons of wine for home consumption. It was the custom of people of old-country descent to drink wine with their meals because that is what they had been used to for generations. Many of these people had large families and they were able to make up quite a large amount of wine—more than a family could possibly use. This situation had the tendency to make bootleggers out of hundreds of people, and it created a big demand for bulk grapes. What looked like a catastrophe at the time turned out, in the end, to be a blessing in disguise.
A great many truckers came into this area and bought directly from growers at their vineyards. At the time all the growers had to pick their grapes into were trays or boxes. Some growers charged for these boxes when they sold their grapes but a good many others loaned the boxes to the truckers with the understanding that the boxes would be returned when the truckers came for another load. A great many, however, were never returned, and this, of course, soon caused a great shortage of boxes and trays. It was not long before a good many of the growers had to pick their grapes into bushel baskets. While this was an easy package for the growers to get and to use, it was a very poor package for shipping in carload lots. This I came to know to my sorrow.
The bushel basket held so much weight and was so resilient that the bottom basket in a car was nearly flat when it reached its destination. Although this really did not make any difference in the value of the grapes to the buyer because as soon as he got them home he smashed them up anyway in order to make his wine, it gave the buyer an excuse to try to buy the grapes cheaper.
Practically no care was taken in picking into the baskets which was another reason why they were fit only for wine when they arrived. This did more harm to the prestige of this grape growing section than anything I can think of that could have happened. The trade narrowed down to a cheaper clientele and Lake Keuka lost the reputation for high quality grapes it had maintained for years. In other sections: Chautauqua, Ohio, and Michigan, the growers used a 12-quart basket with a handle and cover. Twelve quarts of grapes could be used for so many different purposes. People could carry this amount home, eat what they wanted, and make grape juice and jelly out of the rest. The grapes shipped in these containers arrived in first-class condition and were sold to a higher class of trade that was willing to pay a better price. In some markets they replaced our table grapes.
This ends the series on John McMath's recollections.