April 1995

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Farming near Vine Valley


Grace F. Russ

On the east side of Canandaigua Lake sit two prominent hills. To see them today, you would judge the upper slopes of Bare Hill and of South Hill to be too rugged for any kind of profitable farming, but, except for the precipitous inclines on the lake end of South Hill, and the higher western slopes of Bare Hill, the upper sides of both hills supported quite prosperous sheep farms for most of the nineteenth century. On the lower levels, farmers grew grapes, other fruits, and wheat; grapes were the dominant crop.

Gradually, the sheep farms suffered the ravages of overgrazing at the same time the price of wool was dropping. One by one the sheep farms were abandoned. I remember being taken when a child to the remains of a house cellar situated on the spine of South Hill, and being told that it was the place where my grandfather had been born. In addition to my memories, I have a cradle used for eight generations in our family that, I am reasonably sure, was made from pine trees cut on that or an adjacent farm.

I still carry a vivid mind-picture of the view from the East Lake Road near the turn down to Vine Valley. The north slopes of South Hill looked like a very irregular patchwork quilt. At the bottom were the farm buildings and the hamlet of Vine Valley. Where the hillsides rose from the valley, there were squares of open fields, orchards and vineyards. Above them were scrub and woods, where pastures had once provided lush grazing for sheep.

Not one of the many black and white snapshot photographs I have seen are as impressive to me as I remember that glorious hodgepodge of squares: here one of ripening wheat, there of green hay, then row upon row of grapevines, and paint brush daubs of color that were fruit trees in their orchards. The scene with its pastures, grain plots, gardens, vineyards, orchards and woodlots illustrates the diversity that farming once was along Canandaigua Lake.

The lake area farm that I knew best was the Mack farm on the lower slopes of Bare Hill, just north of Vine Valley. Around the turn of the century, Harry Mack and Harriet (Hattie) Ellwell married. Both of their families were victims of the decline of sheep farming on South Hill, so the young couple struck out in new territory with new crops.

Their 87 acres would be laughed at today as not enough land to support any family, no matter how small or undemanding. The Macks prospered as well as their neighbors, though, and none of them considered themselves poor. Struggling for what they could achieve and making do with what they had was the way things were. They neither knew or expected anything different.

By far the main crop was grapes. About 60 of the farm's acres were vineyards, producing Niagaras, Concords, Delawares, and Catawbas. That acreage was about as much of such a labor-intensive crop as anyone could possibly care for, without hiring year round help.

Besides the grapes, they grew apples, raspberries, strawberries, and currants. A woodlot, a large vegetable garden, a corn patch, and pasture and hay meadows for their animals occupied the remaining farm acreage. I remember the houseyard as rather small. I suppose that was to reduce nonproductive effort to groom it. Even so, Hattie had her flowers, mostly perennials for easy care.

They kept a Jersey cow, two horses, a pig and chickens. The cow provided milk for drinking and cream for buttermaking. Even in later years, they never had a tractor, so the horses were indispensible. They butchered the pig in the winter, when it was cold, so the meat would keep long enough to smoke the ham and bacon and can the rest. The chickens produced eggs and eventually meat, when pullets had taken over for elderly layers.

The garden, orchard, woodlot, and the livestock provided the essential needs of the family. Their grapes were sold to provide cash for other expenses.

The grapes were unrelenting in their needs. Their culture began anew every year in February and never ended until at least November. First the vines had to be trimmed, long before any signs of new buds appeared, then they were tied to the trellis wires. Each main stem was trimmed to five shoots and tied with straw. Hand knit gloves with partial fingers may have prevented some frostbite, but the exposed fingers rapidly became stiff and slowed the work of trimming and tying which gave the fingers more time to get colder and colder and…

Later in the spring, when the grapes started to produce new growth buds, they were trimmed and tied again. Then the rotted or broken posts that held the wires were replaced and the strands repaired.

Summer came and the vines were cultivated and sprayed as they became heavy with blue, green or purple fruit. When the bunches ripened in the fall the real work, and the earnest praying began. An early hard frost could make a scary winter, if the grapes were lost. The lower slopes closer to the lake were preferred for planting grapes because a nearby body of water releases heat and delays fall frosts while the grapes develop fuller flavor.

All available family, neighbor women, and anyone else not already harvesting their own grapes, were pressed into service for the harvest. Using special grape shears, the women cut each bunch by hand and placed them in grape trays. The men put the trays on a stoneboat, and the horses dragged the stoneboat to the grape house on the shore of the lake.

On the beach was the grape table. Made of pine, it was round and six or more feet in diameter, and stood on a turntable pedestal. The grapes were dumped onto it, on one side, and the table gradually turned past three or four women who sorted the grapes.

After sorting, the grapes were carried to the adjacent grape house, where they were either tranferred to shallow oval baskets and shipped to the winery or carefully hand packed for the retail market. The grape house opened directly onto the dock, from which the grapes were loaded onto the steamboats and transported to Widmer's Wine Cellars in Naples. The market grapes went to Canandaigua, and the train took them to goodness knows where.

If other seasons were hectic, the pace of fall was very nearly frantic. Labor was so in demand that women who did not usually work outside their homes pitched in to help and to make some extra money. Schools allowed children to stay home to help parents or neighbors. Getting the crop in before a killing frost was not left to prayers alone. Men, women, children, and horses all did their share. Grape culture required much hand labor in those days, and it still does.

Many grape farmers have given up raising grapes because the extraordinary amount of work necessary did not seem worth the profit to be made. But I still remember the Macks, Hattie and Harry, the tiny dooryard, the big garden, the chicken yard, the cow in her pasture, the horses pulling a stoneboat, and all the other things that made for a good, if very busy, life.

© 1995, Grace F. Russ
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