October 1989

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Grape Harvest

on the Bluff


Shirley McNulty

Now it was September, the sun warm, the blue of the sky bright. The September sun seemed to send out a nameless call as powerful as that summoning birds to migrate. Up the road they came on foot, the grape pickers and packers who came every year at grape harvest time. For the men and women who came it was an annual vacation with pay, good meals, laughter and chatter, and at least two barn dances every weekend. Many came back to the same place year after year, and were welcomed as old friends, like our Bill. Many came from neighboring states, chiefly northern Pennsylvania.

Aunt Bessie and Aunt Lucy came from New England for our annual family reunion. They took turns bossing the packing crew or helping Mother with the endless task of preparing meals, roasting meat, baking bread and making pies. Aunt Bessie was begged to make her sweet plum sauce with tiny dumplings dropped in the last minute. Aunt Lucy would sit in the evening shelling kidney beans in the pink stage to be served with a cream sauce.

The three sisters and four brothers of my mother had all been born in England. Mother was Caroline and she was the oldest. She and Aunt Bessie had married brothers, James and Will Copson. The two men had worked in cotton mills so when they came to this country it was natural that they would first settle in East Manchester, New Hampshire, near a cotton mill. It must have meant a lot to mother for her sisters to come every year. It did to me.

For the past two weeks the air of busy preparation had filled the days. Hundreds of picking trays had been hung on posts throughout the vineyards. These were light wooden boxes about thirty-six inches long, twelve inches high, with slanting sides. the handles were fastened on the ends in such a way as to prevent a higher box from sliding down into the grapes in the box below when they were stacked in the wagon for hauling or when stored in a shed waiting to be packed in shipping boxes.

It was amazing how accurately an experienced man could judge how many boxes to place along every row. If he didn't leave enough boxes for all the grapes in each row the pickers would borrow boxes from the nearest row or they would have to walk out to the section road for more boxes.

When filled, these trays weighed about forty pounds. They were carried from vine to vine along the row on a light four-legged frame called a "picking horse". They were filled only to their top to prevent crushing the grapes when the trays were later stacked one on top of another. When the pickers had filled a tray it was placed lengthwise along the row under the wires.

The "pick-up" operation involved a different crew. This was one man, plus a team of skilled horses, and a stoneboat, nothing more than an overgrown sled, approximately five by nine feet with heavy iron runners. At the end of each row, the filled trays were loaded carefully into a light lumber wagon well equipped with springs to absorb the jolts of an across-the-field trip to the packing house.

The vineyards close to the lake shore had their own docks and they shipped their grapes in the picking trays on the steamboats that took them to Hammondsport or Penn Yan to be pressed for wine. When the boxes were emptied they were brought back by the boats to the vineyard dock.

In the best years of the table grape business every vineyard owner on the top of the Bluff packed his own grapes. We lived on the Bluff near a crossroads called Pepperville, about one mile from Esperanza. My grandfather was Thomas Pepper. He had brought his family to this country from England in the early 1880s. Granddad Pepper had come here to be near his cousins who had come before. James Pepper came in 1838 and first worked for Sherman Williams at Kinney's Corners. At one time there were ten Pepper homes either next door or within easy walking distance on the Bluff. There still is Pepper Road.

The wagon that carried the grapes from the vineyard brought them to a shed adjacent to the packing house where they were stacked to await packing.

The grape packing house was an operation in itself. Here all summer long wire handles had been fastened to wooden baskets that would hold two quarts of blue, luscious Concord grapes.

Packing the baskets was an art in itself, and had to be learned. The bottom layer must not come too high or the top berries would be crushed. Here skill was called for. The top layer must meet the top of the basket levelly and most attractively. Stem ends must be turned under out of sight. Special shears were on every packing stand in case a smaller bunch were needed to fill the end neatly.

When the basket was filled, a brightly colored strip of paper an inch wider than the basket was placed on top and the wooden cover with its gay picture of lake or vineyard was snapped on. The packer placed the filled basket on her right side and reached to her left for an empty one to fill. The packing room with six to eight women, each with her own table, was served by a teenager who scurried to cries of "baskets" or "more grapes." There was chatter and laughter, but the busy fingers never stopped.

The two pound boxes were carefully hauled to Kinney's Corners in the spring wagon and loaded into a waiting boxcar there. When the car was filled it was pulled to Penn Yan by the electric trolley that regularly hauled passengers between Penn Yan and Branchport. From Penn Yan the cars went out on the regular rail lines to cities. For years Granddad sold his grapes to William Wise in Penn Yan who shipped them with his name on the label.

In the spring we had watched fearfully whenever the thermometer dropped steadily. Frost could blacken the four-inch new shoots and there would be no crop that year and a sparse one the following season.

In July and August when the rain clouds drove across the lake, we watched lest pink glowed on the under side of the clouds. That could mean hail that would cut the leaves and leave the half-formed berries either beaten to the ground or pocked.

Now, again there was a sense of urgency in the air. The days were growing shorter, the nights colder, and Granddad was beginning to quote his all-time motto, "Have them off by the tenth (of October) or take the chances." If the temperature even threatened frost, he would splash a thin layer of water into a saucer, place it out in the open for an hour, and bring it in to examine. No layer of ice—a satisfied grunt, "Go to bed. We're safe for another day." If a thin scum of ice had formed, it would have been, "Might as well go to bed; they're gone." This meant that in the early morning, there would be a white coating of frost on the leaves. An hour later, when the sun came up, the slightest touch on the wires or the vines would send unpicked berries raining to the ground.

When that happened, the season was over. Pickers and packers were paid what money they had not spent, they were thanked, and then they disappeared down the same road they had come, promising to return the next year.

The aunts were taken with their trunk ten miles in the familiar light wagon to the train. It was harder for them each year, for Granddad was visibly failing. But he would have no nonsense. "On your way, M'lass; you've a family waiting for you."

I can't remember my mother ever being consulted on any decision, important or small. Yet I think she had a stabilizing influence on all that went on. She did insist of taking a daily paper, the Democrat and Chronicle, and she read it by lamplight every night when the supper dishes were done. She also demanded that the family send me to college at Keuka, and I went.

Granddad Pepper had brought with himself to this country his wife, three sons, three daughters, two sons-in-law, a brother, and three cousins with their children. He was not a very tall man. I don't think he was much more than five feet tall. His son Tom went to the Northwest to look into a career in lumbering and Granddad made a trip or so to the northwest states but he came back to Bluff Point to be close to his family. Granddad set out six acres of the first grapes planted on the Bluff.

Every year after the grapes were all picked or after a freeze that ended the grape harvest, and the pickers and packers had left, we had a pleasant interlude when we collected the unused boxes from the vineyard and we began to make preparations for winter.

Copyright, 1989, Shirley McNulty
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