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.
My earliest memories date back to my early boyhood when I used to go down to the steamboat docks after school and work for my father at ten cents an hour, and believe me, I earned it! This was about 1892. In the summertime he used to take me with him when he would drive around to the grape growers selling grape baskets and willows for tying. It was a thrilling experience for a boy my age and I looked forward to it, not only for the ride, but in that way I got to know all the fruit growers personally.
Later, when my father took me into the business, I found that this experience was very valuable. As I grew older, Dad would let me go up the lake on the early Saturday morning boats and I'd get off at the docks where the boat took on grapes and would buy whatever grapes I could for the firm. This was an introduction to the business that I followed all my life. These recollections reflect only the grape business at this end of the lake. I do not know what happened on the other side of Urbana (west side) or the other side of Grove Springs (east side) relative to the amount of grapes used by the wine cellars around Hammondsport. My dealings were confined to this end of the lake.
At one time it was acknowledged that more than 60% of the income of the whole county was derived from the sale of grapes. This will give you some idea of the importance of the industry at that time to both growers and businessmen. To get some idea of the quantity of grapes being shipped for eating purposes at one time, the receipts of grapes from all loading stations like Branchport, Kinney's Corners, and Penn Yan, would easily amount to 100,000 baskets a day. In order to give a more comprehensive idea of what this means, picture every man, woman, and child in the corporation of Penn Yan (calling the population 5000) receiving one three-pound basket a day. It would take twenty days to consume just one day's receipts in the era when grapes were big business. After talking to a number of oldtime grape growers, all agreed with me that now there is not over one third of the acreage of grapes here that there was from 1905 to 1918, which means that much less tonnage.
There have been so many conflicting stories as to where and who started to grow the first grapes and the variety that I don't wish to be quoted as a definite authority since this occurred quite some time before I was born. I merely intend to share the knowledge I have of the grape industry and its growth as I remember it and lived through it. I do, however, recall my father pointing out a small knoll on the Ed Crosby farm, about seven miles up on the east side of the lake and telling me that there was where one of the first vineyards was planted.
At the start of the grape growing industry it was the popular belief that grapes could be grown only near the water. This naturally encouraged the people who lived close to the lake to set out more grapes. After awhile it became apparent that grapes could be grown successfully inland. In fact, the inland grapes, on richer soil, yielded more tons per acre than the sidehills but not as rich in sugar content. The grapes grown nearer the lake were smaller in size but had more sugar. They ripened earlier and were not as susceptible to frost as grapes grown away from the lake.
It is not generally known by the average person not interested in grape culture how much work there is connected with raising them. In my opinion no other kind of fruit is grown that requires as much work to get a good crop as do grapes. The growers are entitled to every penny they can get out of them because of the work involved and the natural hazards, namely: early spring frosts when the grapes are in blossom, hail during the growing period which is sometimes heavy enough to cut the tonnage in half, black and dry rot, and many other diseases that grapes are susceptible to. Many times I have seen "Jack Frost" cut a whole year's labor in half overnight.
All the headaches did not belong to the growers. The shippers had their share, such as: lightweight packages, car shortages, flooded markets, embargoes, long holidays, Indian summer, cancellation of orders. In other words, every car was a gamble and you never knew what was going to happen until you got your money back. There never has been nor ever will be, regardless of quality, a car of perishable fruit shipped that some fault cannot be found with it. Especially is this true if the market for that particular kind of fruit is oversupplied and the price is low. During the many years that I was in the business, I have seen at least fifty grapegrowers' unions, cooperative associations, and outside city buyers in this and other grape growing sections go broke in this risky business. In the early days the shippers in this section were able, because of the light receipts, to pretty well regulate the market price for all it would stand.
As the tonnage from other sections began to make itself felt in the markets, there was only one thing which could happen and that was an oversupply. On account of the very perishable nature of grapes, especially after coming out of an iced refrigerator car, they deteriorated fast and naturally had to be sold at a lower price. This in turn affected the market here and everywhere else. In those days the price fluctuated daily in accordance with conditions on the receiving end. By that I mean if we were paying eight cents per basket one day and we were able to dispose of that days' receipts, the market stayed at that price the next day, or better if we could get it. On the other hand, if that day's receipts were not shipped that night and we had to carry many cars over to another day, the price declined.