Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

From an early Old Crusted Port to today’s popular – if not ubiquitous – wine cool­ers, Erie County wines have been a significant Pennsylva­nia commodity since 1864. There has been trouble along the way, but the county’s grapes, grown in profusion along the south shore of Lake Erie, have over­come many obstacles and today are a ma­jor element in the Commonwealth’s multi-million dollar wine industry.

The area’s first winery was estab­lished in the early 1860s with William Griffith of North East Township as the initial driving force. He acquired more than one hundred acres, planted grape vines and brought in William and Henry Lester to form a business. Aptly christened the South Shore Wine Company, the operation remains the long­est operating winery in Erie County.

Griffith, a farmer and community leader, was one of the first along Pennsylvania’s shoreline to experiment with grapes . About 1850 he planted Catawba and Isabella varieties. Grapes had been grown suc­cessfully along the New York shoreline as early as 1824. and the first winery in that area opened in 1859. The climate, tempered by Lake Erie, and the soil were found to be excel­lent for growing fruit, and the region between Silver Creek, New York, and Erie came to be known as the Chautauqua Erie Fruit Belt.

By the autumn of 1864, Griffith and his partners in the South Shore Wine Company were still seeking investment money. They contacted Col. J. Condit Smith, recently retired from the Fifteenth Army Corps, Army of the Tennessee. Smith in turn contacted his former chief quartermaster, John W. Foll, whose enlistment had ended in late June.

In a diary Foll kept that year he recorded his meeting with Smith in Washington, D.C., on September 29. Smith “in­formed me that he was about completing his arrangements for getting a good share to make some money and told me that I should have a share in with him.” The next week they met in New York with Griffith who “made arrange­ments with Col. S. today to go into the wine business. I leave with him (Griffith) this p.m. for North East.” Foll went with ten thousand dollars of Smith’s money to acquire grapes.

Upon his arrival, Foll dis­covered he was involved in a new business, housed in a building still under construc­tion. He came just as the grapes were ready for harvest and plunged into overseeing the work almost before he could unpack his belongings. Two days after his arrival he examined the wine cellar early, inspected the vineyards and “ate grapes … the Isabellas are quite ripe and the Catawbas are coming on finely.”

The process of receiving and weighing grapes began at once. After one week he judged his new career. “I have an idea that this business will suit me and that it can be made very profitable … Mr. Griffith and myself are getting along very well.” Foll also recorded that he had “em­ployed forty women and girls to pick grapes.”

Visitors frequented the wine cellars. Most were farmers who asked Foll to press their grapes. “All think there is a good thing with the business,” he wrote. Some toured the huge building to see firsthand the unusual stone construction patterned after the arched wine cellars of France. The receiving room was designed so that horses pulling wagons could enter from ground level on a down­ward slope. Beyond the receiv­ing room was a cellar and sub-cellar where the casks of wine were to be stored.

Smith was rarely at the winery. Foll noted on October 25, “Received a letter tonight from Col. Smith stating that he will furnish me all the money required to carry on this busi­ness.” He also wrote that, “Mr. Griffith and Lester had a law suit today, Lester was bound over to appear at the circuit court in Erie in the sum of $200.” On November 11, Smith’s brother, George W., bought the Lester brothers’ interests.

By October 28 Foll believed he had pressed all the grapes into wine, but the following day noted, “Still they come. I am willing to receive all they will bring as I am satisfied there is considerable money in making them into wines.” Three weeks later he “filled the last cask with wine. We have now completed our fall’s work of making wine and can now wait until it grows into money.” Thirty-four years old and single, Foll was too busy to socialize at first. Occasion­ally he went horseback riding or sleighing. He attended church on Sunday mornings and often again in the eve­nings. Eventually, though, he met and married a local woman, Ella Robinson.

After Thanksgiving the weather warmed. Griffith spent t week of November 21 in New York City at a grape growers convention while Foll supervised the finishing work on the interior offices of the building. On December 1 he wrote, “all hands were present for duty. Plasterers, painters and carpenters. I like to see things move along.” Later that day he received a visit from “Mr. Carpenter of Kelley’s Island (near Sandusky, Ohio). He is one of the first wine makers in the country. He was well pleased with our vine­yards and cellar.”

With the exception of the weather, which ranged from one extreme to another, every­thing proceeded smoothly. But, on December 10, the weather turned “winterly and rough. This afternoon a beam gave way in our wine cellar and let down into the lower cellar twelve big casks of wine and four small ones. We have lost somewhere in the neigh­borhood of five thousand gallons of wine, worth fifteen thousand dollars. Fortunately, no one was down there at the time or they would have died.”

It was a terrible loss to the fledgling business. “I have come to the conclusion that it is no good fretting over spilt wine, and will try and forget my loss,” Foll recorded the following day. A day later he returned for another look at the wreckage and “it almost made me sick.” Later he super­vised the laborers digging a ditch to drain the cellar.

Despite greatly reduced profits the company perse­vered. In 1865, Griffith, con­vinced that winemaking was a sound investment, invited the United States Secretary of Agriculture to speak to area farmers at the winery. Colonel Smith served as president of the company and, following an interview with John E. Mottier, offered him a contract to oversee the growing and pressing of grapes.

Mottier, a horticulturist who had immigrated from France to Cincinnati, Ohio, earned distinction as a grape grower and winemaker, and in 1862 the Cincinnati Horticul­ture Society appointed him chairman of the National Com­mittee for Grapes. Smith of­fered to pay him for his “entire services for five years 125 shares of the capital stock of the company … at the rate of 25 shares per annum.” Smith’s offer continued, “It is under­stood that your services will commence in time to manufac­ture this year’s grapes into wine.” If for any reason Mot­tier was unable to complete the terms of the contract, his youngest son Charles would do so. Both Mottiers signed the agreement wit­nessed by Foll, who became treasurer of the company.

After the early years, the expectations of Griffith, the Smiths, Foll and Charles B. Scofield, who had joined the company by 1869, were closer to realization. Griffith received recognition when he became president of the Lake Shore Grape Growers Association, which reorganized on March 20, 1869, in Erie. Originally the association had included mem­bers from the entire Lake Erie shoreline, but that year the Ohio growers, who were becoming increas­ingly temperate, broke away. Many fruit growers from the western end of Erie county aligned themselves with the Ohio members.

Almost the sole use of grapes for a period of fifteen years beginning about 1860 was to make wine. During high yield years, however, farmers sought other outlets for their surplus grapes and shipped them by rail to nearby markets. Fresh grapes were packed in bulky crates until 1874 when Poll introduced “the railroad interests to the plan of shipping by car loads in bas­kets instead of crates,” al­though the limit in each car was five tons. Poll demon­strated the strength of the covered baskets by having North East’s freight agent, R. A. Davidson, and the general freight agent each stand on one That year the first car­load of grapes was sent to Chicago, arriving safely and in excellent condition.

A burgeoning temperance movement concerned the winemakers. The national Prohibition Party organized in 1869, followed four years later by the first chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), formed in western New York. The tem­perance movement, plus the economic depression that followed the Panic of 1873, caused low prices for grapes. In 1875, only two years later, the South Shore Wine Com­pany failed. Colonel Smith purchased the entire holdings at sheriff’s sale and started the business again.

As economic conditions improved, it became evident that growing fruit, particularly grapes, would eventually become a major source of income around North East, and farmers cultivated vast stretches of land. The Concord variety – a chance seedling (natural grape) first found in New England and promoted in 1866 as an “all purpose” grape by New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley – accounted for several thousand acres alone. It was popular for sacramental wine, fresh fruit, juice, jellies and home wineries. “Every­thing is giving way to grapes,” enthused a shipper who was quoted by Laura Sanford in her 1894 history of Erie County. Related businesses sprang up to handle the abun­dant crops, including the Lake Shore Canning Company, which opened in April 1880, with Foll as superintendent. Baskets were another lucrative offshoot. Edgar Mason, who operated both a gristmill and a sawmill in the area, estab­lished a factory in 1890 and six years later manufactured about one million baskets annually.

Several other wineries oper­ated for a few years beginning in the 1870s. Alonzo Butt and John French each had one. The Mottiers owned one during the later years of their association with the South Shore Wine Company, then organized a basket business, turning out millions every year.

The years between 1885 and 1893 The were years profitable between for 1885 grape growers, even though the future of the South Shore Wine Company seemed uncer­tain. During a four year period beginning in 1881, Griffith, Colonel Smith and John E. Mottier died. Smith’s estate sold the winery in 1886 and the business passed through the hands of a succession of owners until Marvin A. Caldwell purchased it in 1891. Under Caldwell’s ownership the winery’s fortunes im­proved. He was so successful that, in 1895, he built a large Queen Anne style house in the borough of North East which remains one of the more notable nineteenth century residences in the community. Caldwell died two years later, but his family retained owner­ship of the winery for another two decades.

In January 1893, the region’s grape growers met with J.C. Walker, chairman of the Penn­sylvania World’s Fair Viticul­ture Committee, to request the opportunity to display their grapes and wines at the World’s Fair in Chicago. Laura Sanford editorialized, quite eloquently: “There is no rea­son why Pennsylvania should not be at the top at the great Chicago Exposition. Erie County is doubtless the ban­ner county of the state, and although New York is older in her grape industry and has a larger area, it is believed by good judges that the territory here is equal if not superior to any in the grape belt.” She added that Foll announced the South Shore Winery would mount a display at Chicago.

The temperance movement was gaining support, changing from a reform group to a politi­cal activist organization. In 1893, the Anti-Saloon League organized in Ohio to influence legislation at all levels on the issue of prohibition of alcohol. That year a nationwide depres­sion began, lasting four years, but it affected the sale of table grapes more than the sale of wine. Grape prices plunged even further during the 1897-1898 season because of abnor­mally large harvests. Farmers, who a few years before had been tearing out orchards to make way for vineyards, be­gan to neglect their prized vineyards.

By the turn of the century, grapes once again returned to popularity, and in North East Township they were creating livelihoods. Until replaced by mechanical harvesters just twenty years ago, young girls and women picked grapes during the busy harvest sea­son. As late as 1969, a colum­nist for the North East Breeze, remembered the laborious harvesting. “Handsome young girls from villages and general farms further south delighted in coming to the North East fruit belt during the growing harvest in those days” to pick fruit. They were young women “of quality” whose enterprise was noted by “many a farmer’s son,” spawning friendships which often blossomed into romance.

Organizations and busi­nesses benefiting the grape growers had been forming and dissolving since the 1860s. By 1911, nine North East busi­nesses and individuals were listed as fruit shippers in the community’s directory. One, the Keystone Grape Company – liquidated and reorganized as a processing plant in 1921 – is still in opera­tion as the Keystone Coopera­tive Grape Association. The Welch Grape Juice Company purchased an existing process­ing plant in 1910. Now called Welch Foods, Incorporated, it operates the world’s largest processing plant for Concord grapes at its North East loca­tion. A processing plant, the Sunshine Packing Corpora­tion, opened in the 1930s and continued for about twenty years.

John W. Foll remained with the South Shore Wine Com­pany through its ownership changes. In 1900, at seventy years of age, he still managed the winery, but had retired prior to his death in 1915. Succeeding him was Katherine Davidson, widow of North East’s freight agent.

The relentless efforts of the prohibitionists finally affected the wine industry more than poor yields, diseases, insects, weather, prices or disasters. By 1917 they had worn down opposition to a constitutional amendment regarding alcohol. Until it could be enacted, war­time imposed a prohibition, and became juice, as well as wine, unpopular uses for grapes.

The death blow to the win­eries was reported locally in the December 20, 1917, issue of the North East Advertiser with the headline, “Prohibition passes house.” When it took effect in January 1920, Prohibi­tion would forbid “the manu­facture, sale or importation of intoxicating liquor for beverage purposes in the U.S. or its territories.” At least three win­eries, the South Shore Wine Company, the Grimshaw Brothers Wine Cellar and one owned by D.C. Bostwick, were operating in North East Town­ship at the time. Originally, Robert and Benjamin Grim­shaw operated a woolen mill, but after it burned they erected a winery, “using steam power and the same wheel pit as the woolen mill,” according to Robert’s son Charles. Bostwick had tried his hand at several businesses. After one failed during the depression years of the 1890s, he started a winery, which a descendant remem­bered as the Great Lakes Wine Company.

The three wineries had closed their doors and ceased operation by the time prohibition became law. South of Erie’s city limits, the Glen­wood Wine Company, which had been in business for four­teen years, had closed by 1911. During Prohibition a few indi­viduals were granted permis­sion to make wine for church communion purposes, includ­ing North East native G.M. Sceiford, whose output was extremely limited and closely inspected.

In August 1918, the Marvin A. Caldwell estate sold his vineyards and winery building to George J. Messler; after more than half a century the South Shore Wine Company no longer made wine. In April 1922, Messler sold the building to George O. Smith of Pitts­burgh who planned to convert it to a summer resort hotel. The lake, which had tremen­dous influence on the grape culture, also provided the region with a busy summer tourist trade. Other summer hotels were doing an active business and the South Shore Wine Company was quickly converted into the South Shore Inn.

The inn, outfitted with new verandas, sleeping porches, bedrooms and tennis court, opened on Saturday, July 1, 1922, featuring “table service and high class music.” A large crowd turned out to dance and “the halls were specially de­corated … and promises to be an attractive place for our townspeople, as well as for those from the cities who seek the lake shore for the summer.”

Business at the inn was constant, while the wine in­dustry had become non­existent and illegal. Government agents enforcing the Volstead Act frequently searched the area for contra­band and often found wine. “The collected evidence filled one big truck and was taken to Erie under guard …. The goods taken included everything from common sour wine to embalming fluid,” reported the Breeze after a search in late May 1922.

Those people who had been committed to winemak­ing and growing grapes found that their Depression began nearly ten years before the rest of the country.”When the Depression hit, my parents couldn’t tell the difference,” remarked Douglas P. Moorhead, North East native and vitaculturist. At last, “Pro­hibition Passes Out!,” the Breeze proclaimed on Decem­ber 14, 1933. With the votes of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Utah bringing the count to thirty­-six, the amendment to repeal Prohibition was ratified. Orga­nizations for grape growers flourished. The North East Fruit Growers, Inc., formed in 1937, and the National Grape Cooperative Association organized in 1945. Moorhead’s father, Douglas M. Moorhead, served actively with the latter group for twenty-two years, and was president in 1956 when National acquired Welch Grape Juice Company Inc.

But the climate for making wine commercially in Pennsyl­vania had not changed. “After Prohibition was repealed there were still fundamentalist groups in influential areas who were against liquor,” recol­lected George Sceiford, fruit grower and grandson of vint­ner G.M. Sceiford, “and there was no money in the 1930s to make wine.”

Despite Erie County’s abun­dant grape crops, it was thirty­-five years after Prohibition ended before wineries reap­peared. The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB), which governs the sale of alcoholic beverages, would neither market Pennsylvania wine nor allow it to be sold within Ute state by the produc­ing wineries. By the early 1960s only one winery, Conestoga Vineyards near Philadel­phia, was in operation, but selling none of its wine in the state. Members of the Erie County Horticulture Associa­tion began to study the prob­lem and formed a Grape Advisory Council to approach the state legislature.

The council found that by the mid-1960s eleven states had significant wine indus­tries In Pennsylvania, particu­larly Erie County, everything was in place for reviving it: climate, soil, skilled grape growers, reasonable taxing practices, customer potential and investment capital. Twelve thousand acres were already planted in grapes by more than five hundred commercial growers in the county. Only the lack of enabling legislation to permit marketing was an impediment.

Moorhead, along with Sceiford, were members of the Grape Advisory Council. Working together, the mem­bers of the council created a bill for limited production and outlets for Pennsylvania wine, using only state grown grapes.

Moorhead spoke to many audiences regarding the feasi­bility of a wine industry. At the January 1966 meeting of the North East Service Club, held at the South Shore Inn, he stated: “We have the finest Concords anywhere … and we also can grow a dinner wine that would excel in quality.” He had been experimenting with vinifera or European wine grapes since 1958 and advised the grape growers to “dig in and get interested.”

The year 1966 was a land­mark year in the history of the Pennsylvania wine industry. At the council’s urging, the state legislature allocated a total of seventy-five thousand dollars during the next ten years to the Pennsylvania State University to study wine grapes. The university’s gradu­ate students had been con­ducting experiments with fruit crops near North East since the late 1930s. A field research laboratory was established by the university and from 1943 was staffed by full-time profes­sionals. Using the state alloca­tion, plus sixty-six thousand dollars in additional funding, a project was devised to test thirty-three wine varieties in the North East area. Many varieties were also tested at two other research locations in the state. After three years the researchers picked their first crop for wine. Based on their findings they were able to make some significant early predictions.

Another important event occurred in 1966 when Forest Hopkins, owner and publisher of the North East Breeze, an­nounced his candidacy for the state legislature. Hopkins had purchased the newspaper in 1938 and guided its growth from five to forty employees. He assigned the paper to oth­ers during World War II while he served as a U.S. Naval officer, then returned to North East and distinguished himself in the newspaper business, traveling to foreign countries on government study mis­sions. He was active in county and local service clubs, owned and operated a historic restau­rant, and raised race horses as a sideline. Making a bid for the political spotlight seemed the next natural step.

Hopkins won both the primary and general election. His writing was colorful, and he regaled his readers with the inside story of lawmaking from the moment he arrived in Harrisburg. It soon became evident that “passing winery legislation was his personal crusade,” according to Moorhead.

The following June, Hopkins in the house and William Sesler in the senate, introduced the Limited Winery Bill. It won easily in the house, but was stalled in a senate committee until the last night of the session. Members of the PLCB went to sleep believing the bill had died, but with a secretary’s help, it was pried out of committee. The vote was taken and the bill passed.

The original 1968 bill lim­ited Pennsylvania wineries to a maximum output of fifty thou­sand gallons each year; to produce table wines only from grapes grown in Pennsylvania; and to sell it “on the licensed premises … to individuals and to hotel, restaurant, dub and public service liquor licensees,” and to the Pennsylvania Liq­uor Control Board. It has been amended several times so that fruit used for wines are not limited to grapes, and wineries can purchase “in bulk in bond from another Pennsylvania limited winery,” according to certain stipulations. The 1987 amendments allow wineries to produce two hundred thou­sand gallons and sell it in five locations designated by the PLCB other than the licensed premises.

“Because ninety-eight per­cent of the grapes grown in Pennsylvania are grown here, the other wineries around the state are buying grapes from this area; the Pennsylvania wine industry is concentrated in Erie County,” said Moorhead. He added that even though the wineries along Pennsylvania’s lake shore are small, “the goal is to produce quality wine. Wine­making is an art.”

But grapes are big business in the county. With about fourteen thousand acres planted in grapes, they are the county’s largest single crop. Ninety-five percent of the Concord grape industry in Pennsylvania is produced in Erie County. The state’s wine industry has become a fifteen million dollar business as a result of the research spawned by the 1966 grant. Increased technology, directly related to the research completed in North East, now produces an average one thousand gallons of wine per acre. In 1873, the South Shore Wine Company produced two hundred gallons per acre. Of further aid to the grape growers will be a com­puter program called Grapes Expert System (GRAPES) being developed at the North East Field Research Labora­tory. Eventually it will link growers with the solution to every kind of problem they may experience with their crops.

Today fifty wineries operate in Pennsylvania, four of which are located in the North East area. The oldest and largest is Penn-Shore Vineyards, Inc., established in l969 by Sceiford and two partners. Moorhead’s winery, Presque Isle Wine Cellars, has offered complete supplies to the amateur wine­maker since 1964. He and a partner added a winery in 1969. The Mazza Vineyards opened in 1974 with wine pressed the previous season. Heritage Wine Cellars began in 1977, and the newest opera­tion, the Sara Coyne Winery, was established in 1986.

Ironically, the South Shore Inn, where winemaking began in Erie County, closed its doors during the summer of 1986. Its history remains distinct, and its facilities, still intact, are frequently on display for the public. The immense old wine cellars remain unscathed by the passage of time. They stand ready to receive grapes, to house huge casks of wine, and to return to the business for which they were built.


For Further Reading

Atkinson, William P. Erie City Duplex Directory, 1896-1912. Erie: Compiled and Published by Wm. P. Atkinson.

Atkinson, William P. Erie County Directory, 1911. Erie: W. P. Atkinson, 1911.

Chazanof, William. Welch’s Grape Juice, From Corporation to Cooperative. Syracuse, N. Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1977.

Child, Hamilton. Gazeteer and Business Directory of Erie County, Pennsylvania, 1873-74. Syracuse, N. Y.: Hamilton Child, 1873.

Directory of the Borough of North East, Pennsylvania for 1900-01. Erie: Cushman Broth­ers, 1901.

Directory of North East Bor­ough and Township. North East, Pa.: WE. Belnap and Com­pany, 1877.

Gallagher, Marty. North East Past … North East, Pa.: Brown-Thompson Newspapers, Inc., 1985.

Miller, John. A Twentieth Century History of Erie County, Pennsylvania. Chicago: Lewis Publishing Co., 1909.

Nelson, S. B. Nelson’s Bio­graphical Dictionary and His­torical Reference Book of Erie County Pennsylvania. Erie: S.B. Nelson, 1896.

Price, G. D. Erie County Direc­tory. Erie: Dispatch Printing Co., 1886.

Sanford, Laura G. History of Erie County, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1894.


Sabina Shields Freeman, a resi­dent of Fairview, Erie County, has co-authored three books dealing with the county’s history. A member of numerous local and regional historical and cultural organizations and committees, she actively researches county history, the results of which appear in her contributions to the Cosmopolite Herald, published in Girard. This is her third contribution to Pennsylvania Heritage; The President Meets the Press” ap­peared in the fall 1985 edition and “Dan Rice’s Monument: Patriot­ism or Circus Promotion?” was featured in the fall 1986 issue.