Home > History of Wine > The 19th Century Vineyards of Washington County, Maryland and the Earliest Documented American Ice Wine

The 19th Century Vineyards of Washington County, Maryland and the Earliest Documented American Ice Wine

In describing the vineyards and wines of the East Coast, Frank Schoonmaker in his 1941 American Wines, describes the Eastern Shore of Maryland as a “great wine district – perhaps the best of all.”[1] He does not delve into the history of Maryland wine.  For that we may turn to contemporary sources such as the authoritative Thomas Pinney in A History of Wine in America.  He describes the 18th century efforts of Governor Horatio Sharpe, Charles Carroll, and Colonel Benjamin Tasker, Jr.  His descriptions of 19th century efforts focus in on John Adlum and his vineyard at Havre de Grace.  In Regina McCarthy’s Maryland Wine: A Full-Bodied History the focus is again on John Adlum, the discovery of the Catawba grape from Mrs. Schell,  and the short-lived Society for the Culture of the Vine.  The 1880 Report Upon Statistics of Grape Culture and Wine Production in the United States lists 599 acres of cultivated vines in Maryland producing some 21,405 gallons worth $19,151of wine annually.[2]  The major wine producing areas were Dorchester, Harford, and Caroline followed by Washington County.

Documentation on the history of the vineyards and production of wine in Maryland appear to have ignored the efforts in Washington County.  Despite the relatively small production there is a documented history of cultivation of the vine and production of wine throughout the 18th century.  Lost in this history is what appears to be the first documented production of ice-wine in America.  Citations of the first Ice-wine made in Canada list Walter Hainle of Okanagan Valley in 1972 and in Ham Mowbray of Maryland in 1974.  Just after the end of the Civil War, George Heyser produced an 1865 Catawba wine made from grapes harvested after a frost.  In this post I provide an overview of the vines and wines of Washington County in the 19th century.

Map of the vicinity of Hagerstown, Funkstown, Williamsport, and Falling Waters, Maryland. US Army Corp of Engineers. 1879. No G3840 1879 .U5. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

Map of the vicinity of Hagerstown, Funkstown, Williamsport, and Falling Waters, Maryland. US Army Corp of Engineers. 1879. No G3840 1879 .U5. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

The Land Patents of Washington County, Maryland suggest a history of vineyards dating back to the 18th century.[3]  Joseph Chaplain finalized the 45 acres of Hills and Dales in 1751.  In 1771 he finalized the Resurvey on Hills and Dales and the Vineyard for a large total of 2256 acres.  This implies he either acquired or planted a vineyard by 1771.  Joseph Chaplain had an extensive number of properties so it is more likely he consolidated property rather than began cultivating a 2215 acre vineyard.

Dr. George and William Stuart finalized 154 acres of The Vineyard in 1750 despite being originated in 1739.  The name “Stuart” was also spelled “Steuart.”  William Steuart, Benjamin Tasker Jr., and Sr finalized the 506 acre Resurvey on Vineyard in 1754.  This land was located next to the Resurvey of Hills and Dales, Vineyard.  In 1762 William Steuart is listed as the sole owner of the 506 acre Resurvey on Vineyard.  Andrew Grim finalized 50 acres of land called Frenches Vineyard in 1753 followed by 940 acres called Frenchs Vineyard in 1759.  Perhaps his interests extended beyond the grape for he finalized 50 acres next to the Resurvey Frenchs Vineyard called Red Liquor.  In 1761 he resurveyed the 940 acres of Frenchs Vineyard.  John Cass originated the 7 acre Vineyard in 1738, not finalizing it until 1801.  Henry Betterbenner likewise finalized his 67 acres as Vineyard in 1809.  This was followed by Cynthia Boyd with 134 acres named Vineyard in 1814.

Picture of the Valley, Pen Mar. T.J.C. Williams, 1887. Western Maryland Room, Washington County Free Library.

Picture of the Valley, Pen Mar. T.J.C. Williams, 1887. Western Maryland Room, Washington County Free Library.

The history of the vineyards and winemaking becomes concrete in the 19th century.  Near Hagerstown, Maryland, the vine and wine appears linked to the early German residents.  Thomas Scharf writes that these immigrants brought with them a passion for the cultivation of flowers as well as the grapevine. [4] The early families of the Shafers, Knodes, Schroeders, Boerstlers, Beckleys, Stonebreakers, and others participated in the cultivation of the vine in Funkstown.  Funkstown is a village located 2.5 miles south of Hagerstown.  Dr. Christian Boerstler, proprietor of a powder-mill, arrived in 1804 with Daniel Boerstler, a rifle, gun, and powder manufacturer, in 1808.  John and Henry Shafer were merchants who arrived between 1810 and 1813 when Gerard Stonebreaker passed away.  John Knode, a tavern keeper, arrived in 1820.  Thomas Scharf writes that in 1809, Frederick Kehler manufactured two barrels of wine from cultivated grapes.  He goes on to state this was the first wine made from cultivated grapes in Washington County.

Frederick Kehler sold his wine of the 1809 vintage at $4 per gallon.  As a point of reference, Henry Miller & Son of Baltimore advertised in January 1808, the sale of “Old Madeira Wine” at $5, $4, and $3 per gallon.[5]  W. M. Norris of Market Street, Baltimore sold “Claret Wine” in demijohns at $1.25 per gallon.[6]  In February 1810, he listed “Vedonia Wine, six years imported” at $2 per gallon.[7]  The wine of Frederick Kehler was not cheap.

On October 4, 1809, an article titled “The Grape” was published in the Daily National Intelligencer.  It began with that statement that there were 18 vineyards in the county sized between 0.5 to 2.5 acres.  The eldest was 3.5 years indicating it was planted during the spring of 1806.  The vineyards were planted with cuttings and rooted plants obtained from Peter Legaux near Philadelphia, “from Gentlemen’s Gardens in the vicinity of Baltimore”, some from seed, and “from other island gardens.”  Those raised from the seeds of the white Leghorn grape had not yet born fruit but the others were flourishing. The first two vineyards suffered from the late spring frosts and summer drought of 1809.  Each of these vineyards produced several barrels of wine despite the injury to the vines.  The author suspected the number of vineyards would double by the spring of 1810.

There were six European “wine gardners” comprised of one Austrian with the rest Württembergs and Swiss.  The Württemberg immigrants came by way of Fort Pitt with cuttings “but very few of them grew.”  I wonder if these cuttings are those “from other island gardens” because Presque Isle was not far from Fort Pitt.  It appears that the American Germans cultivated the remaining vineyards.  The Europeans planted their vines four feet apart and tended them with the hoe.  The “American Germans” planted the vines five to six feet apart to afford more air and space because “the vine grows much more rapid, strong and higher than in Europe” and with the hotter climate they “require more space and air.”  This American vineyard layout allowed more work to be completed in one day with a horse and plow than with 12, presumably European, hands.

The vineyards were planted with over one dozen varieties.  The best varieties were considered the Constantia, the Black, Blue, Red, and White Frontignanc, White Sweet water, the Rhine, Claret, and others all of which came from Peter Legaux.  There were no new vines straight from Hungary, apparently just those already cultivated in America.

In a response to questions about planting a vineyard in Virginia on July 27, 1801, Mr. Legaux listed the following rates for October 1801.[8]  Cuttings 15 to 24 inches in length of “Champaign Bourgoyne and Bordeaux wines” at ¢5 each with rooted vines at ¢12.  These rates were dropped to ¢4 and ¢20 respectively when the quantity exceeded 1,000 each.  Likewise the Cape of Good Hope vine was priced at ¢9 and ¢25 dropping to ¢9 and ¢20 in quantity.  It is a little suspicious that all of the best varieties in Washington County were obtained from Peter Legaux.  After the heavy May frosts of 1803, only 582 of his 14,000 vines had survived.[9]  He continued to receive and plant new cuttings but survival was tough.  By 1809 he decided that only the Cape of Good Hope grapevine was able to grow.

The German Jonathan Hager settled on his land in 1737.[10]  The surrounding population eventually grew and the area was named Elizabeth Town after his wine.  In 1814, the population reached approximately 2,500 so the name was incorporated as Hagerstown.  It was around this period that Isaac Garver had an “extensive vineyard, one of the first in the District.” sometime between his arrival in the Leitersburg District of Washington County in 1790 and his death in 1826.  It was not a success.[11]  I have not found any vineyard references for the 1830s nor the 1840s.

In 1842, William Heyser III split his land in two giving it to the brothers John H. and George Heyser.  John H. Heyser completed his house and “Subterranean Wine Cellar” in 1846.[12] This implies John H. Heyser intended to produce wine from the very beginning.  The brothers were cultivating grapes and producing wine by the fall of 1858.  They submitted several bottle to the Wine Committee at the Annual Exhibition of the Washington County Agricultural Society.[13]  The committee was comprised of Mr. Schley, Mr. Weisel, and Mr. Motter.  The committee found the “premium bottle” and other “were genuine samples of a perfectly pure Catawba wine.”  While they were not to the quality of a “Johannesberger or Rudesheimer”, it would take more than the discrimination that the “unsophisticated are possessed of” to differentiate between Catawba and Rhine wines.

Cellar Door of John H. Heyser.  Image under license by Grudnick (flickr).

Cellar Door of John H. Heyser. Image under license by Grudnick (flickr).

John H. Heyser wrote about “Grape Culture For Wine” in The Horticulturist, and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste in the fall of 1859.[14]  John H. Heyser was writing in response to an article published by David Thomas, a horticulturalist who lived in New York, who “confesses himself puzzled about some things concerning the culture of grapes.”  John. H. Heyser then writes “I have been persuaded to make the attempt”, presumably to cultivate grapevines.  He mentions a visit from Samuel Miller, a horticulturalist from Calmdale, Pennsylvannia who visited his property in Hagerstown.  He notes that Samuel Miller saw in the Autumn of 1858, “vines that were not stump in, that have borne for four years piles of grapes, and that had good wood for another pile.”  This dates the first fruit of John H. Heyser’s vineyard to the autumn of 1855 and implies it was planted around 1852.

In 1868, the correspondent A.C.P. of Baltimore spent several days in Hagerstown studying the local vineyards and winemaking.  The details of his visited were published in the article “Vineyards and Wine in Washington County, MD” in The Gardeners’ Monthly and Horticulturalist.[15]  At the time, George Heyser had several acres of Concord, Clinton, and Catawba grape vines, the later of which “as usual, is badly mildewed.”  George Heyser’s vineyard still existed in 1871 where he grew “grapes largely, with decided profit.”  His brother John H. Heyser had some plantings of Diana, Delaware, and other varieties.  In 1867, he had planted a new vineyard primarily with Concord grapevines which were already showing some fruit.  The vines were located on elevated land with soils of limestone with a porous texture.  The rows of vines were trained on trellises and radiated out from a central point at which there was a structure to view the vineyard.  His Catawba crop was completely destroy in 1868 by mildew, despite a heavy dose of sulphur.

The author was able to taste several bottles of wine produced by the two Heyser brothers of whom he concludes, “Both gentlemen evidently have the skill and experience for making fine wines.”  George Heyser’s 1866 Concord white was “clear, pure in taste and pleasant, but lacking body and aroma.”  His 1866 Catawba was an “excellent wine of fine color, some aroma, fruity, [and] palatable.”  Finally, came his 1865 “after frost” Catawba.  This is important because Regina McCarthy writes of Ham Mowbray making “the first ever America ice wine” at Montbray Cellars, Maryland in 1974.  It is also imported because his vineyard survived the Civil War.  Here is the complete description of the Heyser “after frost” wine.  [Please check the Wine Berserkers thread The first documented American Icewine?  for more information about the weather for October 1865.  I now suspect this was a late harvest rather than an ice wine.]

“finally Catawba of 1865, made of grapes after frost. On tasting this wine I almost suspected a mystification and that some choice Rudesheimer or other high grade Rhine wine had been set before us; such exquisite bouquet, such rich flavor, body and fire. I never before had discovered in American wines; all of which excellent qualities, apart, of careful preparation, Mr H. attributes to his gathering the Grapes after they had a slight frost.”

John Heyser opened a Catawba which was “very nice, pleasant wine of fruity flavor” and an interesting 1867 “beautiful ruby color” Concord wine.  This was produced by “rubbing the skins, instead of fermenting on the skins.”  The author felt it “was too young to show what it may be when ripe.”  In April 1871, a correspondent for the Baltimore Sun noted Washington County was often called the “garden spot of Maryland.”[16]  John H. Heyser’s property of 150 acres contained 10 acres of vines and devoted “much attention to raising grapes, and to the manufacture of wine.”  He averaged 1,000 gallons of mainly Catawba wine per acre for an annual total of 10,000 gallons.  His wine sold for $1.50 to $2.50 per gallon depending upon age and quality.  This is equivalent to 40,000 quart bottle or 3,333 cases of wine per year worth an average of $20,000! His large wine vaults were “well stored with this wine.”  John H. Heyser believed that producing wine in the county “would become a vastly profitable enterprise.”   John H. Heyser was listed as a “wine manuf[actuer]” in the 1875 Boyd’s Directory.[17]

That afternoon A.C.P. visited the vineyards of Mr. Appleman.  His grapevines were located on very hilly lands with poor soils of slate.  The vineyard was just planted in 1867 with many different varieties.  The Concord vines appeared the best since “Such poor neglected slate hills may prove a very paradise for the grape.”  In Hagerstown itself an “amateur friend” of the author had at least 15 varieties of Roger’s seedlings, Martha, Black Hawk, Diana Hamburg, five hybrids from Mr. Arnold of Paris, Canada, being a cross from Black Hamburg and Clinton.

Dr. Harvey had a grapery on West Washington Street.  He was noted at the 1858 Annual Exhibition of the Washington County Agricultural Society as being “an enthusiastic grape grower” who was “collecting native varieties, and cultivating them with much care and interest.”   In 1870 he had “every variety known in the latitude, including ‘Rogers’ and ‘Muscats.’”[18]  Near the end of the century Henry F. Unger purchased the 90 acre farm, presumably his father’s located in the Leitersburg District, in 1893.[19]  He was “extensively engaged in grape and berry culture” through at least 1898.

[1] Schoonmaker, Frank and Marvel, Tom. American Wines. 1941.
[2] McMurtrie, William. Report upon statistics of grape culture and wine production in the United States for 1880. 1881. URL: http://archive.org/details/reportuponstatis36mcmu
[3] Land patents of Washington County, Maryland (1730-1830). URL: http://www.whilbr.org/WashCoLandPatents/index.aspx
[4] Scharf, Thomas J. History of Western Maryland. 1882. URL: http://openlibrary.org/books/OL24143482M/History_of_western_Maryland
[5] Date: Friday, January 15, 1808    Paper: North American (Baltimore, MD)   Volume: I   Issue: 5   Page: 3
[6] Date: Wednesday, April 26, 1809   Paper: American and Commercial Daily Advertiser (Baltimore, MD)   Volume: XIX   Issue: 3103   Page: 3
[7] Date: Tuesday, February 13, 1810  Paper: Federal Republican (Baltimore, MD)   Volume: I   Issue: 111   Page: 1
[8] Date: Monday, July 27, 1801   Paper: American (Baltimore, MD)   Volume: IV   Issue: 643   Page: 3
[9] Pinney, Thomas. A History of Wine in America From the Beginnings to Prohibition. 1989.
[10] Federal Writer’s Project. Maryland, a Guide to the Old Line State. 1940. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=e487MlEWyOUC&lpg=PP1&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[11] Bell, Herbert Charles.  History of Leitersburg District, Washington County, MD. 1898. URL:
[14] Heyser, John H. “Grape Culture For Wine” in The Horticulturist, and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste, Volume 14. 1859. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=BpQAAAAAYAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[15] A.C.P. “Vineyards and Wine in Washington County, MD” in The Gardeners’ Monthly and Horticulturalist, Volume 10. 1868. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=-KQdAQAAIAAJ&pg=PP11#v=onepage&q&f=false
[16] Date: Saturday, April 8, 1871          Paper: Sun (Baltimore, MD)   Volume: LXVIII   Issue: 122   Page: Supplement 1
[17] Boyd’s Business Directory for Maryland. 1875. URL: http://www.whilbr.org/CumberlandHagerstownDirectory1875/index.aspx
[18] Scharf, Thomas J.
[19] Bell, Herbert Charles.
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