Home > History of Wine > The Boonville Winery survived the Civil War but not the railroad expansion of Californian wine

The Boonville Winery survived the Civil War but not the railroad expansion of Californian wine


I had intended this post to simply contain an image of the Boonville Wine Company building but then I fell down the rabbit hole that is the history of wine making in Missouri.  Thomas Pinney does an excellent job of outlining this history in his important book A History of Wine in America: From the Beginnings to Prohibition.  In focusing in on a single winery I realized I could bring light on some particularly interesting details.  The first follows yesterday’s theme of wine, the vine, and the Civil War.  The second is more of a suggestion for future research, how steam engines changed winemaking technology.  I admit this is a rough post, so think of it as stream of conscious research!

The Boonville Wine Company was located in Cooper County, central Missouri.  This area became noted for its vineyards due to the settlement of Germans from Rhine who fled after the German Revolution of 1848.   The soils and hills of the Missouri River Valley were likened to the Rhine so much so that the area around Boonville was known as the “Vine Clad City”.[1]  The first vines in the Boonville vicinity are credited to R. D. Perry who planted Isabella and Catawba in the late 1840s.  William Haas was employed to prune the vines and soon developed a taste for Catawba.[2]  He was to later write that it produced excellent wine “equal in quality and flavor, and comparing favorably with the celebrated Rhine wine”.

William Hass eventually planted his own vineyard with five acres of Catawba vines.[3]   His wine was sold on the east coast and even won a first in “native dry wine” at the Philadelphia National Fair.  Perhaps it is this reputation that secured strong prices for his wine.  In the 1857 vintage, just three acres of Catawba vines yielded some 1700 gallons of wine that was sold at $2 per gallon wholesale.  Another report cites 1600 gallons sold at $2.50 per gallon.  Simultaneous to his personal efforts, William Haas helped incorporate the Boonville Wine Company.  The Boonsville Wine Company was incorporated on November 23, 1855, and went on to be the largest vineyard holder in the area.[4]  This company eventually owned some 115 acres of land but only a proportion was used for orchards and vineyard.  Four acres were planted with vines in 1857 followed by 16 acres in 1858.  The vineyards of the company were located next to those of William Haas.  It was natural that in expanding the Boonville Wine Company purchased the 14 acre property of William Haas.

City of Boonville. Image from Illustrated historical atlas of Cooper County, Missouri. 1897. [0]

City of Boonville. Image from Illustrated historical atlas of Cooper County, Missouri. 1897. [0]

The Boonville Wine Company vineyards were located on a high bluff facing the southeast.  Much of this area featured bluffs along the Missouri River with deep loess soils.  The company’s land was steep so the hillsides were terraced.  Each terrace had two to five rows of vines and walls made from blue grass sod.  The vines were planted four to six feet apart in rows with the rows five to six feet apart.  This allowed a horse and plow to work between the rows. [5]  The plantings included Catawba, the popular Virginia Seedling, and Clinton of Chicago.  The vines were trained on trellises made of stakes and slats.  By 1869 some 20 acres of vines were planted with 18 of them bearing fruit.   A crew of ten women were used to tie the vines.

Image from "Missouri as it is in 1867." Google books.

Image from “Missouri as it is in 1867.” Google books.

The wine was made in a large stone building that was constructed in 1858.[6]  William Haas also brewed beer so the building simultaneously functioned as a brewery and a winery.  There were two underground levels with six cellars, one for malt and five for storage.  The steam driven equipment included ventilators for the cellars.  The grapes were crushed at Miller & Moore’s cider mill using a vat and a large iron screw.  I wonder if stream drove the conveyors, the screw, or was used to sanitize the equipment.

We are fortunate to know what the wine tasted like because the State Board of Agriculture visited the winery in 1869. The board was assured that the wines “were absolutely pure juice” and contained “the acid of the grapes unchanged and in its purity.”  The absence of any “vinegar sour” meant “the wines have been well made and well handled.”  Here are their comments for three different vintages:

  • 1866 Catawba – “rather high colored – more acid than usual at Hermann – really good”
  • 1867 Catawba – “paler, slightly smoother”
  • 1868 Catawba – “not quite clear, but of best quality.”
Soldiers from the 134th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. 1864.

Soldiers from the 134th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. 1864.

Just several years after the vines were planted Boonville became the site of four minor Civil War engagements between 1861 and 1864.  The 59th Regiment of Illinois Volunteers fought for the Union and was camped around Boonville during the fall of 1861.[7]  The soldiers ate the grapes as well as drank the local wine.  They left feeling that the area could “boast of many fine vineyards.”  Two years later, the Confederate General Joseph Shelby led his cavalry raid into Boonville during September 1863.  At this time the vines were loaded with ripe grapes.  Soldiers stopped to to gather all of the grapes they could from the surrounding vineyards.  Some thanked the owners, others offered to pay in Confederate money, but most in “war-time soldier style” took what they wanted and left.  It was fortunately a heavy crop.  Despite soldier’s appetites, there were still enough grapes left on the vines to presumably make wine.

GENERAL VIEW OF MAIN BUILDING WITH VINEYARDS IN SURROUNDING HILLS. ca. 1895.

GENERAL VIEW OF MAIN BUILDING WITH VINEYARDS IN SURROUNDING HILLS. ca. 1895.

In 1869 the Boonville Wine Company ceased operation purportedly due, in part, to competition from California wine brought over by railway.  This is a precipitous failure given that the final spike of the First Transcontinental Railroad was driven in on May 10, 1869, and the state board liked the wines.  I do not know the details of what happened after 1869.  The vineyard continued to be farmed and even survived the burning of the building in the mid 1890s.  In period photographs, the stone walls of the wine cellars and buildings remain standing amongst the vine covered hills.  Exactly why the winery ceased operation deserves to be investigated for other Missouri vineyards flourished until Prohibition.

DETAIL, RUINS. ca. 1895.

DETAIL, RUINS. ca. 1895.


[0] Illustrated historical atlas of Cooper County, Missouri. 1897. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division. URL: http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.gmd/g4163cm.gla00019
[1] Johnson, W. Foreman. History of Cooper County Missouri. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=zwkWAwAAQBAJ&lpg=PA6&pg=PA6#v=onepage&q&f=false
[2] Annual Report of the State Board of Agriculture. 1870. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=_ls0AQAAMAAJ&pg=PR1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[3]Purchase of a Valuable Vintage.  Date: Saturday, March 6, 1858 Paper: Weekly Wisconsin Patriot (Madison, WI) Volume: 4 Issue: 40 Page: 4
[4] Laws of Missouri passed at the General Assembly. 1856. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=DvpFAQAAIAAJ&pg=PA1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[5] Parker, Nathan Howe. Missouri as it is in 1867. 1867. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=A6sUAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
[6] Parker, Nathan Howe. Missouri as it is in 1867. 1867. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=A6sUAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA7#v=onepage&q&f=false
[7] Lathrop, David. The History of the Fifty-ninth Regiment Illinois Volunteers. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=wn1BAAAAYAAJ&pg=PR5#v=onepage&q&f=false
[8] Soldiers from the 134th Illinois Volunteer Infantry drilling at Columbus, Kentucky. Carbutt, John. 1864. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. URL: http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.33524
[9] Photocopy of photograph Dr. Charles Swap, Photographer ca. 1895 GENERAL VIEW OF MAIN BUILDING WITH VINEYARDS IN SURROUNDING HILLS – Boonville Winery, Boonville, Cooper County, MO. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. URL: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/mo0583.photos.095162p/
[10]  Photocopy of photograph Dr. Charles Swap, Photographer ca. 1895 DETAIL, RUINS – Boonville Winery, Boonville, Cooper County, MO. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. URL: http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.mo0583/photos.095164p/

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