Blogs Away: Wine, Shakers and Ohio in the 19th Century

Blogs Away: Wine, Shakers and Ohio in the 19th Century

Blogs Away: Wine, Shakers and Ohio in the 19th Century

By David McDevitt

Greetings, Dear Reader! Due to the smashing success of my first blog post, my supervisors have assigned me the writing of another for your consumption and enjoyment. This time, rather than simply explain what I’ve been up to since I got here, my mission is to find a document or collection in the Ohio History Connection that interests me, research it, and somehow translate that into a blog post. And come December, I’m going to have to present my findings to a group of staff here at the OHC. I can’t wait. But for now, Dear Reader, sit back and enjoy.

Initially, I was unsure what documents I was interested in researching, so I pulled up the OHC catalogue and searched things that interest me (and might interest you, the reader). As I shoehorned into my first blog post, I wrote my undergraduate thesis about Hessian prisoners of war during the Revolutionary War. It turns out we don’t have much on that here in our collections, so I turned elsewhere for inspiration.

Back in my college days at Miami University, I took a class called Viticulture & Enology, or as many in the student body know it, “the wine class”. The instructor Jack Keegan (a great man by the way) lectured about all sorts of wine and the many unique regions of the world that produce it, but one of the many things I learned was that our very own state of Ohio once possessed a serious and vibrant wine industry in the 1800’s. So I went ahead and searched the OHC catalogue for “Ohio wine”. One collection in particular that jumped out at me was some correspondence relating to the American Wine Growers Association of Cincinnati in the 1850’s.

Most of that correspondence was either written by or addressed to Nicholas Longworth (1783-1863), a real big cheese in the early American (and especially Ohioan) wine industry. Though born in New Jersey, he moved to Cincinnati as a young man, where he began cultivating wine grapes. Perhaps his greatest wine-related achievement was producing highly regarded sparkling wine from a grape native to America, the Catawba grape. This was exceptional, as wine grapes had historically come out of Europe; New World grapes were generally considered unsuitable for wine-making purposes.

To my dismay, a lot of the letters in the collection were extremely difficult to read due to the authors’ sloppy handwriting. Like, seriously illegible. I believe it must go down as a great enigma of history how people in the 1850’s were able to read each other’s handwriting. But among the handful of letters that didn’t resemble a bunch of scribbles, I found a letter from 1854 addressed to Longworth from a man named Philemon Stewart, writing from New Lebanon, New York.

Stewart discussed a small sampling of Muscadine grapes accompanying the letter, claiming that they were “the best grape for our climate now extant”, as well as “prolific and hardy”. He encouraged Longworth to try their flavor for himself, no doubt assuming (or at least hoping) the latter would approve. After he expressed his hope that the fruit arrived uninjured, Stewart requested that if Longworth did indeed like the Muscadine, he should advertise it using his considerable influence in the American wine community. He also asked Longworth to offer a baker’s dozen-type deal in which if a buyer were to purchase a dozen Muscadine vine roots, Stewart would throw in a thirteenth root free of charge!

This is all fine and dandy, but who is this Philemon Stewart? A quick Google search revealed that he was a prominent and often controversial Shaker of the 19th century. For those unaware, Shakers were a Christian religious sect (prominent in the 1800’s) known for their communal lifestyle, gender equality, and celibacy. In 1842, Stewart had a revelation in which a ‘Holy Angel’ appeared, and for six hours per day for two weeks, the unadulterated word of God was dictated to him. His transcriptions came to form the Sacred Roll, a holy document among the Shakers.

So, what was this prophet doing peddling fruit to an Ohio businessman? Upon deeper investigation, it came to light that Philemon Stewart was a leading gardener amongst the Shakers, a task he “took seriously and performed well”.[1] In fact, he seemed to have an innovative and forward-thinking mentality when it came to agrarian topics, a trait that at times clashed with certain older, more conservative elders within the sect.[2]

All this digging into Shakers and wine brought me to even more really cool discoveries! Despite multiple efforts to reduce the consumption of alcoholic drinks (along with other products deemed excessive or unclean) within the Shaker communes, wine appears to have kept a low profile, and I have been unable to find any mention of it being outlawed amongst the Shakers.[3]  Without delving too much further into Shaker theology, I can only speculate as to why that was the case. Perhaps it was because of Christianity’s long and close relationship with the drink that caused them to see it as an acceptable beverage to be taken in moderation?

The “North Family Group” of buildings at Union Village (Shakertown) 3 miles west of Lebanon, Ohio, now known as the Otterbein Home. (SC 1481)

While Philemon Stewart never lived in Ohio, there were Shaker communities here. A prominent one existed in Union Village, Warren County. During the late 19th century, the remaining Shakers of Union Village attempted to cultivate grapes for commercial wine production.[4] The business venture ultimately failed, and the Shaker movement faded greatly in the 20th century to the point where only a very small handful of Shakers remain today. By that I mean there are four that live in Maine.[5]

Shakers bleaching wool at North Union, Ohio, 1874. (SC 1481)

I embarked on this journey expecting to learn about wines produced in Ohio, but instead I was taken down a path of Shakerism. I remember learning about Shakers in my high school US history class, and thinking they were awfully boring. Maybe I’ve matured or something, but I’ve come around to the conclusion that the Shakers were actually a pretty fascinating group. This project developed in a way I didn’t expect at all, but if anything I think that reflects how cool and interesting the collections can be at the Ohio History Connection. So if you’re looking for something to do in Columbus, I’d encourage you to come visit the Ohio History Center and look through documents that might interest you; you never know what will turn up!


[1] Stephen J. Stein, “Inspiration, Revelation, and Scripture: The Story of a Shaker Bible”, American Antiquarian Society, 1996: 347-376.
[2] Brewer, Priscilla, Shaker Communities, Shaker Lives, (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 1986), 96-97.
[3] Brewer, Shaker Communities, 39, 41, 133
[4] Brauer, Cheryl, The Shakers of Union Village, (Chicago: Arcadia Publishing, 2007), 36-37.
[5] Kevin Williams, “A Few Good Shakers Wanted”, Aljazeera America, May 3, 2015.


Posted December 2, 2016
Topics: Daily Life

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