EDIBLE TRADITIONS

concord_grape

He Sowed, Others Reaped:
Ephraim Bull’s Concord Grapes
by Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely
Image Courtesy of the Concord Museum, Concord MA

In August 28, 1853, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his diary, “Walking down the street in the evening I detect my neighbor’s ripening grapes by the scent twenty rods off, though they are concealed behind his house. Every passer knows of them. Perhaps he takes me to his back door a week afterward and shows me with an air of mystery his clusters concealed under the leaves, which he thinks will be ripe in a day or two—as if it were a secret. He little thinks that I smelled them before he did.” i

In the town of Concord, where Thoreau observed and described nature in detail, then as now wild grapes grew in abundance. Vitis labrusca, the species native to the Northeast, often has a strong, sweet, heavy scent, sometimes called “foxy,” whose aromaThoreau perceived.  The vines are hardy in this cold climate, with large leaves and berries containing big seeds. The skins, colored red, green or purple-black, are sometimes slip-skin. Among the varietal names of these labrusca grapes are Niagara, Catawba, Ribier and Isabella.

In 1836, on the advice of his doctors, Ephraim Bull (1806–95) moved from the damp air of Boston to Concord, a town full of writers and thinkers, where he bought a 17-acre farm on Lexington Road.  Among his neighbors were Nathaniel Hawthorne; Bronson Alcott and his family, including daughter Louisa May; and Ralph Waldo Emerson half a mile away. Thoreau lodged off and on for several years with the Emersons, doing chores, making doll furniture for the daughters, almost one of the family, in exchange for room and board.

There in Concord, in addition to his trade as a goldbeater (pounding thin sheets into gold leaf ), Bull returned to his boyhood hobby of growing grapes. Year after year he found on his property and cultivated different varieties of the native wild vines. One can’t but wonder if the neighbor whose grapes Thoreau smelled was Bull. The two men sometimes talked about topics of natural history. In 1856 Thoreau wrote in his journal, “Mr. Bull tells me that his grapes grow faster and ripen sooner on the west than the east side of his house.” ii

Patiently, Bull selected those with the qualities he wanted: good flavor, early maturing, productive, reliable and hardy in the cold climate.  From these he made hybrid crosses but was never satisfied with the grapes they eventually produced. It was a long, slow process for the grapevines to mature and produce fruit for tasting and comparison.

Searching on his land, Bull found one particularly promising wildling vine. In his own words, “I put these grapes, whole, into the ground, skin and all, at a depth of two inches, about the first of October, after they had thoroughly ripened, and covered the row with boards. I nursed these seedlings for six years, and of this large number only one proved worth the saving. On the 10th of September, 1849, I was enabled to pick a bunch of grapes, and when I showed them to a neighbor, who tasted them, he at once exclaimed, ‘Why, this is better than the Isabella!’” iii

In 1853, after some 22,000 experimental crosses from seed, Bull exhibited his new hybrid, developed solely from native grapes and named for his town, at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. It made a sensation, winning first prize. Here is his description: “The grape is large, frequently an inch in diameter, and the bunches handsomely shouldered, and sometimes weigh a pound. In color it is a ruddy black, covered with a dense blue bloom, the skin very thin, the juice abundant, with a sweet aromatic flavor, and it has very little pulp; the wood is strong, the foliage large, thick, strongly nerved, with a woolly undersurface, and does not mildew or rust. It ripens the 10th of September.” iv

The next year the Concord grape was put on the market. Its high sugar content was balanced with high acidity, and the grape immediately found favor. Although Bull soon made $3,200, a large amount at that time, he had no control over the dissemination of his vine. The Plant Patent Act, which would have protected Bull, did not become law until 1930. Nurserymen all over the country propagated and sold the Concord grape to their own considerable benefit. For a while Bull gave occasional lectures at Harvard, made presentations at horticultural meetings and entered local politics. But he lived an ever-more reclusive and pinched life, “with a single honey bee for company,” a contemporary remarked. v

One of those impressed with the Concord grape was Dr. Thomas Bramwell Welch, a Methodist minister and dentist in Vineland, New Jersey. A strict prohibitionist, he recognized that juice made from the Concord grape would make a suitable nonalcoholic communion wine.  In his home basement experimentations, as early as 1869 he found a way to pasteurize his grape juice, preventing fermentation, but used it only in his own local church services.

His son, however, saw that Dr.Welch’s Unfermented Wine had potential beyond the sacrament. Charles E.Welch had all the business instincts and marketing acumen that his father and Ephraim Bull lacked.  Even though the father advised his son never to give up his dentistry practice, Welch Jr. gave up his day job, dropped the “Dr.” from the name of the product, and marketedWelch’s Grape Juice. In 1893 it was presented at the ChicagoWorld’s Fair, where again it caused a sensation.

For most of its history, the Welch’s Grape Juice Company was headquartered in upstate New York, a climate where the vine thrived. Brilliant marketing in the early and mid 20th century brought it into many American households, as many of us remember. Today Welch’s is the marketing arm of the National Grape Cooperative, whose members grow the grapes in five states and Ontario but not Massachusetts, although the headquarters were moved to Concord about 25 years ago.  Over a thousand members own the company, with total earnings of several hundred million dollars a year.

Ephraim Bull, embittered by losing out on the profits of his life’s work, the Concord grape, died in 1895 and was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord. There Thoreau, Hawthorne, Emerson, and the Alcotts remain his neighbors still. On his tombstone reads the epitaph, “HE SOWED OTHERS REAPED,” bordered with Concord grapevines.

Thoreau, not surprisingly, had a completely different view than Bull towards their town’s wild grapes. On September 8, 1858, he scrawled in his notebook, “What is a whole binful that have been plucked to that solitary cluster left dangling inaccessible from some birch far away over the stream in the September air, with all its bloom and freshness?” vi

 

Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely’s articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. Her cookbook, A Feast of Fruits, was published by Macmillan in 1993. Her dictionary, The Chef’s Companion (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd edition), remains in print after 27 years. She was editor of The Culinary Times, published by the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe from 2000 to 2009. Beth can be reached at elizabethriely@gmail.com.

iThoreau, Henry David. Wild Fruits: Thoreau’s Rediscovered LastManuscript, Edited and Introduced by Bradley P. Dean, W.W. Norton & Company, 2000, p.152.
ii I am grateful to David F.Wood, Curator of the Concord Museum, in Concord, Massachusetts, for this information.
iii Barrett, William. Memoirs of Members of the Social Circle in Concord, Fourth Series. The Riverside Press, Cambridge, 1909. p.151.
iv Ibid.
v Ibid., p.153.
vi Thoreau, p.154.