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The Grapes of Brooklyn

Jan 30, 2010 2:45 PM | 1 comment

The Grape Culturist cover

In this biting cold I think longingly of summer, of heat, of gardens bursting with blossoms, fruits and whatever else they may produce. And produce they do, in an abundance that reminds one of the fact that not so long ago, much of Brooklyn's land was given over to the intensive cultivation of market garden crops.

I am reminded of this every time I visit a house I used to live in, the back of which is covered by a large grapevine. This vine left unchecked  would cover the entire back yard in a season. It was so vital that if you left a window open in the morning, by the afternoon shoots would be creeping into your bedroom--you could almost see the tendrils grow. It was said to have been planted by an Italian family that formerly lived next door; but grapevines have been growing in Brooklyn since long before the wave of immigration from Italy that began in the 1880s.

Spooner on Grapes

The printer and publisher Alden Spooner published a book in 1846 entitled The Cultivation of American Grape Vines and Making of  Wine that drew on his long experience of viticulture in Brooklyn. Spooner's enthusiasm for the Isabella grape led him to give cuttings to anyone who would accept them. He felt that "every man owning a lot of ground of any dimensions, may raise his own grapes and make his own wine."  It is very possible that offshoots of Spooner's vines are still growing in Brooklyn back yards today.

Another Brooklyn-based scholar of viticulture was Andrew S. Fuller, who wrote "The Grape Culturist: A Treatise on the Cultivation of the Native Grape" published in 1864. He signs himself Andrew S. Fuller, Practical Horticulturist, Brooklyn, N.Y., and his book shows an encyclopedic knowledge of the craft, from propogation through hybridizing, transplanting, pruning and training, diseases and pests and so on.  Whereas Spooner mentions only two or three varieties of grapes in 1846, by the 1860s Fuller lists 63 varieties from the Adirondac to the York Madeira.

After many years during which beermaking held the ascendency in Brooklyn, winemaking is finally making a comeback, with commercial winemakers in Williamsburg and Red Hook already in production.  Their grapes are not grown in Brooklyn yet, but backyard viticulture could have a bright future here.  It is a comfort to know that while we wait for the burgeoning of sun-ripened grapes on south-facing walls we can still enjoy the fermented fruit of years past--as people have done in Brooklyn for a very long time.

 Training vines by Spooner

P.S. Notwithstanding the angle of the above illustration, no wine was drunk during the writing of this post.

New Genealogy Group Starts Weds Feb 3rd 6-8

Jan 29, 2010 4:01 PM | 0 comments

Come and join us on Wednesday February 3 from 6 to 8 in the Brooklyn Collection Reserve Room for the first meeting of our new genealogy group. Genealogist and historian Wilhelmena Kelly will help group members trace their ancestry. In honor of Black History month the first meeting will focus on African-American ancestry but Ms Kelly will be demonstrating techniques and resources that can be used by all. Hereafter this group will meet regularly on the first Wednesday of the month. Light refreshments will be served.

Historic Photos of the Brooklyn Bridge. An illustrated talk and book signing by John Manbeck

Jan 26, 2010 12:52 PM | 0 comments

Wednesday January 27th at 7 p.m. in the Brooklyn Collection, Second Floor, Central Library, Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn NY 11238. Come early (6:30) for wine and superb cheese, and meet the author.


Distilling in Brooklyn--Whiskey Wars and Swill Milk in the 1860s

Jan 20, 2010 2:37 PM | 2 comments

We hear a good deal about brewing in Brooklyn, but a patron's question recently made me realize that we hear little about the making of stronger stuff.  But as you would  think in a place the size of Brooklyn, there has been no shortage of local liquor, both legal and otherwise, in the City of Churches--and of stills.

One of the most venerable distilleries was that of Cunningham and Harris, at the corner of Main and Washington Streets; it was described in court proceedings as being founded as early as 1810.  A considerable number of these distilleries were located in the Eastern District not far from the breweries, with some also in Gowanus and Wallabout.  In fact there was one close to our Pacific Branch at the corner of "Flatbush Turnpike and Pacific Street"  according to Henry Stiles, author of one of the standard 19th century histories of Brooklyn. Other South Brooklyn establishments could be found at 2nd Street near Bond, 3rd Street near Gowanus and at the rear of 121 Douglass Street (these were all seized for non-payment of duties in Septmeber 1868).

The Whiskey War in Brooklyn

Court proceedings against Wilson's distillery at the corner of Flushing Ave and Skillman St in 1866 include a detailed description of the distillation process. A wash tub 16 feet wide and four feet deep with a "mash machine" in it was filled with hot water. Corn was added and left to stand, then rye was added, heated and cooled; then yeast was added and the "mass" run off into fermenting cisterns, producing alchohol.

Distilling seems to have been a risky business all around. If your distillery and equipment weren't being burned to the ground as a result of some careless accident--a workman placing an open flame too close to a barrel of whisky, for example--then the government was seizing your goods because you forgot --or more likely,  "forgot" --to pay your taxes.

From 1866 through 1868 the newspapers were full of reports of seized distilleries.  In 1867 the government collected only $21,618 from Brooklyn distillers, when in fact the volume of liquor they produced should have yielded $1,225,000 in duties. 

The conflict between the distillers and the government turned into an all out "Whiskey War" in 1869,  when troops were sent into the Fifth Ward (now the Vinegar Hill neighborhood) to enforce the revenue laws (see illustration above.).  An artist from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper  drew  the excitement at the junction of "Bourbon Avenue and Lightning Alley" where General Pleasanton, U.S. Revenue Collector  led a force of fifteen hundred  infantry and marines to destroy illicit stills and barrels of illegal whiskey.  

Swill milk trade exposure

But underreporting of production was only one of the evils associated with many of the Brooklyn distilleries. Fires and industrial accidents are reported with depressing regularity. Boilers exploded, scalding and even killing workers nearby. Neighbors complained about obstruction and other nuisances; and the distillers were implicated in the abhorrent "swill milk" trade, selling the residual mash from the distillation process to farmers who fed it to their cows. This diet caused the unfortunate animals to become "tail-less, red-eyed and dropsical" and to develop weeping sores. Their milk, unpasteurised, untested, and lacking in essential nutrients, was fed to babies who died in their thousands as a result.

Presentation watchThe Brooklyn Collection has several hundred prints from the 19th century illustrated newspapers showing scenes in Brooklyn during the time before news photography was current. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper was instrumental in exposing the horrors of the swill milk trade in 1859.  An artist trying to illustrate conditions in the cow stables associated with the distillery at the corner of Flushing Ave and Skillman Streets was assaulted by the milkmen; and Mr Leslie himself was said to suffer "many indignities" as a result of his stand. In the end though, the publisher was presented with a  watch and chain by the "Ladies and children of New York, for his efforts in suppressing the swill milk trade."




"Coney Island is a Jonah"

Jan 11, 2010 4:35 PM | 0 comments

In 1867, Kings County celebrated the opening of Ocean Parkway, which connected Prospect Park with the Town of Gravesend.  The Parks Commission owned the small patch of land where the Parkway met the Atlantic Ocean.  The land, known as Ocean Concourse Drive, straddled the barrier between Coney Island and the more respectable Brighton Beach. Looking for revenue, the Parks Commission proposed that an aquarium should be built on the west end of the Concourse, believing an aquarium would "be a good thing to introduce the Island to civilization." 

New Map of Brooklyn including Kings Co., 1884

From 1877 to 1887, the Seaside Aquarium entertained and educated Coney Island's crowds.  Charles Reiche & Bros. already operated the successful New York Aquarium in Manhattan, so they were a natural choice for management.  But the pairing of public and private interests set in a neighborhood of risky business ventures made for a tumultuous story.

The aquarium was a 150 foot square building with a center canopy roof.  Few images of the aquarium remain, although Joy was able to help me locate this representation.  (Scroll down to the image with the title "1881 View Shows Vanderveer's Resturant & Bathing Pavilion, the Seaside Aquarium and a C.I.E.R.Y. train.") The Seaside Aquarium did not limit itself to aquatic life.  While it included whales, sea lions, seals and "every kind of fresh and salt water fish," it also housed giraffes, lions, tigers, monkeys, broncos, birds and reptiles. 

1880 Federal Census, Town of Gravesend, pg 4

The 1880 Federal Census listed the aquarium staff, which included a musician from Sicily, an exhibitor from Madagascar (whose parents' origin is listed as "Unknown"), a servant and housekeeper, several showmen and a lecturer who described himself as a "Lightning Calculator."  The fact that they appear together suggests that they boarded together -- possibly at the aquarium itself.  According to the New York Times, an employee at the aquarium in 1877 made $7 a week and spent $5 of that on room and board.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1877

Despite the variety of entertainments available, the aquarium was never successful.  As early as 1878, the Parks Commission was being questioned for its decision to use park land for private use.  The matter only became more problematic when the aquarium brought in acts that were more sideshow than cultural.  The aquarium boasted of the St. Benoit Twins who were conjoined at the hip and the "man with the elastic skin."  Still, the throngs of beachgoers did not come, and the new attractions made the aquarium "not of a character that should be tolerated or recognized by the [Parks] department."  Members of the Commission regularly called for its closing, but this was postponed so that the investors could earn back their losses -- an estimated $80,000.  The losses were never recouped and the Parks department publicly admitted that they had never profited from the venture.  In the spring of 1887, the building was torn down and it's lumber was sold at auction. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1887

Although the Times suggested that a new "source of profit" might be built in its place, the Parks Commission seemed determined not to tempt the Coney Island fates again.  Just before the aquarium closed, the Eagle wrote "Coney Island is a Jonah" - or a jinx that brings bad luck.  This certainly seemed to be true for the Seaside Aquarium, a place with grand dreams that is barely known to history today.