“When the first European explorers cast eyes on the strange shores of North America, they saw a plentitude of native grapes.” So wrote viticulture authority University of South Carolina professor Dr. George S. Shields.
In September 1683, 13 years after the English settled at Charles Town, one Louis Thibou observed in a letter, “The native vines also produce very good grapes but the pity of it is they produce too much wood and too heavy a growth of leaf, which hinders the fruit from ripening; all the same I have planted several which have done well.” If Louis Thibou were present today, I would say to him, “Sir, good and tasty native grapes still flourish in South Carolina.”
As the spring, summer and fall seasons unfolded each year during the Great Depression, I remember experiencing many pleasures to my palette from products of our farm and from the fields, forests and swamps. First came strawberries from the garden, then wild plumbs followed by blackberries. From late June to September came cantaloupes, watermelons and finally wild and domestic grapes.
Wild plums, blackberries and cherries grew profusely along the edges of fields, hedgerows and ditches. Wild grapes flourished in the same areas but also flourished in the woods and swamps where the vines could receive sufficient sunlight.
Our family had a distinct advantage over most other families when it came to knowing the location of these “bounties of Mother Nature.” This was due to my father being a “turpentiner” and a bee tree hunter.
Each year from April to September, my father and two older brothers traversed the woods, fields and swamp edges almost daily as they collected turpentine from tracts of long leaf pine timber my father leased from land owners. In the course of their work, they observed where wild plums, blackberries, huckleberries, cherries and grapes grew. When these berries and fruits ripened, they quickly found their way to our home.
We consumed some of them in a day or so, and my mother used some to bake pies and custards. She made jams and jellies from most of them.
In hunting bee trees, my father had another opportunity to observe the location of fruits and berries since honey bees collected nectar from the blossoms of these berry and wild fruit bushes. Even fewer people hunted bee trees than the number who turpentined.
We called most of the wild grapes Bullaces or Bullace Grapes. They were purple and came in different varieties-some bigger, some sweeter, some ripening earlier, some having thinner hulls. A completely separate kind of wild grape was the Fox Grape which had smaller, thinner hulled fruit and a different leaf size.
We never converted any grapes into wine but a few neighbors did for home consumption and even a fewer number sold some illicitly to others. One or two neighbors did convert corn into liquor and sell it illicitly.
My brother, J.R., once converted some blackberries into a few bottles of wine which he hid in our barn. My four-year-old brother, Hollis, found a bottle and took a few swigs from it. J.R. kept him away from our mother until the effects wore off and Hollis became a little steadier on his feet. This episode ended J.R.’s wine making career.
One of the fondest memories of those times was popping large quantities of scuppernongs into my mouth, swallowing the pulp and seed intact and spitting out only the hulls. These were grapes from the arbor of neighbor Eugene Holland, the father of later Sen. Donald H. Holland, my best friend for more than 70 years.
Most landowners in the area had a grape arbor located in the complex containing the farm home and outbuildings. Generally grape arbors were not cultivated at sharecropper or tenant homes. We did not purchase a farm until 1936. After we built our home in 1937, we soon planted fruit trees and created a grape arbor.
Over the years, grape arbors not only sprang up on county farms but also appeared in home gardens and larger acreages in the town of Camden. On July 13, 1830, Dr. William Blanding of Camden wrote James Guignard of Columbia describing experiments in grape cultivation beside his home he began in 1828.
In the late 1790s some 20 years earlier, Nicholas M. L. Herbemont of Columbia experimented in cultivating grapes and producing wine. He developed a wine that bore his name, Herbemont wine. Dr. George S. Shields’ book, Pioneer America Wine, chronicles Herbemont’s work in great detail.
Shields described Herbemont’s efforts to reform agriculture by substituting grape and wine production as a second cash crop instead of totally relying on cotton. He never achieved this objective through his experiments, writing, speaking and other efforts but Shields does conclude that in the process “By the late 1820s Herbemont won recognition as the finest wine maker in the early United States.”
In the 1840’s or perhaps earlier, William E. Johnson Sr. established grape arbors in his gardens at Holly Hedge. The present owner of this Camden estate is seeking to reestablish them and is conducting research on the matter.
Sen. James H. Hammond’s son Harry, who lived at Redcliffe, the family home at Beech Island, S.C., toured the wine country of France in 1856-57. He published his findings in agricultural journals of the time, espousing some of the same causes as Herbemont.
In the South Carolina agricultural census of 1868, the circa 550 farmers included reported growing vegetables and fruits but they did not place a dollar value on them. These farmers apparently thought their value lay in being available for home consumption and not for sale for a profit.
One native Kershaw Countian, Jonathan J. Lucas, did produce wine profitably, although his arbors were in Society Hill and not in Kershaw County. Jonathan was born at Tiller’s Ferry on November 21, 1831. He grew up in the county, attended the Turkey Creek Academy, graduated from the South Carolina Military Academy, settled in Charleston and entered a hardware business.
During the Civil War, he raised and commanded The Lucas Battalion of Heavy Artillery, a unit that fought in defense of Charleston. After the war he moved to Society Hill where he became a farmer and among many other things, became a director of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad.
Lucas had grape arbors from which he made and sold wine in the state until the South Carolina Dispensary came along in 1893. He despised Governor Tillman and soon ran afoul of the dispensary law. In the Lucas papers at the South Caroliniana Library are letters from his attorney handling the matter and from Martin Ernst of Vineland, New Jersey, his agent for handling the sale of Lucas wine. His wine business closed sometime after 1906.
Today, South Carolina and Kershaw County continue to have the soil, climate, grape stock and other resources necessary to produce quality wine. However, we continue to be a bridesmaid, awaiting some enterprising entrepreneurial groom to sweep us off our feet and lead us into a “blissful state” of success and profit in viticulture.