Nicolas Longworth: A Rags To Riches Story
Updated: Feb 2, 2020
Attorney, real estate magnate, philanthropist, vintner, self made man - the most interesting man to ever grace Cincinnati's streets, Nicholas Longworth !
Nicolas Longworth was not a wealthy man when he arrived in Cincinnati but became one of the wealthiest people in America by the 1850’s, the ultimate rags to riches story. He had grown up in poverty and decided to leave New Jersey, his home state, for Cincinnati in 1803 to pursue opportunity and fortune. By the time of his death in 1863 he was estimated to be worth $20 million dollars and was considered the most celebrated American vintner of his time.[i] Though he undeniably made a strong impression on Cincinnatians of the mid 19th century, he is largely an unknown figure to most Cincinnatians today. I would argue Nicholas Longworth is one of the most interesting figures to ever grace the streets of our fair city.
Longworth’s Early Life
Longworth was born in 1783 just as the American Revolution came to a conclusion. The war proved to be devastating for his father, Thomas Longworth of Newark, New Jersey. A prominent merchant, Thomas Longworth, chose to remain loyal to Great Britain during the war, leading to the seizure of his property, plunging Thomas and his family into poverty. Many loyalists fled to Canada after the war including members of the Longworth family while others remained – though ostracized and financially ruined. As a consequence Nicolas Longworth grew up in Newark poor and with limited options for the future . At one point it was purported he was apprenticed as a shoe maker before moving to South Carolina to clerk in a store owned by his older brother.[ii] Not much is really known however, about his early life.
In 1803 at the age of 21, Longworth departed for Cincinnati to study law under Judge Jacob Burnett, a fellow Jerseyman from Longworth’s hometown of Newark. Arriving in the Queen City with little more than the clothes on his back, the 5 foot 3 inch tall Longworth, did not make much of a first impression. Throughout his life Longworth’s skeletal frame and ragged clothing led many to initially underestimate him, thereby conceding an advantage to the shrewd tenacity of one of the nation’s leading real estate titans.
Longworth the Land Speculator
Longworth was admitted to the bar and practiced law until 1819 when he decided to dedicate himself full time to the supervision of his growing real estate holdings.[iii] His fortune was chiefly acquired through land speculation, made possible through his earnings as an attorney and as a consequence of Cincinnati’s sharp population growth in the first half of the 19th century. When Longworth arrived, Cincinnati was still a young city surrounded by an abundance of unoccupied and therefore cheap land. He sometimes accepted land as payment for legal fees while at other times he bought lots in the city for as little as $10 and simply held on to them for the long term, watching his investment grow as Cincinnati became the fastest growing city in the West.[iv] One often repeated tale was that he acquired 33 acres of property along Sixth and Seventh Streets bordering Western Row ( Central Avenue) as payment for defending someone on horse theft charges in lieu of a copper still he had been promised as payment. By 1850 the value of those properties had risen to $2.4millions dollars.[v]
Cincinnati in 1819
A contemporary of Longworth observed, that when it came to acquiring wealth his philosophy was different than most. He noted Longworth believed that if he could put someone in the position of “making a dollar for Longworth and a dollar for himself at the same time,” it was a desirable win- win situation and that if this could be replicated a hundred times over, the success of others would promote his own interests.[vi] This might help explain why Longworth was among the city’s chief boosters, realizing a strong economy and a vibrant cultural drove growth. Across the city, businesses were started and homes built with his help on land he once owned. In part, this was why Longworth was looked upon fondly by many,long after his death.
Longworth the Art Patron
On Christmas Eve in 1807 he married Susanna Howell of Cincinnati, a union that would last 56 years until his death in 1863. Their marriage produced four children – Mary, Joseph, Catherine and Eliza who grew up quite differently than their father with access to books, art and travel. It was a life that translated into privilege and achievement for generations to come. In 1828 Longworth was wealthy enough to buy a beautiful Palladian style home that today houses the Taft Museum of Art. Originally built in 1820 by wealthy Cincinnati industrialist Martin Baum, Longworth continued to live at Belmont, the name given to his new estate, until his death. While living there, Longworth became increasingly known as a patron of the arts,supporting numerous young artists some of whom went on to international fame. One actually helped turn his estate, into a work of art itself, renowned painter Robert Duncanson who was commissioned to paint landscape murals in the foyer of Belmont in 1851.
The eight massive murals , each 9 feet tall, brought a hefty commission and local renown to Duncanson, an African-American, in the years before the Civil War. Cincinnati was not an easy place for African- Americans to live during the Antebellum era, as a free city bordering a state that permitted slavery. Longworth came to admire Duncanson’s work, eventually commissioning him to do the murals and then spent the rest of his life promoting Duncanson’s art( Duncanson went on to international acclaim.). Longworth was known to dislike slavery which probably dates back to the period when he lived in South Carolina as a young man and saw it first hand. It was even purported that he once hid a man named Harvey Jones in his cellar at Belmont, who had escaped from slavery. When approached by the slave holder who claimed Jones, Longworth paid for Jones' freedom.
photo by Greg Hume
Longworth was in fact one of the earliest patrons of the arts in Cincinnati. He and handful of other wealthy Cincinnatians like Rueben Springer turned the Queen City into the artistic center of the West creating several art organizations and amassing extensive personal collections. With the purchase of his new home, Longworth had the space to expand and display his growing collection of art.[vii] It allowed the purchase of work by young, promising artists who found his advice and support valuable to their development. He provided everything-- from exhibition space, to financial support to making introductions to open doors and create opportunities outside of Cincinnati, helping young artists earn national and even international exposure. In addition to Duncanson, he provided help to sculptor Hiram Powers ( internationally known), painter William Henry Powell ( work on the Capitol’s rotunda) and literally dozens of others whose fame was not as lasting.[viii] Longworth and his fellow art patrons consequently created collections and organizations that surpassed cities of similar size, developing Cincinnati’s reputation as a cultured place to live.
Longworth & Horticulture
Nicholas Longworth’s interest in horticulture was also on display at Belmont with its extensive gardens he actually tended himself. One famous anecdote dating to 1857 had Abraham Lincoln visiting Cincinnati shortly before he became national figure. Lincoln it seems, had heard of Belmont’s famous gardens and decided to make a visit. While walking the gardens, Mr. Lincoln came across a small man on his hands and knees weeding, dressed in “loose pantaloons” and an oversized shirt “with a huge collar [that] almost obscured his ears”.[ix] Lincoln, not surprisingly assumed it was just a gardener and asked to tour the grounds, never imagining the figure in front of him was one of the wealthiest men in the nation. Longworth’s reply, was reportedly a rather self- effacing affirmative, embarrassing Lincoln when he realized it was Longworth himself. When an apology followed, Longworth supposedly replied:
“I am quite used it; In fact you are the first to find me out so soon. That’s my loss perhaps. Sometimes I get ten cents and as much as a quarter for showing visitors my grounds. In fact I might say it’s the only really honest money I ever made, having been by profession a lawyer.”[x]
It was this unassuming attitude that made Longworth a popular figure among his contemporaries in Cincinnati who began referring to him as “Old Nick”. His gardens were the largest in the city, reflecting his keen interest in agriculture. He collected rare plants and loved to experiment, spending years to do things like trying to perfect the strawberry. It was all a consequence of Longworth’s intellectual curiosity, a curiosity that led him to things like donating land in Mt. Adams for an observatory to further the discipline of astronomy. This kind of generosity was also related to his civic pride in Cincinnati, his adopted home, leading to countless contributions to art, literary and historical associations.
Longworth the Vintner
Not surprisingly Longworth’s interest in botany and practical experience with gardening led him to establish a vineyard in 1823. What really seemed to fire his imagination though, was the arrival Catawba vines sent to him by John Adlum in 1825. [xi] Adlum had been growing the Catawba, a red grape native to the Atlantic seaboard from Maryland south into the Carolinas, in his Washington vineyard, successfully producing a pleasant sweet red wine. However, it is not clear who actually discovered the Catawba.
Longworth had without success, tried to adapt European vines to conditions found in Greater Cincinnati, but now found success with the Catawba vines sent by Adlum. Taking into account the advantages Cincinnati seemed to offer, Longworth committed himself to the long-term business prospect of turning the city into the wine making capital of the nation.
He envisioned Cincinnati hillsides, often unfit for other agricultural pursuits, covered with vines tended by experienced German farmers who first started turning up in Cincinnati in the 1830’s and in ever larger numbers for the next several decades. Coming from wine making areas like the Rhineland and Alsace the German immigrants were an experienced and cheap workforce, in addition to being a built-in market for the wine being produced.[xii] Vineyards were labor intensive operations unlike the sprawling land intensive farms on the flat, rich land that stretched into central Ohio and across Indiana on which wheat, corn and other grain crops were typically grown. It was generally believed experienced German farmers could raise a family on more than four to five acres of vines.[xiii]
Longworth understood it would be a long, expensive undertaking, noting “The manufacture of wine is an art that requires many years practice, since wines, sweet or dry, red or white, may proceed from the same grape.”[xiv] He was interested in producing wine that was unique to America not an “imitation” of European styles as he became a leading advocate for turning Cincinnati into an “American Rhineland”.[xv]
He discovered most native-born Americans did not appreciate the dry white wine he produced from the Catawba, though German immigrants preferred it over his sweeter attempts. In 1842, quite by accident, Longworth a produced a sparking catawba similar to champagne.[xvi] It was just the thing he was looking for.
By 1846 there were 83 vineyards in Hamilton County and by 1850 more 300 existed within a 30 mile radius of Cincinnati.[xvii] His best known vineyard actually stretched behind his home up the slopes of what today is Eden Park, a veritable Garden of Eden which later was sold to the City of Cincinnati for the establishment of a hilltop park. By 1852 there were an estimated 2,000 acres devoted to grapes in Greater Cincinnati producing 568,000 gallons of wine .[xviii] Nicholas Longworth played a major role in achieving these numbers, not just through his own vineyards but as the city’s primary booster, championing the quality of the region’s wines both nationally and internationally. He sent wine to international competitions in places like London where a sculptor from Cincinnati, Hiram Powers, was also winning international fame, an artist Longworth had supported. The combination of sparkling catawba and Hiram Powers brought attention to the Queen City of the West as did the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to whom Longworth and made a gift of his sparkling wine. The response from the poet was a piece titled “Catawba Wine” in which he immortalized the phrase, “Queen City of the West” used by locals in the closing stanza of his poem.
And this Song of the Vine,
This greeting of mine, The winds and the birds shall deliver, To the Queen of the West, In her garlands dressed, On the banks of the Beautiful River.
The infrastructure he developed by the 1850’s, in support of his vineyards, was impressive. Facilities to press, bottle, and label were built, in addition to massive cellars along East Sixth Street that were 90 x 125 feet. By 1858 he was aging 300,000 bottles in his cellars . Longworth’s wine gamble had payed off, adding to his wealth, though his success as a vintner was short lived.
By 1860 the dream of turning Cincinnati and vicinity into an “American Rhineland” built on vineyards was fading fast. Wine production peaked in 1859 with an estimated 568,000 gallons bottled across Greater Cincinnati. However, as the industry grew so did the threat of disaster from mildew and black rot, diseases that afflicted grape crops especially the Catawba, the most popular variety in the region, with increasing regularity through the 1850’s. Throughout the 1860’s wine production was in rapid decline, a victim of grape rot and to a lesser degree a temporary labor shortage caused by the Civil War.
Longworth the Philanthropist
Longworth’s generosity was not limited to artists and helping German immigrants start vineyards. He established a reputation for helping for helping the down and out on Cincinnati’s streets. He always seemed to find work for those in need, going as far as actually creating work for them. His help it seems came with a stipulation. According to Harper’s Weekly that stipulation was “a whimsical theory that those whom that everybody will help were not entitled to any aid from him.” Harper's Weekly noted, “he would confine his donations to the worthless and wretched that everyone [ else] turns away”.”[xix] He maintained a building above his wine cellars with 14 apartments that rented to those who had no other options, making them rent free when necessary .This went along with a weekly distribution of hundreds of loaves of cheap bread every Monday morning intended for those in need of help.
There is little doubt that his “disdain for pretension” was a major contributor to his popularity. He regularly strolled the streets of Cincinnati carving knife in hand whittling away a piece of wood, often clad rather sloppily in a “white cravat with a shirt collar sometimes reaching his ear” wearing a discolored hat and oversized unpolished shoes with untied strings dragging behind. Those unfamiliar with him like Lincoln, would never have guessed he was the wealthiest man in the Cincinnati, yet he kept “a princely house” and sprawling, immaculate gardens known across the West.[xx] It was contradictions like these that made him a fascinating and complicated character. His recorded exchanges reveal a quick wit, that could be self-deprecating yet with the same “twinkle in his eye” he was capable of sarcasm that could cut to the bone. It was always clear his intellect is what made him a man to be reckoned with, even at 5 ft 3. “Old Nick” was probably shaped by the hardships of his childhood, creating both an empathy for those facing the hardships of poverty and his adaptable toughness.
Longworth’s Legacy Longworth was a major contributor to the growth of Cincinnati. His energy and wealth were catalysts for the economy, both in real estate and in agriculture, though the impact of the wine making industry he ignited faded by the 1870’s. His leadership and civic mindedness helped turn the city into something more than just another industrial city in the American heartland, providing a cultural foundation that allowed Cincinnati to punch above its weight even today.
[i] His fortune would be worth approximately $382 million dollars today.
[ii] Harper’s Weekly, March 7,1863
[iii] Cincinnati: The Queen City: Goss ,Charles F., 1912, Vol. IV, p. 5.
[iv] Ibid., p.5.
[v] Old Nick Longworth: The Paradoxical Maecenas of Cincinnati, Leonard Tucker, The Cincinnati Historical Society Bulletin, Oct. 1965, p.248.
[vi] Cincinnati: The Queen City: Goss, Charles F., 1912, Vol. IV, p.6
[vii] Nicholas Longworth: Art Patron of Cincinnati, Schwartz, Abby; Queen City Heritage, Spring 1988, p.18.
[viii] Ibid. p.20.
[ix] Old Nick Longworth: The Paradoxical Maecenas of Cincinnati, Leonard Tucker: The Cincinnati Historical Society Bulletin, Oct. 1965, p.251.
[x] Ibid p.251
[xi] Grape Growing and Wine Making in Cincinnati, 1800-1870, Von Daacke, John; The Cincinnati Historical Society Bulletin, 1967, p.198.
[xii] Ibid. p.200
[xiii] Ibid. p. 200
[xiv] Ibid. p. 201
[xv] Ibid. p. 201.
[xvi] A History of Wine in America; Pinney, Thomas; 1989, p.161,
[xvii] Grape Growing and Wine Making in Cincinnati, 1800-1870, Von Daacke, John; The Cincinnati Historical Society Bulletin, 1967,
[xviii] A History of Wine in America; Pinney, Thomas 1989, p. 165
[xix] Harper’s Weekly, March7, 1863.
[xx] Ibid, p. 146