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  • Writer's pictureTim Burke

The South Fairmount Project/ Lick Run (Part 3)

Greis Summer Gardens (circa 1914) Germans & Grapes - In the 1830's and 1840's Lick Run's valley filled with Germans and grape vines.

Longworth & The Valley

One of early Cincinnati’s most interesting residents, Nicolas Longworth, was the leading advocate for the development of viniculture in the Ohio River Valley. By the 1840’s grape vines began to appear on Lick Run hillsides in ever increasing quantities and Longworth was the catalyst for this.

The 21 year old Longworth arrived in Cincinnati in 1803 with little more than the clothes on his back. The young New Jersey native had decided to study law but was drawn to real estate, a field in which he managed to amass a considerable fortune by his early forties. It was said his real estate holdings were so extensive that he ranked second in the United States in property taxes paid, only to John Jacob Astor.

Cincinnatians recognized “Old Nick” as he came to be known as a generous patron of the arts, an effort that helped make Cincinnati the most cultured city west of the Appalachian Mountains. Longworth also generously gave to the poor preferring to help those least likely to receive attention from charitable organizations like alcoholics, petty criminals and the mentally ill- providing jobs, money and even housing to the most hopeless on Cincinnati's streets.

It was the shrewd acquisition of land that allowed him to pursue what became a passion in the later years of his life, turning Cincinnati into America’s leading wine producing region . Fond of calling the Ohio River Valley the “the American Rhineland” Longworth believed it the perfect environment for grapes. He viewed the large German immigrant population, many of whom had experience in European vineyards as a valuable resource in the labor intensive wine making industry. He noted, “All they know is hard labor and course diet, having in Germany supported themselves from a vineyard, often not exceeding an acre in extent.”[i]

Longworth was as familiar with Cincinnati’s landscape as anyone including the valley, writing in 1849 that Lick Run would “make one of the most beautiful rural spots in the world. It will soon be a continuous line of vineyards.”[ii] Adding, “I wish some of our poets would visit it in May or June and give it a more appropriate name. They may rack their brains for months and not find a more worthy scene.”[iii] Not surprisingly Longworth purchased more than 40 acres in Lick Run among many other parcels throughout region deemed worthy of viniculture. Fortunately the valley was also thick with German immigrants from wine producing areas like Alsace. He depended upon people like them to tend his own vineyards dotting hillsides from Mt. Adams to Delhi.

Delhi was of particular interest to Longworth who purchased 150 acres of land for grape cultivation along Delhi Pike. He was joined by Thomas Yeatman and Sebastin Renz, Cincinnati businessmen, who also purchased acreage in Delhi Township and met with temporary success as vintners.[iv]

Longworth’s optimism about the region’s new industry prompted him to buy grapes from smaller farming enterprises many of them owned by experienced German immigrants as he continued to expand his operations producing some 60,000 bottles a year by 1850. With more than 300 vineyards within a 20 mile radius of Cincinnati by midcentury, an estimated 120,000 gallons of wine was annually produced, much of it by wealthier types like Longworth and Michael Werk.

German Vineyards & Lick Run

Werk like Joseph Fries was an Alsatian, who made a fortune in the tallow industry. He began to dabble in agricultural pursuits including grapes purchasing 100 acres less than a mile from the Fries holdings and managed to become a nationally known producer of wine.[v]

Less prominent residents of the valley had not only established vineyards but wine gardens like the more renowned beer gardens associated with Cincinnati’s German heritage. One such establishment the Gries Wine Garden founded by Carl Gries . Gries emigrated from Baden in 1852 first working as butcher with his brother Michael. By the early 1860’s his seven acres of vines climbed up the valley’s hillsides. Initially called the Union Eagle Wine Hall, it operated on the grounds of his vineyard along Quebec Road. His son John continued operating the wine garden into the 1920’s when his granddaughters took over the operation of Quebec Gardens as it came to be known, though just as a restaurant. [vi]

A little more than a mile to the west, Philip Metz opened the Metz Wine Garden in 1875 on Lick Run Avenue (Queen City Ave today). The genesis of the establishment was the “vast vineyard” which covered the “entire hillside on the Metz property.”[vii] It continued operation under the direction of his children until 1925. The Mueller, Wolf, Schien and Schad families also ran wine gardens on the Harrison toll road that started on the floor of the valley’s east end and extend along the ridge above the valley west to the Indiana border.

While Longworth provided both vision and capital for the newly developing viniculture of the “American Rhineland”, German immigrants provided the brawn and practical know how. They began leaving Europe in the 1830’s for a variety of economic and political reasons and while they shared a common German core culture they did not share a nationality. Present day Germany was a collection of 39 German kingdoms in the early 19th century each with roots deep in the feudalism of Medieval Europe. Immigrants came from Bavaria, Saxony, Baden, Hanover, Hessen, Prussia, Oldenburg and even from Alsace, the home of the Fries family, a German speaking province of France. All were united by a language and culture but not nationality. Though a substantial German population had already immigrated to places like New York and Pennsylvania during the colonial period their numbers were dwarfed by the first major wave of immigration to wash over the young nation’s shore .Between 1841 and 1850 alone more than 430,000 Germans immigrated to the United States followed by another 950,000 in the following decade. Prior to the 1840’s Lick Run land, like much of the Cincinnati region was primarily owned by native born Americans hailing from places along the mid- Atlantic seaboard . New Jersey seemed to be particularly well represented in the ranks of early land owners, a consequence of links to John Cleves Symmes and his land company . By the 1840’s however, the valley like Cincinnati was filling with German immigrants. Families with names like Metz, Berger, Bauer and Gries flocked to the valley. Locally this immigration is often associated with the Over-the- Rhine, but many Germans chose a more familiar rural life on nearby farmland surrounding the city, including that of Lick Run .

German Catholics & Lick Run

Roughly 20 German Catholic families in Lick Run appealed to Archbishop John Purcell in 1843, to establish a parish to serve their community. In 1844 Purcell dispatched Father William Untertheimer, a Franciscan, to setup the new church on property donated by John Weber and his wife.[viii]During his early years in Cincinnati Father Unterheimer, wrote a series insightful of letters to his Franciscan superiors in Tyrol, Austria describing his new American home. Of the farmers he encountered Father Unterheimer wrote, “The Germans surpass all the rest in agriculture. One [can] pick(s) out the fields of the German settlers from the all rest,” inferring the bounty and neatness of their farms were the distinguishing features. The German priest made special note of the vineyards he observed, “In Cincinnati” he wrote, “they have made a beginning and have already improved the wild growing grape vines, for the European species of vines will not prosper here.”

Most Cincinnatians would be surprised to learn that until about 1850 the city was “viewed as mission territory” by the Catholic church.[ix] Archbishop Purcell had even toured Europe in hope of finding German speaking priests to serve the more than 10,000 German Catholics living in his diocese. There was even an Austrian charity, the Leopoldine Foundation, dedicated to providing missionaries and aid to Catholic America which was struggling to meet the spiritual and educational needs of its German immigrants. The nation as a whole was overwhelmingly English speaking and protestant, and often resentful of the new arrivals.

In 1844 Unterheiner dedicated the new church as St. Peter’s, causing the western end of the valley to be called Petersburgh. The young Franciscan found himself making weekly trips from Holy Trinity, Cincinnati’s first German parish on West Fifth Street to the outlying parish to say mass serving in the role of a circuit rider.

The Saint Peter's Lick Run Historic District (From left to right) home circa 1849, school circa 1850, St. Peter's Catholic Church circa 1840

The few German speaking priests assigned to Ohio often rode a circuit of parishes in distant farm country like Our Lady of Victory in Delhi Township which was visited regularly by Father Martin Henii, another of the German priests assigned to Holy Trinity. Unterheiner also ensured that religious education was provided to the children of St. Peter’s, believing instruction for children was an absolute necessity in America. “Where there are German priests there are also schools,” he wrote a fellow Franciscan back in Austria. He felt American born Catholics were far too lax in providing instruction and guidance for their children writing “The English do nothing about them [schools]. The free schools [public] are genuine poison. For if nothing is taught to them, the children will be misguided. One does not believe what a loss of morals has occurred in American youth” predicting it would be the downfall of America.[x] The concern was so widespread that the building of a new catholic church in Cincinnati inevitably marked the beginning of a fund raising effort to build a school particularly in the case of German parishes. Before the century was over the Archdiocese of Cincinnati announced parents who failed to send their children to parochial schools without definitely assigning reasons approved by the ordinary, [would ] not be permitted to receive the sacraments,” making a catholic education a necessity in the eyes of many Catholics.[xi] At St. Peter’s classes in Bible history and Catholic doctrine were taught by a student from St. Mary’s Seminary in Price Hill in the confines of the small church. Within a few years the church was too small for classes forcing the purchase of separate building for the school at the corner of Branch and Lick Run Road. [xii]

St. Martini German Evangelical Church & Lick Run

One of only five Catholic churches in Hamilton County the new parish became a mainstay in the lives of valley residents, serving their spiritual and educational needs. While Roman Catholicism was influential in Lick Run it was not the only religious presence among its German population. Enough German Protestants also lived in the valley to build St. Martini German Evangelical Church in 1851 less than a mile from St. Peter. The German Evangelical churches first made an appearance in Pennsylvania in the late 18th century during an era known as the Second Great Awakening. With the large German immigration to Cincinnati, a wave of the autonomous German evangelical churches opened between 1845 and 1860. A commitment to freedom of thought, a cornerstone principle among these churches, allowed these institutions to serve the varied Christian traditions of German immigrants arriving in the Cincinnati area including the valley. It was not unusual for these congregations to be composite of those who had been members of the Lutheran, German Reformed Church and variety of smaller denominations in the old country. Each congregation was independently organized with no formal affiliation which along with a commitment to freedom of thought allowed these churches to appeal broadly to a wide segment of the German immigration though these same factors also led to conflicts inside individual congregations and occasional splits.

The single spire of St. Martini’s large red brick church first rose above the valley in 1851. It was a solid but simple structure befitting of the farmers and tradesmen it served, like George Sperber, and Johann Biegler both of whom immigrated from Bavaria. Both settled families in Lick Run, families that would continue to attend St. Martini for several generations as dozens of other German families that selected pastoral setting of the valley instead of the crowded confines of the Over- the- Rhine and Mohawk districts of Cincinnati just a few miles away. While not everyone in Lick Run was German or of German descent it is certainly difficult understate the ethnic influence of immigrants on the valley from the 1840’s forward.

The most impressive construction effort before the Civil War took place on a 30 acre hilltop site on the northern side of the valley known as Fairmount. It was there the Western Baptist Education Society built its seminary. Completed in 1851 the Gothic four story brick structure with an impressive view of the city, included a library, classrooms, a chapel and dormitories. Drowning in debt the seminary was closed in 1857 and was subsequently sold at a sheriff’s auction. It shortly thereafter was reincarnated as a medical college and military academy. [xiii]

Nativism & Cincinnati

The sheer number of immigrants arriving on America’s shores was alarming to some, but it was their religious orientation that created the greatest stir among native born Americans. While the language barrier tended to insulate the new German arrivals, it was their Roman Catholicism along with that of the Irish, who came in even greater numbers, that enflamed old prejudices and fear among the native born Protestants, the fear being that Catholics would have greater loyalty to their church hierarchy than to their new nation.

The specter of papal power led to the formation of secret clubs along the eastern seaboard popularly called the Know-Nothings, who claimed Catholic votes were controlled by their priests. In short they were perceived as a threat to democracy. The Know-Nothings formally organized into the American Party with a platform built on nativism and its anti-Catholic rhetoric. Cincinnati was not immune to “know-nothingism” with a near riot prompted by the visit of an Italian archbishop in 1853. Hundreds marched on Archbishop John Purcell’s residence before the police intervened and made dozens of arrests. In November of 1855 a riot did erupt on the day city elections were held. Nativist rhetoric had whipped emotions into a frenzy forcing the German population of the city to barricade themselves into the Over-the-Rhine and return fire on an armed torch lit mob of Know-Nothings that came to “clean out little Germany”. The next morning the barricades were gone and the influence of “Know-Nothingism” began to fade, the riot being the high water mark of the local movement. By the mid 1850’s anti-immigrant nativism was eclipsed across the nation by the ever intensifying conflict over slavery.


[i] Von Daacke, John, Grape Growing and Wine-Making in Cincinnati, 1800 – 11870, Cincinnati Historical Bulletin, July 1967, p.200.

[ii] Buchanan, Robert , The Culture of The Grape and Wine Making, Moore and Anderson and Company, Cincinnati,1853, p. 114.

[iii] Ibid, 114.

[iv] Shirley Althoff and Peg Schmidt, The New Pioneers: The People of Delhi 1830 – 1900, Delhi Historical Society, 1989, p. 119-122.

[v] Thomas Pinney, A History of Wine in America: From the Beginning to Prohibition, University of California Press, 1989, p.165.

[vi] Henry and Kate Ford, History of Cincinnati Ohio With Illustrations, LA Williams Publishing Co. 1881, p. 420. Achievement: Cincinnati’s Western Hills 1932, Ohio Book Store, p24.

[vii] Achievement: CincInnati’s Western Hills, p.24.

[viii] John H. Lamont, History of The Archdiocese of Cincinnati 1821-1921,p.143-144. The property totaling thirty-nine hundredths of an acre was transferred to Joseph F. Reiss, Francis Reiss, and John Beck and “their associates and successors” for the benefit of the Catholic German congregation of Lick Run. “ On April 2, 1848 the congregation in a meeting decided to have the trustees deed over the property” to Archbishop Purcell.( Deeds Book 329, p. 559-561).

[ix] Williams, Peter W, German American Catholicism in Cincinnati, Queen City Heritage, Fall 1984, pg. 24.

[x] McCloskey, p. 45.

[xi] John H. Lamont, History of The Archdiocese of Cincinnati 1821-1921, (Frederick Pustet,1921), p.277.

[xii][xii] St. Boniventura’s 50th Anniversary Book”

[xiii] Achievement, p.26.

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