Friday, January 24, 2014

The Brenner Vineyards Historic District, Doniphan County, Kansas


A friend who collects stamps and other interesting documents recently gave me this, an envelope or "cover." Inside is a wine order written in English on a German language form. Destination: the Jacob Brenner Wine Company of Doniphan, Kansas, May 1904.



The customer, John Gruenewald of Wayne R.F.D. Q. (?) Nebraska, ordered ten gallons of Red Seal at $5.35, "extra packing" for 25 cents, and requested "wine corks not to (sic) big" for another dollar. Grand total, $6.60. Incidentally Mr. Gruenewald also had that excellent handwriting which bespeaks the epoch of fine-nibbed fountain pens and painstaking schoolboy classes in penmanship.

I hedge my bets and say it appears to be a wine order only because how can I know, before doing some historical digging, the intent of the customer confidently filling in a German language form? What with the corks and the packing and the gallons wanted, it looks as if the customer might have been ordering wine making supplies, not potables for his cellar.

But no. How remarkable are the tools which the modern world -- only a little more than a hundred years after Mr. Gruenewald placed his order -- gives you for historical digging. I have only to click "new tab," and open a few windows, and there laid out before me is the history of the Jacob Brenner Wine Company.

The Brenner family, led by brothers Adam and Jacob, arrived in this extreme northeastern corner of Kansas (here it meets the states of Iowa, Nebraska, and Missouri) from Deidesheim, Bavaria, in 1857 and 1860. The federal census for that latter year lists Jacob Brenner as a grape grower. Adam and later Jacob's son George would all settle down to the wine trade virtually in each other's backyards for years.

Strangely, though, the Brenners unknowingly arrived and began to farm, build houses, and sponsor churches just when the local town, Doniphan, began a long and irreversible economic decline. Only founded in 1852, the town seemed beautifully situated for both agriculture and commerce: its farm lands were rich, it stood right on a bend of the Missouri river handy for river transport, and after 1870 it was a stop on the Atchison and Nebraska railroad -- also a good thing for grain transport. Adam Brenner built an $18,000 grain elevator at this time, which burned to the ground in 1872.

But Doniphan's main problem seems to have been simply that there were other, bigger towns nearby, to which businesses and populations naturally gravitated. Atchison, Leavenworth, and St. Joseph, Missouri, all beckoned. Still, human lifetimes and perspectives are short in the great scheme of things, and from the 1860s through the 1890s, the Brenner family did well by its wine, as Doniphan with its rebuilt grain elevator did well by the Brenners. Adam and Jacob each ran separate enterprises. For a time Adam owned the biggest vineyard in the state of Kansas (75 of his 450 acres), plus a warehouse on Main Street in Doniphan that held 30,000 gallons of wine. Jacob planted 15 of his 40 acres to vines, and a generation later, in the 1880s, his son George also planted about half his land to grapes and owned a cellar with a storage capacity of 10,000 gallons. They grew native North American species, like white and red Concord, catawba, Salem, Virginia Seedling (this is the excellent Norton or Cynthiana), and more obscure varieties with names like the Taylor Bullit, the Goethe, and the Martha. Brenner wines shipped throughout the Midwest and as far as the east coast. A reporter from the Doniphan Herald sampled the product and wrote about it in May, 1872:

"We visited the wine cellars of the Brenners this week, and to say that we enjoyed the sparkling fluid from the 1,000 gallon cask, would not half express our delight in that visit. Such delicious wines are not found elsewhere in the United States. Those Brenner wines are getting a reputation not to be excelled anywhere in the country. Hermann has heretofore claimed the laurel in wines, but Doniphan now so far surpasses her in quality that Hermann must stand aside. It will be observed that the wine went to the Herald editor's head in short order."

This was eight years before Kansas passed an amendment to its state constitution forbidding the manufacture and sale of alcohol, except for medicinal or sacramental purposes. The Brenners' wine businesses survived after 1880 partly because they promoted their product as medicinal and sacramental. (Being surrounded by wine-loving German immigrants may have helped.) By the mid 1880s, when Atchison newspapers warned travelers of Doniphan's poor roads and "unsuitable" river landing, the Brenner vineyards had become the sole bright spot of the area. The family still employed masses of schoolboys during harvest time, so many that Doniphan schools did not reopen until late September; in the best years the Brenners turned out 150,000 gallons of wine a season.

Adam Brenner himself left Doniphan for Atchison in 1885. He died there five years later; his brother Jacob died the following year, in February 1891. Four months later, on one night in June 1891, the Missouri River rose, flooded and completely silted Doniphan's railroad yards, and then retreated to a new channel, leaving the town landlocked as well. (This is precisely what Mark Twain describes the Mississippi doing, with equally appalling randomness, in Life on the Mississippi.)

In the next two years, as if throwing down a gauntlet at fate, the second Brenner generation, cousins who were the children of Adam and Jacob, founded two new businesses, the Jacob Brenner Wine Company and the Doniphan Vineyards Wine Company. Both lasted about twenty years or less. The Jacob Brenner Wine Co., from which our John Gruenewald ordered his Red Seal in 1904, was liquidated in 1912.

By the 1930s and '40s, the Brenner properties had passed out of the family's hands and into the ownership of other people, who farmed and raised new families there. Early 21st century Doniphan, Kansas has a population of about fifty.

All this information comes from the application, addressed to the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2004, to place the Brenner Vineyards of Doniphan County on the National Register of Historic Places. The application was researched and written by Susan Jezak Ford, a Kansas City architectural historian and historic preservation consultant, who was herself hired by the Doniphan County Heritage Commission after they had received a grant from the Kansas State Historical Society to explore a preservation project in the county. As she points out, the old vineyards themselves are not a part of the Brenner Historic District, since they are now devoted to other agriculture. The "contributing" properties are a church, a two-story winery building, a barn, corncrib, and pump house, a smokehouse, and the ruins of Adam Brenner's house and winery. All comprise about five acres of land west of the town of Doniphan, on bluffs that "once descended to meet the Missouri River." Ghostly residents of Doniphan, if they could come back from that June night in 1891, would probably grimly whisper would that it were so.



Photo courtesy Susan Jezak Ford

The Brenner Vineyards Historic District was approved and added to the National Register in 2005. Hermann, Missouri, which "had heretofore claimed the laurel in wines," is located about 270 miles east across the state of Missouri, and constitutes a major midwestern American Viticultural Area or AVA. Stone Hill Winery, established in 1847 -- ten years before Adam Brenner arrived to become "the father of Doniphan" -- lies in the Hermann AVA.

And Mr. Gruenewald's order lies on my desk. I hope he enjoyed his ten gallons of Red Seal.

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