The Midwest is world-famous for its beer, but did you know that it was once the historic center of American wine production?
Early American vintners, many of them Europeans, considered the Ohio Valley an excellent place to grow grapes, as its climate and topography are similar to the great wine-producing regions of the Rhine Valley. The greater Cincinnati region dominated America’s wine industry until the Civil War. It was the Napa Valley of its day.
By the 1860s, however, the combined effects of cheap whiskey, a vine disease that attacked the plants, and labor shortages during the war killed off most Ohio Valley vineyards, and Midwestern wine production shifted north to Lake Erie’s shoreline. Even during antebellum days, Kelleys Island, Ohio, was at the center of Lake Erie’s burgeoning “grape belt.”
In the mid-19th century the island’s grape growers formed a co-op, the Kelleys Island Wine Company. Using native stone quarried just up the road, they built a large, impressive commercial winery on the island. The beautiful stone winery resembled a feudal castle, and processed about 350,000 gallons of wine and champagne each year, pressed from grapes grown throughout island.
Steam-powered presses on the upper story crushed the grapes, which were fermented below, then bottled or stored in casks in the underground cellars. Every winter, workers driving horse-drawn sleighs carted huge wooden casks filled with wine across a frozen Lake Erie to Sandusky on the mainland, where the popular wine was sold around the world.
Though Prohibition in 1920 killed off breweries and wineries across the nation, Kelleys Island Wine Company and the island’s other winery, Sweet Valley Winery (renamed Monarch in 1902) survived by producing non-alcoholic grape juice.
The first building’s demise came on August 15, 1933, when sparks from a small locomotive at a rock quarry ignited a grass fire that consumed the neighborhood. The blaze destroyed the winery and the charred structure was left in ruins. Monarch Wine Company, the only winery to open again after Prohibition, survived until 1950. The old building is also in ruins.
Know Before You Go
Two ruined wineries are still standing today. The remains of the Monarch Wine Company, built in 1892, sit about 100 feet back from Division Street at the north end of the island, directly across from the cemetery. Although they're on private property, you can see them from the road. Trespassing is not encouraged, and there's poison ivy in abundance here in the summertime. As of June 2016, the land is for sale. The huge Kelleys Island Wine Company ruins are also on private land on the southwest side of the island, behind a small trailer park. You can get to Kelleys Island from Marblehead most of the year. The ferry ride takes about 30 minutes. The best time to visit is mid-May to October. Golf carts are available for rent at the ferry station.