Historical and Preservation Society of Pottawattamie County
County Seat Council Bluffs, Iowa
(Story by Richard Warner. Dr. Warner serves on the board of directors of the Historical and Preservation Society of Pottawattamie County.)
Mormon pilgrims passing through southwest Iowa first brought Concord grapes to the area. Though the planters’ intentions were to be long gone by the times the grapevines matured, their forethought provided fruit for the benefit of travelers who would be coming later. Permanent settlers observed the success of those vines in the loess hills and planted more. In 1893 the Grape Growers Association formed to help sell the region's grapes and other produce. The coop worked well and was able to deliver good prices, an incentive for anyone with a little land to plant a few vines in whatever space they had; some were enthused enough to buy land to start large vineyards. The price was steep: about $225 was required for a plot of suitable land and the plants, but the potential for profit was strong. Grape production peaked in 1907, but a disastrous freeze in 1916 spelled the end of the line for many of the growers. World War I introduced a great demand and the prices for those with surviving vines skyrocketed.
The Loess Hills- A Grape Growers' Dream
The Martin family had a long association with the Grape Grower’s Association. Harry Martin became manager of the Association in 1925; Al Martin started at the coop at a young age in 1930 putting labels on box lids, paid at the rate of ten cents per thousand boxes. The group was shipping about 1,250,000 baskets a year, so there was money to be made, but the work was slow. During its time the Grape Growers Association served as a model for others. It was the first large scale successful coop of its kind and interested parties from around the United States, including the California Citrus Growers, came to Council Bluffs to study it.
Prior to 1939 the coop dealt just in fresh fruit, which had the disadvantage of needing to be distributed completely within thirty days. Though they had rolling stock reserved from Pacific Fruit Express if many growers across country had crops maturing at the same time it could be hard to get enough rail cars to move the produce. In 1939 grape juice was added as a product. Once converted to juice the tight timeline of the fresh produce market was no longer a problem. Raspberries also grew well in the area but the coop abandoned them because of their tendency to ripen on the Fourth of July. Markets were closed, and if the Fourth happened to be near a weekend the crop could spoil before it could be shipped. In a past presentation to the Historical Society Al Martin recalled the berries could be frozen but at that time few grocers had freezers. One year a buyer was found in Eastern Iowa but the berries thawed during the trek as the sun came out, leaving an increasingly larger purple stain along the eastbound lane of the Lincoln Highway across Iowa.
The coop nearly met disaster after they borrowed money to finance the juice expansion, only to have the loan called in early during a bank holiday panic. The government offered an emergency loan to coops, and the Grape Growers Association was one of the first to apply and receive the money. Thanks to a quirk of fate they were able to attempt to pay back the loan in full in just a few months.
Mr. Martin was in the hospital for six weeks and came back to find his grape juice starting to ferment. In an effort to recoup some of their losses the group decided to use the spoiled crop to make vinegar. A government permit was required, since in the process of manufacturing vinegar one has to create wine, an illegal product during these prohibition years. Permission was obtained, and the process to vinegar underway when prohibition ended. As fate would have it the transition of grape juice to vinegar was just at the point it could be quickly turned into wine instead. Other producers had to gear up, but thanks to a bit of lucky timing the Grape Growers Association of Council Bluffs found itself with a great supply of the most sought after beverage in the nation.
For reasons unknown American tastes changed during prohibition. The new trend was sweet wine, not the dry type that local grapes lent themselves to. The Grape Growers found themselves needing to buy wine from California for blending. Initially shipments came in barrels, but a few always arrived in Council Bluffs empty. Presuming some railroad workers along the route were having parties at the coop's expense the group transitioned to using tank cars for the shipments.
With the wine business remaining strong a new building was erected across the street from the coop's 9th Avenue warehouse in 1940. Used tanks from an Omaha brewery were brought in and the building constructed around them. That year no fresh product was shipped at all; the full crop went into wine, grape juice, and a new product— apple wine— added to the offerings.
Just weeks later Mother Nature changed everything. The Armistice Day Freeze decimated the grapevines and destroyed 97% of the apples. The coop was never able to make apple wine again. The devastation was so complete there were no grapes at all in 1941; the only production continued using juice stored in vats from the previous year's successful crop.
It was feared the remaining plants would never produce again, but 1942 saw grapes on the vines once more. The increased war time demand and subsequent good prices might well have seen new vines being planted again, but something else was going on. Council Bluffs was growing. The skyrocketing price of land tempted many growers to give up on gambling with the weather and sell out to developers instead. Those who resisted hung on only a few more years. It seemed the once great grapes of the loess hills weren't so great anymore. The grapes started getting smaller; the sugar content was low and they tasted bitter. The value of Council Bluffs grapes plummeted on the fresh produce market and they were sold at low profit to be mixed with other grapes for use in jelly.
This time the culprit was man-made. It was discovered a new herbicide gaining wide use by corn farmers was also destroying the grape crops. Bans on the chemical were started in the late 1960's but the damage was already done. The few remaining vineyards passed into history and the Grape Growers Association closed its doors.
The soil of the loess hills and grapevines are too natural a combination to stay apart for long. The past twenty years has seen a resurgence in grape growing with a number of wineries now operating in southwest Iowa.
(Top above) Long time Grape Growers Association manager Harry E. Martin inspects grapevines.
(Above) At its peak southwest Iowa had almost 300 vineyards, making Iowa sixth in the nation in grape production. The Grape Growers Association formed as a coop for grape growers in 1893.
(Above) Label from crate of Grape Growers Association grapes.