Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Fruithurst, Alabama....an Example for Boom and Bust

Boom and bust – basic social studies vocabulary words, right? 

Think about how you learned these words.   I would imagine you were taught about boom and bust during an exploration of the Gold Rush, right?

Most everyone is….and that’s my point. 

Are there other situations where the terms boom and bust could be used? 

Of course there are, and recently I stumbled across one that I found really interesting via a friend.  

Let’s examine Fruithurst, Alabama – a rural little hamlet near the Georgia border in Cleburne County.   As far as population goes most elementary schools have a larger student body than Fruithurst’s total population.  The 2000 census indicates the population tops out at a whopping 200 people. 

If we transported ourselves back to 1890 and the area where Fruithurst is located we might be lucky if we found 200 people. In fact, the area wasn’t even known as Fruithurst in 1890.   The area was first known as Summit Cut and later Zidonia (pronounced “Zildonee”) by Scotch-Irish farm families.

Things began to change, however, in 1894 when a company known as the Fruithurst Company bought up large holdings of land and many of Scotch-Irish moved on to other areas.    The company was formed by a group of Northern entrepreneurs who envisioned transforming a portion of Alabama’s piney woods into a winemaking region.

Yes!   A winemaking region.

Per Wayne Ruple who wrote the book Cleburne County the Northern businessmen had several goals, but the main one had to do with creating the second best vineyards in the world
Most of the investors were from the Chautauqua grape belt in New York state like Garrett Ryckman of Brocton Wine Cellars.   E.B. Hammitt & Co. promoted the land.   Per Thomas Pinney in A History of Wine in America:  From the Beginnings to Prohibition, the New Yorkers wanted to promote immigration to the area and to develop fruit growing through a cooperative scheme.

The town name – Fruithurst – came about through a contest the organizers held.   One woman was the lucky winner of $25 for coming up with the name.

Part of the scheme involved encouraging immigrants from Germany, Sweden and even Hungary.  Every man who bought ten acres of vineyard land was given a lot in the town, its location determined by the type of house he planned to build.

The developers laid out an ambitious “model city” with intricate diagonal streets instead of the usual checkerboard pattern.   Promoters planned everything….even where the flagpole would go…..and right behind the flagpole was the Fruithurst Inn, a large hotel built for $40,000.   The building had 3-stories, 80 rooms, a billiard room, bowling alley, and barber shop as well as central steam heat.

Virginia Voss Pope advises in Fruithurst, Alabama’s Vineyard Village…..Promoters and investors began to arrive so fast during this time that homes could not be constructed rapidly enough to meet the demand and many of these new arrivals had to be put up as borders.
It only took four years for Fruithurst to become a real boomtown with 800 residents from around the nation….many from Minnesota… and Europe per Ruple.  

Over 3,000 acres were planted with over 100 varieties of grapes. Various fruit trees were also planted including plum trees.   Several packinghouses were built and dozens of pickers were hired making thirty cents a day.

Ruple advises the yields were staggering.  One vineyard produced 8,324 pounds of grapes in a single year…..23,000 gallons of wine were produced in 1898.

It really looked like the Northern entrepreneurs had achieved their goal….making Fruithurst the location for the second best vineyards in the world ……..especially when a French winemaker called the Fruithurst product “the best wine [I have] seen in the South.”

However, the boom was not to last.

The vine market slumped, native vine diseases attacked the more familiar northern varieties, and a severe winter and national Prohibition helped close the wineries in 1919 per Ruple. 

The colonists found out they were selling their grapes to Northern markets at a loss, a lumber mill showed no profit, an excelsior mill and two wineries burned and most importantly state prohibition spelled the doom of the wine-making industry.  

Discouraged by these failures and unable to adapt themselves to changed economic conditions a general exodus began and eventually the property was liquidated at a sheriff’s sale.

This link takes you to page 41 of Wayne Ruple’s book….Cleburne County……where there are several pictures of the town during its heyday including homes, vineyards, and the Fruithurst Inn.   The pictures are very interesting to look at.

Over the last few years the vineyards are beginning to return to the South including the land around Fruithurst.......

I think it would be very interesting to focus on the Fruithurst story in the classroom due to the Prohibition angle as well.  Most students are taught about Prohibition as it related to the 1930s, but here in the South the years before and after the turn-of-the-century involved the Temperance Movement and Prohibition locally long before the national movement took hold.