History Repeats Itself

By Matthew Urtz

(Madison County, NY – April 2013) Matt Urtz for web‘History repeats itself’ is a phrase we have all heard, and it is true. Recently Madison County is experiencing a rebirth of hops growing. Drive south along Route 46 in the late summer or early fall, and you will see the bines climbing at a number of farms.

Growth of the crop is expanding to Sullivan and Cazenovia, meaning all ends of the county can experience a rebirth of the industry. Along with the expansion of hops, breweries are emerging in the area. It harkens back to when James Coolidge planted the first hops plant near Bouckville (a site that is now marked by a historic marker on Route 12B in Madison).

While we recognize Coolidge, we forget that during the first hops era we had a thriving distilling and brewing industry throughout central and southern Madison County.

Distilling was more common than brewing in Madison County during most of the 19th century, and we will focus on that in this article with the next article discussing early breweries. According to the 1835 and 1845 business censuses, distilling was the third-largest industry in the dollar value of the products it produced, behind only grist mills and woolen factories, producing around $120,000 in product in each census.

At its peak in 1855, Madison County distillers produced (not every distillery reported its numbers to the census, we are only including those that did report) 750,000 gallons of high wines (high wine is alcohol that has undergone two distillations; it would be mixed with flavors to create different liquors like whiskey or vodka) worth an estimated $300,000.

Madison County distillers also produced more than 400,000 gallons of whiskey, which had an estimated value of $160,000.

All told, the $460,000 reported production in distilling and brewing in 1855 would be worth approximately $12 million in today’s dollars. The industries employed at least 45 people during 1855 in Madison, Eaton and Cazenovia.

The largest distillers in 1855 were John Hearsey of Cazenovia, who produced 300,000 gallons of high wines and 375,000 gallons of whiskey; Ellis Morse of Eaton who produced nearly 320,000 of high wines; and John Woodhull (he was part of a firm called Woodhull & Seawood, and also had a personal distillery) of Madison, who produced close to 170,000 gallons of high wines.

Hearsey’s whiskey was shipped throughout the region. According to Luna Hammond’s History of Madison County, Hearsey (in her book spelled ‘Hersey’) “…traveled once a week from Cazenovia to Utica with two hogsheads of spirits per week (a hogshead is around 53 gallons).”

Old Hearsey’s whiskey was also popular around Syracuse, and was shipped throughout the northeast.

While popular, Hearsey’s whiskey did have its enemies. In 1814, a fire destroyed some of Hearsey’s buildings. An article about the fire and Hearsey’s business from the Feb. 23, 1814, Cazenovia Pilot reads:

“…We cannot rejoice at the misfortunes of anyone; but we must say that the loss, which the community has suffered, by the destruction of this LIQUID POISON, will not be a matter of great lamentation. Especially, if the loss of this soul ruining material should prove the occasion of leading Mr. Hearsey to take warning by this, perhaps seasonable, notice to discontinue his unworthy employment of manufacturing this polluted cup of death…”

Hearsey rebuilt and continued to operate his distillery. In 1841, he purchased the property known as “the brewery,” which today would be located on Albany Street near Chittenango Creek, from Robert Quaife. He operated in distilling for the better part of life (he also built custom cabinets).

The property was sold to a number of brewers after he left the business in the 1850s. We will talk about the brewers in the next article.

The rebirth of agricultural and commercial development of the hops industry is just as important today as it was originally in 1808. As we move forward in this new era of production, I hope we learn from prior endeavors.

Sources Cited: 1835, 1845, and 1855 Madison County Census. Marshall, J. Rush. Scrapbook of Local Historical Collections, courtesy of the Cazenovia Public Library. Hammond, Luna. History of Madison County. Syracuse, 1872. “Fire in Cazenovia Village.” Cazenovia Pilot. 2/23/1814.

Matthew Urtz is Madison County historian. He can be reached at 315.366.2453 or email matthew.urtz@madisoncounty.ny.gov. Like “Madison County, NY History” on Facebook and visit madisoncountynyhistory.com.

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