23 Aug 2014
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Ephraim W. Bull and the Origin of the Concord Grape

Continuing the tour of historic Sleepy Hollow.

Ephraim W. Bull and the Origin of the Concord Grape Ephraim W. Bull and the Origin of the Concord Grape

Leaving Authors Ridge, walk toward the , down the steep, unnamed path behind the Emerson plot, jogging right about 10 steps to cross upper Hillside Avenue, then continuing downhill to the next paved lane, lower Hillside Avenue [Photo 1]. Then turn left and walk down lower Hillside Avenue about 10 steps. Turn left again and step up the three stone steps to the burial plot of Ephraim Wales Bull. Ephraim's stone is the boulder topped with a green plaque.

Most of this essay about grapes and Mr. Bull is derived from the excellent article, "He Sowed; Others Reaped: Ephraim Wales Bull and the Origins of the 'Concord' Grape," by the late, beloved botanist, environmentalist, and historian, Edmund A. Schofield of Worcester. Click here for Ed's article. 

The piece not only details the life of Bull, but also the history of grapes in North America. When early European explorers reached our shores, wild grapevines were so prominent that the region was regularly called "Vineland." Remember that grade school class on Leif Erickson? 

But on to Ephraim Wales Bull. Don't be embarrassed to admit that the name sounds odd to our 21st century ears. Julian Hawthorne, son of Nathaniel and Sophia, a neighbor of Ephraim's on Lexington Road, wrote that Ephraim "was as eccentric as his name." He went on to say that Bull "was a genuine and substantial man, and my father took a great liking to him, which was reciprocated." 

Ephraim, born in Boston in 1806, was a gold-beater by trade — one who beats gold into gold leaf, used by bookbinders and gilders to apply an attractive surface to various objects (usually not lilies). In 1826, he married Mary Ellen Walker, a relative of Harvard College President James Walker. When not laboring in his tiny, dusty, Boston goldbeating shop, Bull raised a variety of grapes and other crops in his small backyard garden. In 1836, after developing lung problems, on doctor's advice, Ephraim and Mary Ellen moved to the fresher air of Concord.

Mr. Bull, whom Julian described as a short, powerful man "with long arms and a big head covered with bushy hair and a jungle beard," got along well with his Transcendentalist neighbors Alcott, Emerson, and Thoreau, and worked with them in the abolitionist campaign. They, in turn, encouraged him in horticultural grape experiments that he began in the 1840s in the sandy soil of the south-facing slope of Revolutionary Ridge behind his home. 

Grapes soon became Ephraim's passion. He sought to develop an earlier-ripening grape for the short Massachusetts growing season — in particular, a table grape, as Ephraim was a teetotaler. He obtained vines from every source possible. Over six years, through cross-pollination, by incorporating a wild, early-ripening, "accidental seedling," found at the foot of his hill, and by planting grapes "whole into the ground, skin and all, at a depth of two inches," he finally achieved his goal: a big, early-ripening, black grape, with a robust, tart, and slightly musky flavor.

After investigation by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, Mr. Bull's new grape was acclaimed as one that would grow in New England — bigger and better than any grown before. Ephraim placed the entire stock in the hands of Hovey & Co., who offered it for sale in 1854 as the Concord grape.

The Concord sold extremely well, appearing soon in the catalogs of every nursery in the U.S., and being grown commercially throughout the northeast and midwest. In 1866, it won the Horace Greeley — "Go West, young man!" — prize for the best grape for general cultivation.  Financially, however, Ephraim fared poorly. He and Hovey & Co. had sold Concord vines at $5 apiece during the first year, receiving $3,200 in net income, but almost nothing thereafter. The commercial nurseries were propagating and selling the vines in huge quantities, but paying no royalties to Bull. 

True, Ephraim garnered many honors: In 1855, he was elected to the Massachusetts Legislature and in 1856 to the State Senate.  He became a member of the prestigious Concord Social Circle. In 1856, Gov. Henry J. Gardner appointed him to the Massachusetts Board of Agriculture. He also served on the Concord School Committee and the Concord Board of Selectmen. He accepted three invitations to speak at Harvard College, and often addressed horticultural meetings and fairs. In 1873, he was honored by the State Horticultural Society and later by the American Association of Nurserymen. But no great monetary rewards.

All the while, Bull argued passionately the merits of his grape. In an 1854 handwritten letter now on-file in the Special Collections of the , Ephraim says he knows "the public have been deceived a great many times with new things advertized as 'splendid' or 'estimable' or as 'the greatest acquisition.' I have suffered in this way many times. I particularly desired, therefore, to be sure of the quality of my new seedling, and to corroborate (or to qualify) my own favorable opinion — which might possibly be beyond its merits — I took the grape to gentlemen who were familiar with grapes and their culture both under glass and in the open air, for their judgement. The Concord was uniformly pronounced to be better than the Isabella. 

"I sent it to the fruit committee of the Mass-tts Hort-l [sic] Society — who had neither heard from [nor] seen it before — they pronounced it 'excellent'; the succeeding year I sent it to the committee again and they again pronounced it fully equal to the year before and a very superior grape. Strengthened with their opinions I sent forth the grape to the country, in the full belief that I was not only acchieving [sic] an honest fame as a successful horticulturist, but also serving, benefitting [sic] my countrymen with the very thing they had waited for so many years — a grape, namely that, while it was perfectly hardy, and early enough to ripen anywhere in New England, was also excellent for the table, and, of course, profitable for market." [Emphasis in original]

Despite his poor pecuniary reward from the Concord, Bull continued his horticultural experiments, growing 22,000 seedlings over 37 years. He developed a white grape he named "Esther" in honor of his mother, and others named "Rockwood," for Judge Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar — whom we have encountered before and will again — and "Cottage," for his Lexington Street home, which came to be called Grapevine Cottage, which is, at this writing, undergoing extensive renovation or restoration. Ephraim, however, was so disgusted with commercial grape culture, that he refused to market his later grapes properly.

By the mid-1870s more Concord grapes had been planted in the Northeast than all other varieties combined. The Concord and its progeny spread even to Europe. But Bull grew increasingly embittered by how poorly he had fared financially with the Concord. He had grown impoverished, had become a suspicious recluse, and spent his days tending plants in a small greenhouse behind his home. Mary Ellen Walker died in 1891, having lived separately from Ephraim for the previous twenty years. Three years after a fall, Ephraim entered the Concord Home for the Aged where he died in 1895. The sad epitaph on his gravestone plaque captures it all:  "HE SOWED OTHERS REAPED" [Photo 2].

One of the principal reapers was the  Welch's Grape Company of New Jersey, which entered the grape products market in 1869. Fittingly, in the mid-1970s, Welch's moved its corporate headquarters to Concord. You can see one of Ephraim's Concord vines growing today beside the driveway of Welch's original Concord offices at 100 Main St. 

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Harry Beyer, a licensed town guide, has lived and walked in Concord since 1966.

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