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Catawba Island Wine Company Beginnings

Updated: Nov 17, 2023

Lake Erie’s south shore has a rich history of grape growing and wine production dating back to the 1800s. Today, the winemaking tradition continues within the walls of our timeless Catawba Island treasure 150 years later. Read more about our beginnings as a winery and about the early grape growers of the region…

Kelleys Island Wine Company & the Wine Cooperative

The Kelleys Island Wine Company was established in 1865 as a wine cooperative. Because of its size and reach, smaller wineries and grape growers were encouraged to sell their grapes to the new facility.

With modern steam-powered grape presses, the wine cooperative had the capacity to produce 350,000 gallons of wine per year, and due to its size, was able to effectively market and sell its wines and champagnes throughout the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Germany.

Some Catawba Island grape growers took notice of this successful venture, and in 1868, incorporated the Catawba Island Wine Company.

Other Island Wineries

Also established around this time were the Middle Bass Wine Company and Put-in-Bay Wine Company. Unfortunately, the Put-in-Bay cooperative burned to the ground in 1888. The Kelleys Island Wine Company ruins stand today but are off-limits to the public.

Of the four, the Catawba Island Wine Company is the only building still in operation today, now known as the Gideon Owen Wine Company.

Catawba Island Wine Company

The founders’ initial investment was $100,000. I previously read that some of the wealthier early settlers established this wine cooperative; family names like Ellithorpe, Neal, and Laudy. But I have discovered through an archived newspaper article from January 29, 1887, that the original investors were small grape farmers from Catawba Island and Danbury.

These men pooled their money together to seek fortune in the Lake Erie Islands’ burgeoning wine industry. The names of the original investors were J.R. Newton, Lemuel Smith, Henry Landy, and Mr. Vaght of Catawba Island, and Mr. Gilgin, Mr. Bredbeck, and Mr. Clausen of Danbury.

Unfortunately, I have no additional information on the founders, but perhaps people in the community who may have additional information on these gentlemen could come forward and share their stories?

The cost of building the original structure was $30,000. It was constructed by the George Loeb & Sons stone company from Toledo, Ohio. Construction started in 1870 and was completed in 1872.

Except for the barrel-vaulted cellar ceiling constructed of Sandusky Blue Cut Limestone from Sandusky, Ohio, the remaining Catawba stone was mined from the building site itself. The mortar was produced onsite in a lime kiln in the area that we now designate as “Lime Kiln Falls.”

A Rocky Start

The Catawba Island Wine Company started with prospects of a bright future. But several grape crop failures and the crippling effects of America’s 1873 Depression doomed the company into financial ruin.

The company was purchased out of the receivership in 1881 for $2,812 by W.E. Bensey of Port Clinton, Ohio. At that time, the original investors had liabilities of more than $40,000.

Needless to say, our historic Catawba community gem couldn’t have started any worse. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog where we’ll continue our historical journey…

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