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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 306

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This is the grave of Ephraim Bull.

Born in 1806 in Boston, Bull was not destined for a life as an agricultural innovator. He was a city boy and was apprenticed to a goldbeater. I had to look up what that was. Turns out it is someone who pounded gold for gilding. This is still a job today is that is the same brute labor as it was in the early 19th century New England, except that it is done in southeast Asia. Shocking, I know.

Bull got sick in the city. Having some sort of lung issue, he decided to move to the rural area of Concord, where he bought a farm. He became quite interested in agricultural innovation, especially grapes. That’s a really tough crop in New England because it is too cold for most varieties to grow effectively. But he managed to breed a new type called the Concord grape. It had the ability to both ripen early and resist frosts. The grape looked good and grew well. He first began producing those grapes in 1849 and he managed to get them on the market in 1853. Bull intended this grape to make wine, the most noble use of all grapes. He stated, “I venture to predict that the man is now born who will see New England supplying herself with native wines, and even exporting them.” Bull was hardly the only person to think in these terms over the years and there are large markets in wines from cold weather grapes in the North, especially the so-called “ice wines” of states such as Ohio. Not my thing, but hey, whatever. The problem with a lot of these wines is that they are overly sweet and that is certainly true of Concord grape products. But the grape itself has a relatively low sugar content and it’s the necessary sweeteners added to the fermentation process that makes it so sweet. I am very much not a chemist so I don’t know if these overly sweet products are reflecting people’s tastes or whether there’s not much way around it. In any case, the grape never really caught on for commercial wine production, though certainly many producers made homemade wine out of it.

Like most agricultural innovators of these days, he made very little money at it, as other farmers started growing them as well. Supposedly, he was pretty bitter about this. The gravestone reading “He Sowed, Others Reaped” certainly suggests that bitterness. That said, Bull lived a life of middle-class respectability, including some time in the Massachusetts state legislature. He lived a very long life. He fell in 1893 and could no longer live on his own after that, dying in a nursing home in 1895, nearly 90 years old.

Also, Bull never tasted any wine made from Concord grapes. He did not drink.

Personally, when I think of the Concord grape, I think of the worst kind of jelly for the PB&Js I enjoyed as a child. And I suspect many people also feel this way. Even today, it’s pretty common in those little packets you get for toast when you go out for breakfast, but I try to hunt for the strawberry instead.

Ephraim Bull is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Massachusetts. If you would like this series to visit more figures from American agriculture, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John Deere is in Moline, Illinois and George Washington Carver is in Tuskegee, Alabama. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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