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Union Village and the Shakers of Warren County, Ohio
Union Village's Vineyards And Winery At Wickliffe, Ohio
by Katherine Lollar Rowland, Lebanon, Ohio, May, 2008
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This article is a part of a series titled "The Last Fifty Years of Union Village Shakers" which are original stories and articles by Katherine Lollar Rowland about the last Ohio Shakers, their life, the way it was in the declining years of Union Village, and also of their contacts with the greater community of Warren County when they were no longer able to be self-sufficient. Other articles in the series will be added as they are completed.
Contact Katherine Lollar Rowland if you would like to comment about this article or other Shaker items.

In May of 1889, Joseph R. Slingerland was sent out from New Lebanon, New York, by the Shaker Central Ministry to be Second Minister at Union Village. In August of 1890 he was made First Minister. With the entire Shaker movement in decline, Slingerland was appointed to try to revive conditions at Union Village and attract new converts. He initiated an elaborate program of upgrading and modernizing, including having 10 miles of osage orange hedges planted along Union Village roads, remodeling the Center Family building into what became known as Marble Hall, and starting vineyards and a winery at Wickliffe, in northeast Ohio.

He was listed as “Dr. J. R. Slingerland” on a letterhead headed SHAKER MEDICINE COMPANY, Union Village, Warrren Co., Ohio. The letterhead showed “Eastern Office, Union Village, Warren County, Ohio,
And “Western Office, Dr. Louis Turner, at St. Louis, Missouri.” The handwritten document, dated March 21, 1892, commended “Mr. Webb A. McIlrath for effecting the sale of our North Union property. It was signed by “Joseph R. Slingerland, Oliver C. Hampton, Emily Robinson and Emily W. Hampton, Trustees.”

Many recent Shaker scholars and enthusiasts have condemned Slingerland, calling his expenditures ill-advised and blaming him for the final closing of Union Village. Others have not been so severe in judging Slingerland, given the fact that the decline of the whole movement was already so far advanced, and also the fact that Slingerland must have had to have approval from the Eastern Ministry for his expenditures, Those taking the more charitable view find something to admire in his innovativeness and creative approach to what might have seemed a hopeless situation, even though the end results were not positive.

In any event, Slingerland had help in carrying out his grandiose plans at Union Village, especially in the person of William C. Ayer. Records have listed William C. Ayer’s positions as “deacon & general work; assistant to Elder Slingerland on farms and all outside interests of the Society.” The name of “Elder William” appears often in the Center Family Journal. On a letterhead
headed “UNITED SOCIETYOF SHAKERS, Shaker Vineyards, Wickliffe, Ohio,” the name of William C. Ayer appears as “Ass’t Trustee.” In a handwritten note on December 29, 1896, he asks for a quote on 2 – 200 egg incubators, and amends a note asking where he can get a food cooker?

One particular project took Elder William northeast across the State of Ohio to the rich fruit-growing lands near Lake Erie, northeast of Cleveland, an area which was noted as profitable for vineyards. My interest was aroused in this project by cryptic entries in the Union Village journals:

“1896 – December 1 – Elder William and Q Bone go east of Lebanon to purchase some horses for Vineyards, secure four
1896 - December 2 - , Elder William purchases a pair of English Shire mares to send to Wickliffe.
1896 - December 3 – Elder William to Franklin via Lebanon to ship car of horses to Vineyards.
1897 – February 19 – Mat to Franklin with ducks and chickens to be expressed to Wickliffe
1897 – March 2 – Mr. E. M. Jackson of Toledo here to see Elder William for telephone right of way at Vineyards
1897 – May 13 – Miss Lloyd of Wickliffe arrives; leaves May 14
1897 – May 30 – Elder William to Cleveland to see about building grape packaging house at Wickliffe. Also about electric line on Lake front.
1897 – August 29 – Elder William starts for Cleveland to manage the grape crop up there – making wine, etc. Reports a good crop.

I could find little more information about these intriguing entries in Warren County Research Libraries, so, in August of 2004 I drove up to northeast Ohio to search records at The Shaker Historical Society in Shaker Heights.
Cathie Winans, the Director, and Mary Jo Groppe, the Librarian, were very helpful. They went through their files and photocopied property records and photographs as well as pertinent correspondence.

Of particular interest at Shaker Heights was the correspondence of Caroline B. Percy, whose book, The Valley of God’s Pleasure, A Saga of the North Union Shaker Community, was published in 1951. Although the Vineyards at Wickliffe were entirely a Union Village (Lebanon) project and not connected with North Union (Shaker Heights), Mrs. Percy was known as an authority on Shaker matters. When she was invited to speak at the Willoughby Woman’s Club in 1950 she corresponded extensively with people who remembered the Shaker Vineyards and Winery. Excerpts from Mrs. Percy’s talk, entitled “Shaker Vineyards Land Co.,” shed much light on the vineyards and winery project:

“In 1892, Elder Joseph Slingerland, the head-elder of the Western Shakers came to Wickliffe, at a time when raising grapes along the Lake Shore had become a most successful business. Grape culture along Lake Erie, below the Ridge, was considered the finest in America.

“. . . Elder Slingerland saw in this business a way to make quick money for Union Village. He was building a new and very handsome dwelling and administration building at Union Village at the time, and needed ready money. (Note: this must have referred to the refurbishing of Marble Hall).

“He bought from William Lloyd 300 acres of his land providing Mr. Lloyd would plant it into vineyards for him.. . he also bought the adjoining Wilson farm and other small parcels, . . until a gigantic carpet of 1000 acres of vineland spread along that section of the Lake Shore. Near the town of Wickliffe, the land was in Willoughby Township of Lake County, Ohio.

“ … They built two great packing houses, one of the packing house was 200 feet long, on a switch of the R.R. track. Here the work went on night and day in season. . It takes 3 years for a vine to mature and the first crop was harvested in 1897, when 3 carloads of grapes went out daily, 2700 baskets per shipment. . . When the weather turned hot, the grapes sometimes spoiled en route.

“Elder Slingerland saw the hazards were too great so at great expense he converted the packing houses into wineries and cellars where presses were installed and the juice run off into great vats. It was sold as grape juice and also as wine. He hired an expert wine maker and for a time made money. . . One May a terrible frost killed most of the vineyards in these parts. Some of them were replanted but in the meantime, apple orchards (which had existed on the land when the Shakers purchased it) were cultivated and tremendous amounts of Shaker apple butter and sauce were sold.”

The Lloyd family was very important in the Wickliffe vineyards and winery venture of the Union Village Shakers. Mr. Lloyd was chief overseer and when Elder Slingerland or Elder Ayer were at Wicliffe they stayed at the Lloyd home. A letter to Mrs. Percy from Harry R. Lloyd states “my older sister, Mrs. L. S. Higley, handled their records.” The signature of “W. C. Ayer” appeared many times in the “Names & Visitors” list of “Shaker Vineyards Cellars” in the spring of 1896.

There were no Shakers living at Wickliffe. A workers list in September 1897 showed such names as Delisiano, Vitantonio, Santobona, Marinello, and Sabetto, Taken with notations of the word “Italiano” on the Cellars list, it seems that the workers may have been of Italian origin who lived in the area.

Mr. Lloyd, the overseer, died and according to Mrs. Percy,” Elder Slingerland soon after that decided to abandon the experiment,” and the land was sold.

The whole venture of the Vineyards and Winery at Wickliffe had taken place in a little over a decade. An amazing amount had been accomplished, especially considering that a telephone which connected to the outside world was not installed at Union Village until July, 1897. And the first automobile was not purchased until June of 1910, driven at first by the chauffeur of their lawyer, Judge James Allen Runyan, until the Shaker men, more accustomed to driving a spirited pair of carriage horses, became comfortable with it..

Travel between Union Village and Wickliffe (as the crow flies about 250 miles) had to be by train. Although the Shakers had their own station a short distance from Union Village, there was no direct railroad line between southwest and northeast Ohio. Depending on destination, it was sometimes necessary to go to Lebanon or Franklin to get a train. In any event, any departure from Union Village meant being first taken to the station by horse-drawn wagon or carriage.

Another of Elder Slingerland’s proposed projects was to have Union Village start a Shaker community somewhere in the South where the winters would be warmer. According to Union Village and the Shaker Colonies in Georgia, by Dale S. Covington: “In November of 1897 Elder Joseph, Eldress Lizzie Downing, Office Deaconess Julia Foley and William Ayer, formerly Elder of the Center Family, made a brief trip to Georgia to find a site for a colony. They selected two contiguous plantations, Hopeton and Altama, totaling over 40,000 acres, located approximately 13 miles from the port of Brunswick. Two months later these four Shakers, accompanied by Samuel Goldman, Eugene Colombain and Laura Fridger arrive in Brunswick to take possession of their land. However, William Ayer and Julia Foley eloped and were married in Savannah on April 12, 1898. Within days the Shakers began returning to Union Village and the first phase of the Georgia colonization effort was over.”

The defection of Elder William Ayer must have been very upsetting to the aging residents at Union Village. The many references to him in the Shaker journals showed him to be an extremely active and capable person: embossing letterheads, tending the post office, taking quarterly statements from the tenant farmers, taking Confession from the Shaker brethren on Cofession Day, negotiating to buy and sell farm animals and produce, getting the English Shire stallions photographed, going to Lebanon to secure dry goods and a new organ and to pick up shingles for a tenant’s house, and writing the journal for several months - only a few of the things he worked in around his frequent trips to Wickliffe.

In 1901, Joseph Slingerland was still First Elder at Union Village. He became very friendly with J. P. MacLean, who was writing extensively about all of the Shaker villages in the West. Slingerland gave MacLean a complete set of the books the Shakers had published over the years and a selection of books to the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society.

In October of 1901 Slingerland and Eldress Elizabeth Downing left for Florida and returned to Union Village six months later. On June 10 of 1902,
Both of them were removed from Union Village by the Eastern Ministry. A 1904 journal notes that Slingerland claimed he had $1800 of his money invested in the White Oak, Georgia, property and asked for its return. In 1907 he was admitted to the Church Family at Hancock Village, Massachusetts, and stayed there until 1917. He died in 1920 at South Union
Shaker Village, Kentucky.

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This page created 22 May 2008 and last updated 22 May, 2008
© 2008 Katherine Lollar Rowland All rights reserved