Wineburg/Sweetwine – Another Catawba Ghost Town Near Coney Island

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Franz Helfferich the founder of Wineburg, now a Catawba ghost town.

There is little left to suggest the existence of another Catawba Ghost Town in east Cincinnati called Sweetwine, near Coney Island and River Downs. But during the 1850s and 1860s this was an active winegrowing region from the river bottoms to the top of 5 Mile Hill. There is a Sweetwine Banquet Center, named after the antebellum immigrant community, but it’s a bit east of where the community was actually located. The winemaking hamlet was originally called Wineberg, but another town in Holmes County had staked the name first and so when it applied to be a post office in 1858, the founder changed the name to Sweetwine, after the sweet catawba wines being made in the area. The post office operated from 1858 until 1904, but it was referenced as a location in Cincinnati newspapers up into the 1940s, when many folks from the city set up river camps there.

The man who established Sweetwine was Franz Helfferich, an immigrant from the town of Speier in the Rhinepfalz winemaking region between Heilbronn and Stuttgart. He made it to Cincinnati via New Orleans in 1840, and was instrumental in the formation of the Cincinnati Turnverein – a sport and social club that spread throughout the United States. He lent the side yard of his guesthouse and wood turning shop in Over-the-Rhine as an exercise yard for the Turners.

Franz was an enterprising German. He tried his hand at grain milling, and when he decided there was little future for him in that, he bought land in 1854 along the Five Mile Creek off of today’s Kellogg Avenue. He called the area Wineburg, and he grew grapes, made his own wine and operated a sort of wine house and resort that was very popular with Cincinnatians. Soon other German immigrants flocked to the area to grow grapes on the southeastern facing hillsides and it became a community of winegrowers. But, Franz soon realized there was more money to be made in selling the wines, rather than making them. And perhaps he missed the energy of bustling Cincinnati.

Sweetwine had become a smaller version on the East Side of Lick Run on the West Side, which housed popular resort wine gardens like Metz, Gries, and others. The farmers from wine country in Germany were connected to the community of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Stepstone, Kentucky across the river, which was the closest German Lutheran Church in the area.

So, in 1859 he sold his wine business in Sweetwine and headed back to the big city, where he opened a Wholesale Wine and Liquor business called the Senate Exchange, right across from the courthouse. Even back then, lawyers were known to be heavy drinkers.

One Sweetwine immigrant family also connected their wine growing business to downtown. John Niemes and his wife Maria Hummel were one of the first families to congregate around Sweetwine, coming after the end of the Civil War and staying until the death of John in 1883. From 1866 to 1883, they had five sons – John, Henry, Jacques and Louis. John would move to Cincinnati and start the Niemes Café, which although served both native wines and beers, was made famous by its fresh tapping system for Moerlein beer. He operated his very successful café until his death in 1913, when it was closed and his estate was divided amongst his brothers.

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John Sr. died in 1883, the same year his son Louis is listed as having been born in Sweetwine. John Sr. is listed as living in Montgomery, Ohio, where he was probably working for the Meier Winery family, who had a 156 acre Catawba and native grape farm on what is now Kenwood Towne Center. By 1883, they were one of the only games in town still growing their own grapes. John Michael Meier had originally planted the farm with rootstock he had brought with him from Germany, but when it failed, his son John Conrad Meiers consulted the local expert Nicholas Longworth, and then replaced them with native Catawba. Eventually the Meiers would abandon winemaking altogether and instead turn to grape juice made from even more resistant Concord grapes they supplied from Lake Eire.

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Another branch of the Niemes family had immigrated from Sauersheim, Rhinephalz, and started a wine and liquor business right next to Hellferich’s opposite the courthouse. This was Adam Niemes. His brother Henry operated a similar business on 3rd street and the two lived in Mt. Adams in the 1860s and 70s, perhaps on the former vineyards of Nicholas Longworth’s. They, like the Helfferich family were involved in the North Cincinnati Turnverein in Corryville on Vine Street and active in many German immigrant clubs and societies.

The arrival in 1873 of the Cincinnati, Georgetown and Portsmouth narrow gauge railroad allowed Sweetwine winemakers to ship their product to downtown liquor dealers and German coffeehouses. Joseph Prudent had come to Sweetwine in the 1850s from France (probably Alsace), grew grapes, and operated the 12 Mile Hotel on Kellogg Avenue into the 1890s.

The Sweetwine community is still rural, and there may be remnants of old winehouses and cellars on the old farmsteads along Five Mile Road in Anderson Township. And there is not much documentation of the area and its winegrowing history, so the pieces are still being put together, but it played an instrumental role in Cincinnati’s Catawba Craze.

 

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