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September 29, 2012
A little known story of Ashtabula County grape growing history - by Donniella Winchell

A little known story of Ashtabula County grape growing history

In most cases, if an industry is to be sustainable for the long haul, it relies, as least in part, on its historical roots, even as it plans for the future. One very little known bit of grape growing history here in our county is that of the Jewish Farmers Association [J.F.A] of Geneva. Their group of more than ninety families dominated grape farming in the first couple of decades of the twentieth century.

[There was also a Shaker Vineyard Land Company on the east side of Cleveland, in the late 1800s] but that will provide fodder for another day.]

I first read about the J.A.F community in the 1985 when the Ohio Historical Association published a story by a Jacob Ornstein whose dad had been a part of the settlement here. Since my mentor in this business, Bob Gottesman of Meiers and Lonz Wineries was Jewish, I shared the article with him. In talking about that same article with my Dad, he relayed his experience with a Mr. Brody [another member of the J.F.A.] who had hired him when he and Mom were first starting their own vineyards on Doty Road. Dad spoke always of him with great respect; I seemed Mr. Brody became mentor for my Dad. As a kid, whose family always grew Concords, I had remembered meeting a Norman Cohodas who ran vineyards and a winery on County Line Road. Then as a young couple, my husband and I bought some land on South River Road in the early 1970s. We tore down an old house which had been formerly owned by a Mr. Wiser who was the coffin maker for the J.F.A community. We found a Mezuzah by the front door and lots of pieces of beautiful wood on the front porch. So there had always been bits and pieces of information about the J. F. A. group floating around in my life experiences, but none of the pieces had been pulled together, until I read Patricia Latimers book, Ohio Wine Country Excursions. From her 3rd chapter of the first edition and that 1985 OHS story:

In the late 1800s a wealthy Russian Jew named Baron Maurice de Hirsch, wanted to do something to help Russian Jews after the assassination of the Czar Alexander II. He established a fund of over $2 million to fund farming communities, mostly in America. Geneva was one of those groups.

Latimer talks about how the Geneva men farmed weekends but commuted to Cleveland to work in the garment industry. One family, the Golombs had a two hundred acre farm in Cork. Mr. Golomb was a good friend of Mr. Brody. They jointly established model vineyards with Ohio State University, created a wine cooperative to monitor grape prices and fostered research with OSU to manage grape diseases and pest infestations. At one time, this group of families accounted for over 60% of the grape production in the area. There are some very interesting pictures in that 1985 OHS magazine showing a huge group assembled to meet a Rabbi Silver who had come out to meet with them on a pretty summer afternoon.

Based on all accounts available, the community flourished until the Great Depression, when many of the farmers were forced to find work in Cleveland. And by the end of the Second World War, most of the children of the original community founders left, first for the war, then for college funded by the G.I. Bill.

There are few remnants of the communitys influence left in the area. A couple of years ago, I touched base with Alvin Cohodas [Normans son] who lives now in central Pennsylvania and owns a bakery that sells, among other things, Concord grape pies. There is a large brick house which once served as Mr. Golombs residence, still sits on the south side of South River Road, east of SR 534. And on County Line Road, south of US 20 is a beautifully restored home where Mr. Cohodos made his wine and entertain guests. It is now owned by a local resident and a couple of months ago, I toured the cellar and he gave me some old labels still left in the wine cellar.

There likely many more stories buried somewhere in our local archives. If I ever retire, this is one piece of our area�s grape and wine history I would like to explore a bit more.