I added USA to the title of this post because, the Republic of Georgia is such a hot spot on the global wine scene right now. As much as I’d love to be writing about a visit to that Georgia, or Hungary, this article is about the history of wine in my own back yard. Haralson County borders Alabama, about an hour west of metro Atlanta. The Hungarian Colony that I am writing about was located between Tallapoosa and Bremen.
Not being a native Georgian, I am not well versed on the history of this great state. I have a co-worker to thank for bringing this great little piece of American wine history to my attention. The story is real, but to my mind it is like a fantasy dream come true. The modern day equivalent of winning the lottery.
Imagine you are an Hungarian immigrant in 1886, having left your country of origin as a farmer and now, in your search for a better life you, you live in Pennsylvania and work in a coal mine to make your living here in the New World.
Along comes a man named Ralph L. Spencer, who wants to develop an entire community based around growing grapes and making wine. He recruits a Catholic Priest, Father Francis Janisek, to help convince people to move to rural Georgia. Mr. Spencer is offering a plot of land for a home, plus 10 acres of land. Two acres are already planted with grape vines, and the other 8 you must plant with additional grape vines. Father Janisek was coming to the new community, so that there would be a church community in place. It is said that Father Janisek was given a home, a horse and buggy for his part in the plan. The home, a Rectory, resembled a castle that sat atop a hill overlooking the wine growing communities.
Fifty families were the original settlers on 2,000 acres of land. The grape vines flourished and by 1893 the Hungarian Colony consisted of three separate communities: Budapest, Tokaj and Nitra, totaling more than 200 families with some 12,726 acres of grape vines. Homes, shops, a school, the church, a cemetery and wineries made the area a booming wine region.
By 1900 it would be more than 20,000 acres under vine and the Hungarian Colony supplied most of the Southeast with wine along the Southern and Blue Ridge Railroads. The wine could be bought along the railroad stops for $1 a gallon and you had to bring your own container. At the turn of the century the Hungarian Colony made Georgia the 6th largest wine producer in the United States (45 states at the time).
Maybe its just me, but this scenario is pretty much a dream come true. I’m not discounting that farming is incredibly hard work, as is wine making, but it sure beats coal mining. If anyone has a similar offer today, I am ready, able and willing.
Can you guess what happened to this bustling little community? Prohibition. Georgia passed Prohibition in 1908, a full 12 years before the ratification of the 18th Amendment that made Prohibition a nationwide reality. The town literally ceased to exist. Some of the residents stayed and found some way to make a living. Most returned to Pennsylvania and the coal mines. The ones who stayed were buried in the community’s cemetery that is still there today.
The homes and buildings were literally abandoned, eventually falling into disrepair and crumbling. The Rectory still stands and is being renovated. Here is a picture of it from the road. It is known now by locals as Keys Castle — it is rumored that a descendant of Francis Scott Key once owned it. It also has a reputation for being haunted. I am told by the owners of nearby Trillium Vineyard that a local resident has purchased the home and is renovating it.
Its so interesting to me that Georgia was once one of the largest producers of wine in the United States, all because of this little area in Haralson County. Currently, the vast majority of Georgia wine is grown and produced a bit farther north, and east, and it seems so odd to me that no one had attempted to bring this industry back to life in the former grape growing region where it all began.
Well, not until August of 2017 that is. My friend Susan and I stumbled onto Trillium Vineyards in our Haralson County adventures. We so enjoyed everything about this winery and found it to be so special that I am writing an entirely separate article about it, so please stay tuned for that.
Sources: Haralson County Historical Society: https://www.haralsoncountyhistory.com/budapest.html The Georgia Wine Trail Document