A mural honors Hermann Jaeger, famed viticulturist, in the Newton County Courthouse. (Courtesy of Kay Hively)
NEOSHO – It may be crafted according to centuries-old specifications, but France’s famous wine might not exist today if not for a man from Neosho.
Yes, the Neosho in the heart of the Ozarks.
That man was viticulturist Hermann (sometimes spelled Herman) Jaeger, who spent much of his life studying and growing grapes. His work was extremely successful: During his day, he developed dozens of grape varieties, and became one of the world’s largest exporters of American cuttings, native vines and seeds.
Armed with that expertise, Jaeger went to battle for the French industry in the 1870s, when a plant louse destroyed nearly all of the country’s crops. He sent nearly 20 boxcar loads of grape cuttings abroad, saving the industry and ultimately netting him France’s Legion of Honor medal.
Despite his honor and recognition — and the influence he had on another local game-changer, George Washington Carver — Jaeger’s story is also laced with mystery. Because while his story lives on, he suddenly disappeared in the late 1800s.
Jaeger wasn’t an Ozarks native, nor was he the first in his family to garner international attention. His maternal grandfather was Johann Pestalozzi, a Swiss educator whose principles are said to have contributed to today’s public school system model.
Born in Switzerland, the younger Jaeger came into the picture in 1844. He lived in the country through his teenage years, gathering experience working a wine house on Lake Geneva and through a three-year internship in dry goods.
Wanderlust, however, struck the young man. Around age 16, he and his brother, John Jaeger, immigrated to the United States and found their way to Neosho in the mid-1860s. By 1866, he’d planted his first vineyard — one that was nearly a disaster.
“Jaeger’s eastern cuttings imported into the Ozarks a blight, downy mildew, which threatened to destroy his vineyards,” wrote historian Carol Heming in 1993. “Jaeger responded to the crisis by concocting a blend of sulphur, iron sulfate, and copper sulfate. Using this mixture, he was eventually successful not only in combating the blight but also in pioneering experiments in the art of spraying to control crop disease.”
Jaeger’s knowledge grew quickly. “He found that native wild grapes, though small and sour, were hardy plants resistant to disease,” printed the Missouri Historical Review in 1954. “He discovered that by grafting Concord and Virginia grapes onto the sturdy rootstocks of the Ozarks variety, he could develop a healthy plant that produced fine fruit.”
Fighting for France
That information came in handy just a few years later, when France’s grapes were being obliterated by the “devastator,” otherwise known as phylloxera vitifolia. Its story was told in a 1997 issue of Vineyards in Bloom:
“The infestation came at a time when French winemakers had reaped unprecedented profits from their vines. In the years after the Napoleonic Wars, new markets had spurred demand for French wine. Shortly thereafter, the advent of steam-powered transportation provided the means to supply these international markets. As a result, French farmers intensified vineyard plantings. They, like their American counterparts, also experimented with hybrid varieties, crossing their V. Vinifera with strange, new species imported from the United States.
“No one realized that the cuttings from the New World carried organisms unknown to Europe. Prior to steam travel, vines had arrived free of active insects. Ironically, while steam travel boosted access to new markets for the French, the shortened trans-Atlantic trip to Europe permitted the Phylloxera louse to survive.”
French growers battled to save their grapes, but to no avail. Finally, they put out a call for help. One person who responded was Thomas Munson, a grape grower from Texas. Another was Jaeger.
“At the request of the government of France, cuttings from the Jaegers’ farms became part of the effort to restore the French vineyards,” recorded “Herman Jaeger,” a book about the famed wine maker. “These two brothers shipped an estimated 17 boxcar loads of grape cuttings to France as their contribution to this massive and successful effort.”
According to Hively, it’s believed that the Jaegers were paid 75 francs for each 100 specimens, and the financial arrangements were coordinated through Munson.
Other Missourians, including George Husmann from Columbia and Isidor Bush from St. Louis, also sent clippings. But France apparently saw Jaeger as the biggest asset: Besides sending the clippings, he even hosted Professor Pierre Viala of the French National School of Viticulture for several weeks in the late 1880s, presumably to educate on his work.
In thanks for their help, France awarded Jaeger, Munson and United States Department of Agriculture employee Frank Lamson-Scribner the Legion of Honor in 1889. The event was recorded in the Neosho Times in January, and then again in April after the award reached Jaeger:
“Our fellow country man, Herman Jaeger, has received from the Republic of France his cross of the Legion of Honor. He was notified last winter that it had been conferred upon him, but the decoration only recently reached him. It is a beautiful thing. Our readers around Neosho and Granby would like to know what this decoration means, though we briefly spoke of it awhile ago. It means that Jaeger is an honorary member of the famous national order of knighthood, whose cross and ribbon are the only gift of the government of France and are bestowed for either civil or military merit. In Jaeger’s case it is given because he had done so much to save and restore the decaying vineyards of France. The great Napoleon established it eight-odd years ago, and the French republics maintain it.
However, as noted in the Neosho Times in January 1889, Jaeger never planned to wear the medal, “as most folks in this country would not understand it and it might attract derision.”
The price of progress
There was more to Jaeger than his grape-growing fame. In 1872, he married Elise Wagenrieden, and the union produced one daughter before his wife passed away a few months later. Shortly thereafter, Jaeger married Elise Grosse; that marriage saw several children into the world, and likely spurred his involvement in local education.
“Hermann saw to it that his children and the children in the neighborhood had an opportunity to get an education,” says Kay Hively, a local historian who has spent decades studying the Jaegers. “Since the time of his birth, he was surrounded by people who believed in the education of children. So it seemed natural for Herman to be a trustee at the country school that was established near the Jaeger farms.”
But, of course, folks knew him for the grapes, too. He was especially known with hunters, and lead and zinc miners around Granby who stopped in at the family’s wine garden.
“‘Jaeger’s Place” was a popular spot in the eastern part of Newton County,” says Hively. “Travelers stopped in for a glass of wine as they made their way to and from Neosho. And, in fact, Neosho residents were known to make a special trip there to relax and enjoy the wine.”
Perhaps George Washington Carver visited around that time, too — but probably not for the wine. A newspaper article from 1950, distributed by the State Historical Society of Missouri, painted a picture of an awestruck, young Carver learning by Jaeger’s hands:
“Hermann Jaeger’s long thin fingers dug tenderly into the loose loam around the tender young grape vines set carefully in the neat greenhouse frames. A small spindle-legged Negro boy watched his every move with wide-eyed attention.
“Gently he broke a piece off the Virginia vines and fastened it carefully to the Ozark cutting his hand. Then he struck the two slips in a third frame which contained similar double plants all fastened together.
‘”Here I bring the two together,’ (said Jaeger). ‘They produce one vine. I, Jaeger, work with God making better grapes.’
The under-sized ten-year-old Negro stood watching, speechless with wonder. He was George Washington Carver, born in a nearby Diamond … slave cabin, whose love for growing things made him a brilliant career as one of the nation’s leading agricultural scientists.”
The article also noted that Jaeger was happy to work with grape growers to help improve their skill and technique — but for the most part, that help was only given in Neosho.
“Jaeger taught his methods of grape culture by personal contact and seldom appeared at scientific gatherings,” noted the historical society’s article. “He broke this reticence only rarely with letters to the editors of viticultural publications, such as this paragraph in the Grape Culturist, published in St. Louis in March, 1871: ‘Newton county offers rare inducements to immigrants and grape growers specially are welcome. Actual settlers wishing further information will always get it by applying to Hermann Jaeger, Granby, Newton county, Missouri.”
Despite Jaeger’s hospitable and helpful nature, not everyone was excited about his support — encouragement, even — of alcohol. That sentiment, tied to a decision made nearly a decade before his first vineyard began, ultimately proved to be his downfall.
In 1857, Missouri left all decisions regarding liquor sales to local authorities. Thirty years later, Newton County opted to become “dry,” halting most alcohol sales.
There were, however, some ways around the rule. While individual sales and wholesale distribution was prohibited, folks were allowed to serve wine to friends and neighbors. It was something the Jaegers took full advantage of.
“In an effort to keep the Jaegers in business, John Jaeger’s wife made bushels of cookies,” says Hively. “People could come to the wine garden, buy cookies for a premium, and then drink all the wine they wanted.”
While creative, it wasn’t a good long-term solution. Faced with such strain, Jaeger’s mental state deteriorated. “As his financial troubles mounted, Herman seemed to fall into fits of depression and his family said he began suffering from ‘splitting headaches,'” says Hively.
To further complicate matters, in the late 1800s, Jaeger became involved in some legal issues. After getting into an argument with a neighbor, for a reason unknown to Hively, a case of related road rage eventually led to a lawsuit.
“One day Hermann was in a ‘light buggy’ and came up behind a farm wagon, driven by the son of the neighbor with who he had problems,” says Hively. “The young man in the wagon would not give way on the road to Hermann. Finally, they came to a place where Hermann could drive off the road and pass the wagon.
“The young man threw a stick at Hermann as he passed,” Hively continues. “So Hermann went to town and pressed charges against the young man.”
There was just one problem: When the sheriff went to the neighbor’s farm to arrest the young man, he arrested the wrong son. “The offending son had left the country,” says Hively, “So the neighbor filed a suit against Hermann for the false arrest of his son.”
In the spring of 1895, Jaeger made a change: He bought a vineyard near Joplin, and moved there with his family. However, he didn’t sell the acreage in Newton County, and he and brother John continued tending to the land.
“Both brothers hoped that Newton County would one day repeal the ordnance that put one of the most famous grape grower in Missouri out of business,” says Hively.
Jaeger was never to see that repeal. In fact, just months after he purchased his new farm, he himself was never seen again.
“The disappearance of Herman Jaeger, the well-known manufacturer of native wine, from his home one mile west of the zinc works last Thursday, is causing his family the deepest distress,” recorded the Neosho Times in May 1895.
The newspaper reported that Jaeger was believed to have gone to Neosho to attend to the aforementioned lawsuit. But several days after he left for his supposed trip to Neosho, his wife got a letter from his lawyer leading her to believe he never arrived.
The last contact from Jaeger came mid-May in 1895. A letter, postmarked in Kansas City, Ks., was sent to his wife. Written in German, it was translated into English and printed in the Newton County News on May 23 of that year:
My Dear, Good Elise: When you read these lines, I won’t be no more alive. The more I think over everything, the more my mind get troubled. It is better I make an end to it, before I get crazy. Since for a length of time I am not able to attend to business. I as a food but I meant it good. Do not hunt for me. I hope to end some place where nobody can’t find me. Dear Elise, you deserve better luck. I hope you will have it yet. Kiss the children.
Your Unlucky Herman
Inclosed find all I have got in cash.
Speculation abounds on what happened to Jaeger. “Theories include that he took his own life, that he and his team and wagon fell into one of the deep mine shafts that were in the area, that he returned to his native Switzerland, and that he went to California where he worked in the vineyards in the Napa Valley,” says Hively.
“I have no real idea of what happened to Mr. Jaeger, but I tend to believe the story that he and his wagon and team drove off into one of the many, many old mine shafts in the area and were lost,” she says. “Really, no single theory holds water completely.”
John Jaeger’s home still stands in Newton County.
Little remains from Hermann’s life. The family home existed until 1966, when its owners were forced to demolish it due to “dampness, termites and time.”
“It is ironic that Herman Jaeger launched the grape industry in southwestern Missouri in the late nineteenth century and the wine cellars in his house were almost entirely responsible for its deterioration,” noted the Joplin Globe in May 1966.
However, his brother John’s home still resolutely stays, as does the family cemetery. And, in the late 1990s, Hively and others decided to mark his influence on the area by adding a monument in Neosho’s Big Spring Park.
“The wine industry is so important to France, and Herman Jaeger basically saved it for him,” said Hively in 1995. “They know him and we don’t. Even though his work flowed elsewhere, it came from these old hills.”
“A hero in France, winemaker unknown in hometown,” Springfield News-Leader, Sept. 17, 1995
“Grapevines from Ozarks saved French wine industry,” Missouri Historical Review, Sept. 10, 1954
“Herman Jaeger,” Carol Heming, 1993
“Herman Jaeger: Newton County’s Master of the Vineyard,” Kay Hively and Larry James
“Hermann Jaeger’s Ozark grapevines save French wine industry,” The State Historical Society of Missouri, Macon Chronicle-Herald, Jan. 27, 1950
“Missouri roots in Europe,” Vineyards in Bloom, September 1997
“Newton County landmark coming down,” Charles Allonby, Joplin Globe, 1966
“Mysterious disappearance of Herman Jaeger,” Neosho Times
Story about Jaeger receiving medal, Neosho Times, April 25, 1889
Story announcing Jaeger’s Legion of Honor award, Neosho Times, Jan. 17, 1889
“Supposed suicide,” Newton County News, May 23, 1895