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Local History

Hermann Jaeger: An Unknown Legend in Old Europe Wine Country

We often think of “global community” as a 21st century term assuming we’re only able to interact with people on the other side of the world because of new technology. For our ongoing local history series, Sense of Place, KSMU’s Emma Wilson explores the life of one Ozarks resident whose contributions not only impacted the world economy before the dawn of the 20th century, but changed the wine industry forever.

The 19th century was a time of massive social, technological, and economic change for America and Wester Europe. The birth of modern agricultural science and transportation technology led to greater exchange among scientists and farmers across the globe. They not only exchanged ideas, but plants, seeds and, occasionally, the pathogens and parasites that came with them. In the latter half of the century, one of these parasites threatened to bring down the entire European wine industry; its name was phylloxera.

“Phylloxera is a louse; it’s an aphid-like insect. One particular strain of it eats only the roots of grapevines.”

That’s Dr. Bethany Walker, a history professor at Missouri State University. She says that the European grapevines had no resistance to this parasite. When the louse infiltrated the all-important wine industry of France, the French sent a call out to the agricultural scientists of the world in search of a vine that did have resistance to it.

“Many kinds of wild grapes, wild vines here in the United States do. And some of the most resistant are here in Missouri,” Walker says. Grapevine cuttings were shipped to France by the hundreds of thousands. Many of them came from Missouri. Some of these cuttings were from a small farm just outside of Neosho, the farm of Hermann Jaeger. Kay Hively is a local historian and a self-proclaimed “Hermann Jaeger fan.”

“He was an immigrant from Swittzerland. He came here as a young man and settled here east of Neosho and he was interested in grapes. And he developed a vineyard, him and his brother, John.”

Hively says that while John did much of the hard labor and farming, Hermann spent much of his time in the lab creating new hybrids and going on long walks in the woods and along creek beds in search of new wild grapes to experiment with. It was not long before he was exchanging plants and ideas with other viticulturalists.

25 years ago, Hermann Jaeger’s farm house was disassembled by the current owners of his old farm; in one of the walls they found a metal picnic basket containing many of these exact letters that he had exchanged with fellow scientists.

“The letters are very interesting. These are original handwritten letters by some of the giants of American horticulture.”

Dr. Laszlo Kovacs is a professor of biology at Missouri State who’s part of a team of students and teachers which is restoring, translating, and transcribing these letters for an exhibit about Jaeger. He says that most of the letters are from Thomas Munson and George Husman, who are both famous for their contributions to European and American grape breeding.

“It is amazing to read these letters, how closely they worked with one another. I mean, they were in correspondence, maybe not daily, but on a weekly basis. They write about their experiments, what their new crosses look like, they ask material from one another. They describe what they found in the wilderness and which one they like and which one they don’t like. It is just like now. We scientists send emails to one another and discuss scientific findings and how to write papers, it is the same thing at that time,” Kovacs says.

It was discovered that Hermann Jaeger’s hybrid of grapevine was indeed resistant to the phylloxera parasite. The hybrid was grafted onto the French vines and breathed life back into the vineyards of Europe. For this, Jaeger, Munson, and Husman were awarded the highest award the French government can present a civilian: the French Legion of Honor, in 1888.

After that, however, his business took a turn for the worse. The fluctuating laws and growing Temperance Movement against alcohol put a damper his primary source of income, the sale of wine. In 1892 Hermann Jaeger disappeared, never to be heard from again. Again, Bethany Walker:

“He said goodbye to his wife. Soon after she got a letter that seemed to be a suicide letter and he was never found again.”

“No evidence was ever found of the wagon or the horses. But they never found anything of him—there are no records of him shipping back to Switzerland—he just disappeared,” Kay Hively theorizes that he may have fallen in one of the open mine pits that peppered the area during that time, but no one really knows. While there are many ideas about his death, most agree that his contributions in life are gravely under-appreciated. Walker notes that since the other scientists he worked with were much more outgoing and ambitious, they got the bulk of the attention.

“And we are hoping that this research project and the exhibit will make up for that, because his contributions were priceless and he simply didn’t get the acknowledgement while he was alive that he should have,” Walker says.

The research project is a joint venture between several Missouri State departments that will result in an exhibit at the Discovery Center that opens April 8th at 6pm.

For KSMU’s Sense of Place, I’m Emma Wilson.