How did a silver medal from 1847, awarded to R.T. Underhill for the grapes he grew on Croton Point, end up buried in a garden on Long Island? That’s what reader Mike S. wants to know.
“Many years ago, possibly 25 or so,” he writes, “my grandfather was turning his garden in Shirley, New York. He heard a loud bang, and quickly shut off the rototiller to see what it was. After a moment of searching he found a large piece of metal. He cleaned it off, gave it to me, and told me it was a lucky charm.”
For Mike, his treasured “lucky charm” has become something of an obsession.
- Who was R.T. Underhill?
- What was the American Institute, the organization that awarded the medal?
- Why is “R. Lovett” stamped along the bottom of the front side?
- How did the medal get buried in his grandfather’s garden?
We can answer all his questions—except the last one.
The Grape King of Croton Point
As readers of this blog know, Richard T. Underhill was the “Grape King,” who built the first commercial winery in the United States on Croton Point. He began his vineyard by planting European varieties of grapes he purchased in Brooklyn from André Parmentier, a wealthy, educated Belgian who came to America to escape the French Revolution and started a nursery that included a vineyard. At first Parmentier sold only European grapes, but it turned out that they did not grow well in New York.
According to U.P. Hedrick’s authorative book, The Grapes of New York, Parmentier later added “the two American varieties, Catawba and Isabella, which were then becoming popular.”
Underhill’s first batch of European varieties had died, but Hedrick says that Underhill “had been fired with a consuming desire to grow grapes. In 1827 he began planting Catawbas and Isabellas. This vineyard of American grapes grew until it covered 75 acres, the product of which was sold in New York City. This was the first large vineyard in the country.”
The American Institute
The American Institute of the City of New York (also known as the American Institute of the City of New York for the Encouragement of Science and Invention) was founded in New York on February 19, 1828, to encourage and promote “domestic industry in this State, and the United States, in Agriculture, Commerce, Manufacturing and the Arts, and any improvements made therein.” It attempted to fulfill that task by two means: first, by organizing annual fairs at which prizes were awarded to outstanding artisans and inventors, and second, by actively promoting government policies that would encourage and protect domestic manufacturing, agriculture, and commerce.
R. T. Underhill was a leading member of the Institute and the 1847 silver medal is one of many awards he and his brother, William A. Underhill, won over the years for their grapes, plums and quinces. 1
The Institute’s annual report gives us an idea of the size and scope of the 1847 fair. “The fair was opened to the public at Castle Garden on the 6th day of October, and closed on the 23rd. The exhibition consisted of productions from 2,194 contributors in almost every department of manufactures, the mechanic arts and horticultural production. The whole consisting of more than 20,000 articles . . . For about three weeks the place of exhibition is the centre of attraction for this city, the neighboring cities, and throughout our country, to distances almost incredible; crowds are continually flocking here to witness the grand display, which embraces the products of all occupations and the whole industrial community.”2
Robert Lovett, Engraver
The medal awarded to Underhill was designed by Robert Lovett, Sr., the patriarch of a family of famous engravers. He was born on March 19, 1796, and grew up in a quiet New York City neighborhood in an area now covered by the western end of the Brooklyn Bridge. After a brief military service during the War of 1812 he apprenticed in the shop of master stone seal engraver Thomas Brown.
By 1816 he had married and moved to Philadelphia to set up his own engraving business, specializing in dies and seals. By 1824 Lovett was back in New York City, where he set up shop at 249 Broadway. “His shop location moved several times over the years,” according to Lovett expert and collector Baldwin, “but he stayed in New York City until his death on December 31, 1874, just six hours after the passing of his wife of 60 years.”
Lovett has another Croton connection—he designed the medal produced for the Croton Water Celebration, when what we now call the Old Croton Aqueduct opened to public use on October 14, 1842. See an example of that medal here.
How did the medal end up buried on Long Island? The Underhills do have deep roots there. Capt. John Underhill (1608/9-1672), the founder of the oldest and largest Underhill family in the U. S. and Canada, lived at various times in Flushing, Southold, Setauket and Oyster Bay. One can speculate that perhaps an Underhill relative had once lived in Mike’s grandfather’s house. Whatever the case it’s great to be able to share this medal with our readers.
For more information on the Underhill vineyards, see these previous posts:
- The Grape King of Croton Point, features two color prints of the grapes that made Richard T. Underhill famous.
- You Need Not go to the Rhine to See Vineyards, is an 1859 account of a trip to Croton Point, which gives us tantalizing details about the scope of Underhill’s business.
- The Underhill Vineyards, 1867 has details from a full-page wood engraving of the Underhill vineyards, published in Harper’s Weekly in October 1867.
- R. T. Underhill—Doctor, Winemaker, and Investor in the First New York City Elevated Railway, which uncovered Richard T. Underhill’s involvement in the West Side and Yonkers Patent Railway Company, the company that began the New York City transportation system.
- Underhill Vineyard Trade Cards, issued after R. T. Underhill’s death in 1871, to market the inventory which had remained in the vaults “owing to the extreme temperance views entertained by some of the heirs.”
- See Underhill’s obituary in the Proceedings of the American Pomological Society, 1871. ↩
- See the Sixth Annual Report of the American Institute of the City of New-York, 1848. ↩