PORT DEPOSIT — While Cecil County has grown its conservative reputation throughout the state in recent years, once upon a time one of its own went west as a young man to serve in Congress as a Democrat remembered for his liberal leanings.
That man was Hugh Steel Hersman, who was born on July 8, 1872, in Port Deposit. Hersman was only 9 years old when his parents removed to Berkeley, Calif., in 1881. There he attended the public schools but went east for college, graduating from Southwestern Presbyterian University in Tennessee in 1893.
Hermsan returned to California to study at the University of California at Berkeley in 1897 and 1898.
Soon thereafter he was tapped to serve as president of the First National Bank in California from 1914 to 1918, while serving as an officer and director for various corporations. He gave up his presidency at the bank when he was elected as a Democrat to the 66th Congress, serving from March 4, 1919, to March 3, 1921, but was unsuccessful in seeking re-election in 1920.
Despite his short term in Congress, Hersman would serve in a vital capacity for viticulture, or in support of what was then a dying agricultural effort to grow grapes and vineyards to make wine in California on a large scale. Congress debated an appropriation for various vineyard operations in California, as several vintners were going out of business and the farms being broken up to make smaller truck farms. Some retained the vines to produce grapes solely for raisins.
This, of course, seemed a great waste to the farmers in 1920 who had long been proponents of making wine and brandy. But their market had literally dried up. For at the time of the debate, America was testing the waters of her noble experiment — Prohibition under the 18th amendment.
The California delegation forced discussion on the issue of California vineyards, some having been operated for generations before being broken up or sold off as vineyards went out of business. U.S. Rep. Clarence F. Lea, of California, noted that the state had 170,000 acres of grapes, a large portion of which could only be used to make wine or brandy. He strongly urged Congress to set aside monies to aid the property owners to develop these lands into federally assisted experimental stations to try to find some other use for the grapes.
“Last year, those vineyards produced $20,000,000 worth of products,” Hersman said, supporting his colleague Lea. “If we can take those wine grapes that cannot be used for the manufacture of wine and use them in making some food product that would be worth $20 million, it would be a very good investment for Congress to make this appropriation.”
Lea also noted that much of the land that had been laboriously converted into vineyards had previously been of little or no value.
“In my home county, for example, one company had 5,000 acres of land which originally was of no value, it was actually wasteland that had not been assessed,” he explained. “The company spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to prepare the land for vineyards and recently sold that property for 20 percent of what it cost them to improve it. The vineyard company went out of existence. The vineyard on that waste land was worth much more than the land itself, you see.”
Congressmen Lea and Hersman weren’t requesting that the government purchase the vineyard lands, but suggesting an appropriation of federal funds to attempt grafting the vines to produce grapes to make food products rather than just for growing of wine grapes.
“The purpose is to protect the industry in the same way that you spend money to eradicate the cattle tick, or destroy rust, or anything of that kind,” Hersman told the committee looking into the agriculture appropriation bill.
Under the 18th Amendment for prohibition, the California Wine Association was forced to dispose of all holding, including a 600-acre and a 3,000-acre vineyard where the federal government had, through experimentation and a lease arrangement, developed methods to fend off pests and blight on the valuable vines. That work took 13 years of experimentation and effort, and now the vineyards were in limbo. Hersman strongly encouraged the federal government to purchase the vineyards to continue the valuable work on experimentation “lest the valuable work of 13 years be forever lost.” Hersman also detailed there were 210,000 acres of raisin and 180,000 acres of wine grapes in California in 1920, with large areas of grapes in other states.
“Unless some method is found to utilize the wine grapes of the nation by converting them into syrups or beverages or by drying them, all these 180,000 acres will be an economic loss to the nation,” Hersman said before Congress. “Last year under war-time prohibition, it was possible to ship the fresh grapes east and have them made up by individuals into wine, but under national prohibition this cannot be done. These vineyard owners are confronted with absolute loss unless some relief is immediately undertaken.
“Four years ago, no one could have looked forward to the speed with which prohibition has swept this nation,” Hersman contended. “At least no one expected that the wine industry of the nation would be so completely wiped out in such a short time, and up to now the federal government has lent every encouragement to the increasing of acreage in wine grapes. With national prohibition, these men who listened are threatened with bankruptcy.”
Making the argument for the federal government to lend aid to grape growers and vintners during the Prohibition period was one of Hersman’s last and greatest efforts in Congress. He did secure some funding, with the rest of the California delegation, and it is through these funds that “old vine” wines from California vineyards can, to this date, be enjoyed.
After his term in Congress expired, Hersman returned to Gilroy, Calif., to serve as a member of the board of directors of the American Trust Company.
He passed away in San Francisco on March 7, 1954, but his remains were returned to Cecil County and he was laid to rest at West Nottingham Cemetery in Colora.