Recently we were asked by a reader "Who was Walter Grieve?" Here Chuck LeCount, Senior Director of Programs and Interpretation, provides us with an answer.
Aside from the description provided by the traveling Scotsman Thomas Douglas, Earl of Selkirk, in the fall of 1803, little is known about the Grieve distillery-brewery. That we even have his description, however, is remarkable as detailed, eye-witness accounts of early American industries are rare. According to Orasmus Turner’s History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps and Gorham’s Purchase (1851) “Grieve and Moffat established the first brewery in all this region.” Unfortunately, Turner did not provide a date for this pioneering establishment, nor did he say much about its founders. Turner did say that Grieve was “in the employ of Mr. [Charles] Williamson, in the earliest years, as it is presumed Mr. Moffat was….” [i]
A report prepared by the archivist of the Geneva Historical Society and Museum provides a slightly different take on the origins of the brewery. According to this report (unfortunately without citations) the brewery was established around 1797 by the immigrant Scotsman John Moffat. It was also considered “respectable,” and supposedly Charles Williamson asserted that it promised “to destroy in the neighborhood the baneful use of spirituous liquors.”[ii]
So who were Walter Grieve and John Moffat?
Walter Grieve was the son of John and Mary Johnston Grieve, born May 9, 1773 in Dumfriesshire, [the County of Dumfries] Scotland.[iii] Grieve immigrated to the United States in 1794 and settled in the town of Vernon (now Benton, in Yates County). Around 1796 he moved to Geneva and together with fellow Scotsman John Moffat, purchased land there to the value of £592 sterling. At some point thereafter Grieve and/or Moffat established their brewery.
By 1798, however, Grieve was back in Scotland where he married Janet [Jennet] Welsh (1777-1825) on May 10. The Grieves returned to New York following their marriage.[iv]
In 1800 the Federal Census identified within Grieve’s household his wife, a boy and girl under the ages of ten. The boy was likely John, born 1799 and the girl, a thus far unidentified daughter. In 1803, Walter Grieve successfully applied for United States citizenship.
Despite being a recent immigrant, Grieve apparently was respected and a relatively successful man. For example, he served as almost two years as Geneva’s postmaster and by 1807 was identified as a captain with a local volunteer artillery company. During the War of 1812 he served as a colonel in the New York State Militia under the command of Brigadier General George McClure serving on the Niagara frontier during the fall and winter of 1813 where he participated in the controversial burning of the Canadian village of Newark [present day Niagara-on-the-Lake].[v]
After the war, Grieve’s star continued to shine. He was appointed a trustee of Geneva College in 1825 and promoted to the rank of Brigadier General in the New York State Militia. In September 1825, however, his wife Janet died suddenly. Walter followed her shortly, living only a little more than a year longer, passing away in December, 1826. The December 27, 1826, edition of the Geneva Gazette & General Advertiser carried this obituary:
Died in Geneva on Thursday morning last [21st], in the 53rd year of his age,
Walter Grieve, Esq., Brigadier General of the 4th Brigade, New York
State Artillery. General Grieve was a native of Dumfriesshire, Scotland: He
emigrated to the United States and settled in this village about 32 years ago,
having been one of its first settlers. At which period there were but three
houses in the place. On Saturday his remains were interred with military
honors, being attended to the grave by detachments of artillery and light
infantry, and officers of artillery and other corps in uniform, and by a large
concourse of citizens.[vi]
Interestingly, his estate inventory included “one old copper still” valued $5.00. [vii]
Less is known about John Moffat. Lord Selkirk mentioned Moffat in his description of the brewery but only in relationship to a newly patented still. He wrote “A species of Still has been invented by a man at Geneva—(Moffat a Scotsman)….” Indeed, aside from Turner’s reference that he “removed to Buffalo,” little else can be found regarding him. Interestingly, the Geneva Historical Society report asserted that Moffat established the brewery, not Grieve or even the two in partnership. But Moffat doesn’t show up in any extant census records for Ontario County and appears to have sold his land holdings in Geneva in the 1790s. So we may never really know much more about him.[viii]
As for the brewery itself, although thus far unverified, the brewery was founded around 1797 and seems to have been located on the lakefront just outside of Geneva. The Ontario County Historical report claimed it was located on Mile Point about a mile from the center of the village, and Lord Selkirk referred to Grieve having to “pump up water” to the distillery. At least one deed shows that Moffat and Grieve’s land bordered Seneca Lake.
The brewery apparently did not remain in operation for long. For example, no breweries were identified in Ontario County in the Tench Coxe’s 1810 census and Colonel Grieve’s 1813 tax assessment showed him owning only a “house, farm, & still”. This property assessment continued unchanged through 1822. After that he even seems to have ceased operating a distillery altogether, for in both 1823 and 1824 he was only assessed for a house, barns, farm and 300 acres. So while Grieve’s brewery cannot claim a long, successful history, it does appear though as it was one of earliest, if not the first, brewery in western New York.[ix]