Bicentennial Biographies is a not-for-profit radio project designed to raise awareness and increase interest in local history. It is brought to you as a public service by the Chautauqua County Historical Society throughout 2011 to celebrate the county’s 200th birthday. To learn more, visit www.McClurgMuseum.org or contact your local historical society.
Elijah Fay was born in Southborough, Mass., Sept. 9, 1781, and was married to Lucy Belknap, of Westborough, Mass. The couple came to Portland in 1811 and settled on 179 acres. it was the first residence of Salem Cross Roads [what is today the village of Brocton].
The residents of Portland soon regarded Fay as one of the best of the good men of the area. He was prominent among the founders of the Baptist church, and one of its early deacons. But his biggest contribution to not only Portland, but also the entire Chautauqua Region, was the introduction of grapes.
Fay first started growing in 1818. The vines grew profusely but the fruit was inferior quality. After attempts at growing different varieties without success, he introduced, in 1824, the Isabella and the Catawba type of grapes, which proved to be well adapted to the soil and climate. In the meantime, other settlers purchased nursery stock from Elijah’s brother, Lincoln Fay, and began growing their own vineyards.
From his crop of 1830, he made from five to eight gallons of wine. This is considered the first winery from the cultivated grape in all of Western New York. In 1851, Joseph Fay, son of Elijah, started growing Concord grapes, and in 1857, along with another early settler H. A. Burton, planted the first large planting of grapes on a quarter of an acre. This was the beginning of the grape industry in Portland.
For the last four years of his life, Elijah Fay is supposed to have made nearly 300 gallons of wine a year. His cellars contained 1,500 gallons at the time of his death, on Aug. 23, 1860.
– J. Sample