Thomas Volney Munson 1843 - 1913
......................Pomologist, Gentleman, Scholar

By: Thomas M. Ciesla, Copyright 2004

Almost 100 years after publishing his seminal work, "Foundations Of American Grape Culture", T.V. Munson's work with American grapes still shines the horticulture worlds spotlight on Denison, Texas. His experimental vineyards have been rejuvenated and continue to research grape growing in the Lone Star state.

Today, "Volney" as he was known to friends, is remembered primarily for his 40-year effort to raise the quality of native American grapes. There was of course, much more to the man than being a horticulturist: Volney was a brother, a husband and a father. He was also a man of great intelligence and vision, and an inventor with a number of patents.

  The Early Years

Born to a farming family in Illinois, Volney developed a passion for the land as a young schoolboy from his mother and grandfather. At 18 he went off to Chicago to attend Bryant & Straton Business College, followed by attending Kentucky A & M, where his passion for grapes was kindled. While in Kentucky Volney wrote numerous papers and essays for the school journal, beginning what was to be a lifetime of prolific publication.

It was also at Kentucky A & M that he set his sights on a career in science, embracing the scientific viewpoint, thereby placing him on the cutting edge of botany, horticulture and agriculture. During these years, Voleny also continued to dabble as an inventor as his journals show with designs for the "Perfection Stove",, the "Continuous Chain Force Pump, and the 'Rotary Dasher Churn".


  Begins His Life's Work

The overall grape family, known as Viticeae, consists of 14 genera, only one of which contains food plants -- vitis. Of the 60 species in this genera, only one -- vitis vinifera, the Old World grape, produces classic wines. Twenty-six species of wild grapes grow in the United States, making it the most prolific center for wild grapes in the world and half of those are indigenous to Texas. When Volney found eight species of wild grapes growing on his property near the booming railroad town of Denison Texas, he was inspired to take on a life's mission of improving the American grape. He set two goals: (1) describe and classify all the grapes, and (2) develop new cultivars through scientific cross-breeding.

In 1877, the beginnings of the Munson Nursery were rooted. In addition to numerous types of fruit, he planted three dozen varieties of grapes. In the following decades he combed the countryside across state lines to study and retrieve grape varieties, bringing them back to his nursery to crossbreed them for admirable characteristics. In 1883, he gave his first major presentation to the Mississippi Horticultural Society, challenging the members to think beyond the status quo. Volney believed that agriculture in general, and especially grapes should be a constantly evolving creature in order to ensure food for everyone in the future.

In the paper presented to the Society, entitled "Native Grapes of the United States" Volney set the horticultual world on its ears. It was here that he dared suggest grafting vinifera onto native America rootstock to conquer the many diseases that attacked the Old World grapes in the United States.

Years rolled by as Volney traversed over 75,000 miles on train, horseback and foot, seeking every species of grape he could find. All the while he was a tireless author, publishing in a variety of journals, magazines and newspapers about his research and the new cultivars he was creating in his little vineyard in Denison. His publications drew the interest of both the United States Agricultural Department, and the French. The USDA wanted him to write a book on American grapes. The French needed him to save their devasted vineyards.

 

  The Great Pest

In the 1800's European vineyard managers grew to detest the pesky Americans. Around 1845, odium was discovered in a hothouse in England. The parasite is of North American origin, and from England it crossed over the channel to infect vineyards in Mainland Europe. It took vineyardists 15 years to solve the problem with a combination of sulfur treatments and odium-resistant rootstock. Then phylloxera (then called "peritymbia vitisana") was discovered in England. Viticulturists soon discovered this other North American pests destructive power as it too crossed the channel and began infecting France's vineyards in Gard region during the mid-1860s.

By 1879, more than one and a half million acres of vines in France were ruined. The infestation then spread to Corsica, Switzerland and Germany. It then found the friendly, warm climate of the Mediterranean and decimated vineyards in Spain, Portugal, and Italy. Then suddenly it appeared in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and California in the 1870s. There seemed to be no stopping the devastation. To help stem the tide, native phylloxera-resistant grapvines from Missouri were shipped to France. French vineyardists began grafting as fast as they could and waited for the results. Unfortunately, the vines all died.

By 1880 the disease had destroyed 2 million acres of vineyards in France alone. French viticulturalist Pierre Viala was sent to the U.S. on a fact-finding mission. After reviewing grapes on the eastern and western seaboard, Viala visited Volney --who he had been corresponding with for years and new of his ground breaking research. In the end, Viala specified three species -- Vitis berlanderi, Plancon; V.cinerea, Engleman; and V. cordifolia, Michaux -- all Texan species recommended by Volney. Thousands of of vines where shipped overseas and after some trail and error in grafting combinations in France, the battle with phylloxera came to a stalemate. The French vineyards were replenished, as were other countries, but the disease still continues to be a 'controlled' problem around the world.

At the urging of Viala, the French government awarded Volney the Chevaliers du Merite Agricole in the Legion of Honor in 1888.

 

  An Extraordinary Life

In 1900 a hurricane struck Galveston, killing an estimated 10,000. In 1906, the year of the great San Fransico earthquake, Volney published a booklet on his personal beliefs titled, 'The New Revelation,' under the pseudonym of Theophilus Philosophus. The New Revelation represents Volney's dillema -- his struggle with the concept of God, religion and the claim that Jesus of Nazareth was the begotten son of God. This was a struggle that began as a student in Kentucky A&M, where he he totally embraced knowledge and science -- almost making it a kind of God.

In 1909, Volneys book, 'Foundations of American Grape Culture' was finally published to stellar reviews. In the years that followed, Volney continued to grow his nursery business, publish articles in journals and magazines in the U.S. and Europe. He also developed new varieties of apples, pears, pecans, strawberies, and two dozen other fruits. In the end, Volney had developed some 300 species of American grapes.

Volney continued his research and despite his age developed a new group of grape hybrids and planted a new apple test orchard. Complications from influenza took his life on January 21, 1913 at the age of sixty-nine. While still in good health, Volney wrote:

"Plant a vine upon my grave and see it clasp its hands with joy."

For an excellent source of information on the life and work of T.V. Munson, see "Grape Man of Texas: The Life of T.V. Munson, Sherrie S. McLeRoy and Roy E. Renfro, Jr.

T.V. MUNSON
TIMELINE

  • 1843
    Thomas Volney Munson is born in Illinois
  • 1860
    Phylloxera appears in Europe's vineyards
  • 1860
    Only sibling in family listed in Census (as 'farmer')
  • 1861
    Attending Bryant & Straton Business College
  • 1862
    'Phylloxera vastatrix' killing French vineyards
  • 1865
    Returns home to teach
  • 1866
    Attends Kentucky A&M
  • 1868
    Writes about disillusion with God
  • 1870
    Marries 'Nellie' Bell
  • 1870
    Graduates from Kentucky A&M
  • 1871
    1st child born dead
  • 1872
    2nd child dies at 3 months
  • 1872
    Purchases land in Texas & developes passion for grapes
  • 1873
    Moves to Nebraska
  • 1876
    Moves to Texas & begins vineyard and builds first home 'Scarlet Oaks'
  • 1877
    Phylloxera spreads across Europe
  • 1883
    Presents results of his cultivars at New Orleans meeting
  • 1884
    Wins Wilder Award for paper at American Pomological Society
  • 1886
    Begins selling American grape specimens to French
  • 1887
    Moves into new home 'Vinita'
  • 1887
    USDA approaches him to write book on American grapes
  • 1887
    Meets with French and offers three native Texas vines
  • 1888
    Awarded the Chevaliers du Merite Agricole in the Legion of Honor by French government
  • 1889
    Develops the Parker Earle Strawberry
  • 1890
    Develops new vine training system
  • 1893
    Creates exhibit at the Worlds Columbus Exposition in Chicago
  • 1909
    Publishes 'Foundation of American Grape Culture'
  • 1913 Died

  •  

    Above portrait of Volney was made for frontpiece of Foundations of American Grape Culture.

    {Courtesy: T.V. Munson Viticulture
    and Enology Center}