For the third year in a row, the Neosho Arts Council is celebrating Newton County's most famous horticulturist/viticulturist.
The Hermann (or "Herman,") Jaeger Festival will be held this Thursday, May 1 through Sunday, May 4 in Neosho. The art, wine and music event is named after the Newton County man who helped saved Europe's wine industry in the latter half of the 19th century. The fact that he disappeared without a trace, save for a suicide note, in 1895 only adds to the allure of Jaeger's story.
While I am not a member of the Neosho Arts Council, I know most of its members personally and want to credit them for their time and hard work in planning this annual event.
Hermann Jaeger is (finally) becoming more widely known among the people he settled among, after emigrating here from Switzerland just after our War Between the States. He and his older brother, John, and their families lived and grew vineyards east of Neosho along what is today State Highway 86 (John's house is still standing at the "S" curve, on the south side of the road).
Jaeger established a vineyard and is said was impressed with the hardiness of the Ozark grapevine and root. Doing a little experimenting, he grafted better quality Concord and Virginia grapes with local root stocks. The result was a perfect grape for wine, but one that wasn't so delicate.
Jaeger passed on his knowledge for the betterment of wine lovers everywhere when, in the 1870s, he played a key role in helping save France's famous wine industry from utter ruin. The French grapevine roots were being attacked by a plant louse called phylloxera – a parasite they got from us in the first place, according to more modern accounts.
Jaeger introduced the French government to his Ozark hybrid and, along with others in Missouri and around the country, shipped vine cuttings and seeds over to France by the carload. Jaeger's Ozark grape was tough enough to withstand infestations and the French vineyards were saved.
For his efforts, Jaeger was awarded the French Cross of the Legion of Honor.
Though Jaeger was a hero for a time, his good fortune wasn't to last forever. Jaeger packed up and moved the family to Joplin in 1895. Contemporary accounts say he was facing financial difficulties.
On the morning of May 16th of that same year, Hermann Jaeger said goodbye to his family and took off in a wagon, ostensibly to appear in court back in Neosho (he was being sued for damages after the wrong man was arrested for allegedly throwing a piece of wood at him.)
Jaeger disappeared with his wagon down the road that morning and was never seen by his family again.
A day or two later, his wife received a note postmarked Kansas City, written in German and signed "Your Unlucky Herman" which stated, as translated to the newspaper by his brother John, that "when you read these lines I won't no more be alive" and "it is better I make an end to it before I get crazy."
His body was never found. Neither were his wagon and team of horses. It was later stated that some of his family believed he had driven into a mineshaft, team and all. But no one really knows.
Currently displayed in the Neosho-Newton County Library is the "Herman Jaeger, Master of the Vineyard" historical exhibit. On Friday and Saturday it will be at the Civic Auditorium, which will be open daily to the public. The exhibit includes historical panels telling the story of Hermann Jaeger, as well as panels on wine and viticulture. I have read every panel, and can tell you it is well worth it if you are at all interested in this man's story or local history.
For a full festival schedule, go to neoshoarts.org.
Wes Franklin serves on the board of directors of the Newton County Historical Society. He can be reached at 658-8443.