The Fruits of His Many Labors – Agoston Haraszthy: A Hungarian Dream In California (Part Two)

Wikipedia contains a comprehensive list of famous Hungarian-Americans. The list includes 42 actors and actresses (who knew Rodney Dangerfield and the Phoenix brothers were of Hungarian descent), 28 filmmakers (ever heard of the exquisitely named Nimrod Antal), 47 sportspeople (who does not love Lou “The Toe” Groza), 41 scientists (looking to blow up the world, Hungarians have it covered with Edward Teller and Leo Szilard), 14 writers (Joseph Pulitzer to name just one), 26 musicians and composers (everyone from Peter Cetera to Flea to Paul Simon), 9 politicians and 33 others. That final category happened to be among the most intriguing. It contains a trove of past (Harry Houdini) and current (George Soros) luminaries.

I began checking the Hungarian-Americans list wondering if the name of Agoston Harazsthy might be listed. My heart sank as I scrolled further and further downward in what I began to believe was a vain attempt to locate his name. Just before giving up hope, I found his name heading up the “Others” list. At first, I thought this might be something of a slight, but then I recognized the names of Houdini, Soros and Estee Lauder also listed under the category. Many of the “Others” on that list, consisted of those who could not easily be pigeonholed. Haraszthy fit in well with this group. His own Wikipedia entry lists him having no fewer than twenty different occupations. Haraszthy was a man of many professions, but what would bring him lasting fame really began in earnest over the last twenty years of his life, most of which took place in California.

A Dream Realized - Buena Vista Winery

A Dream Realized – Buena Vista Winery

Dream Chasing – A Man For All Seasons
In 1849, Haraszthy sold off his properties in southern Wisconsin and prepared to move with his family to California. That same year, over 50,000 fortune seekers made the same journey across what would become known as the California Gold Rush Trail angling north and west across Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and Nevada before arriving in the upper part of California. Haraszthy also went overland, but on a much more southerly route. He had a good reason for doing this since his California dream involved something other than gold. Haraszthy was in search of the perfect growing region for vineyards. His party consisted of 60 men, women and children with Haraszthy leading it safely to the San Diego area. There he began to work towards his goal.

True to his more recent past, Haraszthy soon found himself involved in a wide range of professions which included city marshal, stage coach operator, sheriff, proprietor of a butchery, elected state legislator and vintner. It was the last which most captured his interest. He tried many different types of imported vines on land in the San Diego area. It was not long before Haraszthy began to turn his attention northward to the Bay Area, purchasing land which he thought might be better suited to viticulture. Sure enough, Haraszthy was planting vines on the San Francisco peninsula in the mid-1850’s. The dreary, moist climate would prove impossible to overcome.

A Legacy of Quality - The Hallmark of Haraszthy

A Legacy of Quality – The Hallmark of Haraszthy

Staking His Claim – Success In Sonoma
During his time in San Francisco, Haraszthly was struck by the same gold fever that had lured hundreds of thousands fortune seekers to California. As he did so many times in his life, Haraszthly found a unique niche to pursue. He started a gold melting and refining facility, going into business with other Hungarians in the area. Haraszthy’s expertise gained him a position as the first assayer at the U.S. Mint in San Francisco. His new career took a turn for the worse when he was accused of committing fraud. After several years of legal battles, he was found not guilty of committing any crime. The controversy turned out to have silver lining, as Haraszthly was soon on the move yet again. This time further north and a bit inland to the Sonoma Valley, a landscape that was ripe for wine growing.

Haraszthy discovered the perfect California micro-climate for viticulture in Sonoma. He began to cultivate a wide range of vines on hillsides in the area. He soon found success after starting the Buena Vista Winery, which is still in business today. It was there that he constructed the first stone wine cellars in California. He publicized and promoted the region, sub-dividing some of his land for smaller plots which he gave to famous Californians as an incentive to take up viticulture in the area. He also turned back to writing once again, penning the first published work on wine growing in California. He was recognized as an authority by state officials on both viticulture and agriculture. His expertise and innovation led to Haraszthy becoming the first president of the California Agricultural Society.

Mysterious Circumstances – Excessive In The Extreme
With so much success, it is remarkable that Haraszthy did not settle down and enjoy the fruits of his many labors. A cursory review of his life reveals a man who was habitually restless, constantly striving for new innovations. He could never get enough of his passions. His appetite for wine growing was excessive in the extreme. He soon overextended himself, running into trouble paying down the heavy debts he had incurred while developing Buena Vista. He was struggling to make ends meet when his vineyards were struck by phylloxera, the outbreak of this deadly disease struck without warning. It caused vines to wither and rot. Haraszthy’s genius did nothing to combat its lethality. His dream slowly died right before his eyes, the feeling of helplessness must have been immense. In the past, he had been able to overcome all obstacles, whether financial or climatic, but against phylloxera he was helpless. Sadly, he was reduced to declaring bankruptcy. The end was near for him, not just in Sonoma Valley, but also in life.

The final act of Haraszthy’s life played out in a bizarre incident. In 1868, he moved to Nicaragua and threw all his energy into yet another enterprise. Haraszthy started a sugar plant, which was to be used in the production of rum which he would then import to the United States. This was another frontier that Haraszthy looked to conquer. That would prove to be impossible as Haraszthy mysteriously disappeared into a river. Searchers did not find any hard evidence of Haraszthy’s disappearance, no bones, no clothing, not a shred of hard evidence. He was just gone. Some posited that he had been attacked and eaten by alligators who frequented the river where he was last seen. Others thought it might have been foul play Whatever happened, Haraszthy’s disappearance left history with only one thing that has lived on well beyond his remarkable life, an incredible legacy.

The Ultimate Immigrant – Agoston Haraszthy: Hungarian Ambition Arrives In America (Part One)

There are certain people in history who did so many important things that it is hard to imagine how they had the energy, let alone the time, to do them all. One of these is the Hungarian, Agoston Haraszthy. The name will not be found in many history books in Hungary and hardly any in the United States. Haraszthy was not a king, minister, politician or general. He did not pass any major laws, issue important decrees or gain glorious victories on the field of battle. He was a nobleman and so much more. Haraszthy’s life was about action and innovation, travel and pioneering endeavors. Many of his endeavors have passed the ultimate test, that of time and yet only a handful of people know the name or remember what he did. This is such a shame because Agoston Haraszthy’s life was one of accomplishments, both great and small.

Agoston Haraszthy - The Great Innovator

Agoston Haraszthy – The Great Innovator

Every Breaking Wave – A Force Of Undeniable Vigor
To paraphrase a line from Marcel Proust’s great literary work, Remembrance of Things Past, the world was not created once and for all time, instead it is created every day. That would be a fitting epitaph for the life of Agoston Haraszthy. For he created and recreated the world every day of his life, such was his genius for innovation that he was constantly involving himself in new activities. These would take him halfway around the world, until his life finally came full circle. Life and thought flowed out of him like a river that carried ideas to distant shores. The river is a fitting motif for Haraszthy’s life as he was born close to one of the greats, the Danube in Futok (Futog in northern Serbia). He would mysteriously disappear in another river half a world away at the end of his life. Rivers and oceans were avenues of transport that allowed Haraszthy to chase his dreams to distant shores. He rode the crest of many waves to far off lands. And when those waves finally broke, he always found another one to drive him and his ideas forward.

Ambitious and enterprising. To understand everything Agoston Haraszthy accomplished, one must understand that he was the very essence of those two words. Haraszthy was a man with massive amounts of ambition that manifested through an incredible array of enterprising activities. These traits did not come from the pursuit of wealth or an impoverished upbringing. They came from something else, an unquantifiable surge of frenetic activity that stirred deep within him. One of the most fascinating aspects of Haraszthy’s character was that while he had the means to stay in Hungary and live the life of a nobleman on a family estate, he chose to do otherwise. His homeland may have been Hungary, but he lived for his dreams. These dreams he would pursue with an undeniable vigor. This vigor had time for family as well as work. Married at the age of twenty-one to Eleonora Dedinszky, the couple would soon have six children. There was also the existential motivating threat of the Austrian Emperor who looked at men such as Haraszthy with barely disguised disdain. Haraszthy had supported the Hungarian independence movement of Lajos Kossuth. The upshot of his involvement was that it forced Haraszthy to look for other opportunities outside his homeland. This did nothing to deny Haraszthy from pursuing the abiding ambition of his early life, travel to the United States.

Town Builder - Agoston Haraszthy the founder of Sauk Center, Wisconsin

Town Builder – Agoston Haraszthy the founder of Sauk Center, Wisconsin

Cultivating Opportunity – Taming The Untamed Frontier
The trip to America was the beginning of Haraszthy as a pioneer. America was a land made for pioneers, with an outsized canvas on which they could go about creating an entirely new world. Haraszthy first traveled to America in 1840 with a lone cousin in tow. The country they found was a young republic, one on the move. Expansion was the motivating force pulling pioneers westward. This suited Haraszthy who was not content to stop on the East Coast, instead he surged deep into the interior. He traveled to what is today the Upper Midwest. At the beginning of the 1840’s it was an untamed frontier. Upon a stretch of prairie in southern Wisconsin, Haraszthy created that future state’s first Euro-American settlement. Along the Wisconsin River he founded “Szeptaj”, which means “beautiful place” in Hungarian. After a succession of name changes it eventually became Sauk Center. Here was a settlement that had staying power, both as a town and for Haraszthy’s family. The reason for that was mainly due to Haraszthy’s initiative.

Among his enterprises included crop cultivation, raising livestock, constructing mills, running a store, developing a brick kiln and operating a steamboat. The one enterprise closest to his heart and a direct import from his homeland was the cultivation of vineyards. Haraszthy had worked closely as a wine grower with his father-in-law in Hungary. He now brought a talent for viticulture to the wilds of Wisconsin. Soon he was growing grapes and having wine cellars excavated on hillsides above the river. This was the beginning of the second oldest winery in the United States, one that continues today as the Wollersheim Winery. Such was the success of Haraszthy’s many enterprises in the area that Sauk Center became the first incorporated town in Wisconsin.

A Man On The Move – Travels In North America
Haraszthy was not alone during this time. He worked closely with his partner, another immigrant from England by the name of Robert Bryant. In 1842, Haraszthy managed to bring his entire family to Wisconsin. They would never again return to Hungary, at least not in the flesh. Agoston Haraszthy did return to Hungary in the form of words. As one of the first permanent settlers from Hungary in the United States he took it upon himself to report back to his countrymen about what he had discovered in this land of opportunity. The upshot of his efforts was a remarkable book known as “Utazas Ejszakamerikaban” (Travels in North America). At the time there was very little knowledge of the United States in Hungary, Haraszthy’s book expanded the information on offer exponentially.

The book’s value lay in its eyewitness account. It offered potential emigres a preview of what they would find in the United States if they chose to follow in Haraszthy’s footsteps. This would be of great importance in the years to come as the first wave of Hungarians immigrants left for America after the failed uprising of the 1848 Hungarian Revolution. Haraszthy would also leave his adopted home in Wisconsin during this time. In 1848, he like tens of thousands of others, was struck by the stories he heard of gold discoveries in California. Incredible opportunities awaited those with the energy and vitality to travel there. It was not long before Haraszthy was planning to make discoveries of his own in a new land of opportunity.