A history of the area

Long before Peter and George Lonz built a winery on Middle Bass Island, the earliest known human inhabitants of the Lake Erie Islands were Ottawa and Wyandot Indians.

Pictographs carved several hundred years ago on Inscription Rock on Kelleys Island show the presence of Indians on the islands.

Then, In 1534, the French were the first Europeans to claim the Great Lakes as part of “New France,” but it wasn’t until 1608 that trader and adventurer Etienne Brule left the main colony and “discovered” Lake Erie.

A few years later, Europeans from Great Britain arrived and also claimed the area.

In 1670, the Hudson Bay Co. was founded by Prince Rupert, a cousin of King George II of England, to rival the thriving French fur trade.

In the early 1700s, the Wyandots settled into the sparsely populated Lake Erie area, claiming the Ohio country between the Great Lakes and the Miami River. They traded with the French and coexisted peacefully with other Native American tribes.

However, the fur trade rivalry between France and Britain turned into war over the Canadian territory, including the Great Lakes region. In 1763, France ceded the Great Lakes region to victorious Britain.

Then came the Revolutionary War, and Lake Erie became part of the Connecticut Reserve. By 1795, the Bass Islands were transferred to the Connecticut Land Co. and parcels were offered for sale to U.S. citizens.

In 1807, Middle Bass and South Bass islands, along with Green, Sugar, Ballast, Gibraltar and Starve islands, were purchased for $26,087 by Pierpont Edwards, a Revolutionary War veteran and member of the U.S. Continental Congress.

In August 1854, the Edwards family sold the islands for $44,000 to José de Rivera Saint Jurgo, who cultivated the land for grape production and wine making. Jurgo sold Middle Bass Island in 1864, and in 1866 one of the new owners, Andrew Wehrle, established Golden Eagle Wine Cellars, which soon became one of the largest wineries in the country.

In 1884, island resident Peter Lonz established his own winery on Middle Bass. The Bass Islands earned the nickname “Wine Islands.” Golden Eagle winery was expanded to include a dance pavilion over the wine cellar, and a subsequent owner built a 60-room hotel, the Hillcrest, in 1905. The hotel and dance pavilion were destroyed by a fire in 1923.

In 1926, Peter Lonz and his son, George, merged their winemaking business with the remains of Golden Eagle Winery. Despite the nationwide prohibition of alcohol and the onset Great Depression, the Lonz business survived by selling bottles of grape juice with instructions for fermenting the juice at home. Following the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, George Lonz began rebuilding the winery complex.

After a fire destroyed the structure in 1942, work began on the Gothic-style stone castle that became a familiar landmark for tourists and wine enthusiasts for nearly 60 years. A modern wine press was built in 1956, and in 1962, a marina was added to the winery complex to accommodate pleasure boaters. The Lonz Winery was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, and remained popular with tourists until the tragic collapse of a crowded terrace in July 2000.

In winter and spring 2000-01, the state of Ohio purchased 124 acres on Middle Bass Island, including undeveloped natural areas featuring wetlands, woodlands, glacial grooves and nearly a mile of Lake Erie shoreline. Also included was the shell of the Lonz Winery and the marina complex. Middle Bass Island became Ohio’s 74th state park in March 2001.

The opening of the renovated Lonz Winery is the latest update of the state park.