“Starting from Seed”

In 1860, Horace Greeley told his audience, “Never move to Minnesota…you can’t grow apples there!” This was the same Horace Greeley who was responsible for the grand command of the century, “Go West, Young Man!” For Minnesota, a pioneer land only two years into statehood, such a reputation was sure to be detrimental to efforts aimed at attracting westward-moving Easterners to settle here.

His apple statement was true at the time. But even as Greeley spoke, a fruit-loving Minnesotan was planting and evaluating apple trees started with seeds collected from northern sources, even some from Siberia.

No apple tree grown from seed is ever the same as the tree that spawned it. (Like people, every apple has two parents, and every offspring is unique. A father doesn’t have himself for a son, and brothers and sisters from the same parents have inherited similarities but are often very different from each other.) So it was hoped that a variety might emerge to prove Greeley wrong, something bigger and better than a puckery crab apple. A real apple that could be grown in Minnesota.

By 1868, Peter Gideon (pictured at right) had selected (and named, after his wife) the “Wealthy” apple from hundreds of thousands of seedlings he grew on his farm near Excelsior (eighteen miles north of Minnesota Harvest Orchard). It changed the outlook so that, by 1870, in an address to the Minnesota Horticultural Society, Col. John H. Stevens said, “True, we were under a cloud for a long time. We planted but did not harvest. Our trees withered and perished. Whether it was the frosts of Winter or the sun of Summer that caused them to prematurely die, no one has been able to determine. Plant as we would, the trees sickened and died. No wonder, then, we became discouraged. Orchards to the third and fourth planting failed, a constant drain on the pocket without a ray of light in the future, influenced us in abandoning the enterprise. But those days, and their trials, have passed.”

“Wealthy,” once selected, was reproduced by cuttings, not by seed. (This is called ‘cloning,’ whereby each tree is identical to the parent.) It became the first apple variety of commercial quality to be grown in Minnesota. It was acclaimed as Grand Champion at a number of state fairs around the country and eventually became one of the five most-produced apples in all of America.

The significance of Wealthy to Minnesota apple culture cannot be overstated. Its success fueled the drive for more Minnesota apples of superior quality, and others (specifically researchers at the University of Minnesota) continued the work Gideon had started. Over the years, dozens of varieties have been selected for their abilities to withstand frigid winters, sudden temperature changes, and hot, dry spells in summer. Thanks to these efforts, we in Minnesota have the pleasure of an impressive array – from tart to very sweet; small to very large; red, yellow, green, or orange; early to late season; for eating, baking, salads, desserts – a range and quality that matches any in the country!

Wealthy is still grown today, which is testimony to the leap in quality that Gideon had pursued. And though it is surpassed by many of the introductions that followed, the recent discovery (through DNA testing) that Wealthy is the heretofore unknown parent of Haralson re-connects us to Peter Gideon. There’s a time warp of about 90 years since Haralson was selected (1913), released (1924), and reigned as king of Minnesota apples before the discovery, which is information most of us would have thought irretrievable. Every time we bite a crisp Haralson or a sweet Honeygold, we’re enjoying progeny of Wealthy.

In the eulogy below, a bushel of apple seeds is mentioned. That doesn’t sound like such a huge amount, but it is. It’s in the neighborhood of one million seeds. The writer says all but one eventually failed. One seed. One in a million. That was Peter Gideon, and that is Wealthy.

GIDEON, Peter M.
November 10, 1899
Clinton Register

A famous Horticulturist Dead.

The death of Peter M. GIDEON, originator of the Wealthy apple, occurred on Friday morning, October 27, after an illness of several months. About the last four weeks he was confined to his bed upon which he died at the advanced age of eighty-one years. Mr. Gideon was one of the most remarkable men of the northwest. He was born in Champaign county, Ohio, on Feb. 9, 1818, and was one of the first abolitionists to be closely identified with that movement in Ohio and Illinois. He resided in Ohio until 1841 when he moved to Clinton, Ill., and in 1853 came to Lake Minnetonka, where he experimented in growing fruit trees by planting thirty varieties of apple trees, a collection of pear, plum and cherry trees, besides a bushel of apple and a peck of peach seeds. He kept this up, adding more annually for nine years. At the end of ten years the rigorous Minnesota winters had killed every tree except one seedling crab. The labor and money of all these years was lost to him, and many others who followed in his footsteps. At this time Mr. Gideon found himself with only eight dollars in his pocket, a large family, one cow and a few chickens with the long winter months ahead. However he did not give up in despair but sent the eight dollars to Bangor, Me., for seeds and scions, instead of clothing. For the latter he substituted two cast off vests, sewed them together, cut the legs off an old worn pair of trousers and sewed them on the vests, which did duty as a pair of sleeves. By reinforcing the old patches and adding a little here and there, he succeeded in building himself a winter suit that lasted six months. Yet that antiquated garment was the means of adding millions to the horticultural wealth in the cold northwest.

From the seeds and scions he grew the Duchess, cherry crabs and Blue Pearmain-from the surviving cherry crab came the Wealthy apple, which was named in honor of Mr. Gideon’s wife whose maiden name was Wealthy HULL. In crossing the common apple with the cherry crab he achieved marvelous results in producing hardy apple trees adapted to the cold northern climate. In 1878 when the state established an experimental fruit farm, he was made superintendent and continued in that capacity for several years.

From the Fruitman published at Mt. Vernon, Ia., we take the following:
Never was a greater or more valuable surprise sprung upon the homemakers of the Mississippi valley than the Wealthy apple. When Mr. Gideon announced it, the news seemed too good to be true, and fruit men were slow to believe its value. The producer says he named it in honor of his wife. He induced leading fruit men to test it, and when they gave judgment, its spread was rapid.

Suel FOSTER, of Muscatine, was one of the first of Iowa horticulturists to endorse and urge its general trial. It is perhaps not needed south of 41 where it becomes an early fall apple, but to all the lands above, as high as 46, it is a Godsend, whose worth no man can measure.

Secretary Philips of Wis., well says: “I never so realized the work Mr. Gideon has done for northwestern horticulture, as I did at the Omaha exposition, when I looked at the beautiful Wealthy apples from ten different states. In thirty years it has covered the continent, and the name of Wealthy and Gideon have become household words throughout the apple world.”
-Minnetonka (Minn.) News.

Submitted by Judy Simpson

GIDEON, Wealthy (HULL)
January 25, 1889

Mrs. Wealthy GIDEON, wife of Peter W. GIDEON, formerly of Clinton, died in Minneapolis, January 19, 1889, where she had gone for treatment of disease from which she had been suffering for a number of years. Mrs. Gideon’s maiden name was HULL, and she came from Madison county, Ohio, to this county with her father, Benjamin HULL, in the fall of 1847, she then being 17 years old. Perhaps many who read this will remember her as their young teacher, as she followed teaching county schools after coming to this county until she was married to Peter Gideon, in the winter of 1848. A few years after her marriage, and after she was the mother of three children, she moved with her family to Hennepin county, Minnesota, and settled on Lake Minnetonka, near Excelsior, where her body will repose, while we trust her spirit has returned to the God who gave it.

Submitted by Judy Simpson