The pandemic has changed our relationship to food. Many of us are cooking more than ever. Some of us have even started vegetable gardens for the first time. This month on our Facebook page we’ll be celebrating those who have helped define Minnesota’s food culture, from the farm to the table. In today’s blog, we honor one horticulturist who helped shape our state’s love for our favorite humble, autumnal treat: the apple.
A 1910 apple harvest. Source: Minnesota Historical Society
Minnesota is known for its apples. So it may come as a shock that apples don’t grow naturally here. Indigenous people in the area we now call Minnesota did not grow apples. White colonizers could not grow apple trees out of the seeds they brought with them from the East Coast, because the winter here was too cold. Though it seems odd that a single fruit could play such an important role, this inability to grow apples was a surprisingly big problem for colonizers coming to the area. Apples were used widely across Northern states for eating and cider-making. But apples also played a major role as a sugar producer. In the early days of colonization, cane sugar was pricey, and sugar beets weren’t yet widely harvested. Apples were a common sweetener. In addition, settlers would boil apple peels to extract pectin, a thickener used to make preserved jams and jellies.
Horticulturist Peter Gideon produced the first reliable apple in Minnesota in the 1860s. Source: Minnesota Historical Society
In the late 1860s, a horticulturalist named Peter Gideon finally succeeded in reliably growing an apple here in Minnesota. His success came only after more than a decade of trial and error, thousands of dead trees, and near depletion of his savings. The recipe for his success lay in crossing an apple from Maine with a cold-friendly crabapple tree already known to survive in Minnesota.
The plump, juicy apple, which Gideon named the Wealthy apple (after his wife), was an instant hit. Ever the egalitarian, Gideon (who was also an abolitionist and supported women’s suffrage) shared his seedlings with anyone who wanted them. Soon his apples were growing across the state. Others tried their hand at breeding their own apples. By the 1870s, the state was abuzz with enthusiasm at turning frigid Minnesota into a fruit-producing land. In 1878, the Legislature established the Minnesota State Experimental Fruit Farm. On this plot of land near Lake Minnetonka, University-supported horticulturists worked to breed hardy apples for over a decade.
Packing up after a harvest at the University of Minnesota’s Fruit Breeding Farm in 1910. Source: Minnesota Historical Society
Though the Experimental Fruit Farm closed in 1889, the University of Minnesota went on to open the 80-acre Fruit Breeding Farm in Chanhassen. Here, U of M scientists created, tested, tweaked, and produced new apples that could withstand our climate and tasted great. Since the early 1900s, many new types of apples have come out of this project, including Haralson, Honeycrisp, Honeygold, and Zestar.
T.S. Weir, right, shows off a new U of M apple to other fruit growers in 1952. Source: Winona Daily News via Newspapers.com
One of these scientists who was instrumental to the development of new apples was Theodore S. Weir. Weir, a horticulturist who had been working at a research station in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, moved to the Twin Cities in 1939 to become assistant superintendent of the Fruit Breeding Farm.
T.S. Weir in 1949. Source: Star Tribune via Newspapers.com
Weir loved apples, and he seems to have taken any opportunity to increase public visibility for the fruit. That same year he was hired at the Fruit Breeding Farm, he also helped get new University of Minnesota-bred apples on display at the State Fair. He went on to help organize state and regional conferences for fruit growers.
But Weir didn’t just want the apples to be something bred by horticulturists and sold to consumers. Weir seems to have been especially interested in enabling people to grow their own apples at home. Throughout his career, he gave advice in Minnesota newspapers about how and when to prune apple trees. In 1945, he wrote and illustrated a short publication called “Pruning the Apple Tree,” and released it through the University of Minnesota. The guide was geared toward home fruit-growers, and showed readers how to train new trees and prune older trees.
In 1953, Weir put out another publication called “Grafting Fruit Trees.” This one took his DIY apple growing guide to the next level, with illustrations that showed readers how to trim the branches of a struggling apple or crabapple tree and attach healthy apple branches, using tools like garden shears, wax, tape, and string. The result would be a healthier, more bountiful fruit tree.
T. S. Weir’s 1953 publication “Grafting Fruit Trees,” which taught readers how to graft their own trees to produce more fruit.
Weir's love for the art of grafting was almost poetic; “[T]he hobbyist who grafts just for fun receives the kind of compensation that the painter or sculptor enjoys. He creates something new,” he wrote in the introduction to his how-to guide. His guide goes on to break down the process of grafting, with an explanation of the basics of grafting, a glossary of terms, and step-by-step instructions for multiple grafting methods. Weir even provides solace and explanations for why grafting sometimes fails, encouraging amateur fruit growers to keep trying.
Weir’s “Grafting Fruit Trees” taught simple methods of grafting. Source: University of Minnesota
Weir’s long career of research, experimentation, and publication of tips and tricks make it clear that he wanted everyone to be able to find the joy in growing and eating Minnesota apples. He held his position at the Fruit Breeding Farm until 1966, by which point he was in his late 70s. The following year, the farm—which had already expanded to 230 acres and was breeding multiple types of fruit—was merged with the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. The site remains an important part of the University’s fruit and horticultural testing.
T. S. Weir’s ashes were scattered at Lakewood’s lake after his death in 1971. So next time you’re walking around the lake at the Lakewood, eating a locally-grown apple, or picking an apple from your own tree, remember to think of Theodore S. Weir.
Peter Gideon, the horticulturist mentioned at the beginning of this blog post, is buried in Excelsior, Minnesota’s Oak Hill Cemetery.
Read more about food and horticultural history
Sweet Treats: Minnesota’s Candy Making Empires
Brewing and its Discontents: Prohibition in Minnesota
Food and Drink in World War I Minnesota
Lakewood’s Greenhouse: A Long and Verdant History