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Entries about Minnesota history from MNopedia are made available through a partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society and with funding from the Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

Minnesota's first successful apple: the Wealthy Apple

Peter M Gideon
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Peter M Gideon

The Wealthy apple was the earliest apple to thrive in the Minnesota climate. Horticulturalist Peter Gideon grew it first in 1868, after years of trial and error with various apple varieties.

Before 1868, only crab apples grew reliably in Minnesota. American Indians in the area harvested other crops, but they did not grow apples. Early white settlers to Minnesota tried to grow apples using seeds and seedlings from their former homes to the east and the south, but their plants died, usually because of the region's harsh winters.

In 1853, Peter Gideon moved to Minnesota for health reasons and took a homestead with his family on the shores of Lake Minnetonka, near Excelsior. He had learned fruit growing as a child, and when he arrived on his new land, he planted a bushel of apple seeds he had brought with him from his former home in Illinois. In the years that followed, Gideon experimented with apple and fruit growing, planting thousands of trees. But most of his trees died within a few years, if not right away, and none of them bore much fruit.

By 1861, Gideon and his family had only one surviving apple tree, a Siberian crab apple, and they were down to their last eight dollars. Determined to find an apple that would grow in Minnesota, Gideon sent the family's last dollars to an apple grower in Bangor, Maine, and got a bushel of apple seeds in return. Just one of these seeds, crossed with Gideon's Siberian crab apple, produced the apple that Gideon later named the Wealthy, after his wife, Wealthy (Hull) Gideon.

Year after year, Gideon's Wealthy apple trees yielded large, tasty apples for eating. He was a member of the Minnesota State Horticultural Society, and he shared his knowledge and his trees freely, giving seedlings away to anyone who asked for them. Soon, Wealthy apples were growing in many locations in Minnesota, as well as in other states, especially states in the Upper Midwest with similar climates. By the early twentieth century, the Wealthy apple was one of the top five apples grown nationally.

Wealthy apple
CC/Flickr/degeerelle
The Wealthy Apple

In March 1878, Minnesota established a State Experimental Fruit Farm by act of the Legislature. The state farm was located near Gideon's land on Lake Minnetonka, and Gideon was appointed to head it, under the jurisdiction of the University of Minnesota.

Gideon ran the State Experimental Fruit Farm for eleven years, planting many thousands of apple trees and distributing his best seeds across the state. When the farm closed in February 1889 due to conflicts with the University, Gideon lost his job.

Beyond his employment at the state farm, Gideon never made any money from the Wealthy apple. However, his apple made commercial fruit growing possible in Minnesota, and it was the most profitable apple in the Northwest for decades, contributing to the livelihood of many other people. The Wealthy apple also was the parent of other successful Minnesota apples, such as the Haralson, which was developed at the University of Minnesota's Fruit Breeding Farm in 1922.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.


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Comments (4)

Wealthy Apple

You don't see them in stores, where can you buy them?

Wealthy Apple

Wealthy apples are no longer commonly grown, but Haralson apples, which are a descendant of the Wealthy, are generally available.

John S Harris grew apples earlier?

Molly, this historical account may be correct, but the La Crescent (Minnesota) Area Historical Society has always maintained that John S. Harris, a La Crescent settler, was the first to grow apples successfully in Minnesota, in 1857. He may have only grown crabapples, I don't know.
Harris was also instrumental in the Minnesota fruit growers group which met at Rochester, and later became the MInnesota Horticultural Society. I believe the horticultural society documented this in their 125th anniversary issue of their magazine.

Because La Crescent bills itself as the "Apple Capitol of Minnesota" the historical society has done a fair amount of work on this topic, and may be apple (able!) to provide good detail.

By the way, the Wealthy apple is still readily available in the La Crescent area at local applestands. It is still my spouse's favorite pie apple, and we have enjoyed several "Wealthy" pies this fall.

When I was growing up in

When I was growing up in extreme NW Iowa we had Wealthy apples on the place along with Dutchess of Oldenburg, Whitney crabs, and Wolf River apples, also pie cherries and quite a number of plum trees. All inherited from the original developers of the farm.

Those folks needed the same sort of hardiness much of Minnesota does and they searched out their trees both fruits and grove trees pretty carefully. They relied heavily on state university and research facilities for advice along those lines. That was back in the days when County Extension services had to be relied on to facilitate farming in what was a new area.

That and the various state Fruit Breeding facilities are a very good example of public funds and effort dramatically improving American agriculture, in fact being pretty much essential to it in this area. The University of Minnesota's Fruit Breeding Farm has an excellent reputation for successful upper Midwest home and commercial varieties as does the Landscape Arboretum for ornamentals, especially woody ones. In both cases this area was pretty barren compared to farther south and east.