Peter Gideon, the creator of Minnesota’s first cold-hardy apple, was so much a hidden gem of Lake Minnetonka’s history that when the Gideon home was sold in the 1960s, the buyer was entirely unfamiliar with the home’s history, said researcher Sharon Dana.
Excelsior’s Apple Day festival, the Haralson and Honeygold apples, and an uptick in immigration to Minnesota back in the day have all been byproducts of the apple’s invention.
Apples were pioneers’ most important fruit, Dana said. They were long-lasting and multi-purpose. But, at the time the state was being homesteaded, they couldn’t survive Minnesota’s winters.
“This was sort of a public relations problem for Minnesota, because territories were trying to get people there to settle there,” she said. “And people were not considering moving to Minnesota because apples wouldn’t grow there.”
Gideon’s work changed that.
The native of Ohio started his fruit-growing career at a prescient age. At 5, Gideon would tell, he planted peach seeds.
“And the story goes that by the time he was 9, he was eating peaches from one of those peach pits he had planted,” Dana said. “He thought it was thrilling.”
After time in Illinois, Gideon moved to Minnesota for health reasons in 1853. When he settled on the shores of Lake Minnetonka near Excelsior, he started an eight-year long process of purchasing apple tree seedlings and experimenting without success. Finally, after spending his last $8 on apple seeds from Maine, the Wealthy apple was created. The apple was named after his wife, Wealthy Hull. It debuted at the Minnesota State Fair in 1868, soon spreading across the Midwest (then the “Northwest”), Canada, New England, and across the ocean into Europe.
It also caught the eye of the state of Minnesota.
In 1878, the state Legislature passed a law authorizing the University of Minnesota to purchase land adjacent to Gideon’s property and establish an experimental fruit farm. The governor appointed Gideon director of the farm, with a salary of $1,000 a year to continue his work on fruit experiments.
Gideon held views that were unconventional and largely unpopular at the time. He believed slavery should be abolished, supported the women’s suffrage movement and was protective of Native Americans.
“He was a very intelligent, well-read man who was ahead of his time,” Dana said. “The 1800s was a time of a lot of reform movements and Gideon supported many of them.”
Gideon was also assertive in what he believed. His tendency to voice his opinions in long-winded speeches and articles, combined with a boycott of the Minnesota State Fair for its introduction of horse racing, incited disdain for the fruit grower.
The agricultural department at the University of Minnesota distanced itself from Gideon, Dana said.
“If you look at University archives, there’s very little mention made of Gideon and very little credit given to him,” she said.
Many forgot about the man who helped improve Minnesota’s image and economy with one apple. And when the Gideon house was purchased decades later, the buyer was surprised to uncover a monument honoring Gideon on the grounds.
“So, apparently, neither the buyer or the real estate agent knew anything about Gideon or his connection to the property,” she said.
Gideon Bay on Lake Minnetonka is named after the apple grower; his grave is in Excelsior’s Oak Hill Cemetery.
“He should be a reason Excelsior is on the map,” Dana said. “What was so extraordinary about him was his determination and perseverance. He lived most of his life in poverty, yet his accomplishments changed the course of horticultural and local history.”