Felix Gillet’s Background
In the history of Fruit and Nut Growing in California and the Pacific Northwest, Felix Gillet holds an honorable and unique place. He is recognized by many as the father of most of the perennial crop agriculture in California and the Western U.S.
Gillet, born in Rocheford, France in 1835, was a sailor who made at least 7 trans Atlantic voyages and then immigrated to Boston, MA in 1852. He arrived in San Jose, California in 1858, and settled in Nevada City, CA in 1859. Initially the owner of a barber shop, he took a year sabbatical about 1862 and learned more of the nursery trade in his homeland. He came back to Nevada City, became a nurseryman and established his “Barren Hill Nursery” in 1866, one of the first fruit and nut nurseries on the west coast of the United States. He began selecting and importing hundreds of fruit, nut and grape varieties initially from France and eventually from more than 30 nations, including: Armenia, Canada, China, Denmark, Eastern United States, England, Greece, Holland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Korea, Mexico, Persia, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden and more. Dedicated to quality, he trialed all of the varieties on the poor soil and harsh climate of Barren Hill Nursery before offering them in his catalogs. He ran the nursery until his death in 1908, publishing detailed annual catalogs featuring hundreds of varieties, many of which formed the foundation the most important agricultural industries of the West.
Today Felix Gillet is recognized as the the most important California nurseryman of his generation. His introductions provided the primary varieties for the almond, walnut, hazelnut (filbert), chestnut, prune, cherry, pear, apricot, wine and table grape, fig, rose and strawberry industries of the West. In addition he grew and provided virtually every common temperate climate perennial edible species including peaches, nectarines, apples, raspberries, blackberries, pecans, mulberries, asparagus, artichoke, citrus, olives, gooseberries, currants and more. He also propagated numerous species of perennial ornamental and forest trees. The famed horticultural beauty of Nevada City and Grass Valley is in good part a testament to the decades of Gillet’s efforts. Gillet provided many thousand of plants to gardeners, homesteaders and farmers throughout the United States, and shipped plants as far as Russia!
Charles E. Parsons bought the nursery from Gillet’s widow after Gillet died in 1908, renaming it the Felix Gillet Nursery, and introduced seedling and grafted chestnuts from the original ‘Colossal’ tree, which now stands at 70 feet tall with a trunk circumference of 14 feet. When Parson’s son retired in 1968, it was the oldest continuously operating nursery in California. Gillet imported and bred hundreds of varieties of plants that are commonly grown in agriculture and horticulture to this day. Many of his original introductions are still thriving in foothill towns, mining camps and homesteads throughout California, where we discover them today. Gillet wrote extensively on the cultivation of a wide variety of crops, and was considered an authority on many crops during his lifetime of work. Although he provided important plant materials and much knowledge to growers all over the world, he is not well known today, something our Felix Gillet Institute is endeavoring to correct.
An important pioneer grower and breeder, Gillet was interested primarily in deciduous fruit and nut trees. He personally brought many perennials never before seen to California and was pivotal in the founding of the State’s agricultural industry. Gillet is also credited with providing the nursery stock that established the hazelnut, walnut, prune and wine grape industries in the Northwest. He introduced hard-shelled walnuts from his native France to Northern California, where the softer shelled varieties proved too delicate for the colder winters, thus establishing the California and Oregon walnut industry. He provided the plant material that established these industries in California and the Pacific Northwest: Almonds, Walnuts, Filberts, Chestnuts, Cherries, Apples, Pears, Prunes, Wine Grapes, Table Grapes, Raspberries, Strawberries and others. His stock was initially introduced from French sources, which he imported by the thousands, propagating them at his nursery in Nevada City for sale to the infant ag industries of the West. Eventually he introduced plants from more than 30 countries. In addition to 70 other strawberry varieties he grew Bonne Bouche strawberries that measured from 4 to 6 inches in diameter, and provided many varieties to Albert Etter of Humboldt County, who bred them with the native California beach strawberry and a Chilean strawberry species, thus creating the basis for the entire West Coast strawberry industry. The FGI has documented many important plant introductions from Gillet’s work including the “French” prune, the “Bing” Cherry, the “Thompson” seedless grape, and Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Syrah, Petite Syrah, Merlot and most of the European wine grape varieties.
Along with his many agriculture accomplishments, Gillet was a two term City Councilman of Nevada City, is responsible for creating Nevada City’s first water system, moved the City Hall to it’s present location, was a prime mover in the Workingman’s Party, a founder and member of the board of what is now the State of California Department of Food and Agriculture, and a prolific author whose work appeared in numerous agricultural publications of the day.
More information on Gillet’s legacy can be found at Wikipedia.
This article was researched and written by David Kupfer and Amigo Bob Cantisano
Major Contributor Paul Harrar
Felix Gillet (born March 25, 1835, Rochefort, Charente-Maritime, France; died January 27, 1908, Nevada City, California, United States) was a California pioneer nurseryman, horticulturist, sericulturist, and writer who made several important introductions of superior European deciduous fruit and nut trees to California and the northwestern United States. Beginning in 1869, on his Barren Hill Nursery in Nevada City, Gillet cultivated his own imported scion wood and home-grown nursery stock, experimented with grafting and hybridizing, and continually wrote articles on horticulture and his plant selections, while remaining active in Nevada City civic affairs. Publishing his own nursery catalog for 37 years and advertising widely, he sold his walnuts, filberts (hazelnuts), chestnuts, prunes, figs, strawberries, grapes, peaches, cherries, citrus and dozens of other fruit and nut varieties throughout California and the Pacific Northwest. The commercial walnut variety “Felix Gillet” was named in his honor.
1 Early Life and Career
2 Reputation and Rivals
3 Civic and Later Life
5 Additional Resources
7 External links
Early Life and Career
Little is known of Gillet’s early life in France and before he settled in Nevada City around 1859. Published the day after Gillet died, a Grass Valley Morning Union newspaper article stated he was born in Roucheford [sic] — probably Rochefort — a port town in southwestern France several miles up the Charente River from the Atlantic Ocean. He had three sisters. At age 16, in 1851, he reputedly spent time at a naval school in Rochefort and made several trans-Atlantic crossings working in the shipping industry. By 1852, he was in Boston, where he learned the barber trade. He possibly was a houseguest of prominent Bostonians Samuel Gridley Howe and Julia Ward Howe, who hosted visits by some European immigrants seeking a new life in America. In 1858, Gillet was a barber San Jose, California, where French orchardists were establishing large fruit and nut farms. In February 1859, at age 24, he moved to the prosperous gold mining town of Nevada (City) in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
Gillet opened a barbershop on Commercial Street, just below Pine Street, in downtown Nevada City. He also sold French finery such as pens, stationary, toys and novelties. He would operate the shop until 1882. Soon after arriving in Nevada City, Gillet became acquainted with an important influence, Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Ducray, who with his younger brother Jean Claude had mined gold and farmed in Nevada City since 1850. As young men, the Ducray brothers had quickly made money in mining interests, and then established large, mostly self-sufficient French-style farms at the edge of Nevada City. Gillet admired Jean-Baptiste Ducray’s idyllic 35-acre farm of fruit and nut trees, grape vines, beehives and roses, which had been reclaimed from land mine-stripped to bedrock. To investigate the nursery trade and French horticulture, Gillet returned to France for 10 months in 1864, then returned to Nevada City. In February 1865, he reopened his shop. He became a naturalized United State citizen in 1866. From 1866 until 1880, Gillet also filed eight gold mining claims. There is no record of what he did with them.
In either the fall of 1869 or August 1870, Gillet purchased with $250 in gold coin 16 acres of land just outside town and started establishing a farm and plant nursery. Like his friends the Ducrays, Gillet’s land was mostly granite bedrock recently surfaced-mined, timbered and left barren. While friends cast doubt on his success as a nurseryman, Gillet built a house and established his Barren Hill Nursery while continuing to run the barbershop. Gillet then spent $3,000 ($49,180 in 2011, adjusting for inflation) on a large order of walnut, filbert, chestnut, mulberry, prune, and fig trees from France. He risked his personal wealth that his imported scion wood and nursery stock would arrive alive, and would not fail to grow in Nevada County. It’s not known how the live plants were shipped, but the recent completion of the transcontinental railroad would have significantly shortened the transportation time, if Gillet had his plants shipped from Europe to the East Coast, then freighted by rail to California.
In the spring of 1871, after he spent a year-and-a-half growing and propagating his imported fruit and nut trees, and carefully observing the climate and topographic conditions that produced the best results in his nursery and elsewhere, Gillet began selling nursery stock. His catalog included his first important introductions to California agriculture — soft-shelled Franquette, Mayette and other walnuts from France. These cultivars were unknown in California and Gillet’s stock became widely planted and thrived. Open-pollinated seedlings of these early introductions would later produce superior cultivars still grown today. Gillet also imported, propagated and hybridized many other fruit and nut trees, grapes, berries and ornamentals. Paying (or possibly trading) for advertising space to promote his plant stock, he became a regular horticultural writer in regional newspapers and became knowledgeable about still-pioneering horticultural efforts throughout California and the Pacific Northwest. From at least the late 1860s, he also persistently championed domestic sericulture and promoted planting mulberry trees as hosts for silkworms, despite little evidence it was economically viable in the United States. In 1870, Gillet promoted the silky floss of common milkweed as a textile fiber.
Gillet’s advertisements and writings in horticultural journals, such as the popular weekly Pacific Rural Press (published in San Francisco), established his reputation for offering superior French varieties of fruit and nut trees. Besides importing stock, Gillet made selections of superior offspring he grew in his nursery. He experimented with grafting varieties of fruits to hardy wild specimens, and specialized in introducing varieties that thrived in poor soil conditions, which ensured that his introductions would succeed in many different western locations. In the mid-1870s, Gillet’s work with strawberries resulted in his introduction of new varieties and his publication in 1876 of an authoritative 32-page booklet on fragriculture. A January 1877 edition of the California Farmer and Journal of Useful Sciences stated Gillet sold 48 varieties of strawberries.
Gillet’s next notable plant introduction to California (in 1883) was a free stone dessert prune from the Clairac region of France, which he called “Clairac Mammoth” (a.k.a. “Imperial Epineuse”). At a time when most California fruit was consumed fresh, dried and canned dessert prunes were a popular, expensive import from France. California prune growers as early as 1854 had attempted to cut into this lucrative market by importing and growing French prune trees, but struggled to copy French drying methods. Gillet competed with John Rock, another well-known nurseryman in Niles (Fremont), to market hardier prune trees that produced very large fruit. Gillet introduced his Clairac prune trees two years before Rock. Both men crossed or grafted the French prunes with wild California plums to produce a variety that was more drought-tolerant and hardier in upland orchards, than in lowlands such as the Santa Clara Valley, then the prune growing center of California.
Gillet’s last and most enduring plant introduction was in 1885, when he sold a large quantity of filbert (hazel nut) stock to orchardists in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Although filberts had been grown in Oregon since the 1850s, Gillet’s imported “Barcelona” and “DuChilly” varieties proved to be superior. The “Barcelona” variety remains the most widely planted in Oregon, which today produces 98 percent of the filbert crop in the United States. Ironically, filberts do not grow well in the Sierra foothills, where Gillet propagated them.
Reputation and Rivals
In 1881, Gillet became a member of the Nurserymen’s Committee of the first California Fruit Growers’ Convention. Gillet and fellow pioneer nurseryman W.B. West of Stockton were members of the first California Horticultural Commission, a forerunner of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. After just a decade of importing, cultivating, experimenting, selling and prolifically writing about fruits, nuts and berries, Gillet was a respected figure in California horticulture and regarded as an unsurpassed expert in French varieties of fruits and nuts. Gillet’s reputation also was created, in part, by tireless self-promotion. In a Feb. 9. 1884 advertisement in Pacific Rural Press, Gillet touted his nursery as “the finest nut-bearing tree nursery in the U.S.” His catalog at that time offered 17 varieties of walnut, including eight grafted from European varieties; seven varieties of chestnuts, six varieties of filberts, seven varieties of prunes, 55 varieties of English gooseberries, and 107 varieties of grapes. These numbers would increase; at one point, the nursery offered 241 types of grapes, including several varieties previously unknown in California.
Gillet’s regional renown, however, would be eclipsed by Luther Burbank, whose 1893 descriptive catalog “New Creations in Fruits and Flowers” stunned the horticultural world with the introduction of many previously unknown fruit, vegetable and flower hybrids. The catalog made Burbank internationally famous. It is not known if Burbank and Gillet corresponded, or met, but they undoubtedly were aware of each other and were commercial competitors. The 1897-98 biennial report of the California State Board of Horticulture comparatively evaluated Gillet’s “Clairac Mammoth”/”Imperial Epineuse” prune with Burbank’s “Sugar.” In a paper presented at the 1904 Northwest Fruit Growers’ Association, Gillet acknowledged Burbank’s “Sugar” prune variety, but noted that his imported French trees produced a superior dessert prune and sent the delegation samples for taste comparison.
Another Gillet rival was John Rock (born Johann Fels), whose large, Fremont-based California Nursery Company (established in 1865) introduced French prune scion wood in 1886 and claimed to sell the best varieties for dessert prunes. Gillet had made the same claim since 1883. For several years, Gillet’s advertisements denounced unnamed rivals, whom he said fraudulently claimed his nursery stock as their own. Of the German-born nurseryman, Luther Burbank said, “John Rock is the most learned man in his profession to be found in California.”
Civic and Later Life
Besides tending his nursery and gardens, Gillet experimented with wine making, did book binding and wrote essays and columns about horticulture, astronomy, navigation, and California Indians. He closed his barbershop in 1882 to devote his full energy to his nursery. Possibly due to his admiration of abolitionists Samuel and Julia Ward Howe, Gillet was among the few whites who, in the Reconstruction Era, publicly supported equal rights for Nevada County’s few African-Americans — some of whom were former slaves. Gillet’s racial tolerance, however, did not extend to the Chinese, whose businesses in Nevada City were adjacent to his own. Gillet was one local leader of the Workingmen’s Party of California, a nativist labor organization whose agitation against Chinese immigrant workers on the Central Pacific Railroad led to the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In April 1881, Nevada City passed an ordinance that “all Chinese shall be removed from the Nevada City within 60 days.” From 1878 to 1881, Gillet was twice elected to the Nevada City Town Trustees. He helped make the city government more effective and progressive and reportedly never missed a session. He was a trustee during construction of a new city hall.
In 1890, Gillet’s close friends, Jean-Baptiste and Julia Catherine Ducray both died, leaving their large orchard estate to their niece and adopted daughter Theresa Julia Brenoel (b. 1868 in Crawford County, Pennsylvania; d. Feb. 8, 1913). Gillet, 56, and Brenoel, 23, were married in 1891. The couple had no children. In 1895, Gillet was an influential voice in the creation of Nevada City’s municipal water plant. In 1904-05 he was a contributing member of the American Pomological Society. After months of poor health, Gillet died from several ailments in 1908 at age 72. He was buried in the Pioneer Cemetery in Nevada City.
Upon Felix Gillet’s death, his wife continued to operate the nursery. She hired George Dulac as head nurseryman. They were married in 1909. In 1913, following the former Mrs. Gillet’s death, the nursery was sold to Charles E. Parsons, who renamed it Felix Gillet Nursery. For another 55 years, Parsons continued to sell Gillet’s nursery stock, publish a nursery catalog, and write about Gillet’s pioneering horticultural work. Parsons also made new introductions of fruit and nut varieties from stock originally cultivated by Gillet. One important introduction by Parsons was the “Colossal” variety of chestnut, which had originated in another variety cultivated by Gillet. In 1968, the business was thought to be the oldest continuously operating nursery in California and the second-oldest west of the Rocky Mountains. Following Parsons’ death in 1969, the nursery era ended and the property became a private residence. The former nursery property was later subdivided for construction of several houses. Gillet’s farmhouse and some of his fruit and nut trees remain in the Aristocracy Hill neighborhood. The site still attracts admiring horticulturalists from universities in California, Oregon and Washington.
In 1933, a plaque honoring Gillet was placed by Nevada City residents on a stone pillar at the entrance to the former nursery. In 1994, the University of California Walnut Breeding Program introduced, and later patented, three new walnut varieties, the most vigorous-growing of which was named “Felix Gillet.” On Jan. 27, 2008, Nevada City marked the centennial of Gillet’s death by proclaiming Felix Gillet Day.
• Gillet, Felix; “Fragriculture; or the Culture of the Strawberry/A Practical Treatise on the Culture, Propagation, Management and Marketing of Strawberries” (Spaulding & Barto Printers, San Francisco, 1876). The illustrated book is in the Library on Congress, the Biodiversity Heritage Library and other libraries.
• A collection of nursery and seed catalogs published by the Felix Gillet Nursery from 1884-1962 is part of the Ethel Z. Bailey Horticultural Catalogue Collection, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University.
• United States Department of Agriculture/National Clonal Germplasm Repository (Corvallis, Oregon)
Resources and References
^ Grass Valley Morning Union, Jan. 28, 1908, p. 5
^ “Felix Gillet” by C. E. Parsons, Nevada County Historical Society Bulletin, Vol. 16, No. 4, Nov. 1962
^ arrival book, Nevada County Court records
^ Mining Register, Nevada County
^ Nevada County Deeds, Book 37, p. 34
^ The Walnut Germplasm Collection of the University of California, Davis; “A Description of the Collection and a History of the Breeding Program,” Eugene F. Serr and Harold I. Forde, et. al., Report No. 13, July 1994
^ “The California Fruits and How To Grow Them,” Pacific Rural Press, 1919, 8th edition, by Edward James Wickson, Professor of Horticulture Emeritus, College of Agriculture, University of California
^ “Historical Notes on Hazelnuts in Oregon,” K. E. Hummer, International Society for Horticulture Science]
^ Schaeffle, K. H. (Oct. 12, 1889). Pacific Rural Press 38 (15).
^ “Nevada County’s Black Pioneers” by Pat Jones; Nevada County Historical Society Bulletin, Vol. 39, No. 3, July 1985]
^ “The Nevada City Chinese Quarter, 1860-1900” by Wallace Hagaman, Nevada County Historical Society Bulletin, Vol. 62, No. 4, Oct. 2008
^ Wickson, p. 447
^ “Nevada City Celebrates ‘World Renowned’ Horticulturist,” by Laura Brown, Grass Valley Union, Jan. 29, 2008
^ U.S. Patent Application 20060031972