Island Orchards – Roswell Pendergast

Roswell H Pendergast Minnesota Horticulturist
Roswell H. Pendergast – Minnesota Horticulturist
Offered by the Minnesota State Historical Society

Ventures forth Roswell H. Pendergast

By Robert J. Nelson 

To say that Roswell H. Pendergast was the first Bayfield Peninsula entrepreneur horticulturist may be an understatement.  Not only did the former land agent engage in the fruit tree propagation business at Michigan Island but also took on the grain and potato cultures as well. 

The Bayfield Press excerpts early on maintain that many locals may have planted early, mid-season and late apples in their own backyards and stored them in root shelters for personal use during the harsh winter months.  The bare root [apple, plum, peach] tree saplings in the mid- 1850’s to early 1870’s likely were transported to Bayfield from eastern distributors aboard steamer and schooner ships with names like the Lay Elgin, Algonquin or Mineral Rock

Then ventures forth Roswell H. Pendergast and his wife Helen, who, “during the years 1869 to 1874 served as head Keeper of the Lighthouse, at the 1857 opened Michigan Island Lighthouse. A native of the ‘granite state’ New Hampshire, the horticulturist to be came to the West in his early manhood, locating land for intending settlers in Minnesota. He finally became one of a company that selected and preempted the town of Hutchinson, Minnesota where he commenced to become receiver at the Henderson Land Office. That land office closed the following year and from there Pendergast removed to Michigan Island and his post as Keeper of the Light. He died at the age of 81 years.

During his working years he became much absorbed in nursery work and finally settled into the employ of John Hawkins, of the Duluth based Rosehill Nursery, making his home in this later phase of his life at Duluth, Minnesota.  Pendergast traveled the Iron Range of the Minnesota region in summer, presumably to sell product. When the Sioux uprising in Minnesota occurred, Pendergast, recently married to wife Helen, took the Lighthouse Keeper position at Michigan Island. Here Pendergast was paid an annual salary of $560.  He and Helen planted over 1000 trees and shrubs to determine which varieties would survive on the island.  The couple developed an extensive orchard, with an emphasis on apple trees, and in 1872 they sold more than $3,000.00 in nursery stock.  After five years as keeper, Pendergast resigned in 1874, and opened a nursery. Thereafter the rootstock propagated on the island likely was sold to Bayfielder’s and eventually the region.  Obituary excerpt from the Minnesota Horticulturalist offered by the Minnesota State Historical Society is my source. 

The following chronological order of Roswell H. Pendergast documentation represents a time period prior to Bayfield Ridge and Peninsula farming production eras. Introduced is the origin of orcharding practices in the Apostle Islands, to which application of growing practices later lead to present day industrial orchards in the Bayfield Peninsula. 

Anecdotes from the Bayfield Press, Hank O. Fifield Editor

October 27, 1870: Mr. Pendergast of Michigan Island Light, who is an old nurseryman, informs us that he is confident apple trees can be to bear thriftily here, and he has started a nursery on that island of several thousand trees, and intends to give it a thorough trial.   It is a mistaken idea that we are too far north to follow agricultural pursuits.  With a good soil, no frosts until late in October, our winters no longer and not as cold as those 160 miles south of us, we can safely count this one of the finest farming localities in the state.

November 5, 1870: Mr. R. H. Pendergast, the proprietor of a nursery on Michigan Island in Lake Superior, 15 miles east of Bayfield, is in town this week delivering and selling fruit trees and shrub trees to our citizens. Mr. P. started a nursery on the island about two years ago, and has been quite successful with the cultivation of the various kinds of fruit trees and shrub three. This time the people of this country are paying some attention to the raising of fruit. Apples, cherries, plums are grown every year at Bayfield, Ontonogon, and other places on this lake. There is no reason why they should not do so as well here. Superior Times article in the Bayfield Press.

May 20, 1871: The schooner Alice Craig left this port on Thursday for Michigan Island with an assorted cargo.  Her manifest consisted of several yoke of cattle, farming implements, and seed, for Mr. Pendergast, who proposes to till the soil and reap a rich harvest of the necessities of life, as well as raising apples, etc., in his promising nursery.  In a very few years the islands hereabouts will contain many rich producing farms as well as thrifty orchards.

September 2, 1871:  Mr. Pendergast of Michigan lighthouse showed us some oats a day or two since, that were raised by him on Michigan Island.  They are as fine a looking oats as one would wish to see, and he claims that his field will average with the specimen.  He says that his apple trees look splendid and those trees that bear are thrifty, the fruit being hardy and of the choicest kind. From an excerpt from Editor Leonard, of the Red Wing, Minnesota Argus; “through one of the outer channels in the blue distance eastward, was pointed out Michigan Island, and where on an enterprising horticulturist has established a nursery of fruit trees and shrubbery, and has, in their second season of healthy growth, young apple trees.”

September 16, 1871: This season Pendergast of Michigan Island raised 60 bushel of oats to the acre at that place. His fruit trees are looking well.

September 23, 1871:  Pendergast of Michigan Island presented us as a finest specimen of the “Early Rose” potato as we ever saw.  They were planted on June 15 and the largest one weighed nearly three pounds.  His corn and beans look splendid.  He showed us a bouquet of pansies – that was large, beautiful and fragrant

This history brief was written by Robert J. Nelson. Generously sharing our local history through his research and writing.