William Knight – 1843 – 1941
By Granddaughter Eleanor Knight (1913-1994)
In 1890 Bayfield received by freight 4,067 bushels of potatoes and 723 tons of hay. The Bayfield County Press commented: “The items of potatoes and hay received show a condition of affairs that ought not to continue. The vast acres of pine which are annually being cleared off leave acres of stump land which can be bought for a mere song. On these lands ought to be raising all the potatoes, hay, and vegetables this community needs, with plenty to spare. Instead of importing such a large amount of produce, we ought to be exporting a much larger amount. What this country needs are more farmers.”
Whether this item had any effect on my grandfather, I do not know, but he soon began to grow potatoes. The idea of growing them commercially evidently took hold, for Bayfield history readers may remember that in 1897, John Bjorge got tired of wheeling his potatoes to town in a wheelbarrow and built an airplane to fly them in.
Potatoes were only the beginning. William Knight looked at the acres of stump land and thought, “Where these trees grew and were harvested only once, why not plant trees that will yield a harvest every year?”
He assembled men, horses and dynamite and began to work on the stumps. As fast as the land was cleared, he planted fruit trees. This was all an experiment, because up to this time no one thought fruit could be raised commercially here. Members of the State Historical Society did not believe it possible to raise fruit commercially so far north and had to be shown. There was plenty of evidence that fruit trees would grow here. There were cherry trees on Madeline Island believe to have been planted by the Jesuits in the 18th century. In 1871, Mr. Roswell E. Pendergast, lighthouse keeper on Michigan Island, had a nursery there and experimented with many types of crops and trees.
Acting with faith on these bits of evidence he saw about him, William Knight planted his first trees in 1905, 20 acres in cherries and 20 acres in apples. The next year he planted 45 acres in apples and cherries. The Press reported on May 18, 1906, “William Knight is busy setting out 2,000 fruit trees this week. Mr. Knight has the land, the means and the disposition to make an orchard and he’s going to do it.” He did plant orchards so thoroughly that some are still bearing fruit.
By 1909 interest in horticulture was thriving here. January 15, 1909, the Press reported: “William Knight, Nathaniel C. Carver and Carl Vollenweider attended the State Horticultural meeting in Madison, Mr. Knight going as a special delegate from the local branch of this society, which is the largest in the state, having more than 100 members.”
Believing that Bayfield’s future in agriculture was great and that marketing was one of the first problems to solve, William Knight became an incorporator of the Bayfield Fruit Association in 1910. Carl Vollenweider of Bayfield and John Bissell of LaPointe were the other two. In 1912, this Association merged with the Bayfield Fruit Shippers Association and became the Bayfield Peninsula Fruit Association. This Association flourished and marketed fruit for farmers for over 30 years, became a Co-op in early 1940s, and was liquidated in 1953.
Just as he had been intensely interested in logging and banking, William Knight now switched his attention to agriculture and conducted experiments with all types of plants. I remember his blueberry project and only the other day one told me about the celery experiment. There were numerous other things tried and forgotten, but for his efforts in this field he was honored by the State Historical Society and was made an honorary member for outstanding work in the state.
In those pioneer days each household tried to put away a barrel or two of apples for winter. The market for them right in Bayfield was good. Nov. 8, 1884, the Press reported: “winter apples are rolling into town at a lively rate. Last week there was received by boat upward of 200 barrels and as many more are expected. Twenty-two years later, boats were still bringing in apples. In 1906, “The steamer Eber Ward will be at the Dormer-Boutin company dock about next Monday with a carload of the finest apples at the lowest prices. When you hear her whistle, go down with your money.”
In 1910 with the orchards planted and thriving, William Knight decided to run for State Assembly. Nathan E. Carver wrote the following letter to the Bayfield Progress urging everyone to vote for William Knight saying, “He has always been a man of action, of deeds and few words. He is not a man always going to do something and talking of what he is going to do…When chairman of the town board he built the city waterworks…When he announced today that he was going to do something tomorrow, you would see the work in progress. When the people were mourning that they had no bank in Bayfield, he announced one day that he would start one. In 30 days, the bank was running. During the strenuous times of the ‘93 panic, not a man asked for money at his bank that did not get it forthwith, not being put off; no 30- or 60-days’ notice at his bank. No one knew he was going to build a sawmill until the machinery was on the ground and men at work on the building. No one knew he was to develop a farm and plant commercial fruit orchards until he was clearing land for that purpose. He has been an employer of men in this town for 40 years and never had a strike and all men were paid in full, and I hear more good things said of him from the laboring men than from any other class of people.”
That was natural. William Knight had been a laboring man. If he had not taken any job that came along and worked at it, he would have starved in the early days, and never lived to do anything. As the years went on, William Knight continued his farming and civic activities with vigor. His civic duties extended from chairman of the executive committee to keep cows off the streets, through the vice presidency of the first Commercial Club organized in 1906, various city and county offices and the state legislature. Tales of Bayfield Pioneers; a History of Bayfield, Eleanor Knight, Published August 2008
This history brief was written by Robert J. Nelson. Generously sharing our local history through his research and writing.