Photo by Brett Nachtigall/Fall River County Herald-Star
Members of the South Dakota Horticulture Society came to Hot Springs on Aug. 14 to see for the first time the highway marker which they worked to get placed recently. With the trees of Robertson Memorial Park visible in the background, where John Robertson (on right) is buried, the society members include, from left: Marie Harvey of Ree Heights, Dawn Rinehart of Highmore and Lori Jacobson of Fort Pierre.
John Stevenson Robertson was known as “The Fruit Wizard of the Northwest”
By Brett Nachtigall
HOT SPRINGS – For probably most area residents, the small grouping of trees located near the turnoff to Cottonwood Dam may not seem to be of much significance, as you see it out of the corner of your eye while traveling Hwy. 18 on your way to your destination.
But to three ladies who are active members of the South Dakota Horticulture Society, they know the location is very significant. And now thanks to their efforts to erect a historical highway marker near the site, more area residents will get to know of its significance as they learn about the man who is buried there and the important role he played in the state’s history.
John Stevenson Robertson lived in Fall River County for 45 of his 71 years of life, from 1892 to 1937. Often called “The Fruit Wizard of the Northwest,” he was pronounced “Eminent Farmer” by the South Dakota State College in 1928, awarded a gold medal by the South Dakota State Horticulture Society and also inducted into the state’s Agricultural Hall of Fame.
In his orchard located just west of Hot Springs, he nurtured more than 100 varieties of apples and many other fruits – including a variety of black raspberries which are now named after him.
The work he performed on his property in Fall River County played a significant role in the curriculum being taught at South Dakota State College (now SDSU), which in turn helped lay the foundation of many modern horticulture principles still being utilized throughout the country today.
On July 18, 1935, which was two years prior to this death, the State Horticulture Society dedicated a bronze memorial plaque which is set in a granite monument in his honor. This monument is located in the aforementioned grouping of trees known as Robertson Memorial Park at the intersection of Hwy. 18 and Memorial Road, which leads to Cottonwood Dam. The little park of 4.29 acres and is also where Robertson is buried, following his death in 1937.
In his will, Robertson, who did not have any children, set up a trust fund with the South Dakota Horticulture Society to financially back an effort to promote scientific research and education. From this fund, the Horticulture Society has for many years awarded an annual scholarship.
But a couple years ago, when some members of the society – led by members Dawn Rinehart, Lori Jacobson, and Marie Harvey – inquired about how they could utilize the funds he had left to promote his legacy, it was discovered that many Fall River area residents were unaware of his life and his contributions to modern agriculture. It was then suggested by a local employee of the State Highway Department to erect a historical marker along the highway to bring attention to the site.
“The trust fund specified agricultural research and education,” Rinehart said. “If the people that live there now, have no idea who John Robertson was and what he did, and if they could stop and read the information about him, would that be educational?”
“With the marker, we could teach others about this horticulture pioneer, and they would ask questions about him. Even if the horticulture society does not continue further, we would ensure he will not be forgotten.”
According to published reports in the Hot Springs Star by Helen Magee and elsewhere, Robertson was born on June 13, 1866, near Cleveland, Ohio. At the age of 3, his family moved to Fremont, Neb., where he spent his early years as the eldest of 14 children.
At 22 years of age, he struck out for the Black Hills and came to Fall River County in 1889 where he worked on the railroad being built in Edgemont. In 1892, he filed a claim on 150 acres at the age of 26 and began making his living by chopping down pine trees and cutting them into wood to sell.
He planted his first apple trees in the spring of 1896. These trees were shipped from Iowa and consisted of six trees of five varieties – Yellow Transparent, Duchess, Ben Davis, Whitney Crab and Longfield. The entire lot, including shipping, cost him a whole $1.30.
Robertson set out the first trees 30 feet apart but the latter ones were set out at 40 feet apart, as he learned the roots spread as far underneath the ground as the branches spread above the ground, due to the need for obtaining moisture in the semiarid climate of the Southern Black Hills. He later planted many plum trees, cherry trees, pears and many more varieties of apples, currant bushes, gooseberries, raspberries, grapes and lots of flowers.
He not only encouraged fruit raising, he taught people how to do it. He did experimental work in conjunction with the State Agricultural College in Brookings. Through this process, Robertson developed a profound knowledge of what kinds of plants could be adapted to this area, and by actual trial, he came to have the conservation of moisture down to a science.
According to a June 5, 1931, newspaper article in The Evening Huronite about the need for developing winter apple crops, several thousand flowers of the best apples in Robertson’s orchard near Hot Springs were hybridized by staffers at South Dakota State College for the purpose of developing new fruit varieties.
“Here, at an elevation of 4,200 feet is found the largest and finest collections of standard old and new apples in South Dakota,” the article stated.
People from all across the region would seek out Robertson’s knowledge about fruit trees, which brought him and the area many accolades.
It was once stated about him, that, “A man who could cause thrifty, bearing fruit trees to grow in shale and lime rock among pine trees and could furnish farmers and city dwellers with surefire fruit bearing trees and bushes, must have been the greatest of them all.”
Robertson lived on his fruit farm until the fall of 1936, when he fell and was injured. He spent the winter in Hot Springs, returning to his farm in the spring. But due to his failing health at that time, he was eventually moved to the Sister’s Hospital in Hot Springs, where he remained until his death in July 1937. He had earlier expressed a wish to be buried in the little park established for him, and on August 1, 1937, his wish was granted.
His former orchard is now owned by Clyde Johnson, who purchased that near 150-acre tract in 1996 and another nearby 180 acres the year prior in 1995. The orchard is located four miles north of the historical marker on Memorial Road, and while most of Robertson’s trees and plants have long since disappeared, some do still remain today.
Johnson said there are two to three apple trees which are likely 100 years old but are still hanging on, with a few green leaves. There are however several second and third generation apple trees on the property, which are not good for any commercial use but do produce fruit which he and some of his friends do enjoy. He said there are also a few other fruit trees on the property, including pears and plums, as well as some very old rose bushes and lilacs. The log cabin where Robertson lived is also still located on the property.