The Queen of Orchardists: Laura Alderman

320px-Apple_Blossom_-_Michigan

Fruit growing in Dakota Territory was a risky prospect early in the history of Euro-American settlement on the plains.  Growers used to the rainfall levels, soil types, and temperature variance of the Midwest had a significant period of adjustment to find a system that would work in their new environment.  Nonetheless, the demand for fresh fruit as well as products like cider vinegar, apple butter, and dried apples made the investment potentially profitable for local growers because they could keep shipping costs lower and fruit fresher.  There were many active participants in horticulture in South Dakota that were worthy of note.  Some were scientist scholars, some business owners, some dedicated amateurs–and most were men.  Unusual for the day, the success of one commercial operation in Turner County was credited to a woman…

Because pioneer-era horticulture was haphazard and experimental, those interested in growing fruit and trees started up the South Dakota State Horticultural Society to share knowledge and refine their methods.  Their yearly meetings provided a chance for many of those in the field to meet, give and receive advice, and discuss pertinent issues to their profession.  The papers presented, discussions, other submitted papers or articles, and letters were compiled in annual printed reports.  Members also closely followed the work of similar societies in Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska.  Much of the time of the society was devoted to finding hardy plant varieties and testing cultivation practices that would help harvests survive South Dakota winters, droughts, and other obstacles.  A frequent point of discussion was about how to handle traveling salesmen who sold plants that were either of poor quality or unsuited for the climate to homesteaders.  Society members hoped that their published materials and workshops would help educate the general public about best practices and steer them away from so-called villainous swindlers.  Commercial ventures served as demonstration plots as well and often advertised an invitation for anyone to come inspect their progress.

South Dakota horticulture has not received a lot of attention in histories of the state, but there are a few players that stand out.  Professor Niels E. Hansen was probably the most notable horticulturalist in South Dakota.  He worked at the State Agricultural College experiment stations and with nursery owners across the state to develop and test new plant breeds.  Many of his experiments sought to crossbreed native fruits with more marketable varieties.  He also worked with national plant breeder associations and traveled to Siberia on official federal government expeditions to retrieve hardy plant varieties of alfalfa and other crops that could be grown or adapted to the U.S. plains.  Then, the Gurney family probably had the most well-known and enduring commercial operation.  The seed & nursery company were in business in Yankton from the 1890s to 2001, and the company is still in existence (though no longer in the family).  For a time, their headquarters had a mall-like setup with grocery, barbershop, jeweler, and other businesses as well as being the head of the WNAX radio (the home of Lawrence Welk) and the regional WNAX Fair Price gas stations.

St. Paul Globe (MN), January 5, 1901.

St. Paul Globe (MN), January 5, 1901.

Laura Alderman made her own significant impact and here follows what I have found about her business and personal life.  The Alderman’s orchard near Hurley was a major player in South Dakota horticulture from 1879 to 1901.  It was alternately known as the Alderman Fruit Farm or the Hurley Fruit Farm.  In 1879, the bought 80 acres and set up their farm.  They made a point of buying trees grown in Minnesota that would be better adapted to Dakota than those grown in the east or south.  At the orchard’s height, they had between 102 and 160 acres planted for fruit.  At the time, it was the largest commercial orchard in the state.  Reports about the woman who owned the largest orchard in Dakota (quoting verification by the U.S.D.A. pomology division) were even printed as far afield as the Colorado Transcript in August 1900 and the Los Angeles Herald that December.  For much of its history, it was run by Laura Alderman and her son Leighton R.   Reported productivity in different publications went from there being 1,000 bushels of apples produced in 1892, 4,000 bushels in 1896, 10,000 bushels in 1898, and 8,000 in 1901.  Alderman sold apples for retail sale, in-state and to fruit companies, and sent those not “up to grade” for milling as cider vinegar–about 3,000 gallons each year.  They also sold evergreens and shrubs.  She also exhibited fruit at the state and county fairs.

Turner County Herald, 1900.

Turner County Herald, 1900.

She grew the popular varieties of Duchess, Whitney, and Wealthy apples as well as lesser quantities of about twenty other varieties, which were tended with cultivation and manuring.  The Aldermans did not have windbreaks planted, because sun scald was a problem if the trees warmed up in the winter and came out of dormancy too early, but they planted cover crops like buckwheat and clover between the trees to help stem moisture evaporation without using up water themselves like grass would.   It was claimed that they had over 4,000 trees of Wealthy apples, the most of any orchard in the Northwest (and sometimes claimed the most in the world).  At different times, they also tried Patten’s Greening, Haas, Fameuse, Walbridge, Ben Davis, Tetofsky, Wolf River, Plumb’s Cider, Rawle’s Jannet, Weaver, DeSoto, and Miner varieties of apples with varying results.  Alderman also raised crabapples in Briar Sweet, Virginia, Minnesota, Early Strawberry, Orange, Chickasaw, Hyslop, and Transcendent varieties, and various small fruits of cherries, plums (2 acres), strawberries (3 acres), currant bushes, gooseberry bushes, and grapevines.

Laura Anne Allen was born in April 1852 in Michigan to parents from Vermont and New Jersey.  She learned about raising apples in the orchard of her home in Milan, Michigan.  She married a dentist named Olynthus G. Alderman before 1870 and they lived in Otley (near Pella) or Traer, Iowa.  They came to Dakota Territory in 1876, where in Swan Township of Turner County, they built a house and barn that October.  They began their orchard soon after with some crabapples planted in 1878.  They set out 5,000 saplings in 1880–some in newly-broken ground and some in holes dug into the prairie sod–, 3,000 saplings in 1883, and had 7,000 mature trees in 1897.  In the 1885 census, O.G. Alderman was listed with the profession of nurseryman.  His wife Laura, their  two children (born 1873 and 1875 in Iowa), and his brother (a dentist) Leighton’s family with their three children were also part of the household.  O.G. and Laura were both born to Yankee parents who had migrated to the “Old Northwest,” Ohio and Michigan respectively.


In 1899, Laura presented a pioneer history to a picnic of the Turner County Old Settlers’ Association.  Her recollection of her family’s first arrival:

“My personal recollection dates back 23 years.  It was a day in mid-June; the first view of Swan Lake village as the old stage came lumbering in reminded one of nothing so much as a fleet of schooners out on a sea of billowy green.  It was the first village since leaving Yankton in the early morning, and I confess to a feeling akin to heart failure as I thought of the distance back to the great big world.  But this feeling did not predominate for long; there is an inspiration about frontier life that is contagious”


Note the description of O.G. farm, right above an advertisement that Laura was hiring labor for other work. Turner County Herald (Hurley SD), July 19, 1888.

Note the description of O.G. farm, right above an advertisement that Laura was hiring labor for other work. Turner County Herald (Hurley SD), July 19, 1888.

In that 1885 census and in several news articles, O.G. was noted to be the head of the orchard enterprise.  He attended fairs on behalf of the orchard, attended professional meetings, and traveled to sell and buy product.  However, other sources give Laura the pivotal role.  In tax lists from 1885-86 printed in the newspaper, Laura owned 480 acres separately from her husband, and she had a residence built on her property east of Hurley that year.  In 1887, Laura had ten acres planted in strawberries.  On occasion, they also sold flax and millet seed.  In 1891, Laura had H.J. Sanborn and Gid Howell build a new house and other buildings on her property south of Hurley.  O.G. and Laura both wrote articles about the fruit farm at various times, and neither gave the other a mention…

Atlas of Turner County (1893), 28.

Atlas of Turner County (1893), 28.

In the 1893 county atlas (see image), Mrs. Laura A. Alderman controlled the Alderman Fruit Farm in the north half of Section 2 in Swan Lake Township of Turner County (T97N, R53W).  Also in 1893, Laura and her daughter Rena attended the World’s Fair in Chicago.  The household in 1900 consisted of Laura–listed as a farmer and the owner of the farm–her two children, and four boarders/servants/employees: Will Meyer, William H. Acheson, John Meer, and Anthony Fabin–all farmers or farm laborers.  O.G. was listed separately as living in a rented house in Hurley and working again as a dentist.  Both Laura and O.G. were recorded as widowed…  In 1890-1903, O.G. invented a neck muffler, children’s mittens, and a pair husking mittens with new fasteners that were promoted in the local paper.  In the 1910 census, Laura and O.G. were both listed as divorced and O.G. was an inmate at the State Hospital for the Insane in Yankton (about an hours drive on today’s highways southwest of Hurley).  In a 1931 history of the county, O.G. Alderman was given credit for starting the fruit-raising operation until he became “incapacitated” and Laura and son [Leighton] Roma took over the operation.  A news report from a friend who had visited him in May 1910 described his physical health as good, but that “his mind has largely failed.”  O.G. Alderman died in September 1910 in Yankton and was buried at the State Hospital cemetery.

Brief additional notes on the family: Her children Roma and Rena both attended the University of Nebraska in Lincoln [1900 census and newspaper].  Rena taught for a time at Springfield (the normal school?) and continued to teach after she moved to California.  From what Laura wrote once to the paper, her brother-in-law L.R. Alderman committed suicide in 1886 while being taken to the state asylum in Iowa, mental health issues being compounded by an opium habit  [Turner County Herald, 12/30/1886].

Laura was well known in the field of horticulture in South Dakota.  She managed a large and successful commercial orchard, learning through experimentation and conversation with other professionals.  In 1887, she served as secretary of the State Horticultural Society.  She presented speeches at several horticulture meetings and wrote at length for the newspapers about South Dakota’s potential as a fruit-growing state.


In the beginning of her work her orchard was known as “Alderman’s Folly,” but success has changed ridicule to admiration.

St. Paul Globe (MN), January 1, 1901


In 1898, a colleague toured the region and presented a speech at the meeting of the Northwestern Horticultural Society in Iowa called “Highways and Hedges” in which he described the Alderman orchard as 130 acres of apple trees.  He compared the topography to his native Iowa and wrote that the trees were healthy, but he thought them “dwarfed” by the “arid climate.”  He continued with this note about Laura herself:

The pleasant home buildings are in the east center of the orchard, and here Mrs. Alderman lives and directs, with a master mind, her courageous enterprise.  She has abundant help, and at the date of my visit, September 15th, had just completed the apple harvest.  She is a brisk, cheery, and intelligent talker, with enthusiasm in her chosen work still unabated…. Such is the work and the spirit of one of the most remarkable women of South Dakota. Laura Alderman is the heroine of border horticulture.

–M.E. Hinkley, 1898


At the annual State Horticultural Society meetings, when women made an appearance it was usually when talking about the benefits of planting gardens and other landscaping around homes and schools.  It was pretty rare to hear from a woman about plant breeding and the adaptability of plants to the northern plains climate, but Laura’s orchard operation gave her the necessary insight.  In the 1880s and 90s, Laura made reports on “Orcharding in Dakota” and “Fruit Culture in Southern Dakota” at the Minnesota and Nebraska state meetings.  Her papers spoke with eloquence about the early efforts made by experimentation to find fruits that would grow in Dakota Territory, how to site an orchard on the landscape and plan for drainage, the available varieties and recommendations based on her experience (including small fruits and flowers), and what she knew about current breeding experiments.  A variation, “Fruit Growing in Dakota,” was reprinted in the Dakota Farmer magazine.  In 1885, she also served on a committee on developing a list of recommended fruit varieties.  Through 1901, she continued to participate in their annual meetings by presenting county reports from the field; engaging in discussion of the source of plant blight; and giving advice on various topics, including: cultivation methods, how to stem spring moisture loss through wind or evaporation, how to deter pests, and the planting of multiple varieties rather than relying on a single type.

In 1901, she presented a paper titled “Varieties of Apples Adapted to South Dakota” at the annual meeting of the State Horticultural Society, held that year at Sioux Falls, which was reprinted in the Minnesota annual report for the year.  She also was in attendance at the Minnesota meeting in 1901.  Her paper began with encouragement to study local conditions for horticulture before diving into a new enterprise.  She specifically encouraged those considering planting to follow the work of Professor N.E. Hansen of the State Agricultural College at Brookings (now SDSU).  Like many in her field, she denounced the ‘depravity’ of ‘tree sharks’–the sales agents who traveled the prairie to sell poor quality nursery stock to homesteaders–and she instead promoted purchase from local nurseries.  Alderman then went through several apple and crabapple varieties and their suitability for commercial and home cultivation, with observations from her experience on their growing season, marketability, hardiness, resistance to disease, and susceptibility to insects.

In 1897, an article of hers about the business of the Alderman Fruit Farm appeared in the Dakota Farmer and was reprinted in the Turner County Herald [link here to the page on Chronicling America – LOC].  In 1902, Laura wrote and published a 110-page book called Fruit Growing in the Northwest [see citation in Worldcat.org here].

In 1904, another colleague, D.F. Harrington of Sioux Falls gave a speech at an annual meeting that lauded Laura Alderman for breaking Eastern stereotypes about Dakota’s horticultural potential.  In his speech, he acknowledges never having actually met Alderman, but knowing her reputation, delivered this speech with the grand flourish common in rhetoric of the time.  He began with praise that women had begun to take on roles previously denied them, mentioning service on school boards in particular, and that in so doing, “she has not only kept step with [man], but in many of the different avocations of life she has led him, and man has been following her ever since.”  He said he appreciated the society’s annual meetings where “[we] tell our experience during the year, pat each other on the back, call one another ‘good fellow,’ and return to our several homes,” but:

What I particularly desire at this time is to impress upon your minds this one fact, that to woman, and not to man, we South Dakotans are indebted for the ‘corner stone’ of South Dakota horticulture.  It was she, not he, that demonstrated to the world that apples of a size, beauty and flavor could be successfully grown in South Dakota….

I refer, gentleman, to South Dakota’s most distinguished orchardist, Laura L. Alderman.  Years ago, long before there was any North or South Dakota on the map, this brave and noble woman was already living on her claim in what is now Turner county, South Dakota, busily engaged in rearing her family and planting the trees which were destined to make ‘The Alderman Fruit Farm’ synonymous with successful fruit growing in South Dakota, and at the same time placing her name high up on the scroll of the world’s greatest benefactors….

Do not imagine that Mrs. Alderman has met with no discouragements, for indeed she must have, but neither drought, grasshoppers, hard times, or anything else swerved her from her purpose.  She never lost faith in the country, the soil, the climate, or herself.  She was determined to succeed and she did succeed, and today South Dakota is proud of her and her work.

— D.F. Harrington, 1904


According to the local paper, outside of her business, Laura was also a supporter of the South Dakota Children’s Home, a member of the Ladies’ Relief Corps of the Grand Army of the Republic, a trustee of the local “reading room” library in 1893, and a member of a local Christian Citizen’s League.  She served as president of the Hurley Alliance in 1891 (Farmer’s Alliance?) .  She participated in local debate presentations on women’s suffrage, edited a newspaper column about suffrage in 1890, and helped organize a county convention at Parker for the National American Women Suffrage Association in 1897. [News on the organization of a county Equal Suffrage association in 1890, link here, and Laura’s 1893 county convention minutes here].   She was also corresponding secretary for the county Women’s Christian Temperance Union, an officer at the formation of a Good Templars lodge, and wrote editorials supporting the cause of temperance [find a sample from 1886 at this link here].   As for many South Dakota women at the time, the issues of suffrage and temperance were tied together.  In one editorial in March 1897, she concluded her refutation of a statement made by a Chicago politician about women spending as much on hats as men do in bars by complaining that “the class whom he insults has no redress, either in the primaries or at the polls.”  In 1898, Laura was also named as a delegate for the Populist party to the state convention of Fusionists at Aberdeen during a county convention of the Silver Republican, Populist, and Democrat parties.  [Interestingly, the paper called that county convention an “anything to beat the administration” meeting, eventually that coalition became known as the Fusion party.]

In 1901, Laura retired from horticulture and sold the operation outside the family to a man named Prosser for $12,000.  In 1906, Prosser sold the orchard to ranchers Raynor & Son.  Laura had also made money through real estate investment, loans, and renting sections of crop land.  After retirement, she didn’t stay on in South Dakota.  By 1907, Laura had left South Dakota and moved to California with her third child, Helen Alderman Roberts, born about 1901 in Michigan, to live initially with her son “Romio” and his family and eventually with Helen and her husband.  Romo worked in California as a life insurance agent.  Her daughter Rena and son-in-law Michael Martin also lived in Los Angeles County.  In 1911, she was part of a group of former South Dakotans that got together for a reunion picnic to form the “Turner County S.D. Society of Southern California,” a reunion or Old Settlers Association, for which Laura was also president for a time.  Laura died in January 1936 and was buried in Whittier, Los Angeles County, California.


Sources:

  • 1885 Territorial Census, ED #137 (June 1, 1885), 21
  • 1900 U.S. Census for Swan Lake Twp, Turner Co., S.D., ED #321 (July 3, 1900), sheet 12 and Lincoln, Lancaster County, N.E., ED #49 (June 11, 1900), 16
  • 1910 U.S. Census for Los Angeles, ED #126 (April 22, 1910), 9A; for Yankton County, ED #446 (May 1910), 6B; Catalina, Los Angeles County, ED #19 (April 17, 1910), 3B
  • 1920 U.S. Census for Los Angeles, ED #234 (January 14, 1920), 52A and Hermosa Beach, ED #541 (January 12, 1920), 15A
  • 1930 U.S. Census for Beverly Hills, ED #16 (April 2, 1930), 2A
  • Turner County Herald (Hurley SD), June 25, 1876 – September 9, 1915
  • The Daily Plainsman (Huron SD), November 21, 1887
  • The New Era (Parker SD), April 28, 1883 and “Hundred Years Ago,” October 11, 1979
  • Los Angeles City Directory (1907), 67
  • Atlas of Turner County (1893), 28
  • Annual Report of the South Dakota State Horticultural Society (1896), 25-28, (1900), 447-449, (1904), 98-100, (1905), 173, (1906), 118, 175
  • Trees, Fruits, and Flowers of Minnesota (1900), 75; Transactions of the Minnesota State Horticultural Society (1885), 363-367, (1886), 293-295, (1901), 377-379
  • N.E. Hansen, “Fruit Culture in South Dakota,” SD Agricultural College Bulletin (1896), 25-27
  • “Fruit Growing in South Dakota,” Annual Report of the Nebraska State Horticultural Society (Lincoln NE: The State, 1894), 68, “Highways and Hedges,” (1899), 80-84
  • G.W. Kingsbury, The History of Dakota Territory, vol. 3 (Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing, 1915), 497
  • W.H. Stoddard, Turner County Pioneer History (Sioux Falls, SD: Brown & Saenger, 1931), 372
  • Olynthus Gregory Alderman” and “Laura Anne Allen Alderman” on Find-a-Grave.com

Postscript: For further reading, this post on the Rural Women’s Studies blog: “Fruit of Her Fields: California Women Farmers at the Turn of the Century

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2 thoughts on “The Queen of Orchardists: Laura Alderman

  1. Actually, the reason the Aldermans had no grove was not sunscald in the summer time as you said. Sun scald of fruit trees is a winter problem and not a summer problem as you wrote. If trees are too protected trees warm up too quickly when it is really still winter and this causes sun scald. It was preferable to keep the trees cold as long as possible. My great grandfather pulled the trees out of the Alderman orchard and my great great grandfather purchased the farm for his daughter. The trees had not been tended well after the Aldermans moved to Calif. They should have had new trees planted so when the old ones got too old, they’d have younger trees to replace them but this had not been done by those who later bought the orchard.

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