John Robertson and Fruit-growing in the Black Hills

Since working on a project about the Gurney Seed and Nursery Company in Yankton, I’ve been digging into the history of horticulture in South Dakota as I have opportunity.  In research searches about the phenomenon of farmers’ institutes, I hit a point of cross-over in John Robertson.  Robertson had a fruit orchard nursery in Hot Springs and was one of the few prominent players in the field of horticulture in early South Dakota from the Black Hills region.  [Fred Noerenberg had another well-known orchard at Cascade Springs.]

John Stevenston Robertson (1866–1935) was born in Ohio to Scottish-immigrant parents and migrated with his family to Nebraska.  He moved to Fall River County in March 1889 and homesteaded land in the Erskine/Minnekahta area near Hot Springs in June 1892.  He planted his first apple trees in 1896 and eventually had a twenty-acre orchard that included over a hundred varieties of apples (at various times), as well as grapes, plums, pears, cherries, currants, gooseberries raspberries, strawberries, pansies, corn and small grains, and asparagus.  He experimented with different varieties and growing techniques to find what was best adapted to the climate and terrain.  He cooperated with horticulturalists across the state, particularly N.E. Hansen and his students at the Agricultural College in Brookings, to test developed varieties and share results.  He also sold some “limited” nursery stock of dependable varieties.

Using only natural rainfall, he spaced apples trees 30-40 feet apart, using the aisles for planting plums and small fruit.  Wind was less a factor in the Hills than on plains elsewhere in the state, but rocky soils and steep topography posed challenges.  He did find that changes in altitude did mean that the lower trees ripened before the higher ones, which gave farmers longer seasons to handle harvest and marketing of the fruit.  He became an advocate of the possibilities of dry farming, while cautioning that it also took more capital and effort than people often expected.

Picking Apples at Robertson Orchard,” #2007-11-26-004, Digital Archives, South Dakota State Historical Society.

Fruit of the Foot Hills” in the Hot Springs Weekly Star, January 24, 1908 and “Dry Farming in Dakota” by John Robertson, reprinted in the Hot Springs Weekly Star from the Dakota Farmer, March 19, 1909.

Robertson Nursery, 1915 Price List of Nursery Stock, U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Library, Biodiversity Heritage Library online.  Includes general advice and variety descriptions.  Price list for 1917-1918.

Robertson participated as a lecturer in the farmers institutes for several years, in Rapid City, Hot Springs, and Oelrichs in 1908-1910, and 1913 and at various East River institutes in 1910, 1912, and 1915.  He gave addresses at the Black Hills Horticultural Society Spearfish in 1910, and at State Horticultural Society meetings in Belle Fourche in 1907, in Yankton in 1915, and in Sioux Falls in 1919.    In 1910, Robertson was secretary of the Black Hills Horticultural Society and a delegate to the state dry farming congress held in Rapid City.  In 1913, he was a state delegate to the National Conservation congress.  In 1914, he stood for election to the county commission.  He also worked as the horticulture editor for the Dakota Farmer and was involved with his school district board, the Hot Springs Commercial Club, the Minnekahta Valley Farmers Club, and the Fall River County Agricultural Extension Association.  In the January 1928 issue of Black Hills Engineer, he wrote an article “Horticulture in Fall River County” about his work, including photos.  The 1931 State Horticultural Society meeting in Rapid City included a tour of his orchard.  He was elected vice-president of the State Horticultural Society in 1911, 1915, and 1916, secretary-treasurer in 1919, and president in 1933.

After his death in 1935, the State Horticultural Society erected a plaque and founded a small park  in memorial of Robertson in Hot Springs.  The memorial plaque was dedicated on July 18, 1935.  They also started a John Robertson Memorial award for achievements in horticulture.  A variety of black raspberry that Robertson first selected was named for him when introduced by South Dakota State University in 1935.

Other Biography Notes:

Robertson married Lillian Stanchfield Carlyle/Carlile/Carlisle in April 1915.  In 1910, she was living with her mother and two young sons in Hot Springs, and she worked as a nurse.  By 1920, she had moved with her sons to Sheridan, Wyoming, and both her and John were listed in their respective towns as widowed and Lillian had gone back to using the name Carlile.  In a 1925 state census, John was listed as divorced.


  • The American Florist Company’s Directory of Florists, Nurserymen and Seedmen (1912), 295. via Google Books
  • Annual Report of South Dakota State Horticultural Society (1906), 145-146.
  • The Black Hills Union and Western Stock Review (Rapid City SD) October 1, 1909 and December 30, 1910. via Chronicling America, LOC
  • The Citizen-Republican (Scotland SD), December 15, 1910. via Chronicling America, LOC
  • The Daily Plainsman (Huron SD), July 7, 1931.
  • Dakota Farmers’ Leader (Canton SD), February 16, 1912. via Chronicling America, LOC
  • Federal Writer’s Project, Works Progress Administration. A South Dakota Guide. Pierre, SD: South Dakota State Historical Society Press, [1938] 2005.
  • Forest City Press (SD), January 11, 1912 and January 23, 1919. via Chronicling America, LOC
  • Freeman, John F. High Plains Horticulture: A History (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2008), 165.
  • Gordon, Don. Growing Fruit in the Upper Midwest (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 211.
  • Hot Springs Weekly Star (SD), November 6, 1908-April 28, 1916. via Chronicling America, LOC
  • The Mitchell Capital (SD), December 15, 1910.
  • Pierre Weekly Free Press (SD), December 15, 1910 and October 16, 1913.
  • Robertson, John. “Horticulture in Fall River County,” Black Hills Engineer 16(1)(January 1928), 49-52. via Digital Library of South Dakota
  • Severin, H.C. Thirteenth Annual Report of the State Entomologist of South Dakota (1922), 5. via Google Books
  • U.S. Census Bureau
    • 1910 – Hot Springs Ward 1, Fall River County, South Dakota, ED #20 (April 20, 1910), 6A.
    • 1920 – Minnekahta, Fall River County, South Dakota, ED #61 (August 1920), 5A.
    • 1920 – Sheridan, Sheridan, Wyoming, ED #106, sheet 3B.
    • 1930 – Jackson Precinct, Fall River County, South Dakota, ED #24-38 (April 15, 1930), 2A.

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