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LUTHER BURBANK-THE EARLY YEARS IN SANTA ROSA

THE PERIOD OF BITTER STRUGGLE

Within sixty days of the time when the definite decision to go to California was reached, I had sold my personal property and closed out my business at Lunenburg. The business habits that my father had inculcated had been so systematically followed that there was little difficulty in closing up accounts. The total amount of sales was found to be within a few cents of the amount of my annual appraisement. But, although I had been fairly successful in the gardening enterprise during the three years that it had been under way, so much money had been spent on improvements that there remained but a small balance to my credit. At the moment, nothing could be realized on the farm. So in starting for California I was entering on a new field, backed by very little capital. Meantime the celebrated Ralston failure occurred, an event which every old Californian remembers but too well. So depressing were the reports of conditions in California that then came to us that friends urged me to change my mind about going there. I had finally decided, however, and had made every preparation, and was not to be deterred. Not feeling able to pay for a sleeping berth, which at that time was a rather unusual luxury, I was obliged to make such shift as I could to gain snatches of sleep. And I retain very vivid recollections of the discomforts of the trip. It is curious how some minor incident will linger in the memory when many relatively important ones are quite forgotten. For example, I recall that when on rare occasions I had an entire seat to myself, and would thus be able to curl up on my side to gain a little sleep, the trainmen seemed always to be hurrying through the car and perpetually colliding with my projecting feet. And there is scarcely an incident of the entire journey that is more vivid in my memory than the recollection of this trivial discomfort. A generous lunch-basket had been provided, and this served its purpose well, for the train was sometimes delayed for an entire day far out on the plains with no house in sight. Several times I had the pleasure of sharing my lunch with fellow-passengers who would otherwise have suffered hunger. At that time it was not an uncommon experience for axle boxes to become heated by friction, and then it would be necessary to make long stops until repairs could be made. This, with numerous unclassified delays, made the journey longer, but perhaps not more unpleasant than was expected. At best, at that time it took nine days to cross the continent, and the contrast between the trains of that period and the luxurious expresses of today is notable.

EARLY DAYS IN CALIFORNIA

An inventory of my belongings on arriving at last in California would have shown very little except clothing, books, and garden seeds, and ten Burbank potatoes that Mr. Gregory had allowed me to keep when he purchased that vegetable. So it was necessary to find employment at once. I have said that two older brothers were living in California. But I did not go to Tomales where they lived, because it appeared that this region, being close to the ocean, had a climate that was not well adapted to my experiments. I had been advised of conditions by letter, of course, from time to time, and had also read such books and articles dealing with California as could be found, so I had rather clear notions as to what to expect. I had hesitated between San Jose and Santa Rosa as the location best suited to my purposes, and had decided on the latter place. It has sometimes been thought that my work might have been carried on to better advantage if I had settled in the larger town of San Jose, that being in the midst of a great fruit-producing region; but, on the whole, as elsewhere recorded, I have had reason to be satisfied with the choice that was made. In that day, however, Santa Rosa was but a small village, offering comparatively few attractions. It had not even a sidewalk. There were no vineyards, no orchards, no ornamental trees. There were wheat fields in the surrounding country, and these gave opportunity for work in the summer with harvesting and threshing crews. For the rest, about the only available employment was the driving of teams of oxen or mules in breaking the soil with gang-plows. Unfortunately my physical strength was not adequate to either of these tasks. So I found myself almost without means, in a strange land, far from home and friends, and there was no obvious way in which to enter on the specific work that was contemplated. For a time it was even difficult to earn enough to meet immediate needs. It was necessary to give up all thought of entering immediately on the work of gardening. For the time being I must seek work wherever it could be found, and do any odd job that offered. I recall that on one occasion I heard that help was wanted on a building then in construction, and on applying was promised a job if I would furnish my own shingling hatchet. I spent my last dollar in purchasing one, and on returning found to my bitter disappointment that the job had been given to another applicant. This was but one of a good many episodes that were well calculated to dampen enthusiasm, and cause me to question whether I had acted wisely in leaving New England. Yet I doubt whether I ever regretted my decision. For the spirit of dogged persistency and of obstinate effort in the face of difficulties is a heritage that the pioneer breed of New England transmits almost unfailingly. Whatever the son of Puritan ancestors may lack, he is almost sure to have a full endowment of the basal instinct of sticking to it. There were times, however, when, whether or not the spirit faltered, my physical constitution was in jeopardy. In the fall of 1876, I secured work in the nursery of W. H. Pepper, at Petaluma, one of the first nurseries in California, established in 1852, where I worked throughout the winter and into the following spring. Here I occupied a room over the steaming hothouse at night, and worked in a damp soil by day, until my strength gave out, and I was stricken with fever and returned to Santa Rosa very ill. But for the kindly ministrations of a good neighbor who, seeing my need, furnished me fresh milk without hope of reward, it is doubtful whether I should have pulled through. These were indeed dark days.

THE LAND OF PROMISE

Yet even in this time of trial I was not for a moment oblivious to the natural advantages and beauties of the country to which I had come, notwithstanding the inhospitable reception. Letters of the period, as preserved by my mother and sister, are filled with enthusiasm over the marvels of the new land. I may quote one of these letters as showing the impression that California made on me, and the opportunities that it appeared to offer for carrying out my treasured project, if ever means could be found to make a beginning. "Santa Rosa is situated," I wrote, "in a marvelously fertile valley containing one hundred square miles. I firmly believe from what I have seen that this is the chosen spot of all the earth as far as nature is concerned. The climate is perfect; the air is so sweet that it is a pleasure to drink it in; the sunshine is pure and soft. The mountains which gird the valley are lovely; then the valley is covered with majestic oaks placed as no human hand could arrange them for beauty. I cannot describe it. (I almost cry for joy when I look upon the lovely valley from the hillsides.) California's gardens are filled with tropical plants, palms, figs, oranges, vines, etc. Great rose trees, thirty feet in height, loaded with every color of buds and blossoms, in clusters of twenty to sixty, like a cluster of grapes (I would like to pile a bushel of them in your aprons) climb over the houses. English ivy fills large trees, and flowers are everywhere. Do you suppose I am not pleased to see fuchsias in the front yards, twelve feet high, and loaded with various colors of blossoms? Veronica trees, geranium trees; the birds singing and everything like a beautiful spring day. The sweet Gum tree of Australia grows here seventy-five feet high in five years; it is a beautiful tree. Honeysuckles, snow berries, etc., grow wild on the mountains. There are so many plants more beautiful that they are neglected. I improve all my time in walking in every direction from the city; but have seen no place which nature has not made perfectly lovely. I took a long walk today and found enough curious plants in a wild spot of about an acre to set a botanist wild. I found the wild Yam which I hunted for so much in Massachusetts, also the yerba buena, a vine which has a pleasant taste like peppermint. (I send you a few leaves.) I also found a nut that no one has seen before (have planted it), and several (to me) curious plants. I mean to get a piece of land (hire or buy) and plant it, then I can do other work just the same." The intention to hire or buy a piece of land was not realized for a long term of months after it was thus confidently expressed. But the time came, after weary waiting, when it was found possible to hire a few acres. Then, although working at carpentry during the day, I was able to devote the long summer evenings to preparation for starting a small nursery. I had come to California in October, 1875, and it was not until the autumn of the following year that the start in the line of work that had been planned was thus tentatively made. And even then my time of trial was by no means over. For, as has been said, no capital was available with which to push my enterprise, and it was necessary to feel the way, step by step. To be sure I could have appealed to my brothers, and they would very gladly have helped me, but I was averse to doing this, both from an inherent sensitiveness about money, which is almost as universal a New England heritage as the Puritan conscience itself, and because I knew that my relatives, in common with such other people as knew of my project, were skeptical as to the practicality of such experiments in plant development as were contemplated. Such skepticism was natural enough on the part of practical men, for the things that I hoped to do ran counter to all common experience. To think of changing the form and constitution of living things in a few years seemed grotesque even to many people who believed in the general doctrine of evolution. It was not generally admitted at that time that the plants under cultivation had been conspicuously modified by the efforts of man. And even those exceptional botanists who believed that the cultivated plants owed their present form to man's efforts were prone to emphasize the fact that the plants had been for centuries under cultivation, and to question whether the modifications that could be effected in a single generation would have any practical significance. So it seemed to most people who knew of my enterprise that it was a half-mad project and one that was foredoomed to failure. Of course I had only enthusiasm, backed by the tentative results of early experiments in Massachusetts, to offer in response to such criticisms. So it seemed best to trust to my own resources, so far as possible, and prove my case according to my own method. I would not be understood, however, as saying that my brothers did not give me friendly co-operation. On the contrary they were, as suggested, ready to extend a helping hand, and their aid was sought at the outset in the matter of the propagation of the Burbank potato, the ten tubers of which constituted, in my judgment, my most important tangible asset. The ten potatoes were planted on my brother's place; and the entire product of the first season was saved and planted, so that by the end of the second season the stock of potatoes was large enough to offer for sale. The sale of the Burbank potato helped out a little, but did not at first bring a large return. Notwithstanding the very obvious merits of this potato, time was required to educate people to appreciate it. They were accustomed to a red potato, and a white one, even though larger, smoother, and more productive, did not seem at first a suitable substitute. But in the course of time the Burbank potato made its way, as has elsewhere been related, until it became the leading potato of the Pacific Coast. Long before this, however, I had ceased to grow the potato. It was only during the first few years, before its cultivation became general, that I could profitably grow it for seed purposes. For the rest, I began my nursery business at Santa Rosa by raising such fruits and vegetables as gave promise of being immediately acceptable to the people of the vicinity. At that time the possibilities of California as a fruit center were for the most part vaguely realized, and it was first necessary to educate the Californians themselves to a recognition of the fact that in the soil and climate of their state were the potentialities of greater wealth than had ever been stored in the now almost depleted gold mines. Once that lesson had been learned, there would be no great difficulty about disposing of the fruit, for the railways either built or projected insured facilities for transportation. As to the latter point, however, the conditions were very different from what they now are. The refrigerator car had not come into vogue, and the possibility of transporting fresh fruits across the continent at a reasonable cost seemed remote. So it was natural that such fruits as the prune and the olive were the ones that chiefly attracted attention. Their product could be transported anywhere, and there was an established market that was practically inexhaustible. But, as already intimated, the region about Santa Rosa at the time of my coining was preeminently a wheat country, and the farmers in general were far more interested in cereals than in fruit of any kind. It was only after the wheat crops began to fail, through exhaustion of the soil for the special nutrients that this cereal demands, that the thoughts of the farming population in general could be directed toward fruit culture. It is necessary to make this explanation because nowadays everyone thinks of California as pre-eminently a fruit country; and so it would not be obvious, without this elucidation, why one could not start in the nursery business at Santa Rosa, in the year 1876, and hope for immediate patronage and a reasonable return for his labors. But even if the market had been more certain, it would doubtless have been difficult for me to get a start, because fruit trees cannot be brought to a condition of bearing, or even to a stage where cions for grafting are available, in a few weeks. And I had neither capital nor credit, being virtually a stranger in a strange land. So it was necessary for me to continue to gain a livelihood by working at carpentry, in which vocation I had now established a sufficient reputation to insure me pretty steady work. But every cent that I could earn, beyond the barest cost of maintenance, was put into stock for my prospective nursery; and, as has been said, the evening hours after the day's work with the hammer was over were devoted to the culture of seedlings. The tedious and almost disheartening character of the task of establishing myself as a practical nurseryman at Santa Rosa may perhaps be illustrated about as tangibly as otherwise could be done by the citation of memoranda from old account books, which show that the total sales of nursery products in 1877, the first year that my nursery was supposed to be in operation, amounted to just $15.20. The products that brought this munificent return are listed as "Nursery stock and ornamental and flowering plants." The following year, 1878, the total return from the nursery sales was $84. The third year the sales amounted to $353.28. The fourth year they came to $702. And it was not until 1881, when the nursery had been for five years in operation, that the aggregate returns from the sale of its products of all descriptions passed the thousand dollar mark. The specific figure, in 1881, was $1,112.69. The figures thus baldly presented tell their own story. They show that the nursery business in California thirty-five years ago was in far different condition from what it is today. And it does not require much imagination to connect with the figures a story of hardship and privation, and of unrewarded effort, that spelled discouragement for the would-be plant developer. Yet, on the other hand, the figures are susceptible of a more cheerful interpretation. If we regard percentages, instead of aggregate dollars, it will at once be manifest that the record shows steady progress with a cumulative tendency. Eleven hundred dollars is not a large return for the output of a nursery, but it is a relatively tremendous advance on $15. And when I add that the return for the succeeding year went forward again by about 300 percent, it will be clear that my efforts were fast gaining recognition, and that the foundations were being laid for a thoroughly successful nursery business. Not to dwell exclusively on the darker side of the picture, let me say that within ten years the quality of the trees and the reliability of the stock in general of the Burbank Nursery had become so widely known that I was selling more than $16,000 worth of stock per year. In the light of this ultimate prosperity, the privations of the earlier years may very well be minimized, even though they cannot quite be forgotten. There are many incidents of that early period of probation, when I was struggling to establish myself as a nurseryman, in order that ultimately I might take up my scheme for plant development on a large scale, that would have a measure of interest and would not be without importance in their bearing on my later work. But I content myself with the narration of a single incident, partly because it has to do with an event that was at the time of momentous importance to me, inasmuch as it gave me a much needed monetary return, and at the same time served to advertise my work; and partly because it illustrates in detail the possibility of rapidly laying the foundations for an orchard, and hence may be of value to some would-be plant experimenters.

TWENTY THOUSAND PRUNE SEEDLINGS

The incident in question has to do with the production of twenty thousand prune trees, well rooted and ready to transplant for permanent location in an orchard, in a single season. It was in the fourth year of my attempt at the development of a nursery business at Santa Rosa,that is to say, in the season of 1881, that I produced the twenty thousand prune trees in response to a "hurry order," and in so doing fortified a reputation for reliability and resourcefulness that my earlier work had begun to establish. The order for twenty thousand prunes was given by Mr. Warren Dutton, a wealthy merchant and banker of Petaluma, and later of San Francisco, who had conceived a sudden interest in prune-growing and wished to undertake it on a large scale wtih the least possible delay. Mr. Dutton had seen something of my work, and he came to me in March, 1881, and asked if I could furnish him twenty thousand prune trees ready to set out the coming fall. At first thought I was disposed to answer that no one on earth could furnish twenty thousand fruit trees on an order given in March for delivery in the fall of the same year. But, after thinking the matter over for a few minutes, I decided that the project was not quite so hopeless as it seemed. If almond seedlings were used for stock, and prune buds June-budded on these stocks, the thing might be accomplished. Mr. Dutton agreed to furnish what financial aid was needed during the summer to pay for help and to purchase the required number of almonds for planting. So the bargain was closed, and I entered on the task with enthusiasm. What made the project seem feasible was the knowledge of the fact that almonds, under proper conditions, sprout almost at once like corn, unlike nearly all other stone fruits. I estimated that if almonds were secured at once, and bedded in coarse sand for sprouting, they would furnish seedlings that could be planted in nursery rows in time for June budding. There was no difficulty about securing the almonds for planting, so the enterprise was almost instantly under way. In addition to the two acres of land which were then available in my nursery, I rented five additional acres; and a large number of men were engaged to plant the almonds in nursery rows as soon as they began to sprout. The almonds were spread on a well-drained bed of creek-sand and covered with coarse burlap cloth, which in turn was covered with a layer of sand about an inch in depth. In this way we could examine the almonds without any trouble, by lifting one end of the cloth. The seeds commenced to sprout in less than fourteen days. Those which sprouted were carefully removed and planted in the nursery rows; the others were covered again, and each day more and more would be found sprouting. The almonds were planted about four inches apart in the rows, the rows about four feet apart, on a piece of land adjoining the creek-a plot now covered with fine residences, and known as "Ludwig's Addition". They began showing growth above ground in a short time, and the ground was very carefully cultivated. By the time the buds in my prune orchard were ready for grafting, the young almond-trees were also ready. Toward the last of June, and in July and August, a large force of budders were employed in placing the French prune buds on the almond-stalks. After about ten days, when the buds had thoroughly united with the stalk, the tops of the young trees were broken over about eight inches from the ground; great care being exercised not to break them entirely off, but only to break the top down and still keep it alive. If the top is broken or cut entirely off, the young trees are about certain to die. This is a mistake which many nurserymen make in trying to grow June buds, but by bending the tops over and leaving them on, none of the trees die, and the buds start much better than by any other plan. Soon the young prune buds began to burst forth. These were carefully tied up alongside the stalk, and when they were a foot or more in height the old almond top was wholly cut away. By December first, about 19,500 of the trees were ready for the planter; the others were furnished the next season. Mr. Dutton was greatly pleased, as he had been told by all other nurserymen that it was impossible to produce trees in eight months, and he was very anxious to get a prune orchard at once. By systematic and energetic work we were able to meet his exceptional needs. Never before or since, I believe, was a 200-acre orchard developed in a single season.

SUCCESS AT LAST

As suggested, the feat of producing the twenty thousand prunes served to advertise my work locally. Meantime the reputation for dependableness of the Santa Rosa nursery products had been greatly extending, in a very modest way to be sure, yet with cumulative effect. Also the general knowledge that prunes constituted a profitable crop was spreading, and about this time the demand for prune trees became very great. Naturally my reputation as a producer of prune stock was enhanced by the demonstration given with the twenty thousand young trees. Prunes that had been grown in smaller lots gave equal satisfaction to purchasers in various regions. Great pains had been taken that no tree should leave my nursery that was not exactly true to name, and in all respects precisely as represented. And now I began to reap the benefits of the reputation thus established. Year by year the reputation of the Burbank Nursery spread, until people were coming from a hundred miles or more away, and the number of would-be purchasers was so great that sometimes there was quite a crowd of them in my dooryard waiting their turn. The quest of prune trees became such a hobby that it came to be the current jest when anyone was asked for to respond: "Well, if you do not find him in town, you will probably find him at Burbank's Nursery waiting for some trees." In course of time more land was needed, so I purchased the four-acre place in the very heart of Santa Rosa which was in future to be my home and the seat of many of my most important experiments. This place, which has since become so well-known, was then a neglected, run-down plot which had been on the market for many years. The land was about as poor as could be found. Many attempts had been made to cultivate it, but a crop had not been grown upon it for a long time. Such a plot of land did not seem to offer great inducements for a nurseryman. But I had a plan in mind that I thought would transform it. My first move was to place tiles under the whole tract at a depth of four feet, thus draining the land which had at one time been the bottom of a pond. At the same time the ground was carefully graded. Then, as manure was cheap near by, I had 1,800 loads of it put on the four acres. The manure was spread so thickly that it was impossible to plow it under without the aid of several men, who followed the plow and pitched the manure into furrows as the plowing proceeded. Further details as to the method of tillage and the preparation of the soil have been given in an earlier chapter and need not be repeated here. But I advert to the subject because I wish to emphasize the possibility of transforming very poor land into land of exceptional fertility. The would-be plant developer who has small financial resources may take a lesson from this experience, and let ingenuity take the place of money. To what extent intelligent manipulation of land may be rewarded is illustrated in the immediate sequel. For in the spring following the season in which the new land was tiled and fertilized, it was planted to fruit trees, and the year following enough nursery stock was sold from half the land to pay for the entire place and all the improvements that had been made. So I had a four-acre plot of the finest land, located near the business center of Santa Rosa, that had been paid for with ingenuity and knowledge without making any drain on my purse. This same plot of land, modified in places by treating with sand to make it suitable for raising bulbs, has doubtless grown a greater number of varieties of plants from regions near and remote than were ever elsewhere grown on any four acres of the earth's surface.

THE LONG-DEFERRED PROJECT

By about the year 1884, then, I was thoroughly established with a nursery business that gave me a sure income of ten thousand dollars or more per year, and nothing more was required than to continue along the lines of my established work to insure a life of relative ease and financial prosperity. But nothing was farther from my thoughts than the permanent following of the routine business of the nurseryman. At no stage of the work in California had I given up the expectation of devoting the best years of my life to plant experimentation and the development of new races of useful fruits and vegetables, and of beautiful flowers. And now the time seemed to have arrived when the long-deferred project could be put into execution. So from the very hour when my nursery business had come to be fully established I began laying plans for giving it up. The practical work in the nursery itself had, of course, furnished a most valuable schooling. I had learned the technique of growing seedlings, and grafting, and the general routine of practical plant culture. And this obviously was knowledge of a kind that would be of inestimable importance when I came to deal with rare exotics and with new forms of plant life. The practical knowledge of how best to nurse a tender seedling has had its full share in the furtherance of the successes of later years. Meantime, I had gained a comprehensive knowledge of the native plants of California, through having collected their seeds and bulbs for Eastern and foreign seedsmen. At about this time there was an interest in the native plants of California, and many nurserymen were anxious to give them a trial. During those years when my own nursery business was only formative I eked out an income-in intervals of carpenter work-by gathering seeds and bulbs on orders from various Eastern and foreign firms. In the course of this work I made various trips to the surrounding territory. On two occasions, in 1880 and in 1881, I visited the region of the geysers, which was found to be a productive locality for new material. And everywhere I went careful study was made of the vegetation, both with an eye to the immediate collection of seeds and bulbs, and for future reference in connection with the projected work. The knowledge thus gained served well in later years in suggesting material for hybridizing experiments. Moreover, the work of collecting, preserving, and shipping seeds, plants, and bulbs taught practical lessons that were of infinite importance later in the instruction of my own collectors in foreign lands, who gathered the materials that had so large a share in the production of new plant forms that finally appeared in my experiment gardens. I should have loved dearly to extend the botanizing explorations to still wider territories, and after my nursery business had come to be fully established, about the year 1884, it would have been quite feasible to do so. The work was so organized that it might readily have been left to assistants for periods of a year or more, during which I could have traveled all over the world and observed for myself the plant products that seemed to invite importation. But to have done this would have been to break in on the plan of the projected life work that had already been to some extent interrupted for a period of about eight years, during which I had found it impossible to carry out new experiments, except on a limited scale, and in intervals of arduous practical duties. Longer delay was not to be thought of. I was eager to take up the projected work, and it was not deferred for a season longer than was absolutely necessary. Even before I could see my way to the abandonment of the practical work of the nurseryman, projects were in hand that were preparing the way for the new activities. In particular, I had sent to Japan to secure seeds and cuttings of a great variety of fruits. It seemed certain that I could better afford to hire collectors in foreign lands to secure material than to go to foreign lands in person in quest of it. The first consignment of Japanese seeds and seedlings reached me November 5, 1884. In preparation for their coming I had purchased the Dimmick place and prepared my experiment grounds a few months earlier. And when the consignment was in hand, with the representatives of exotic species of fruits, I felt that a new era had begun for me, and that the long frustrated plans were about to find realization. The following year, so well had the nursery business prospered, I was able to purchase a farm at Sebastopol, seven miles away from Santa Rosa, where the conditions were more favorable for the growing of some types of plants. The second consignment from Japan, including the plum, whose story has elsewhere been told in detail, came Dec. 20, 1885. The place at Sebastopol where they were to be planted and nurtured was purchased eight days later. And with this purchase the project of devoting a lifetime to the work of plant experimentation was fairly and finally inaugurated. For the Sebastopol place, with its eighteen acres, was not purchased for use as a practical nursery, but solely as an experiment garden. With the development of the Sebastopol place, a new phase of lifework began. Thenceforward my time was divided between the experiment garden at Santa Rosa and that at Sebastopol, and upon one place or the other all my experiments in plant development were to be performed. An interest in the nursery business was retained for two or three years more, to give money to carry out the initial stages of the new experiments; for of course it could not be expected that new varieties of fruits and flowers would spring into existence in a single season. Nor could instant purchasers be found for them if they had been thus magically produced. But from the time when the place at Sebastopol was purchased, the die was cast, and it was determined in future my energies were to be devoted to the work of plant development-the work that had been projected, and at which a beginning had been made back in Massachusetts, and the hope of continuing which had been the incentive to persistent efforts during the period of stress and privation.

-An inventory of my belongings on my arrival in California would have shown very little excepting clothing, books, garden seeds and ten Burbank potatoes that Mr. Gregory had allowed me to keep when he purchased that vegetable.

This text is from: Luther Burbank: his methods and discoveries and their practical application. Volume 12 Chapter 2