Penniless, and wealthy as a lord

Penniless, and wealthy as a lord

I heard on NPR recently that the goal unemployment number for the next five years will still reflect higher unemployment than the highest figures from the last recession.  Get that?  Let me put it another way.  Economists, and the feds, are now ogling, as a dreamy, far-away, unattainable fairy-tale wish, a 7% national unemployment rate.  At the height of the previous recession–2000-01–the worst unemployment rate was 6%.

In other words, even at their best better, things will still be worse than the previous worst worst.

Now that that’s all cleared up.  My point is, things are tough all over.  Still.

That news brought to my mind another time of economic instability, and a down-on-his-luck entrepreneur.   A long-ago time and a nearly-forgotten man.  It was a recession after a major bank failed and real estate bubbles burst and lots of jobs were lost in the upper Midwest.   And he was a guy who kept trying and trying and trying, pushing the same business, past the point of all reason, down to his last dime.

Or rather, his last apple seed.


Kay, of two posts this fall, mentioned that she had baked pies with an apple variety known as Wealthy.  I had never heard of this apple, so I did a little reading up on it.  I found a great deal more than I had anticipated.  This is the story of the apple called Wealthy.  It deserves this name in every respect.  If it is so known to the end of the ages, that might still not be sufficient payback for its namesake.

Peter Gideon arrived in Minnesota in 1853 with a 17-year-old bride from Illinois.   They settled on the southern shore of Lake Minnetonka on a 160-acre homestead, he getting to work on some ideas he had for local horticulture, and she starting the work of bearing nine children, raising eight.  We’ll leave the bride to her labors and concentrate on the farmer for awhile.

Peter thought there should be an apple that could be grown in Minnesota.  None did.  Fruit trees couldn’t survive the harsh winters, among other assorted challenges.   Peter was a sort of amateur horticulturist and had brought with him thousands, ten thousands, of seeds to bring fruit trees to Minnesota.

“In 1854, he recorded that he planted one bushel of apple seed and a peck of peach seed.”  Over the years “he planted, seeded, and grafted more than 10,000 apple, cherry, peach, pear, plum, and quince trees; but hard winters, blight, grasshopper plagues, and other reverses prevailed. Each year he had to start anew,” relates the Historical Marker Database.  One gets the idea that this Peter Gideon was a man of vision, determination, and single focus.  He might also strike one as foolhardy.  Hopelessly idealistic.  A tad out of touch with reality.

Three years past that journal record, the Panic of 1857 hit.  Following a decade of spectacular growth, real estate speculation and overvaluation in our whole young nation, a major New York and Ohio-based bank failed due to mismanagement and fraud.  The bank had been heavily invested in mortgages, and the panic spread to real estate, to business, and then to railroad, causing a collapse in every industry.  It was a crisis which drained midwest cities of their populations as people by the thousands who lost jobs fled for better opportunity elsewhere.  It became a currency crisis with runs on local banks.  When banks literally ran out of money, towns had to create their own currencies.  Federal bank and currency reforms attempted to redress the mess, but things didn’t really recover in the Great Lakes region until the advent of the Civil War.

Were homesteaders far away from the cities better off, or worse?  Could they buy what they could not create–shoes, pots and pans, farm machinery?  Did their mortgages, second mortgages fail?  It’s hard to picture their situation, but I imagine the Gideons to be pretty tough, producing most of what they consumed, and managing, somehow, to provide for their children in failed year after failed year.

The Panic didn’t alter Peter’s course, regardless of how it may have affected his comfort level.  He kept on with the seeds.  His saplings kept dying.  His wife?  Who knows.  Teeth gritted, hands blistered, work and hope and worry beyond imagining.

As winter arrived in 1861, Peter Gideon had one living tree to show for his trouble, a crabapple.  He had no coat.  He had one cow, a couple of chickens, eight children, and eight dollars.  Eight dollars left in the world, ten years of failure behind him, and a harsh winter immediately ahead.  He went to town to get himself a coat.  And this is where the story gets a little Jack and the Beanstalky.

I can picture his wife, standing at the kitchen window, watching her husband head to town.  Arms crossed.  Lips pursed.  Hoping–praying–her husband will come back with some sensible winter provisions.

He changed his mind as he walked.  Instead Peter Gideon gambled his last eight bucks on one last bushel of apple seeds.  Sent every penny to a seed company in Maine.  Hurried home to tell his wife.

No accounts tell of that reunion.  I can see it though, and it wasn’t pretty.

God only knows how they lived through that winter, but they did.  Peter made himself a coat out of two old vests and the cut-off legs of old pants.  So on top of everything else she had to bear with this man, the wife now had to face the husband going around in what was certainly  a perfectly appalling coat.

In the spring, Peter planted his million seeds from Maine.  One took.

One sapling lived to be big and strong enough to splice with the crabapple, and lo and behold, in four more years he had himself a real tree that bore real apples.  It could live through the winter.  Its apples were gorgeous.  As good for eating as for cooking.  Good keepers.  He trotted this apple around to state fairs, first in Minnesota then all over the country, where it won ribbons and wowed everyone.  Touted as “the best apple since Adam and Eve left Eden,” Gideon’s apple made huge news in agricultural circles.

This apple went on to become one of the five most-produced apples in the United States.  It was used as the basis of several other new strains of Minnesota apples.  In fact the entire upper-Midwestern apple industry hinges on this apple, this man.  He himself never made much money off the apple, but you have to bet he was finally contented, satisfied, successful.  In his own estimation, despite everything, wealthy as a lord.

That’s what he called the apple: Wealthy.  But he didn’t name it after the concept.

He named it after his wife.  Wealthy Hull, the Illinois bride.  The farm wife who endured 14 straight years of failed crops while somehow feeding and clothing 8 children.

If you find yourself in straitened circumstances this winter, or feeling that this recession will never end, think of Peter and Wealthy Gideon and soldier on.  And make yourself a batch of apple dumplings with the brightest apple you can find in the grocery store.  It’s cheap to make, but a quite spectacular dish, and it will make you feel wealthy as a lord, despite everything.

apple dumpling

Apple Dumplings
This recipe is from my dog-eared 1978 edition of the Betty Crocker Cookbook.  It’s practically a meal in itself–you can just skip dinner and go straight to dessert.

the pastry:
2/3 c. plus 2 T shortening (put the can in the freezer for a little while before you start)
2 c. flour
1 t. salt
4-5 T ice water

Cut shortening into flour and salt until all the bits are uniformly pea-sized.  Sprinkle in water, one tablespoon at a time, tossing with a fork until all flour is moistened and pastry comes off the side of the bowl.  Gather the dough into a ball, divide gently in thirds and make three flattened disks.  You’re going to make six squares, so roll each disk into a rectangle which will generate two equal squares.

Heat oven to 425 degrees.

now the apples:
6 bright tart apples, cored
3 T raisins
3 T chopped walnuts or pecans
2 c. packed brown sugar
1 c. water

Do one dumpling at a time.  Place an apple on the center of a pastry square, and fill up its hollow core with raisins and nuts.  Moisten the corners of your pastry square; bring two opposite corners up over apple and pinch.  Do the same with the other two corners.  Pinch edges of pastry to seal.  Five more–you’ll get better and better as you go along.  Place them in an ungreased oblong glass baking dish, say a 12 x 7 or a 13 x 9.

In a small saucepan, heat brown sugar and water to boiling.  Carefully pour around dumplings.  Bake, spooning syrup over dumplings 2 or 3 times during the baking, until crust is golden and apples are tender, about 40 minutes.  Serve each apple dumpling warm in a pretty little dish with cream or sweetened whipped cream, and you and your friends will feel practically royal.


Sources: Peter Gideon historical marker, The Historical Marker Database (; “Minnesota entered statehood with am economic whimper” (; MNopedia entry, “Wealthy Apple” (; Peter Gideon’s obituary (


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