Legends of MSHS: John S. Harris

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2016 issue of Northern Gardener.

The “father of the orchardists” and “godfather” of the Minnesota State Horticultural Society, John S. Harris (1826-1901) left a sweet and juicy legacy.

John S. Harris

John S. Harris

Harris grew up on a farm in Ohio where he began his own small nursery at age 11. After serving in the Mexican War, Harris moved, in 1851, to La Crosse, Wis., where he was married in the second wedding held in the young city.

He and his bride, Melissa, started their market gardening business but soon decided that the grass was greener and the soil more accommodating on the other side of the river. They moved to La Crescent in 1856 where they established Sunny Side Gardens, a fruit, flower and vegetable farm. In the farm’s second season, Harris began to grow apple trees.

Although most people agreed with Horace Greeley’s notorious 1860 assessment that apples wouldn’t grow in the often-harsh conditions of the brand-new state, Harris was undeterred. He planted more trees every year, thousands in total. He shared his experiences, along with apples and seeds, with his neighbors. In his persistent pursuit of apples that would thrive in Minnesota, Harris experimented with hundreds of varieties, most of which, he admitted, were failures.

At the 1866 Minnesota State Fair, his exhibit of 20 apple varieties inspired the state’s fruit growers to form the Minnesota Fruit Growers Association. In 1868, the group changed its name to the Minnesota Horticultural Society and Harris was elected president the following year.

He served two terms as president and he continued to farm and exhibit his produce for the rest of his life. His entries won nine prizes at the 1900 state fair, and he died “with his boots on,” as he had said he wished to, about six months later.

—Julie Jensen


  1. Colleen OSHEA on December 15, 2016 at 9:54 am

    Hi Julie — I’m linking to your post with a story I’ve written about La Crescent Ice Arena. (I know it sounds obscure!) I am also using your picture of John S. Harris in the post.

  2. […] about Legends of MSHS in the magazine. You can still read about greats such as Sarah Manning, John Harris, Peter Gideon, W. H. Alderman, Leon Snyder and Fred Glasoe here on the […]

  3. Jan Brekke on September 17, 2017 at 3:17 pm

    I remember my grandparents visiting and talking about the Harris family in LaCresent and how their ansestor started the apple industry in that area. I believe we are distant relatives. Is there any indication of Swedish ansestory of either John or his wife?

    • Mary Lahr Schier on September 18, 2017 at 1:51 pm

      Jan — The biography of Harris that we have does not indicate his ancestry. He was born in Seville, Medina County, Ohio in 1826, and his parents came from Connecticut (father, Samuel Harris) and Massachusetts (Mabel Gibbs.) The biography says, “His ancestors were among the founders and defenders of the Republic,” so it seems they had been in the United States awhile. His wife was M.J. Clayton who was from Montgomery County, NY. They met in LaCrosse, Wis., near where they eventually settled. Hope this helps!

  4. DALE KLUG on March 2, 2020 at 7:18 pm

    I lived in La Crescent from 1944 – 1962. First met Ralph Harris, (John’s son) Ralph’s wife (don’t recall her name) and their son, Frank “Lyle” Harris in 1948.
    They had an apple stand in our front yard which was at the intersection of Hwy’s 16 & 61, then the main entrance to La Crescent. It is now the site of a realty office. After Ralph’s death we became close friends with Lyle & his mother. When I was a junior in high school in 1958 I worked for Lyle in the apple orchard after school and on weekends. I helped pick, sort and pack apples for 2 or 3 seasons. I frequently worked past dark and had supper with Lyle & Charlene, and their children after which Lyle would transport me and my bicycle home in his truck. I continued to correspond with Lyle after I left La Crescent and joined the Air Force in 1964. I have the distinction of riding on the Harris Orchard float in one of the first Apple Festival parades along with my sister and brother. I believe there is a picture of this float in the La Crescent Museum. .

    • Mary Lahr Schier on March 3, 2020 at 12:42 pm

      Thanks for sharing this wonderful memory!

      • DALE KLUG on March 8, 2020 at 11:38 pm

        Mary, Do you live in La Crescent area?

  5. […] Minnesota State Horticultural Society published in Northern Gardener.  I love reading about the early apple breeders and the plants that were popular over 100 years ago. All this year, 2022, we can see insights to […]

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