China Garden

Saturday, March 7, 2015

China Garden-Malakoff Diggins State Park
One gets an almost spiritual feeling when entering this place. This is China Garden, located in the Nevada County Gold Rush Community of North Bloomfield, also known as Humbug, in the Malakoff Diggins State Park. It has remained untouched since Humbug was designated a state historic park in the mid 1960's. But at one time, this place bustled with the activity of gold miners and families who practiced a real "Farm to Fork" movement.

They had too. Corner grocery stores didn't exist. If you wanted good and nutritious food in a gold mining camp like Malakoff Diggins, families either took action to feed themselves or they went hungry during the winter. Faced with that nuclear option in the early days of the gold rush, the Chinese miners that populated Malakoff Diggins set aside this nearly flat and wide property to grow all sorts of tasty summer and fall produce that was absolutely essential to keeping families well fed and healthy.

Entrance to China Garden Located in Humbug
In my last posting, I introduced you to a little known character by the name of Felix Gillet. Felix is responsible for importing thousands of fruit and nut tree offerings to Nevada County from his native France, where he essentially helped jump-start and lay the groundwork for the agricultural bounty that California is known for today. For the vast number of fruit and nut trees in both commercial and home orchards today are related to the groundbreaking work of a one Felix Gillet.

Gillet died in 1908. But the fruit and nut offerings he offered through his Barren Hill Nursery in Nevada County from the late 1860's up until the day he died bear witness to the impact he had on the West Coast agricultural industry. If you get a chance to speak to "Amigo" Bob Cantisano, who I introduced in my previous posting, he'll bend your ear for hours about Gillet's work and contributions. There are thousands of fruit trees that Gillet sold to gold miners and provided to gold mining camps during the great California Gold Rush, and those trees, despite their ancient age, are alive to this very day.

Felix Gillet
That Twenty Ounce Apple Tree that Cantisano discovered on the grounds of the old Buck's Ranch delivered a bounty of apples to gold miners during the height of the gold rush. It's still alive and still delivering a bounty of apples today. That White Adriatic fig tree on the banks of the Yuba River that served miners during the height of the gold rush, is still delivering figs to this very day. The men and women who planted Gillet trees by the thousands are long gone and mostly forgotten. And the fruit trees they planted now provide a nice meal for the bears and other wild creatures that roam old, abandoned, gold rush mining encampments.

But Gillet -- for all his marvelous accomplishments and work -- is not well remembered. You won't find a statue of him anywhere, although there is a memorial plaque located outside the former grounds of the Barren Hill Nursery. There's precious little mention of Gillet and his groundbreaking work. Other fruit tree breeders of the period, like Luther Burbank for example, are far better known and remembered for their work.

"Amigo" Bob Cantisano
Burbank, by the way, received most of his original fruit tree stock from, you guessed it, Felix Gillet.

So why isn't Gillet's memory preserved? Why has he been pushed off the pages of horticulture history? Why does it take a man like Amigo Cantisano to remind us of Gillet's contributions?

There might be one reason.

Before I go any further, I need to be honest with you. I approached a great number of people about this question, about my suspicions, and offered to include these observations in this blog posting. Not one was willing to respond. A Nevada County historian who has extensively studied the history of Chinese miners and mining camps was so unnerved by my request that he pushed it off to Amigo Cantisano. But he wasn't the only one. There were four of five others who declined comment. And I can't blame them.

Venus at Malakoff Diggins State Park
This is a touchy subject. I'm asking historians and others to delve into the minds of people who are no longer here. They are no longer around to defend themselves or explain the puzzling actions they took. How can you look into the mind of someone who died in 1908 and derive a reasonable answer to the question of: "What was this man thinking?" To those that I did contact, and chose not to respond, I do understand. No hard feelings. This is a blog dedicated to fruit and vegetable gardening and nothing more.

Felix Gillet was more than just a horticulturist -- a lot more. He was a prolific writer. He was also a leading citizen of Nevada County. He was so well respected by his peers that he was twice elected to the Nevada City Town Trustees. From 1878 to 1881, he helped make the city government more effective and progressive and reportedly never missed a session. He was a trustee during construction of a new city hall.

Workingmen's Party of California
Gillet was also a leading member of the Workingmen's Party of California.

Hold the phone a minute. Step on the brakes. Cue up the record scratch sound effects. Did he just write that Gillet was a leading member of the Workingmen's Party? Yes, I did. Do you remember your history of California? The Workingmen's Party had a very short date with California history, but they are responsible for one very special and dubious accomplishment. They helped craft and pass the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, one of the most racist actions ever taken by the United States government.

The Chinese Exclusion Act, which wasn't formally repealed until we were in the depths of World War II, essentially singled out one race of people, Chinese immigrants in California, and told them to "get lost." The law carried a clear message to people of Chinese descent: "pack up and get out." Not only did it outlaw Chinese immigration to the United States, it led to racist segregation policies that banned Chinese-Americans from living in certain communities.
Political Cartoon of the Period

Have you ever wondered why so many cities and communities in California had or still have areas that are referred to as "China Town?" It's because, for the longest time, these were the only parts of towns and communities that Chinese-Americans were allowed to live in. And, what's more, this racial harassment was allowed to continue unabated for decade after decade after decade. That's more than sixty long years if you're counting -- a lifetime for some people.

That's right. Felix Gillet was a legendary fruit and nut tree breeder, horticulturist and a leading citizen of Nevada County. He was also a racist son of a bitch. Next to slavery and the internment of U.S. citizens of Japanese descent during World War II, the Chinese Exclusion Act is a stain on our proud history.

Chinese Miner-Malakoff Diggins State Park Museum
Did Gillet play a role in this racial hatred? There's no doubt. For in April 1881, Nevada City passed an ordinance that stated the following: “all Chinese shall be removed from Nevada City within 60 days." I haven't found any evidence to suggest this removal actually took place. But I can tell you there were no Chinese miners living in Humbug when it became a state park in the mid 1960's. They had all departed, leaving only their proud history behind.

But this is just the start of these mental conundrum that has consumed a part of me. The fact that Gillet hated the Chinese is well documented. This doesn't surprise me. What does surprise me is this: If you walk on the grounds of China Garden today, Amigo Cantisano will point out about 50-60 Gillet fruit trees that the Chinese miners purchased and planted.

Fruit trees propagated by Gillet
China Garden-Gillet Pear Tree
 ring this property. They are easy to spot in the photos. Do you see the trees that are in a winter dormant stage? They look like they are dead? They're not. They are just taking a winter nap. Each and every one of the trees you see in China Garden is a Gillet fruit tree, purchased by Chinese miners who worked and lived in the Malakoff Diggins community.

Ah -- but China Garden wasn't the only Chinese mining camp in gold rush territory. There were hundreds of them. The remnants of these camps can be found as far north as Shasta and Siskiyou Counties and as far south as Tulare and Kings Counties. Amigo Cantisano hasn't had the chance to visit all of them. But of the camps he has literally stumbled across, he's found Gillet's fruit tree signature there.

I've found this signature too, although I didn't know it at the time. It's located on a 600 acre ranch just above Fiddletown in Amador County. This was once a Chinese mining camp, and the mines that Chinese miners dug underneath the lava caps covering prehistoric rivers and streams in their quest for gold are clearly visible. And -- located in the middle of this ranch -- is the largest pear tree I've ever seen in my life.

It had grown to immense proportions when I first saw it nearly a decade ago. Fifty feet high and loaded with pears, the roots of this gigantic fruit tree had managed to grow into an underground water table that sustained it. It had somehow managed to survive the massive wildfires that burn through these remote, largely unpopulated, canyons every 40-50 years.

I saw entire flocks of birds populating every branch of this majestic fruit producer. And, as the birds pecked at the fruit this tree gave, much of it fell below to turkeys and other wild animals waiting for a fruit snack at the base of this tree.

As much as I wanted one of these pears -- I dared not tread there. Did you know rattlesnakes also like pears? They do. Trust me on this. As much as I wanted to take a piece of that agricultural history home with me on that day -- I wasn't up to battling an ornery rattlesnake.
Dormant Fruit Tree-Humbug

There is no doubt in my mind now that this tree, which had been planted by Chinese miners, is yet another remnant of Felix Gillet's Barren Hill Nursery. Although I've alerted Amigo Cantisano to the presence of this tree and he agrees that it probably came from Gillet's operation, he has no great urge to visit there. He's got a list of other places to visit first. Gillet's trees are planted everywhere.

And that's the mystery. That's my personal mental conundrum. For it's clear that the Chinese miners were snapping up fruit trees from Gillet's Barren Hill Nursery by the thousands. They helped make him the legendary success that he was. But, in return, Gillet led a movement that led to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act? He voted on a resolution to remove all Chinese citizens from Nevada City?

Museum at Malakoff Diggins State Park
What in the world was this man thinking? This is part of a community that put his nursery business on the map! They bought his product. Without the Chinese mining community, Gillet would not have accomplished the measure of success that he did -- not even close.

Yet, his response was: "get out?" I still can't make sense of it. And those whom I've contacted regarding this mystery haven't felt the need to respond. I can't blame them. This is a tough nut to crack.

Could this racial hatred be one reason why Gillet isn't remembered or celebrated for his contributions to the nut and fruit tree industries on the West Coast? I think that answer might quite possibly be yes, and I do have some recent history that might prove my suspicions to be correct.
Formerly Known as "Goethe Park"

In late 2007 or early 2008, Sacramento County Supervisors received troubling information that a popular river park used by generations of families was named after a man who openly praised the Nazi Party and supported a movement called "Eugenics."

Not only did Charles M. Goethe openly praise the work of a one Adolph Hitler, he created the Eugenics Society of Northern California. He strongly believed in forced sterilization of those deemed "socially unfit," and was an open supporter of Hitler's efforts to purify the Aryan race before the outbreak of World War II.

Even though Goethe was a lifelong Sacramentan and is widely given credit for establishing California State University, Sacramento (CSUS), Supervisors couldn't move quickly enough to remove the Goethe name from every trace of county property. Charles M. Goethe park was quickly renamed "River Bend Park."
Charles M. Goethe

"It's a public park where everyone should feel welcome," said Supervisor Roberta MacGlashan, who spoke in support of the name change and was quoted by the Sacramento Bee.

But Sacramento County Supervisors weren't alone in taking this kind of action. Although Goethe may be responsible for the creation of CSUS, his name cannot be found anywhere on campus. On June 21, 2007, the Sacramento City Unified School District Board voted to rename the “Charles M. Goethe Middle School” to the “Rosa Parks Middle School.”

But not everyone agreed with these changes. Opponents suggested that Goethe lived in another era of time where views such as his were more widely accepted. It was therefore "unfair" to expose and judge his views in this era of "political correctness."

I'm sorry, but I don't buy that. Not for a single, solitary second.

You see, my father was one of many who "lived" the Nazi experiment. He was just one of several thousand men who were captured by Nazi forces in the ill-fated "Raid on Dieppe," during World War II and would spend the next three years living the "Nazi experiment" in a Nazi-run prisoner of war camp.

During his first year of captivity he was kept in shackles and routinely tortured. Although treatment of Allied prisoners improved somewhat as fortunes turned against the Nazi's in the later years of the war, my father suffered a brutal beating at one point for the crime of stealing a turnip.

Why did he steal a turnip? If you guessed that he might have been hungry due to mass food shortages during the war, that would probably be a good guess.
Chinese Temple in Oroville CA

If Mr. Goethe ever had the misfortune of running into my father at any point in time after the war, can you imagine how my father would have reacted to his "pro Nazi" views? Dad would have punched him in the nose. And he would have kept on punching until someone stopped him.

The passage of time is no excuse for errors and mistakes in judgement. Refusing to learn from these mistakes and errors only dooms us to repeat them again.

Should we then forget the contributions of legendary fruit and nut tree provider Felix Gillet for his racist views and actions against Chinese miners in California? No, I don't think that's right either. I don't think he should be forgotten. I don't think his work should be filed away in some forgotten filing cabinet. I think he should be remembered and celebrated for all his accomplishments.
Outside the Former Barren Hill Nursery

Yet at the same time, it should never be forgotten that he wasn't a perfect man. Most men aren't perfect. Gillet is just one of many. Both his accomplishments and his mistakes should be held in the same light of truth and transparency.

Have we forgotten the names of our nation's founding fathers? Do school children still learn about the Declaration of Independence and the immortal words that Thomas Jefferson wrote? "All Men are Created Equal."

Yet Jefferson kept slaves. He kept hundreds of men and women in a lifetime of enslavement. Did those words in the Declaration of Independence apply to them as well? Or should that line have been rewritten to claim "Some Men are Created more Equal than Others?"

While it's been interesting to learn about Gillet's work and enjoyable to pay a visit to Malakoff Diggins State Park and the town of Humbug, I don't think I'll ever feel the same way about fruit trees again.

Then again, thinking isn't such a bad thing. See Amigo Cantisano lead a short tour of China Garden here.

Read more here:,E&p_text_date-0=2008&p_field_advanced-0=&p_text_advanced-0=(%22River%20Bend%20Park%22)&xcal_numdocs=50&p_perpage=25&p_sort=YMD_date:D&xcal_useweights=no#storylink=cpy


Penny Pretty said...

Great article, really interesting and fascinating learning the local history! Also, love the local garden posts, good tips for suburban veggie gardeners just starting out like me, many thanks!

traci stewart said...

Great post. I love learning the history, good and evil, of my adopted state. I've often wondered at the fate of the Chinese miners and their lack of recognition in mainstream history. Fascinating material!

Sandy Bressler said...

The history is an important part of our appreciation for the establishment of trees ...thanks !

Kevin said...

Impressive write-up! Great history you have shared about China on garden. Thanks a lot for sharing your knowledge with us. I really appreciate it.