On Sunday, Nevada City quietly celebrated one of the most renowned horticulturists of the early 20th century, known for revolutionizing the walnut and hazlenut industries on the west coast.
Nevada City council proclaimed January 27 as Felix Gillet Day, 100 years after the nursery man died. Gillet owned Barren Hill Nursery on Nursery Street in Nevada City from 1871 to his death Jan. 29, 1908.
"He's a world renowned horticulturist," said Bob Johansen, who lives in Gillet's old house on one remaining acre of the nursery located at 426 Nursery Street. The original nursery sat on 16 acres of logged land.
"There's a lot of old vintage trees here still growing," Johansen said. Chestnuts planted by Gillet continue to grow on the historic grounds. The U.S. Department of Agriculture sent Gillet specimens collected from all over the world.
"He would plant them and see if they would survive in the soil here," Johansen said.
Gillet was born in France on March 25, 1835. He spent time at a naval school at Roucheford when 16 years old before coming to the United States. He learned the barber trade in Boston then moved to San Jose before moving to Nevada City in 1859.
He worked as a barber before purchasing the nursery in 1871, considered one of the fist fruit nurseries on the west coast. Gillet is credited with providing the nursery stock that established the hazlenut industry in the Northwest. Many of his varieties came from European sources.
Relics of that early time remain in the old Gillet house including a journal, old nursery catalogues, book binding equipment, an old wine press and evidence of his failed attempts to raise silk worms.
The Barren Hill Nursery, renamed the Felix Gillet Nursery, continued to operate after Gillet's death and in 1968 was thought to be the oldest continuously operating nursery in California.
Members of the Luther Burbank society and horticulture students from California, Oregon and Washington universities have paid a visit to the old nursery.
"They want to see the old trees and the old house. They want to see history," Johansen said.
To contact Staff Writer Laura Brown, e-mail lbrown@the union.com or call 477-4231.