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E. A. Riehl, Illinois Horticulturist

A Short Sketch of his Life by his Daughter, Helen Riehl McLennan. From The Prairie Schooner, Spring 1983. There may be typographical errors.

     It has been said: “If we wish to make a good man, we must begin with his grandfather.” Mr. E. A. Riehl had the reputation of being an exceptional man, physically, mentally, and morally; we will see what mae him so.
     His grandfather, Daniel Riehl, was the owner of the Colmer Mills, for the manufacture of woolen cloth, in Alcase, France.
     In 1795 he was married to Mlle Therese L’Huillier. They had five children, three daughters and two sons, who received the best education to be obtained in their day.
     Danie. The younger son, was a gifted artist, and painted landscapes and portraits of exquisite workmanship and beauty. He died at the early age of thirty-two years. Some of his paintings were brought to this country, and two of his beautiful Rhine scenes were sold to Colonel Dent, father-in-law of ex-president U. S. Grant.
     The eldest son, Nicholas Riehl, was a naturalist and as a young man specialized in ornithology and botany. He made a collection of the birds of Alscase which he presented to the Museum of Colmar, where it remains to this day. He also made a collection of the wild flowers of his native country, Alscase, and brought them over to America in 1833. (This collection was later sold to Riehl Henry Shaw, and placed in the museum of Shaw Garden, St. Louis, where no doubt they still remain.)
     Nicholas Riehl, on emigrating to America, naturally came west to the French settlement of St. Louis. He brough land near Carondelette, a suburb of South St. Louis. Here he built a two-room log cabin, and started his floral and horticultural nursery, having chosen that business as his profession.
     He then returned to France and married Mlle Amelie Muller, daughter of the Colmar school teacher. He brought his bride to his pioneer home in the new land.
     On the 24th of May, 1837, they day on which Queen Victoria ascended the throne of England, a child was born in St. Louis County, Missouri, in the log cabin home of Nicholas and Amelie Riehl. He was their first-born in the new country in which they had chosen to make their home. They gave him the French name, Emile.
     Emile Riehl, his three sisters and two brothers, passed their childhood in true pioneer fashion. They went to a log school house where they learned English. Their father spoke German in the home, and their mother, French. This gave the children three languages.
     As a boy Emile was very fond of flowers. He was an unusually observing lad, very deft with his hands, and seemed to never forget anything he had once learned. He loved to watch his father’s many grafting experiments (such as making tomato vines grow on potato plants), and was early trained to do the practical work of budding and grafting in the nursery.
     After he was ten years old, his father often took him along as his assistant when setting out orchards for his patrons, planting trees and shrubs in the parks, or laying out gardens for wealthy St. Louisans.
     When Emile reached the age of fifteen years, his father sent him east to college. (Here my sources differ. Aunt Nell says Richmond, Virginia; Aunt Mim says Norristown, Pennsylvania. It is possible that he went both places at different times.) The important thing is the general area, the native home of the American chestnut. It was this acquaintance with the small sweet native nuts which led him to plant chestnut seed on his own farm in later years, and to his historic work of crossing these native nuts with the larger European and Chinese nuts, working until he produced varieties with fine flavor of the native with the size of the imported (EAT).
     At the college he distinguished himself in mathematics and natural philosophy. Here he met a student with the same name as himself. This caused considerable confusion in the classroom and on the campus. Their mail kept getting mixed up. This was particularly embarassing when Emile received the other Emile’s love letters. He added the initial “A” to mark the difference. He had never like the name Emile, so now went by the initials E. A. His own family spoke of him as “Brother E.A.” Some of the nieces on his wife’s side of the family spoke of him in later years as “Uncle Riehl.”
     While he was away at school his father died suddenly of a congestive chill. At the early age of sixteen e.A. Riehl had to give up his higher education and face the world to make a living for his widowed mother and younger brothers and sisters. He was a good accountant, and soon found work with a friend of the faily as bookkeeper in a St. Louis mercantile house.
     At times his father’s old patrons asked his services, and in this way Norman Coleman (publisher of COLEMAN’S RURAL WORLD) sent him up to Jersey County, Illinois to plant an orchard for a Mr. Johnson, who at that time lived on the farm next to the one E.A. eventually purchased. Aunt Nell does not mention this, but part of the legend of E.A. Riehl as my aunts told it in my childhood was that he had been a steamboat pilot before this time, and had always been thrilled by the bluffs along the Mississippi near Alton. He welcomed this opportunity to see them from the land. (EAT) E.A. told Mr. Johnson how he liked the location. Mr. Johnson said: “Well, if you like it that well, why don’t you buy the place next door, it is for sale!” We do not have an accurate date for this conversation, but the deed from John Lock and wife was dated August 12, 1863, and the first entry we find in his day book is dated September 7, 1863. My aunts told me, and the day book substantiates the statement, that E.A.’s two younger brothers helped him get started in his undertaking. He received his initial financial backing from Charles Blossom of St. Louis. (EAT).
     He made a small payment on the land, giving a mortgage for the rest of his indebtedness. He then built a seven room house, landscaped the gardens and roadside, and planted a vineyard and small fruits.
     He was married March 20th, 1866 to Mathilde Roesch, youngest daughter of Dr. Carl Roesch of St. Louis. She was a gifted woman of high ideals, and an ardent lover of nature and country life.
     Mr. Riehl brought his bride immediately to Evergreen Heights which was ever afterward her beloved home, where her nine children were born, and grew to manhood and womanhood.
     Mr. Riehl was a naturalist, like his father, and had chosen horticulture as his life work. The record shows he had already worked over two and a half years here on this place; clearing the land, grubbing strumps, planting grapes and berries, growing sweet potatoes, building a house. He was no means well off, borrowing money to operate on in addition to the lien against the land, but he had things started that he felt would work, and the knowledge and ability to make them work. This period was not without its heartaches and mistakes. One entry tells of the loss of an estimated 250 bushel sweet potatoes because they had been stored in too big a pile and had heated. This lied to the system of storage that was in use in my boyhood, with the bins just so big, and air space under, over, and on all four sides. He learned from his mistakes, and through the horticultural societies of the day he passed the information along so the whole fruit-growing brotherhood was better off for the experiences he had, both good and bad. (EAT)
     He was an early member of the Alton Horticultural Society, and one of the first members of the State Horticultural Society, which was formed later. At the December 1st meeting of the State Society, Mr. Riehl was the only member there who had attended the meeting of that Society held at Normal, Illinois sixty years ago.
     He worked incessantly and with great enthusiasm for the advancement of horticulture, and has held every office of honor and trust in the gift of the Illinois State Horticulture Society, of which he was a life member. He was also a member of the Nut Growers Association and the American Pomological Society.
     For over forty years he conducted one of the State Horticultural experiement stations, where all the new fruits of promise were tested, and their merits carefully noted and recorded. The establishment of these experiment stations were accomplished while he was President of the State Horticultural Society. At his suggestion the State Legislature made an appropriation for the purpose of establishing and maintaining these stations for testing new varieties. This work added much to the general knowledge of horticulture in the state and nation.
     (From here I have inegrated portions of an article written by my mother, Anna Riehl Thompson, also a daughter of E.A. Riehl.)
     “Many of my father’s experiments were directed toward developing new and better varieties of fruits from seedlings. This he accomplished through years of patient labors, crossing varieites having desirable qualities. In this way he produced the Alton hardy peach, and a fine red grape appropriately named “Delicious” and “Eclipse.” These grapes were originally called “No. 10,” and cheked thoroughly by the experiment-minded growers of the day (1904) and by the State Experiment Stations then established. The patents were sold the Stark Bros. Nursery, at Louisiana, Missouri, and the varieties were sold as “Stark’s Delicious,” etc. My father then contracted to supply the stock at wholesale prices.
     “E.A. Riehl had a happy faculty for naming new varieties and was often called on to do this without a name at places of exhibition. He would never give his own name to any of the fruits or nuts originated by himself, anor allow any of his friends to name any of their fruits after him.
     “His services were mucy sought after at fairs and expositions where fruits were to be judged. His keen observation, scientific accuracy, and impartial judgment made his work in this respect of the highest value.
     “Professor Henry E. Van Deman of Washington D.C. tried bery hard to get Mr. Riehl’s consent to act as Superintendent of Horticulture at the Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland, Oregon, but he declined to serve saying he was “too busy.”
     Mr. Riehl was a frequent speaker at both Alton and State Horticultural meetings, and has contributed many articles through the years to such well-known publications as “The Country Gentleman,” “American Nut Growers Jounral,” and “Rural New Yorker.” (These were a part of his published writings. In his old correspondence I found copies of many letters that he wrote, explaining his work and findings to his contemporaries in the horticulatural work, and many beginners whom he felt were worthy of his time and effort. He had little patience with those who “have no knowledge of the subject whatever, and ask a multitude of questions, and do not even bother to include a self-addressed stamped envelope. These I throw in the waste basket!” (Quote from a letter from E.A. Riehl to his daughter, Amelia 1915.) (EAT)
     He was a consistent exhibitor of fruits, vegetables, and nuts at the local Horticulatural Society, The State Society, the State Fair, the Midwest Exposition, the Centennial Exposition Commorating the Acquisition of the Louisiana Territory, held in St. Louis in 1904. (We still have a box of ribbons from these exhibitions. Reprentative are: gold medal for fruits from the Louisiana Territory Exposition, four first premiums from State Fair, 1915, and Aware of Merit from American Pomological Society 37th convention at Columbus, Ohio.) (EAT)
     Another outstanding achievement was a discovery of a process of grafting nut trees. This was an outstanding achievement, said by the authorities of the time to be “the greatest advance in the science of grafting in the last 200 years.”
     (Here we leave the writings of daughters Helen and Anna and quote from the published articles of his daughter Amelia, who carried on his work after his death. She was a member of the Northern Nut Growers Association, and a chafter member of Midwest Nutn Growers Association. She followed her father in many ways, including his abhorrence of unsubstantiated statements, and irresponsible claims so oftten indulged in by those who wish to advance their own personal gain rather than the gain of the science of horticulture.)
     “My father was born in St. Louis County, next to the farm owned by the family of Ex-President U.S. Grant. He was personally acquainted with the Grants as neighbors, and the Dents (Grant married Julia Dent).
     “The land he bought in Jersey County was rough and hilly, only less than one-third of it being fit for cultivation—the tops of the hills and the valleys between them. These small pieces he gradually cleared and began growing various kinds of fruits and vegetables. The fruits were shipped to the Chicago market. The vegetables were disposed in many places. (Day book entry August 1866 shows “shipped 46 boxes of tomatoes to H.H. Marsh”).
     He was a pioneer by nature, always the first in the neighborhood to start growing a new crop. When he saw that any one thing was being planted to excess he quit growing it, and went to planting something else. He was plowing up asparagus when one of the neighbors came by. ‘Why Mister Riehl! There’s good money in asparagus,’ he exclaimed. Mr. Riehl knew that, and had made the good money. When he saw many of the neighbors planting asparagus he plowed his out and planted another crop.
     “When the custom of decorating graves on Memorial Day became general he conceived the idea of growing peonies and shipping the flowers in the bud stage to the wholesale flower markets to be used in place of the greenhouse grown material which was being used almost exculsively at that time.
     “He tried this out in a small way, going to people who had peonies in their gardens; offering to divide the plants, and start the beds anew, taking the surplus plants in payment for his work. These first plantings did so well that he then bought named varieities, and after growing them a few years selected those best suited for shipping purposes. When he began his work, light colors were “the style” in grave decorations. Now we are discarding most of the white and light pink varieties, and replacing them with red and deep pink because now all decorations must be brilliant as possible. (This was writtten in 1927) (EAT) We now have 5 acres in peony fields. The flowers bring us in about three thousand dollars a year. The care of the plants is costly, and the profit is not great, but it pays much better than growing corn or wheat in this hilly country, and is a lot more interesting. Now this peony business is being overdone. There are so many being grown that only the best will sell. Our land, having been worked for sixty years, cannot be made to produce the finest flowers. We are gradually cutting down on peonies and developing the nut tree business which our father started.
     When a boy Mr. riehl had gone to school in Pennsylvania, where the chestnuts grew wild. In his early years at Evergreen Heights he planted a few chestnut trees so as to have chestnuts for his children. (The largest of these trees now has a circumference of eight feet, and a spread of branches of over sixty feet.)
     He then began a search for the best chestnuts to be found. In this project he had the help of many of his horticultural friends. Some of the seed he planted came from Italy, some from Japan. The other parent was always the native American chestnut, noted for its find flavor, but handicapped by the small size. The crosses were made by grafting scions from the new seedlings into the top branches of the established natuve trees. (This is known as “topworking”.) The nuts from these crosses were carefully tabulated as to parentage, planted, and nurtured until they bore nuts. Hundreds of these little trees were planted in rough, uncultivated land that had never been plowed for crops. As soon as they were large enough the land was pastured. They were set too close for permanent planting, each tree was only allowed enough room to develop a few nuts. These nuts were carefully tested, and the poorer treese either cut out to make room for others near them or topworked to some better variety. Out of thousands of these seedlings (the product of the crosses) about twenty of the most promising were given numbers, and were watched very closely for several years. Six of them have proven so good they were named and introduced as new varieties.
     Mr. Riehl grafted some young trees of his best new varieities and sent them to experiment stations in this country and abroad. From all points he got very good reports on these trees. Soon there was a demand for the trees, and several nurseries undertood to propagate them, but soon gave it up, saying the trees were too hard to graft, and it did not pay. As long as he lived, M Riehl grew a few hundred trees each year to satisfy the most urgent demand. (Nut trees are much more difficult to graft than the apple, peach and pear, than most nurserymen were used to working with.) (We are still growing chestnut trees for sale (1927).
     The information of the foregoing pages is written by my Aunt Helen “Nell” Riehl McLennan, my mother Anna Riehl Thompson, my aunt Amelia (“Mim” Riehl. The parenthesis are my insertions in some cases from my own memory of things that were told to me as I grew up in the household of my grandfather, E.A. Riehl. I quote now from the article on his death in The Alton Evening Telegraph, January 26, 1925. “The death of Mister Riehl has attracted attention of horticulturists all over the middle weste, and since Saturday a steady stream of messages of condolence and tributes to his achievement in the fruit and nut growing field has poured in on the bereaved family. He has been called one of the seven most important horticulturists in the country, and while honored and respected in his home community, his work is perhaps better known at the Department of Agriculture in Washington, and the leading agricultural universities than it was understood in Alton.”
     Quote from the American Nut Journal, February, 1925: “The the older members of the Northern Nut Growers Association the passing of Mister Riehl is an especial loss, for he had attended annual meetings of the association, and become personally acquainted with members. He manifested much interest in the culture of all the northern nuts, and particularly chestnuts and walnuts. He contributed from time to time articles on the chestnut to The American Nut Journal, describing his original methods of chestnut grafting. He was widely known for his breeding of new varieties of chestnuts. He was the best informed man in Illinois on nut growing.”
     A fine tribute. A fitting end to his life, and to the story of it.

Contributed by Marty Crull and his volunteers.

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