A trip the grocery store is all it takes for any Duluth resident to have access to a plethora of fresh vegetables and fruits. Yet, in the early 1900s, access to fresh veggies year-round was a luxury only enjoyed by those able to garden themselves. The vegetable garden of the famous Congdon family’s estate, named Glensheen, is an example of one of Duluth’s early vegetable-producing gardens.
The gardens were constructed during the building process of the estate, which took three years and nine months, according to Micheal Lane, author of the book “Glensheen: The Construction Years.” Being able to provide vegetables and food for themselves was an important value for the Congdon family.
“Self-sustainability was much more common back then than today,” said Dan Hartman, Duluth city council member and Glensheen grounds history expert. The vegetable garden allowed the family to have 100 percent self-sustainability. They didn’t need anything from the outside community.”
Such a large garden required experts to take care of all the plants that they grew. The family had a cottage built on the estate where the head gardener would live year-round, according to a recent tour manual from the Glensheen.
With the help of a team of six hired men, the head gardeners of the estate would plow and plant a wide variety of crops, including corn, tomatoes and beets, according to the Glensheen tour manual.
Crops were watered with the use of a reservoir irrigation system, which trapped water from nearby Tischer Creek and fed it directly to the gardens themselves, according to Lane's book. Not only did the gardens produce in the summer time, but greenhouses were also built and attached to the gardener’s cottage to enable the gardeners to grow vegetables during the cold winter months as well.
Although the estate had six head gardeners, the longest-lasting and most recent head gardener, Bob Wyness, ended up being the longest resident of the Congdon estate, according to the Glensheen tour manual.
“One big thing that the family cared about was the garden,” said TJ Sikorski, Glensheen security guard and tour guide. “They wanted to make sure there was always a gardener at Glensheen.”
Bob Wyness took care of the grounds until he retired in 1985. Yet, his life on the estate didn’t end with his retirement as head gardener. Wyness was so respected that he was allowed to live in the gardeners cottage until he passed away in 2003.
The estate is now owned by the University of Minnesota Duluth after it was deeded to the school in the Congdon will. Traditions of gardening at the Glensheen Mansion have been so engrained that the vegetable gardens are still fully operational today.
“The gardens are a big component of the mansion,” Sikorski said. “They are run like it was back in the day.”
The university now takes care of the gardens through their grounds and facilities program and currently has head gardener, Roger Johnson, staffing Gleensheen. Although the gardeners no longer live on the estate, they still work the grounds and tend to the gardens full-time. A small crew of university students is hired seasonally to help out with the Glensheen grounds.
Although the gardens on the estate are still in operation, they are slightly smaller than when the Congdons lived there.
“What there is now is a slightly scaled-back version,” Sikorski said.
Even with the smaller gardens, large amounts of produce are still grown throughout the late summer and early fall. With all these extra vegetables being produced and no Congdon family to eat them, the university had to find ways to make the produce go to good use.
With the Congdons’ rich, charitable history, it was decided that the vegetables would be donated to the Second Harvest Food Bank, which sends a truck to the estate whenever a fresh batch of produce has been harvested.
“Glensheen has been a donor since 2006,” said Heather Murphy, donation director at Second Harvest.
Heather said the Glensheen gardens have been donating an average of 1,400 pounds each season, with a peak of up to 2,500 pounds on a good year.
“To put that into perspective, that’s 1,200 to 2,000 meals provided,” Murphy said.
A rich history of gardening has proven to not only feed the wealthy Congdon family, but it also helps feed the poor and the needy.
“The Congdons had a history of giving to the community,” Hartman said. “This is one of the things that has carried on.”