The 1900 harvest of potatoes and other vegetables from the Sitka garden of Gov. John G. Brady. (Photo courtesy of Alaska State Library Historical Collections)
Sitka cattle on the beach in 1887 (Photo courtesy of Alaska State Library Historical Collections)
Even though Sitka doesn’t have much in the way of commercial agriculture and gardening these days, at one point in the 19th Century and early 20th Century Sitka was Alaska’s original garden city.
Sitka has a unique history that includes the Tlingít, Russian and American cultures. Even before the first Russians arrived in the 1700s and made Sitka (or New Archangel, as the Russians called it) the capital of Russian America in 1803, the Tlingíts had simple gardens for potatoes and other crops they’d received from Spanish and other explorers. The Tlingíts would plant potatoes and other root vegetables before they headed out to their fish camps, then they’d harvest the gardens as they made their way to their hunting and winter camps. In addition, the Tlingíts in Shee Atiká (Sitka) were constantly gathering roots, berries, and other food and medicinal plants that grew in the area. The Tlingíts also created an early form of mariculture, creating clam gardens by creating rock-walled beach terraces at low tide to keep clams and other shellfish in certain areas for easy growth and harvest.
When the Russians arrived in Sitka, they were fur trappers and not colonists. However, the Russian czar required all land patents to have gardens, and that established the first formal vegetable and fruit production in Sitka. The Russians (along with the Finns and Swedes who served as indentured servants to the Russians) maintained several large gardens until 1867, when Russian America was sold to the United States.
Among the first Americans to arrive in Alaska were missionaries, including Dr. Sheldon Jackson who established a school for Native Americans in Sitka that eventually became Sheldon Jackson College and also served as Alaska’s Superintendent for Indian Education with the U.S. Department of Interior. In 1891, Dr. Jackson lobbied Congress to create a U.S. Department of Agriculture experimental farm in Sitka to see if agriculture had any potential in Alaska. It wasn’t until 1897, when Congress acted, passing a bill that in 1898 created USDA experimental farms in Sitka and Kodiak. Over the next few years, more USDA experimental farms would be established in Kenai, Rampart, Fairbanks, Copper Center, and Matanuska (Palmer).
Many details about the USDA experimental farm in Sitka can be found in an article in the Spring 1998 issue of Agroborealis (Pages 7-11), celebrating 100 years of agriculture research in Alaska. The article includes information about some of the experiments run by lead horticulturist Charles Christian Georgeson, who later moved to the Fairbanks experimental station and now has a botanical garden named for him at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. One of Georgeson’s first experiments involved growing potatoes, and he noted how well the local seaweed worked as a fertilizer. He also developed the Sitka hybrid strawberry in 1905, combining a wild beach strawberry from Yakutat with a commercial variety of unknown origin (see Pages 30-32).
Unfortunately, many of the experimental farms were closed, except the two in Fairbanks and Palmer. The Sitka experimental station closed in 1931, and much of the land was converted to other uses. Until he retired in 2014, Bob Gorman, a longtime University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service employee, maintained a few small garden plots on the former Sitka experimental farm site where he conducted a few experiments (including growing corn in a high tunnel). Some of the fruit trees planted by Georgeson more than 100 years ago still produce fruit.
A photo gallery of historic Sitka gardening photos is below, followed by a photo gallery of more recent photos of the former Sitka experimental farm taken during a September 2013 tour for the International Master Gardeners Conference Cruise when it visited town. The historical photos were provided to the Sitka Local Foods network in 2008 by then-Sitka Historical Society and Museum curator Ashley Kircher (now Ashley Oliphant) and intern Amy Thompson.