Felix Gillet

Felix Gillet

Rochefort, Departement de la Charente-Maritime, Poitou-Charentes, France
Death 27 Jan 1908 (aged 72)
Nevada City, Nevada County, California, USA
Burial Nevada City, Nevada County, California, USA
Memorial ID 49468601 · View Source
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Aged 72 years 10 months 2 days

Felix Gillet shares an upright red granite marker with Avelene V. Dulac & Julia T. Dulac, beside a matching red granite marker for Jean-Baptiste Ducray and Jean's wife Julia "Julie" Catherine Ducray. Julia T. Dulac was Felix's wife of 17 years, the niece/adoptive daughter of Felix's closest friends, J. B. and Julia Catherine Ducray. Avelene Dulac was Julia T. Dulac's baby daughter with her husband George Dulac, whom Julia married after Felix's passing.

Felix Gillet was one of Nevada City's most notable residents, a famed horticulturalist who in 1871 established the world-renowned Barren Hill Nursery in Nevada City. His trees were planted throughout the world (notably in orchards throughout the Santa Clara Valley in California and the Willamette Valley in Oregon), many of which still are producing today. Felix also, as a Nevada City town trustee, participated in building Nevada City's City Hall. A plaque commemorating Felix's contribution to horticulture is on the stone gates on Nursery Street (named for his nursery) at the former entrance road to his home and nursery. A plaque commemorating his role in building City Hall is outside City Hall.

Felix Gillet was born in Rochefort, France, in 1835. As a teenager, as a sailor in France's shipping industry, he made several crossings between the United States and France. During the 1850s he settled in Boston, where he visited Julia Ward Howe (the writer of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"), and trained to be a barber. On 29 February 1859, he came to Nevada City from San Jose, California, where he had a barber shop; and opened the town's first barber shop, that also sold French fineries, including pens and stationery.

During the 1860s, Felix was active in support of abolition and the 14th Amendment. In one rally downtown, when protesters shouted down an African-American resident of Nevada City, Felix took to the stage and refused to allow the interruption. Felix saw civil rights as a human right. Despite this, Felix was not friendly to the Chinese people who were his neighbors. Historian Michel Janicot noted in his book, "The French Connection: the French in Nevada County, California" (1991, page 57):
   "...When the Franco-Prussian War began in 1870, Gillet took an active part toward raising funds for the relief of war victims in France through charities, bazaars, and social functions. ..."

Felix became good friends with Jean-Baptiste and Julia Catherine Ducray, who also came from France. The Ducrays moved to Nevada City in 1850, where John B. (as Jean "Americanized" his name) engaged in gold mining with his younger brother Jean Claude (John C. Ducray), and John B. planted orchards on the Oregon Hill property where the Ducray brothers placer mined gold from the Oregon Ravine. John B. built a large home on the property.

Felix admired the 35 acres of orchards and re-creation of a largely self-sufficient French farm that John B. established in Nevada city and county, on what became called Orchard Street because of John B.'s orchards (which he began planting in 1851, which extended from Orchard Street northwest and included the present site of Nevada County's Rood Government Center and Madelyn Helling Library. The Ducray home and orchards are shown on the first official map drawn of Nevada township). John B. Ducray had orchards of pears, apples, peaches, walnuts, filberts (hazelnuts), and almonds, in addition to produce, vineyards from which he produced wines and brandies, and two acres of clover for his bees to produce honey in comb. Julia Catherine planted many rose bushes around the Ducrays' 14-room home, the large "cabbage rose" variety popular in the 1800s. The couple enjoyed exhibiting the literal fruits of their labors at State and local fairs.

Felix was interested in horticulture and was inspired by his friend John B.'s results.

In 1869, Felix bought 16 acres on Aristocracy Hill (later he bought four adjacent acres) and ordered $3,000 of walnut, hazelnut/filbert, chestnut, mulberry, prune, and fig trees from France; over time, he brought in varieties of fruits and nuts from about 40 countries around the world. Felix propagated the trees and carefully observed which varieties did best in various climates and topographies. He named new varieties he propagated.

In 1872, Felix began selling his trees, locally and via catalog. He named his business "Barren Hill Nursery" because the property had been stripped to bedrock by hydraulic gold mining, as had been the property of John B. Ducray before John B. created lush farmland by diverting soil-rich water via wing-dams from the Oregon Ravine on his property during excavation for Nevada City's reservoir as it was being built above town. Felix did not have the luxury of a stream through his property: to the astonishment of his neighbors, he laboriously carted water in and carried water bucket by bucket to irrigate his trees.

Felix's nursery business thrived. It was so successful, and its quality was so well-known and associated with Felix, that years later subsequent purchasers changed its name to Felix Gillet Nursery. A variety of fig still is known as "Gillet fig" (sometimes misspelled "Gillette"). In his time, and still today, horticulturalists viewed Felix's achievements as being as significant as the well-known Luther Burbank's, though Felix did not achieve the publicity Luther Burbank attained. The Felix Gillet Institute was established in recognition of Felix's accomplishments, and an excellent and comprehensive review of his achievements can be found at the Institute's website.

Felix, a gifted and prolific writer, wrote often in magazines and newspapers, in a vivid, intelligent, enjoyable style, describing Nevada County's agricultural and horticultural produce, offering horticultural advice, and answering readers' questions. Felix often mentioned the results of his friend John B. Ducray, and told readers that "J. B. Ducray's place is well worth a visit."

John B. and Julia Catherine had no children of their own, but raised and loved their niece Theresa Julia Brenoel as their daughter. Born in 1868 in Crawford County, Pennsylvania (where the Ducray family settled in 1839 when they emigrated from France), as a young child Theresa Julia came to Nevada City and lived with her Uncle John B. and Aunt Julia. The family had an idyllic life, enjoying their farm and orchards and friends in Nevada City, attending Saint Canice Catholic Church, traveling to Pennsylvania to visit family, and traveling to San Francisco and Sacramento to visit family and exhibit at State and local fairs. Felix accompanied the Ducrays to fairs, and wrote about the fine specimens on display.

In 1890, after more than 20 years of close friendship with Felix, both John B. and Julia Catherine passed away, John B. of pneumonia on March 20, and Julia Catherine just four months later on August 1. At age 21, Theresa Julia lost her beloved aunt and uncle, who had raised her. They willed all of their property to her.

Joined by affection, and shared grief and loss, Felix and Theresa Julia married a few months later, in January 1891. Felix enlarged his home on Nursery Street, where the newlyweds lived. Perhaps in homage to her beloved Aunt Julia Catherine, Theresa Julia changed her name to Julia Theresa upon her marriage to Felix. Neither their age difference (Felix was 33 years older) nor height difference (Julia Theresa was taller) mattered to the couple.

Felix and Julia Theresa were prominent and popular citizens in Nevada City. Felix served as Trustee for one of its wealthiest residents, Mrs. George allen, the widow of the owner of Miner's Foundry, who appointed Felix to manage her vast mining, real estate, and banking holdings. As City Councilman, Felix participated in building Nevada City's first City Hall. His Barren Hill Nursery business remained successful, and Felix remained active in his nursery for 35 years, until shortly before his passing, when his rib was injured in an accident at the nursery. His contributions to the propagation of fruit and nut trees still are seen, and tasted, today.

Felix and Julia Theresa were married 17 years, until Felix passed away January 27, 1908, at age 72. The couple had no children. Felix was laid to rest beside his close friends Jean-Baptiste and Julia Catherine Ducray, in Pioneer Cemetery. Felix willed all of his property to Julia Theresa, except bequests to his three sisters in France. Julia Theresa was widowed at age 39.

With having years of experience at her Uncle John B. Ducray's orchards and farm, and at the nursery, after Felix's passing Julia Theresa ran the Barren Hill Nursery, also known as the Felix Gillet Nursery, where George Dulac was head nurseryman. George was a Nevada City son of Gold Rush pioneer residents Louis and Manuela Dulac, who owned mining interests, homes and properties in Nevada City and County. George owned a home and land on Main Street, above Court Street. Louis Dulac was a long-time close friend of Felix's and the Ducrays'; with Felix, he witnessed the Ducrays' Wills in 1869, and the update to Julia Catherine's Will after Jean's passing 21 years later, in 1890. Julia Theresa and George Dulac had grown up together, and had been friends since she moved to Nevada City in childhood.

On May 11, 1909, George and Julia Theresa married. On October 4, 1910, their baby daughter Avelene Virginia Dulac was born. Sadly, three months later their baby girl became ill with a fever, and passed away January 10, 1911. The town's newspaper reported the couple's tragedy and grief. George and Julia Theresa laid their baby to rest beside her first husband, Felix Gillet, and her beloved uncle and aunt, Jean-Baptiste and Julia Catherine Ducray. Only two years later, Julia Theresa herself also was laid to rest there. She passed away February 8, 1913, at 44 years old, five years after Felix's passing, in the town's maternity hospital. Again, the town's newspaper reported: "Town Mourns Beloved Woman's Passing"; Julia Theresa's loving and gentle nature and the town's loss and grief were recorded.

Desolate with grief, George Dulac gave away the Ducray and Dulac properties, and sold the Gillet home and nursery for $3,500 to Miss Sally Parsons, leaving all their contents in place. It is said he left town with only a suitcase. He never married again. He passed away 32 years later in 1945 in Nevada County. He was lain to rest with his family in the town's Pine Grove Cemetery.

Those who took ownership of the Felix Gillet/Barren Hill Nursery continued to run it successfully into the 1960s. Remnants of the old nursery still remain, with fruit trees more than a century old still bearing fruit around the old nursery site. Road names such as Nursery Street and Pear Tree Lane in Nevada City bear witness to the former Felix Gillet/Barren Hill Nursery, and plaques on the old stone gate near Felix's home and at City Hall still attest to Felix's accomplishments. According to research of the Felix Gillet Institute and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, many fruit and nut trees today trace back to Felix's nursery.

Felix's writings continue to be valued today. In his nursery catalogs, he wrote a wealth of information about planting and caring for trees, ornamental plants, and produce, and in his many newspaper and magazine articles he answered readers' questions. His 1876 book "Fragariculture" still is sold today, as are books reprinting his nursery catalogs, which also are in the United States Library of Congress.

"Felix Gillet Day" was established in Nevada City on January 27, 2008, in honor of Felix 100 years after his passing.

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  • Maintained by: Carol Lynn DuCray
  • Originally Created by: Jeannie
  • Added: 9 Mar 2010
  • Find a Grave Memorial 49468601
  • Find a Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed ), memorial page for Felix Gillet (25 Mar 1835–27 Jan 1908), Find a Grave Memorial no. 49468601, citing Pioneer Cemetery, Nevada City, Nevada County, California, USA ; Maintained by Carol Lynn DuCray (contributor 47454738) .