Leon Snyder: MSHS Legend

This is the last of our Legends of MSHS feature, which ran in Northern Gardener during 2016, our 150th anniversary year.

legends-image-leon-snyderIn 1908, just a year after MSHS had persuaded the University of Minnesota to add a fruit breeding and testing farm to its horticulture department, Leon C. Snyder was born. How fitting that the University’s expertise in hardy horticulture would grow at the same time as one of its most influential proponents.

Today more than 5,000 types of plants flourish at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum and the U’s plant-breeding program has developed more than 100 cold-hardy fruits, vegetables, shrubs and perennials.

Such was not always the case.

In 1878, MSHS established the Minnetonka Fruit Farm and several research stations to develop fruit varieties for cold climates. The farm was sold in 1889, and there was no central research site until the Fruit Breeding Farm was established. The first new fruit variety developed there was introduced in 1914. More land was purchased, more new varieties were introduced, and by 1931, the farm had grown to 230 acres.

Snyder, meanwhile, was growing up in Michigan, studying in Washington and teaching in South Dakota. In 1945, the University hired him as an extension horticulturist. Later, he led the horticulture department and was superintendent of the farm. From 1953 to 1970, the academic staff doubled and the Fruit Breeding Farm grew into the Horticultural Research Center.

In 1954, Snyder started the Woody Landscape Breeding Program, planting more than 600 varieties of trees and shrubs at the farm. Four years later, MSHS, the Men’s Garden Club of Minneapolis and the Lake Minnetonka Garden Club bought 160 acres near the farm and gave them to the University for an arboretum, which Snyder directed from its opening in 1970 until 1976.

Under his direction, the arboretum expanded its site (to 630 acres) and scope, adding a visitor center, research building (now named for Snyder) and a horticultural research library. A long-time member of MSHS, Snyder served on the board of directors from 1958 to 1976. He also wrote a weekly newspaper column, answered questions on a monthly radio show and helped to raise four children.

After his death in 1987, Jane McKinnon, an extension horticulturist at the University, wrote:

“He taught both in scientific words and with dirt-stained hands. From his pencil on a notepad came scholarly publications; with sharp pruning shears he showed students how skills are perfected … By his example, he created visions of soft lawns, gracious trees, and bright flowers for those needing inspiration and encouragement.”

—Julie Jensen