The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Old-Timey Chestnuts

By Lawrence Bechtel © 1985

Issue: August, 1985

Native American Chestnut trees - notice the men standing to the left and in the middle background. Photo courtesy Forest History Society, Inc.Native American Chestnut trees - notice the men standing to the left and in the middle background. Photo courtesy Forest History Society, Inc.On a wooded hillside between Christiansburg and Radford, Virginia, I found some American Chestnut stumps one day. Four feet in diameter, with hollow centers, the stumps looked like the empty boots of giants. Scattered about nearby were the disorderly remains of chestnut trees - chunks and limbs like old, gray bones. One big tree, stretched out like a skeleton, belonged to a red squirrel, who chirred angrily at me. Compared to his rotting house, what a spacious mansion his ancestors must have enjoyed, when this chestnut forest was alive and growing! Actually, not just squirrels, but lots of people in this part of the country were in a real sense housed, clothed and fed from chestnut trees. What were those days like, when chestnut trees were as common as plastics are today? Does anyone remember?

Hubert Duncan, a long-time resident of Radford, is chock full of recollections. Chestnuts fell from trees at night, he says when frost popped open the spiny casings, and it was important to get out early the next morning "to beat the turkeys to the tree.” That meant carrying a stick, because the turkeys were inclined to take more than their share, "they just pick 'em up and swallow 'em, have a craw that big." Hubert cups his hands to a size as big as a potato. Turkeys weren't the only competitors for chestnuts, "ol' ground squirrel he'd hide his part, dig a hole somewhere. I have dug out half a bushel where a ground squirrel buried 'em." Still, there was enough for everyone, "lot of people... that's what they depend on, in the winter, buy their shoes for the kids...sellin' chestnuts, getting kids clothes and things to go to school."

There wasn't much that chestnut trees weren't used for. They were split for rail fences, sawed into boards, made into shingles, sold to the railroad and transported to leather tanneries for boiling out an "extract". Mrs. Duncan, leaning forward in her chair, remembers going out with her father to cut "extract wood", always measured into five-foot lengths. Recalling her stints on the handle of a cross-cut saw, she remarks, "Everything was work in those days." Hubert agrees, but adds, "I wish I would see them days back again."

Alfred B. Smith, a Christiansburg policeman for 20 years, remembers that in 1928, when he was seven or eight years old, his father bought "a little ol' 40 acre mountain farm." Located between Ellett and Fagg, the farm included a chestnut orchard which "covered about an acre and a half trees set in rows." Planted in "the middle to late 1800's", by the 1920's the trees stood "80, 90, maybe a hundred feet tall." Every morning "when the chestnuts went to-fallin'," the children took "zinc buckets" or bushel baskets, and went "row by row" collecting the nuts. The harvest was abundant, "they just completely covered the ground." Alfred emphasizes that he is not talking about "this new improved chestnut... this was old-timey chestnuts."

Spry at 86, R.B. Dalton, landlord for the Jefferson Street Delimart in Radford, recounts the building of a family homestead in Stuart, Virginia, "We had what they call the north hill, hot sun didn't hit the hill much, so we built a home there, nine room house in 1913. And in 1911, and 1912, my brother and I went up on this north hill - the chestnuts hadn't blighted there yet... We'd cut 'em down and saw 'em off in 18 inch blocks, and we rolled 'em down to the foot of the hill, and there was a spring down there, and there was an old man there by the name of Bill Clifton and his trade was makin' shingles by hand." Using a froe, a drawknife, and an old-fashioned device called a shaving horse, Bill Clifton "made shingles to go on that nine-room house and he made 'em thin at one end and thick at the other." The job "took him about two years. Well he was an old man, ya see, and he took his time." His time paid off though, for the chestnut shingles were still leak-proof 40 or 45 years later, long after the galvanized metal in the roof valleys had rusted.

Doug Lester, owner of Lester's Foto Shop in Christiansburg, tucks his pipe in his belt and admits he is not old enough to remember the healthy chestnuts, but he does remember the "hollow ones still standing after the blight, with a big hole, at the bottom. Three or four of us kids always ran for one when it stormed... Course that may not have been a good idea." He adds that between 1930-35 or so, "a wave of speculators came through here, asking farmers for their old rail fences. Sold the wood to furniture factories. Millions were made on that." He smiles wryly. "Not by the farmers of course."

I turn to leave and Doug abruptly says to a rigid old man in a hat, "this young man wants to know about chestnut trees."

"He's about a hundred years too late," declares Nelson Price, with a swoop of his hand.

"He wants to know about the stories, not the trees."

"Stories! I could tell stories of the chestnuts all afternoon. Fact, I still have the slingshot my father would use of a Sunday afternoon to knock down chestnuts." Nelson swings his arm over his head, demonstrating how his father slung into the high limbs. "He never missed."

Falling across these conversations like a dark shadow is the mention of chestnut blight. But just what is chestnut blight? The villain is endothia parasitica, a tiny fungus. Borne on wind currents or on the backs of birds and insects, microscopic spores of endothia settled on trees and incubated in the inner bark. In summer, little twisting stalks sprouted puffy fruiting heads called "pustules." A tree girded by the orange-colored fungus quickly died.

A harmless native of the Orient, endothia parasitica was conveyed to this country on ornamental shrubs. Its devastating effects were first noticed by Dr. W.A. Murrill, of the Bronx Zoological Park in New York City in the fall of 1904. By 1912, alarmed by the rapid and unchecked spread of the blight, the governor of Pennsylvania hosted "The Pennsylvania Chestnut Blight Conference," attended by delegates from east coast states and from as far west as Ohio. In his opening remarks, the governor emphasized the economic importance of the chestnut, "the value of this tree in the State of Virginia is reliably conceded by competent authority to be not less than thirty-five millions of dollars." Virginia's delegate was able to say that, "we are at this time perhaps fortunate in the fact that, if we have this dread disease with us, we have so far very little complaint of it." But by 1925, Scientific American reported that "the blight has now reached Georgia and it is also close to the western limit of the chestnut's natural range. Everywhere that chestnuts once grew, their gaunt, leafless skeletons stand naked of bark against the horizons. To all appearances the tree is doomed forever." The lone entry under "Chestnut" in the 1930-35 volume of the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature seemed the final epitaph: "Goodbye, American Chestnut!"

But not everyone has been willing to say good-bye. Ever since Dr. Murrill, devoted scientists have battled endothia parasitica - which remains as lethal today as in 1904. Of special interest has been the immunity of some American Chestnut trees to the blight. Dr. Gary Griffin, plant pathologist at Virginia Tech, has experimented with various techniques designed to identify and promote this immunity. There is an urgency to the work, because there are so few trees which have resistance, and what happens when these trees die? As Dr. Griffin writes, "our principle concern has been that these large surviving trees need to be propagated before they die of old age and associated blight stress and any potential genes for resistance are lost forever."

But the work is slow, tedious, and frequently disappointing - which makes funding a big problem. It is ironic that economic considerations, once such a cause of alarm as the chestnuts died, should now be used against efforts to revive them.

Let's hope Dr. Griffin, and other scientists, can succeed in their work. Certainly the American Chestnut keeps hoping - old stumps still sprout little saplings, year after year. As Doug Lester put it, "one thing you have to say about chestnuts. They keep fightin', trying to come back." What 'could be more American?