Chestnut Lore

Stories from the past, when American chestnuts dominated Eastern forests.

Though We are Destroyed, There is Hope for Restoration

published in the West Virginia, Sunday Gazette-Mail, September 1, 2002

by Evelyn R. Smith

       The Book of Genesis tells us that on the third day, the Lord God made trees that were pleasant to the sight and good for food.  From my earliest childhood I have been intrigued by all of God's creation. Gazing at the stars at night, I longed to travel to them. On this earth I have enjoyed it all: sunsets and rainbows, the birds, dogs, cats, mice, rats, creepy-crawlies and  snakes. At someplace along the line my interest turned to the plant kingdom and settled on trees.

      In the 1930s, before I started to school, I lived in Roane County.  It was there that I began to explore the wonders of the trees growing on our farm.  From our orchard I often picked green apples to eat, and then hid behind the barn so Mom wouldn’t catch me.   Early on, my attention was drawn to the American chestnut tree because one grew on a hill just outside my bedroom window. It was awesome: fifty to sixty feet tall with branches spreading from a trunk I could not reach around. Each morning the cockle-doodle-do of a rooster wakened me from its perch on one of the branches. After the first frost in the fall, chestnuts dropping onto the tin roof over my bedroom was music to my young ears. I remember well the sweet taste of chestnuts roasted in our open fireplace, even though it was more than sixty years ago.  Once I started school, I was required to memorize “The Village Blacksmith,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, I proudly told my friends, “Hey! I sleep under a spreading chestnut tree!”

      My tree stood so wondrously, lifting its branches to the heavens displaying the glory of the One who made it. We learned Bible verses in school in those days, and I knew that my tree fulfilled the Psalmist’s wish, “Let the field be joyful, and all that is in it. Then all the trees of the woods will rejoice before the Lord.”

      You can imagine my sorrow as grove by grove, the trees disappeared from our farm. In too short a time, all that remained of the majestic chestnut tree were split rail fences.  Because of its ability to withstand the ravages of time, chestnut fences more than half a century old, meander through the countryside today. The tree was valued as much for its lumber as for the nuts  it produced.  I found out decades later that a pathological invader, a deadly fungus from Asia, had wiped out one-fourth of our forest trees.

       Is that marvelous creation of God gone forever?  Perhaps not. As the years passed new sprouts grew from the roots of dead trees. Research groups began grafting the fragile shoots onto other trees. Some took hold and grew.  Since 1984 The American Chestnut Cooperators’ Foundation has successfully restored this magnificent tree to certain areas of our eastern forests. Even at Edgewood Summit, chestnut seedlings are growing in a research plot. Gradually, the tree is being revived––––and once again I have savored the taste of roasted American chestnuts.

       Job 14:7 tells us, "For there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its tender shoots will not cease.”  The truth of that passage of  Scripture is universal. When we are nearly destroyed by tragedy, it is possible to be raised up again.

       It was obvious to me even as a child that many attributes of this magnificent tree are also those of a Christian: fruitful, lovely, stable, persevering and dependable.  At each mention of a tree in the Scriptures, I am reminded of the American chestnut.

        Isaiah 40:20 talks about a tree that does not rot, which led me to believe my tree might be descended from one known in Bible times.   In Rev. 22:16, Jesus says that He is the Root and the Offspring of David, the Bright and Morning Star.  If our Lord is the Root, then we are His branches.  And the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 11:18, “... remember that you do not support the Root, but the Root supports you.”  “Turn us back to You, O Lord, and we will be restored; Renew our days as of old.”  Jeremiah wrote in Lamentations 5:21.

         Like the once mighty American chestnut tree, there is hope for us. We need only ask.


The American Chestnut Tree

By Curt Davis

The American Chestnut tree was the most valuable and the most useable tree that ever grew in the Eastern United states. Its trunks grew straight and tall towering stately above all other trees. It was a great loss to the area and the nation when a virus began killing the chestnut trees near the beginning of the twentieth century.

I can remember well that all of them were gone by 1927 on the Wells Creek farms in Eastern Kentucky where I was born in 1910. My father owned two other farms nearby. I can remember that the boundaries lines of each and most cross fencing of all three farms were done with chestnut rails. Only the fence in front of our home and the family garden were not rail fencing.

During my early childhood the fencing around the yard and garden was done with chestnut pales and called paling fencing. The pales were set perpendicular on the round with an inch to one and half inches between the pales to keep chickens, turkeys, geese and other animals from eating the seeds or later destroying the plants inside the garden.

I remember that I was about seven years old when the yard fence was changed to an ornamental wire fencing designed for yards. It was ordered from Montgomery Ward & Co. It was stapled to 6"x6" squared chestnut posts. I thought it looked so much better and as a child I could more easily see the neighbors coming to and from Dad's Country Store. Later a woven wire fence replaced the paling fence around the garden. It was five feet tall using Chestnut posts because of their long lasting and smooth uniform size.

Today in the first year of the third millennium I am daily using my tool shed that was built of chestnut boards a foot wide and more than two inches thick. I was told by an elderly former resident of the farm in the 1940's, that the tool shed at that time was more than a century old.

When I was a teenager I have helped to split chestnut rails for fence repairs when needed due to fallen trees across the fence or damage from a forest fire. I have used a fro in splitting roof shingles for a barn or house roof repair and made hundreds of tobacco sticks.

In 1898 my father built a party telephone line five miles long from his store on Wells Creek into Sandy Hook the County Seat of Elliott County, Kentucky that he might better keep informed about the markets on bartered items. He specified in the construction of the line that all poles be chestnut that were seven to eight inches in diameter at the butt and twenty-four feet long. He knew that there would not be more than one inch decrease in the diameter in twenty-four linear feet because they grew straight and tall. He also knew that the poles would be uniform and long lasting.

During the days when all homes were heated by open fireplaces the chestnut wood was a favorite kindling for getting the fires started and the chestnut fore-sticks gave enough light to see throughout the room without lighting the old kerosene wick-lamp. Oak, maple or hickories were best for the back-log but they needed the chestnut to get the back-log burning.

Tending the fire properly required patience, continued attention, skill and work. It gave the master of the house a feeling of control of his responsibilities to properly care for his family. In return the fire-place offered the gathering place for the family to meet nightly and report on their experiences of the day, share their memories of the past, discuss their thoughts and dreams of tomorrows while they enjoyed it's warmth, dreamy drowsy music and the every changing colors of flames dancing shadows on the walls. The chestnut was a favorite for the cook-stove because of its easy kindling and quick heat.

The chestnut trees bloomed in June and July. There was never a crop failure due to a late frost. The nuts ripened in October and early November in Eastern Kentucky. The nut was a reddish brown wrapped inside a yellowish tan prickly bur. When ripened enough it dropped from the tall trees and most burs burst open when they hit the ground emitting the ripened nut. If they did not burst open a tap with a stick would open them. Behind our home was a small mountain. Half way up on the side of the mountain was a grove of more than sixty chestnut trees that the people of the community called "Dave's Chestnut Grove".

We usually gathered two or three bushels or three forty-pound lard cans full each fall. We used the lard cans in order to keep mice or any other pilfering animals from helping themselves. Our large family enjoyed them on those long winter nights. The community always helped themselves. The nuts were very tasty raw. On cold winter nights we would sometimes sit around the fireside and eat them. Occasionally we may roast some. Every one liked them, raw or roasted.

The Chinese chestnut does not taste like the semi-sweet tasteful American chestnut. The Chinese ones taste more like raw lima beans or un-roasted peanuts.

I find in my father's 1898 and 1899 ledgers where chestnuts used in bartering at the Country Stores were traded at twelve to fifteen cents per gallon for baking powder at five cents a pound; Salt at two cents a pound; Soda five cents a pound and sugar at four cents a pound.

It pleases me to read that there is hope of bringing the great American Chestnut tree back to life. Back to it's home in the Eastern United States. Back to adorn the hills of Eastern Kentucky and spread the horn of plenty at it's base. They estimate that it may take a century or more to bring them back in numbers as I knew them during my youth. If and when they return, the trees will majestically stand straight and tall towering over all other trees in the forest and making their many contributions to the area and their native country.

Thanks to Curt Davis for contributing his memories to this page.

American Chestnut Cooperators' Creed

by S. Lucille Griffin

The native American chestnut tree
gave our grandparents many gifts:
wood that was good for making homes,
framing, siding, shingles, panels, trim;
wood the craftsmen love to work,
light but strong, dark grained, forever-lasting;
wood that offered folks a living,
splitting rails, cutting and hauling
tan bark, posts, utility poles and ties.

 Although the trees were cut, the roots survived.

 New trees sprung up from them and grew
like yellow poplar, fast and straight.

 Along the ancient Appalachian range,
one of every four trees was a chestnut.

 Late in June or early in July,
cream-colored blossoms crowned the mountainsides.

 Peace and solace dwelt there, where
the deep, cool shade of summer daydreams
promised the same sweet harvest every year.

 At frost, in late September or
October's first, the burs released their bounty:
chestnuts for roasting, chestnuts for stuffing,
chestnuts to sell to the city folks,
all the nuts a family could gather,
and plenty left over to feed the wild game.

 All this we miss and would reclaim
for our descendants' legacy.

 Bring back the American chestnut tree!

"Waking 'Em Up!"

by Eugene Scott, Beckley Post-Herald, West Virginia, September 17, 1942

During this period of battles and turmoil in the world, one finds little time to dwell on the past, or to call up those fond memories of experiences that have been lived and all but forgotten. Yet, come September and invariably our mind goes back some two decades when, as a lad, we used to gather chestnuts from under the hundred or so giant trees that formed a chestnut orchard along the slopes just back of our home.

Those chestnut trees have been dead for years, and have long since been cut down, but autumn never comes that we do not think often of the glorious days when we arose at dawn to beat the turkeys to the chestnut orchard to gather up the first nuts that had fallen during the night. No experience in all the years since has been so colored with sheer delight, with such fantastic enjoyment, as picking up chestnuts during the month of September.

We had most of the chestnut trees named. There was old First, old Second, old Third, named in order as they stood beside the pathway leading to the barn. There was old Wormy, old Gray, old Blackie, old Hillside, old Chunky, and many others -- all named according to the type of chestnuts they bore or in regard to location. There was old Early, which always started "cracking" first in the fall.

The chestnut trees were too large to climb. Most of them were 60 to 75 feet tall and some three to five feet in diameter. When the first burrs began to turn brown and crack open we would stand on the ground and toss rocks and sticks high into the trees to bring down the first ripening nuts in a spirit of eagerness that could not wait until the burrs burst wide and the rich, brown nuts pelted down in showers.

Vivid is the recollection at night when we would sleep close to the window and listen to the chestnuts falling through the branches. Come dawn and we would attempt to steal out of bed without awaking our brother in an effort to get the first nuts to fall. The flock of turkeys, likewise aware that chestnut season had arrived, would often be out before dawn and running from tree to tree to gobble up the nuts that had fallen during the night.

After the burrs had opened wide, the ground would be literally covered with nuts during the early morning. And when it chanced to rain during the night it was not uncommon to find as many as a half-bushel of chestnuts under one tree.

Chestnut season lasted for about three weeks, affording the richest experience of our life as a farm lad. The first money we can recall earning for ourself was by picking up chestnuts. The nuts used to sell for as much as five to eight dollars a bushel, and the orchard most years would yield 15 or 20 bushels.

It was a sad day when the giant trees began to blight and to die, limb by limb. In the course of two or three years they were all dead --and now only the big stumps remain of the great chestnut empire over which we used to rule as a child.

The years, however, have failed to erase the bright memories of that happy period of boyhood. Even yet, in the midst of pressing duties and the strain of the war, we find our mind drifting back to the past, into the golden age of rich experiences. Sometimes at night, when the katydids are singing their notes of coming autumn, we lie awake musing on the innumerable nights we used to lie beside the window listening to the chestnuts fall. We still think that if little boys are to be completely happy in Heaven, there ought to be a lot of chestnut trees there.

Old fashioned uses for American chestnut leaves
excerpted from
"Leaves in Myth, Magic and Medicine" by Alice Thomas Vitale

The leaves of the native chestnut had practical uses in folk and also scientific medicine.  Native Americans drank a tea made with the leaves as a remedy for coughs.  The early colonists also concocted a medicinal tea, which when mixed with honey was a soothing cough syrup.  Even in those medically primitive times, the extract from leaves was understood to have a sedative effect on the respiratory nerves.

Later, country folk used the leaves to make astringent poultices for burns, and with the juice of the leaves they quelled the unbearable itching of skin rashes such as poison ivy.  Ingenious and frugal, they also found another proctical use.  They filled their mattresses with dry chestnut leaves, which, because they rustled when lain upon, were humorously know as talking beds.

Between 1873 and 1905 chestnut leaves, known to pharmacologists as extractum castanea fluidum,  were considered so valuable that they were included in the  prestigious U.S. Pharmacopoeia.

contributed by Nancy Arrington, Manassas, VA

Chestnut Conkers
received from
Pam Turcot of Canada

My husband tells me that as a child they would pick the nuts off the ground in England and have their mothers heat them in a low oven for 10 or 20 minutes to hareden them.  They they would thread a piece of string through the middle of the nut and proceed to swing this combination around and bash each other as hard as possible, hence the name conkers, I suppose.  The child with the last nut to survive intact was the winner.

Conkers post script:  Tony of Colorado (formerly from England) says  these conkers were made from horse chestnuts, which makes sense.  I had a hard time imagining wasting good-tasting chestnuts in this game.  Anyway, he says the horse chestnuts were sometimes soaked overnight in vinegar before curing in the oven.  "The neat thing about conkers is the scoring scheme.  If your conker breaks another kid's conker, you add his score to the score of your own conker (they start out at one)."  Tony remembers roasting sweet Spanish chestnuts (Castanea sativa) on a shovel in the fire.   Thanks very much , Tony , for this and the other donation.

Chestnuts boiled in red wine
found in
"More Classic Italian Cooking" by Marcella Hazen

Chestnuts boiled in wine are a country dish from my particular part of the country, Emilia-Romagna.  It is fitting that the chestnut season is in the winter because this is a very warming dish to have, late on a cold evening, sitting by the fire, in the company of friends and a bottle of young, rough red wine.  I remember my father cautioning us that the combination of chestnuts and wine would make us giddy.  Although there is nothing about chestnut that makes wine more inebriating, there is no question that a bite of one leads irresistibly to a sip of the other.  And wine calls for more chestnuts.  And so on.  Fair warning.

The only problem a chestnut ever gives anyone is peeling it.  My family's old method of slitting the chestnuts before cooking is the best solution I have found to this problem.  It's a horizontal slit that splits the shell around the middle for about two-thirds the circumference of the chestnut.  Here is how it is done.  Start the cut on the flat side of the nut, just before the edge.  Come around, slitting the shell on the bulging belly side of the nut, and continue the cut just past the other edge and onto the flat side.  When cooked, the shell and pesky inner skin will lift away without too much trouble.

1 pound fresh chestnuts (look for the larger, heavier chestnuts with glossy shells)
1 cup dry, full-bodied red wine
2 bay leaves

1.  Rinse the chestnuts in cold water, then pat them dry.
2.  Slit the shells as directed in the introductory paragraph.  Do not cut into the meat.
3.  Put the chestnuts, wine, tiny pinch of salt, and the bay leaves into a pot with just enough water to cover.  Cover the pot, and turn on the heat to medium.
4.  After one hour, uncover pot, and allow all but 1 or 2 tablespoons of liquid to evaporate.  Serve at once, preferably from the pot, of in a warm bowl.

contributed by Heather Falk, Bozeman ,MT

Do you know another good chestnut story? Please send it to ACCF, 2667 Forest Service Road 708, Newport, Virginia 24128. We will be pleased to add it to this page.

For references to American chestnut articles in popular magazines, go to the Bibliography.

Return to the American Chestnut Cooperators' Foundation home page.