Speaking of chestnuts, which we did in last week’s episode, a few readers have asked what I know about the American chestnut restoration efforts that have taken place over the last few decades. I have not spent a great deal of time on the Internet researching the subject, but a couple or three hours have not turned up much in the way of impressive results.
If there are any large stands of American chestnut trees in eastern Kentucky that have blight-free, nut-bearing, adult trees, I don’t know about them. On the other hand, that certainly does not mean they aren’t there. If any readers know of any, please, please do let me know. This is something I would love to follow up on.
When I was just barely big enough in the mid 1950s to climb the mountains on Blair Branch and follow my maternal uncles, Willie Adams and Stevie Craft, to hunt for ginseng, mountain tea (teaberry), yellow root (goldenseal), ground hog holes, bee trees and numerous other “ways of the woods”, I followed them around at every opportunity. Both uncles had grandchildren my age or older, and essentially took over “grandpa” duties after my own “Pap” died just before I turned 6. I literally worshiped the ground they walked on.
Uncle Stevie was my mom’s brother-in-law. Born in 1892, he was more than 20 years older than her. Uncle Willie, born in 1896, was Mom’s older brother by 18 years. Both started raising families in their late teens. Mom was over 30 when I came along. They were old enough to fit the grandpa roles they played in my preteen years.
Even though the giant chestnut trees of their youth were long gone by that time, both uncles were fond of reminiscing about them and pointing out spots where their trees had once stood. Both told stories about harvesting the dead “kings of the woods” for lumber, clapboards, split rail and paling fencing, furniture and even barrel staves. Both remembered chestnuts as being the largest, most useful and tallest trees in the woods.
Before their demise, chestnut wood also made the most durable lumber of anything growing in the Appalachian forest. Long before the blight commenced in 1904, chestnut wood was a staple of anything that needed building. According to my uncles, by 1920 almost all the native chestnut trees on Blair Branch were either dead or dying. The rush was on to harvest and utilize their timber before it fell and rotted. By the late 1920s the trees were all gone.
Historians say that about one of every four hardwoods in Appalachia was an American chestnut. I never got the impression from my uncles that the trees were so densely populated on our place, but they had still been numerous and plentiful. During my early years, many miles of chestnut split rails served as property lines, farming lots, pasture fields and anything that needed fencing good enough to hold livestock. Household yards and vegetable gardens fenced with split chestnut “palings” or pickets were still very common on Blair Branch well into the mid 1950s.
By 1960, most wood fences had given way to more practical wire or wood that was more cosmetically appealing than split wood. Most of the old chestnut rails, palings and roofing clapboards found their way into winter fireplace fuel or summer cook stoves. For a brief few years during the early 1970s, town dwellers in central Kentucky snatched up salvaged split rails to line their yards or other property before deciding the popular attraction took up more space than it was worth.
Uncle Willie died when I was about 10 or 11 years old, but he had already torn down all his paling and split rail fencing. Uncle Stevie lived until the late 1970s. The paling fence around his house had also been replaced with wire for several decades.
One fall, in the late 1960s, I was home from college and he asked if I would go check to see if the sprouts on an old chestnut stump we had discovered near his old place had gotten large enough to bear. I went to check and found them dead. I told him that I’d be happy to get him some Chinese chestnuts at our house.
“Nahhh, them things ain’t fit to eat and neither are the big store bought ones from overseas,” he told me. “But I’d pay good money for a handful of them real McCoys.”