American Chestnut Restoration In The Allegheny Highlands
Warm Springs, VA – The American Chestnut Foundation’s Virginia Chapter brought its message of chestnut restoration to the Old Dairy in Warm Springs this past weekend. Catherine Mayes, Chairman of the Virginia Chapter’s Board of Directors talks about the history of the chestnut in the Alleghany Highlands.
“A hundred years ago, the American Chestnut was absolutely enormous” says Mayes. “It was so large that people called it the Redwood of the East’. The trees went straight up; the earliest branches were often 80 or 90 feet in the air; the tree went up to 120 feet. The Chestnut, besides being absolutely beautiful, was a very, very important food.”
Chestnut trees bloom in mid-June, typically well past the last killing frost, so it was a more consistent producer than the earlier blooming nut and fruit trees.
“Every year the Chestnut tree produces a profusion of food and that food was very important for the early European settlers” she says. “When the Europeans came west away from the Atlantic coast, their main cash crop and the main source of food for the early settlers was the Chestnut. The Chestnut is what made it possible to live and farm in the Appalachian mountains.”
Every third tree was a chestnut and it was so plentiful, that every fall the ground under the trees was ankle to calf deep in chestnuts. The nuts were eaten by the settlers, fed to livestock and also sustained the wild game animals that were so important to the survival of the colonists. Chestnuts were also an important part of the economy.
“Farmers would take their Chestnuts down to the general stores and sell the Chestnuts for cash” says Mayes. “That was the cash they used to buy the things they couldn’t grow. All the little small time merchants would then in turn sell all these wagonloads of Chestnuts and ship them by railroad to the population centers which in that day was Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Not only was the largest cash crop for the farmer, it was also the largest cash crop for the Virginia railroads.”
Not only were the nuts very important, but the chestnut trees also provided excellent timber. The wood was used to build houses and barns, and make split-rail fences. The bark was a source of tannins used by the leather tanning industry.
The chestnut was a huge part of the lives of residents of the Alleghany Highlands through the 19th century. Then came the blight, which is thought to have entered the United States around 1904 in some trees brought from Japan or China. Within 50 years most of the chestnut trees in the eastern United States were dead or dying.
The American Chestnut Foundation was founded in 1983 and has been working since 1987 to develop a hybrid chestnut tree with blight resistance and the timber qualities of the American chestnut. Their hybrid trees have been planted in several orchards across Virginia and other eastern states to test their potential to restore the chestnut to our eastern forests. The Foundation is looking to start a local interest group in the Allegheny Highlands and hopes to find surviving chestnut trees in this area to use in their breeding program. More information on the American Chestnut Foundation and the Virginia Chapter can be found on their website at www.acf.org.