I was a very young child, but I remember picking up American chestnuts and enjoying them as the Mel Torme/Robert Wells song indicates: “chestnuts roasting on an open fire"
The song was recorded in its original version in 1946 by the famed Nat King Cole, years after the Asian Chestnut blight had made havoc of the tall, productive chestnut trees that once were so prevalent throughout the Appalachian region of America.
We had a short-cut road that led through the forest from our house to my Grandpa Bud Collins' house. It was alongside this road that the largest American chestnut tree I had ever seen lifted its huge trunk from the forest floor. It was to the right of the road on a steep bluff overlooking Town Creek. We could hardly wait until the tree began shedding its burrs, each of which yielded two or three chestnuts. We would climb the bluff up to the tree, gather a few chestnuts, and hurry on across the bridge to Grandpa's house. When we showed our Aunts Ethel and Avery our treasures, we could be sure to entice them back with us and fill the buckets they provided with the nuts from that large tree.
Thinking back now, that large chestnut tree may have been among the last of the American chestnut trees that succumbed to the Asian chestnut blight, a bark fungus, that had, by 1940 or thereabouts, made havoc of the beautiful deciduous trees that had been important to the Appalachian economy since settlers came to the mountains.
I remember hearing stories of how my father and others, when they were children, gathered chestnuts by the sack-full and hauled them to Gainesville by wagon, along with other farm products, to trade for coffee, sugar, spices, shoes, cloth and other items not grown on Choestoe farms. The chestnuts, then plentiful, were a valuable commodity free for the taking to anyone with the industry to pick them up and use them as barter.
In my childhood, the American chestnut trees were less numerous throughout the forest. The large specimen near my grandfather's house was the best-remembered because of all the pleasant associations of our making a game to gather the nuts and to have a party roasting and eating them.
Dark gray areas show the American chestnut habitat.
The American chestnut once dominated forests from Maine through Georgia and from the Atlantic Coast to the Ohio Valley. In 1904 the Asian fungus blight came to America on some Chinese chestnut ornamental trees planted at the Bronx Zoo in New York. The Chinese chestnut had a natural immunity to the fungus, but not the American chestnut. The bark fungus spread at a rate of 50 miles a year, and within a few decades had infected and killed the American chestnut trees.
Before range laws were enacted and cattle and hogs were allowed to graze at will in the mountains, chestnuts were an important food for the livestock. Wild animals depended on chestnuts for much of their winter store. Bears fed on them before taking their winter hibernation. And many of the industrious settlers in the Appalachian areas depended on chestnut crops for extra cash. Chestnut trees provided wood for building purposes, fence posts, and making furniture.
More than four billion trees from Maine to Georgia and westward to Indiana and Illinois were killed by the blight. The root system was not affected and shoots from roots and stumps sprang up after the blight killed the large deciduous trees. But then the shoots almost always succumb to the disease.
There is hope on the horizon for the American chestnut tree. Thanks to the "Mother Tree" Project and extensive efforts of The American Chestnut Foundation and the Georgia branch of the same conservation organization, scientists are working hard to seek a comeback for this valuable tree.
In 2005, Nathan Klaus, a wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, found a stand of healthy American chestnut trees near Warm Springs, Ga., in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt State Park. The largest of this stand of trees is from 30 to 50 years old. Klaus reports that the trees near Warm Springs are rare in that they have the ability to germinate and produce fruit. Most of the shoots springing from original chestnut stumps contract the disease and die long before they can produce nuts. The "Klaus" tree, as the largest has been named, is about 40 feet tall and has a diameter of ten inches.
The large tree found by Klaus in Georgia and other "Mother Trees" in other locations will be the focus of a backcrossing program in which scientists will pollinate with a resistant strain in order to produce hybrid trees unaffected by the chestnut blight. This process will take a few years to complete.
I read with interest that the Union County Rotary Club at the April 2006 meeting heard Dr. Mark Stallings from the Georgia Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation (GATACF) who spoke on plans for restoring blight-free chestnut trees to our forests.
Maybe in the future we can walk again under one of America's sturdiest and most prolific trees and see the burrs opening with their luscious nuts to be gathered by delighted pickers. Nostalgia walks with us still to form precious memories of going to Grandpa's by the old chestnut tree. So does singing the "Christmas Song" with its lyrics about chestnuts roasting. Many of us, no doubt, memorized Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem, "The Village Blacksmith." The Currier and Ives painting on the subject of his poem helps us see vividly, "Under the spreading chestnut tree the village smithy stands."
Harris Green in the Spring 2006 issue of "The Georgia Sprout" (GATACF) wrote, "Longfellow's loving depiction of the tree inspires us to do what is necessary 'at the flaming forge of life' to bring back that wonderful tree-and maybe some of those missing virtues in the process."
c2006 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published June 8, 2006 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.