Cold Springs Ranch: Return of the Chestnut


Staff writer The Enterprise Mountaineer

If ever there was a tree designed with early Appalachian settlers in mind, it was the American chestnut.

It grew tall and straight, and it was easy to split cracking evenly and predictable and making perfect shingles and split rail fences, The tree was strong and durable, yet light and its even grain meant boards did not warp when drying.

The American chestnut was termite-resistant and did not rot in damp soil, making it good for fence posts and railroad ties and telegraph poles. Its beautiful color made it a favored wood for interior paneling, cabinets, bedposts and staircases.

Pigs where turned out every fall to fatten on the threes’ plentiful nut harvest. The nuts fell so thick on the forest floor they where racked up and sold by the wagon load for flour and sugar and stored all winter as food.

One out of every four trees used to be a chestnut. They grew up to 120 feet tall and more than 12 feet wide, making excellent timber.

When the chestnut blight hit the Southern Appalachians in the 1920s killing every tree in its path, it was like having the rug yanked out from under the dinner table for many Appalachian settlers. They not only lost the best tree they had for making their own homes, fences, barns, and furniture, but they also lost the income from the nuts they had depended upon.

“When you think of the value American chestnut had for split rail fences, for log homes, barns, all your furniture, your musical instruments, from the casket to the cradle,” said Paul Gallimore of Sandy Mush. “It’s a beautiful wood. It’s got such versatility as indoor and outdoor.”

Gallimore toured his Sandy Mush property, circling a 85-year-old barn made of chestnut, pointing out old chestnut fence post and admiring the still glowing chestnut paneling on the interior walls of a 1917 home.

Behind Gallimore’s house is an old cabin make of hand-hewed chestnut logs.

We found a number of different stumps from the American chestnut,” Gallimore said, making a sweeping gesture at the woods that covered the hillside behind the home. “It would have been everywhere. There were some places here that had 100 acres of pure American chestnut. It was the dominant tree species here up until the beginning of the 20the century.”

The largest American chestnut ever documented in North America, with a diameter of 17 feet, was in the Francis Cove area of Haywood County.

Chestnut trees were rot- and termite-resistant because they had high tannin levels. Tannin, which is present in most trees in smaller doses, was the chemical used to tan leather. It was leached from the bark and wood of the chestnut and made into a dark, bitter, brine. The leather was soaked in the mixture for several days.

“Chestnut had an incredible value because of its tannin,” Gallimore said. “The tannin value of the chestnut exceeded the value of the wood.”

One of the Gallimore’s goals today is reseeding the mountains with American chestnut. Gallimore runs the Longbranch Environmental Education Center just over the Haywood County line in Sandy Mush and has been a leader in the American Chestnut Reforestation Project.

For the last 20 years, scientists and chestnut enthusiasts with the American Chestnut Foundation have been working to come up with an American chestnut tree that is blight resistant.

The blight came to America on a Chinese chestnut in the early 1900s and spread quickly, claiming all the American chestnuts of the Southern Appalachians by 1930. While Chinese chestnuts are blight-resistant, they are short, knotty, spreading trees, with none of the timber quality that make the American chestnut useful.

When the blight killed American chestnuts, it left the root of many trees intact, Gallimore said. Tiny American chestnut shoots can be found sprouting up from the trunk of a fallen American chestnut. The shoots only grow a few years before succumbing to the blight, but have been important in breeding a new blight-resistant tree.

Scientist have been crossing American chestnut trees with Chinese chestnuts to get a tree that has all the admired qualities of American chestnut, but has just enough Chinese chestnut in it to make it blight-resistant.

By genetically crossing American chestnut with Chinese chestnuts, scientist have ended up with a tree that is about 85 percent American chestnut, according to scientists with the American Chestnut Foundation. Last month, 18 of these trees were planted in Haywood County in the Rough Creek watershed area above Canton. The trees will be monitored to see how well they grow and if they stay blight-free.

Another group of American chestnuts – about 130 – was planted by Gallimore on a private preserve in Beaverdam in November. That group also will be monitored for its blight resistance. If all goes well, Gallimore hopes landowners will be able to get seedlings from these trees and plant them on their own property.

”We’re interested in letting landowners know these trees are available,” Gallimore said. “Our goal is to see the trees get planted out.”

It will be another ten years before there are large numbers of blight-resistant American chestnut seedlings ready to pass out to landowners.

“2010 and afterwards, we’ll be shipping seeds to normal people,” said Forest McGregor, development director with the American Chestnut Foundation. “There were 4 to 10 billion American chestnuts killed by the blight. We will consider our project finished when there are blight-resistant trees out there making their own babies. We’ve got to plant millions and millions of trees to get to that point.

The hope is that, once the seedlings are ready, people will take them and plant them. Those trees will drop their own seeds, as well as cross pollinate with Chinese chestnuts, and eventually reclaim their place as king of the Appalachian forest and the most useful of all trees

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Copyright 2015 Mike Miller,  All Rights Reserved    Site Last Updated: January 8, 2015