Mariton: More Chestnut Reflections
by Tim Burris, Preserve Manager
To get a better understanding about the impact of the American Chestnut, I went through my Foxfire books looking for accounts concerning American Chestnut use before the blight. If you are not familiar with the Foxfire series, it was started in 1966 by a high school teacher in the Southern Appalachians of Georgia. He had his students interview older relatives and neighbors about “the old ways”. Things like how to build a log cabin, planting by the signs, mountain crafts, etc. In Foxfire 6, I found what I was looking for: A whole chapter/article entitled Memories of the American Chestnut. I have included a few excerpts to make my point, but take the time to find a copy and check out the chapter.
Jake Waldroop on page 401 talks about gathering chestnuts for food and barter: “A small little kid could pick up chestnuts. We’d get up before breakfast and go to these trees where a lot of chestnuts had fallen overnight, beat the hogs there, and pick them up. Take them to market, sell them, and get our shoes, clothes, or other things with them. We’d take ‘em and boil ‘em or roast ‘em or just hang them out and let them dry.”
“I’ve seen the ground when there were just hundreds and hundreds of bushels of chestnuts on it, just laying on the ground everywhere.”
Noel Moore on Page on pages 403-404: “There were people who made their living picking up chestnuts and carrying them to the store. I’ve seen ‘em coming out of the mountains (behind) where we lived over where Burton Lake is now. There was a big mountain back of our house with just a tremendous amount of chestnut trees on it. We’d hardly ever see these people at all, except when they came out to go to the store, and in the fall we could see ‘em coming, maybe the parents and three or four kids coming down the trail. The old man would have a big coffee sack full of chestnuts on his back, and the little fellers would have smaller sacks, and even the mother would have a small sack of chestnuts caught up on her hip. They’d all trek to the store and they’d swap that for coffee and sugar and flour and things that they had to buy to live on through the winter. That’s the way they made their living.”
Concerning the importance of chestnut lumber, Jack Grist talked about his father’s little store and logging business on Page 405: “In 1924, Dad met a Georgia Power Company engineer, and he needed fifteen hundred poles twenty-five feet in length. He wanted chestnut, and he wanted ‘em shipped from Dillard to wherever he wanted ‘em. He asked Dad if he could get ‘em for him in maybe two months. Dad said, ‘I’ll get ‘em before that if the weather’s good and I can get things rolling like I want to.’”
“ The Georgia Power engineer came back to him (Dad was going along well on his delivery date), and said, ‘If you can give us the poles in four weeks, we’ll give you a dollar for every pole.’ And they had offered fifteen hundred, so that was a fifteen-hundred-dollar bonus, and he got ‘em. He put everybody he could find with a crosscut saw to work.”
Concerning the effect of the blight on the mountain communities, Noel Moore sums it up sadly on pages 410-411: ”There was a mountain just across the valley from where we were living at that time. It was a ridge like. It wasn’t very tall and it was covered up completely with chestnut trees. All of ‘em were young trees. They was some of ‘em as much as twenty-four inches in diameter. And that’s where we’d usually go to get our crop of chestnuts. But they all died in one summer. Every one of ‘em. They just quit having nuts. There weren’t any more. And there (used to be) thousands of bushels of ‘em shipped out of these mountains to cities. They was sold in fruit stands and sidewalk stores in all the big cities because everybody liked them, you know. They were cheap.”
Now when you take this collection of stories from a few people in one county in Georgia and consider all the similar communities up the East Coast you begin to grasp the economic importance of the American Chestnut. As well as the impact of the loss of just one species.