Memories of Chestnuting in West Virginia

April 6, 2009 - 1,182 views

NOTE: This article was published in GOOD OLD DAYS magazine in October 1973. Since then it has appeared in THE SALEM HERALD and in ECHOES FROM FORT NEW SALEM.

What changes had come in our ways of living since my boyhood years of the twenties in West Virginia. The generations of our children born since 1930 have missed experiences and modes of living that we, in our day, shared and enjoyed. Perhaps you will be interested in reminiscences from boyhood in Salem, West Virginia from the era historians have labeled “the Roaring Twenties”.

With the coming of October’s crisp, autumn days I’m reminded again of the fun boys had gathering chestnuts. It’s doubtful if there was a boy in Salem, in my time, who didn’t have a favorite grove of chestnut trees where he could harvest a bountiful supply of the delicious nuts.

As a tree, the American chestnut was sturdy and beautiful. Growing to a size comparable to the oaks, its crown was symmetrically rounded with branches carrying a thick foliage of glossy green leaves that turned a lovely yellow after heavy frosts.

Chestnut wood made excellent lumber. It was semi-hard with a wide, flowing grain alternating light and dark. Builders used chestnut wood in houses for interior trim. My wife’s Father built her a beautiful hope chest entirely of chestnut wood. One of the characteristics of chestnut was that it split cleanly and easily. This quality, with its resistance to decay when kept off the ground, made it a favorite material for the rail fences still in use on West Virginia farms past the first quarter of this century. And what farm boy of that period does not remember cutting, splitting and piling well-seasoned chestnut firewood for his Mother’s kitchen range? The axe-strike into chestnut wood on the chopping block made rhythmic percussion music and a well-stacked woodshed of chestnut firewood offered an aesthetic effect most pleasing to the eye. In a wood burning kitchen range chestnut wood burned with a quick, even heat a careful cook could depend on. My Mother knew just how many sticks she needed in the stove to bake an angel food cake to fluffy perfection.

Gathering chestnuts during the fall days was an annual ritual of hill country lads. As they grew on the tree, the coveted nuts were tightly encased–three or four together–in a round, green burr the size of a small apple and covered with needle-sharp spines painful to touch or step on. A riddle describing a chestnut burr went like this:

“Round as an apple; sharp as an awl–

Pick it up and you’ll let it fall.”

After frosts the burrs, still clinging to the branches, burst open like inverted tulip flowers and let the smooth, silky dark brown nuts drop into hiding among the fallen leaves on the ground. It was a challenge to move under a chestnut tree with patient concentration–brushing the leaves back as you looked–intent on picking up enough chestnuts to make one’s pockets bulge.

In actual practice, however, we never waited for the chestnut burrs to open and drop the nuts. Soon after school began in September we would begin harvesting the chestnuts by knocking the formidable burrs off of the tree with thrown stones and sticks and gingerly opening them until they released the nuts.

A pocket full of green chestnuts to eat or share in school during early Autumn was a genuine status symbol though to eat many of them was to invite a sore mouth and dire gastric results. Teachers often emptied our pockets of their hoarded store when the sound of cracking the outer shell of the chestnut between our teeth gave us away.

Knowing the location of chestnut trees that bore a good crop of quality nuts was important. Like hickory nut trees, individual chestnut trees produced nuts of a certain size, from small to as big as a buckeye or horse chestnut. Larger chestnuts were much sought after though perhaps the flavor of the smaller ones was sweeter.

I remember there were a number of productive chestnut trees near the stone quarry on the Ehret farm at the head of Pennsylvania Avenue. The nearness of these tree to town made it a race to get any nuts. There were excellent trees that bore large chestnuts on the Alexander Randolph farm west of Salem. I would not have divulged this secret seventy years ago.

Having a Good supply of sound chestnuts stored for the winter gave one a e sense of well-being. In a good year there might be a bushel or more to eat as special treats when company came or the family was gathered around the fire on winter evenings. Keeping the chestnuts was no problem except that, like apples, they sometimes got wormy. Sprinkling the nuts with salt may have helped.

Most of the time we ate the chestnuts raw. After a few weeks in storage the nuts got softer and the flavor improved. We boiled or roasted the nuts on occasion, too. Imaginative cooks discovered delicious uses for chestnuts in dressings, salads and sundry dishes.

Now the majestic American chestnut tree is all but extinct. A fungus disease has taken it toll until only a few specimens of the once plentiful tree remain in the United States. People of my generation are grateful for our memories of “chestnuting in the West Virginia hills. We continue hopeful the struggle of the scientists to save the species may yet succeed.

NOTE: I saw a healthy, growing chestnut tree at Camp Joy near Berea, West Virginia, in a recent year. In July of 1992 Milton Van Horn showed me a healthy chestnut tree in his woodlot in Milton, Wisconsin.