Under a spreading chestnut tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands…..
“The Village Blacksmith” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
This I write to you my grandchildren. You should know some of the pleasures of your grandfather’s childhood. Some that were very different than the ones you have. Your fathers and mothers cannot tell you of them because they also knew different ways to play than did I. This was because so many things changed in the way we lived just before your parents were children. One thing that changed some of your good times happened when I was just growing up. This thing that happened took a great deal of happiness from the lives of children, especially boys. The thing that happened was that all the lovely chestnut trees in our woods became sick and died.
Now these chestnut trees were not only lovely to look at and pleasant to lie under on a hot summer day but they bore high on their great branches prickly fruits that late in the autumn opened and gave us delicious nuts to eat. I tell you that these trees were lovely to look at. Their loveliness was partly because of their heavy covering with pretty, light green leaves and partly because of their shape. Also they grew very large. They liked to grow best in the edge of pine woods where against the dark green of the pines you could see their much lighter green from a long way off. They grew very tall and spread out their limbs very wide so that they were like a huge green ball with a short stem keeping it from the ground. I used to think that these wide reaching limbs close to the earth were intended to make cool shade in the summer. As you lay on your back under them you might look far up among the branches and the sun might shine ever so hot you could see only the yellow light coming down to you.
Nice as the chestnuts were in summer it is in October when we enjoyed them most. It was then, after frost had nipped at the spiney fruits, (burrs they are called) that their store of nuts were given to us. The burrs themselves were things to wonder at. About the size of coin purses they were round and so spiney that you could not pick them up without picking your fingers. So ugly they were on the outside and on the inside lined with the softest velvet. When they were ripe and frost had laid its hand upon them they split down the sides something as mother sometimes peels an orange. Inside would be several little shiny brown nuts nestled in their velvet pouch. These nuts were not at all like the ones you know which are hard shelled and have to be cracked. Instead of a hard covering they were covered with something like a very thin and very stiff leather white on the inside and that soft dark brown on the outside.
There were many of these chestnut trees near the place where I lived when a boy. Everyone liked the nuts so that all those near the roads were quickly picked up when the autumn frosts and winds brought them rattling down. There was one place known to some of us boys which was a long way from any road where several huge chestnut trees grew on the edge of quite a forest. Here we would journey in October after a heavy frost which we counted on to open the burrs. The trees were so large and the burrs borne on the outer branches so that it was impossible to reach them with ladders. So we waited for a frost.
Tree Stump Fence
Across a swampy place we would start. Here alders grew so thickly that we liked to imagine it some far off jungle and half expected that at any moment we might come upon some strange and fierce animal. The far side of this swampy place was a rather steep slope where cattle had worn deep paths traveling to and from their distant pasture. Following these deep paths, we came at least to what was known as a stump fence. This was very old having been made by the men who first cleared the land of its pine trees and began their farms. The fences were made by dragging together the stumps of the trees they had cut and placing them on their side with the roots sticking out in all directions. By placing them side by side and close together they made a tight fence that even after many years active youngsters found hard to get thru.
These stump fences were places where much earlier in the year we would find green patches of mandrakes with their pulpy fruits. The mandrakes always grew in solid patches being so heavy of leaf that they could keep all other plants from growing with them. They are still to be found in parts of our land. We used to hunt for them in mid-summer to find small lemon shaped fruits that had a pleasant taste. Now in October they would be brown with the frost for they were very tender to the cold.
Being thru the stump fence we would be in the patches of sweet fern. This very fragrant little bush grew there as in few places. It grew only as high as ones knees and thick on the ground. Walking thru it was enough to bring up around you a cloud of most pleasant smell. An odor like cloves with a touch of smoke in it. Having reached the sweet fern we could now see the great chestnut trees on the edge of the distant wood. Seeing them we began to be on the lookout for what we called “cudgels”. These were stout bits of tree limb about as long as our small arms and perhaps as large around. We needed them to throw high into the trees in order to knock the nuts from the opened burrs because, strangely enough, the burrs always opened on their upper sides and held the nuts as you would hold something in a cup. Usually we found these cudgels near the big trees. We had need of several as often the spreading limbs of the chestnut would catch the stick as neatly as you would catch a ball and hold it fast until some strong wind came to shake it from its trap.
How we used to throw those cudgels. How the little brown nuts would come pelting down after a good throw. How we would scramble to find them among the brown leaves. How the red squirrels would chatter. They loved chestnuts also and did not like our interfering with their harvest. On rare times we might find where some squirrel had been so busy that he had not taken his nuts far but had placed them in some depression beneath the tree covering them cleverly with leaves. Then we might get two big handfuls all at once.
Usually we went home with a small bag filled with nuts. They were best after they had been dried for a while so when we arrived home we were supposed to spread them out in some dry place to “cure” as our fathers and mothers said. Although they were delicious as they were, we used to think them better when roasted or boiled. Roasting we sometimes did at school for our school was quite different from yours. There were perhaps twenty pupils of all ages in our school. We all studied, recitied, and ate our lunches in the one little room that was the school. At the back was a big stove to keep us warm. A big stove made of iron with a large flat top on which we could set things to be heated. This made the nicest place to roast our chestnuts when in November the wood fire had to be kept going strong.
To roast them we had first to pierce the tough leathery covering with a pin or the steam made inside by the heat would burst the nut and scatter its delicious meat all about. I fear that sometimes we purposely placed chestnuts that had not been pricked on the stove when the teacher’s back was turned so that a bit later there might be a small “bang” of which no one knew the cause.
Yes, you can never know the fun of gathering chestnuts for even the grey bare trunks of the dead trees have been gone from our woods for many years. We that knew them remember and delight to tell you of these joys that are gone.
Arthur Carr, February 1959
Do you know of any native American Chestnut tree in the area? We would like to hear from you if so.