The Chestnuts of Appalachia


“Roaming the Mountains with John Parris – Chestnuts: Only Memories Stand Burningtown”

They stand like gaunt, whitening skeletons among the living giants of our mountain forests. And the old man grows nostalgic and a bit sad when he looks upon them, for they remind him of his lost youth and of something that will not come again in his time-if ever.

A part of the sadness stems perhaps from the knowledge that his great-grandchildren have been deprived of a birthright. For when he was a boy, and even in his grandson’s youth, there was no finer sport than to go hunting for chestnuts on a crisp fall morning when frost had opened the big burs and spread their fruit among the fallen leaves.

The only reminder of that era are the whitening skeletons of the chestnut trees which survived the ax only to die under the whirlwind ravages of a mysterious blight.

“The only chestnuts you see now,” said the old man, “are a few brought in from some foreign country and they’re not like the kind that grew here in the hills. But when I was a boy, and up to thirty years ago, chestnuts were a right common thing here in the mountains. Folks even had chestnut orchards, same as you have apple and peach orchards today . . .”

“Why, I remember in the fall when the chestnuts started falling I’d go out there every morning while my wife was getting breakfast and pick up two gallons before she got the coffee on the table. Reckon the most I ever took to market at one time was twelve bushels. Got a dollar and a quarter a bushel for ’em, which I took out in trade. Now, that was a lot of money back in those days.  Everybody hunted chestnuts back then. Folks who didn’t have chestnut orchards would get up parties and get a covered wagon or two and go off into the hills where there was a good stand of chestnut. They would camp out and be gone two or three days, coming home when they had got their wagons filled up. Then that wasn’t sold would furnish goodies for the children and the grownups. We’d serve them up boiled and roasted or just eat ’em plain. If you boiled ’em you could keep ’em a long time. One of the ancient dishes of the Cherokee Indians was chestnut bread. It was still made by them here in the mountains until the last of the chestnuts disappeared several years ago . . .”

The blight that struck the American chestnut is believed to have come into this country on Chinese chestnuts, which despite a high percentage of infection show too a degree of resistance to it. No immunity existed in our American tree, which was one of the giants of our Sylva when De Soto came this way.

From the time the blight was first detected in 1904 in the New York Zoological Park, it spread like wildfire, sweeping across New Jersey and Pennsylvania and into all parts of the country.


Pap could remember seeing those giant white skeletons described in the excerpt from “Roaming in the Mountains” written by John Parris. Pap told me when he was a boy he’d come up on one when he was out hunting in the woods and it always spooked him. He said they looked like ghosts shinning through the darkness of the forest. Pap also told me stories his daddy shared with him about chestnuts.

Papaw Wade said when he was a boy chestnut trees grew on the high side of a wagon road and that he and his family would walk along the road and pick up chestnuts where they had fallen and rolled down the bank. Much like the old man in the excerpt, Papaw Wade said it only took a little while to fill up all the sacks they had with chestnuts.

In a couple days or so I’ll tell you about my recent visit to one of those old skeletons high on the ridge above our house.


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  • Reply
    Leon Estes
    February 10, 2018 at 9:11 pm

    I am glad that the American Chestnut is making a comeback. I have often sang the Christmas song containing the line “. . . Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. . . ” and wondered if they tasted any good at all.

  • Reply
    Doug Bishop
    February 9, 2018 at 11:46 am

    It is sad how many things have been destroyed by imported plants and animals. In the southeast there is Kudzu. People have fish or other pets they no longer care for so they release Boas Pythons and a wide variety of tropical fish Here in the mid-west the Emerald Ash Borer is killing our Ash trees.

  • Reply
    February 9, 2018 at 2:27 am

    I remember when I was a little boy, my brother and sister and neighborhood kids would hold hands and try to reach around an old chestnut tree that was in our yard. That is 10 kids ages ranging from 6 to 8 years old holding hands trying to reach around the tree trunk of this chestnut tree and we were still short in completing the circle. We would have fights with the seed pods/ burs. If they hit you it would stick to your jacket or worst prick you. we would spend hours trying to open the pods and retrieve the seeds. Then we would roast them over an open fire and enjoy the meat of the chestnut seed. We would take a bag or two to grandma’s house so that she could add the chestnuts to the stuffing. (I still do this today for my stuffing.) The tree was so large that everyone would enjoy climbing on to and in its branches. Anybody who was anybody had to climb this tree to be one of us in the neighborhood.

    Then in the mid sixties the blight hit our neighborhood. Everyone was upset and tried everything they could to stop it from killing the chestnut trees. In 6 short months our chestnut tree died. Nothing remained except a ghost of it former self. The tree was ash white, not a leaf on any of its branches. It stood there as if it was crying out for help and there was nothing we could do.

    My father, uncle and grandfather decided to cut it down. We kids all stood around, at a safe distance, to watch as the best friend we had was cut down. They cut the limbs and branches off the main trunk of the tree. My grandfather had a company come in and take the main trunk of the chestnut tree away. Seven months later my family went to see my grandma and grandpa for Thanksgiving. Normally there was so many people that we were feed in shifts. But this time there was a very long table that went from the dinning room to the living room in my uncles house. There stood before us was a very beautiful, dark, rich table that could sit fifty people. Grandpa said that it was our chestnut tree. He had the company cut the tree into boards and he was able to turn those boards into the table we saw before us. It was like finding a long lost friend. It really made the family gathering very special for us kids. As luck would have it, that was the year that I and my cousin Karen graduated from the kiddie table to the adult table, my friend, my chestnut tree.

    Unfortunately, my cousin Karen, has the table stored away in her garage. It is too big for her house and there isn’t the gathering of the family during the holiday’s like in the old days. She won’t allow anyone else to use it. But every Thanksgiving and Christmas day I would think back to the days when we would climb this old chestnut tree and have a family dinner on it.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    February 8, 2018 at 8:10 pm

    At the following link an 18-page report about the American chestnut can be found:

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    February 8, 2018 at 6:09 pm

    My Dad was born in 1911 would have been 107 now…I’ve heard all my life about the mighty Chestnut of Appalachia. Discussions I listened intently to as I grew up. The sad stories as well as some funny ones especially around Thanksgiving and Christmas. Stories about how their mother would send them out to gather Chestnuts and the tales of giant trees and the blight that continued to kill them. One of the funny things to us kids was when one of the Uncles or Aunts would ask one of the younger ones if they had found a Chestnut tree?…As a gaseous odor was floating from a toddlers area. It took us kids a while to learn that eating too many Chestnuts could cause some noxious fumes. My Grandfather had some Chestnut boards in the barn and house. These weren’t those itty bitty boards either they were wide and long. I wish I had just one of those boards from one of the barns or outbuildings from the farm…They would go on about how big the trees were…like giant Redwoods of the Appalachian mountains…So every time we rode thru the country of NC when I was a young girl, I was straining my eyes hoping to see one of these huge trees they told stories about.
    When we visited Dollywood we found young American Chestnut trees planted there in places with signs hammered in the ground telling about the comeback of the American Chestnut and it’s story…
    Sometimes in group conversation my Dad would say out of the blue, that he loved all the “nuts” of NC! Which would bring on a “smart” comment from one of the relatives…but he would go and say but my very favorite nut is….(as they leaned in to listen intently)…the Chestnut…Awww, getting an Amen and a laugh!
    Thanks Tipper,

  • Reply
    harry adams
    February 8, 2018 at 5:45 pm

    The first time we had chestnuts were from a street vendor in Milan Italy. I now have three trees large enough to start producing. These came as seedlings from the soil conservation here. Our neighbor has 2 trees which are at least 30 feet tall that produce, but they just consider them a nuisance. In fact he cut a third tree down and gave it away for firewood.

    The old farm house that we have has chestnut flooring. The wood is probably worth more than the house.

  • Reply
    Bronwyn Willett
    February 8, 2018 at 2:40 pm

    I truly enjoyed reading this. Your post and Papaws comment about playing in the chestnut stump. Thank you for sharing.

  • Reply
    Mike McLain
    February 8, 2018 at 1:51 pm

    Last year, a Pisgah Forest ranger was at our house and he looked out from our deck and said, “That’s an American Chestnut tree, and it is the largest and healthiest one that I have seen!”.

    I took a cutting from the tree and sent it to the American Chestnut Foundation in Asheville to get it identified. A few weeks later, they confirmed that it is indeed a true, pure American Chestnut! It is about 14 feet tall, but only has a diameter at the base of about 1-1/2 inch.

    I will be watching this spring to see if it flowers and I will be watching the trunk for signs of blistering. So far, it is pristeen. For me, it is very exciting.

    • Reply
      February 8, 2018 at 1:56 pm

      Mike-how exciting! I hope you’ll keep us updated about the tree.

      • Reply
        b. Ruth
        February 8, 2018 at 5:30 pm

        Yes, Mike I have heard over the last few years that American Chestnuts are being found sporadically around their old stomping grounds…One story I heard was after years of a ghost tree a sprout was found coming up from an area where a root would have been. I hope your tree continues its growth and someday the American Chestnut will make a comeback, stronger and more resistant to the original blight that killed them…

    • Reply
      February 8, 2018 at 3:11 pm

      I would say that most of the new chestnut sprouts are from old stumps that fell or were cut before the blight came. The root system may not have been infected by it. If cuttings like yours could be be replicated in a sterile environment, and an effort was made to isolate the fungi and keep it at bay, a viable population of the true American Chestnut could be reestablished. That would depend on our governmental entities though.
      Do you know what else is effected by the blight or could be a carrier?

  • Reply
    February 8, 2018 at 1:39 pm

    I have a chestnut tree at the back of my lot that had fallen and only partially alive. It got nudged and all of it has died off now. The burr pods it produced that scattered around the yard were down right dangerous if you weren’t looking where you walked! My neighbor still has two trees that produce, he says the nuts are wormy before they are ripe enough to eat though. Don’t know which type of chestnut they are though. They sure are beauties 🙂

  • Reply
    February 8, 2018 at 12:49 pm

    I remember my daddy telling us boys about the Mighty Chestnuts. He was born in 1910, and when he was about 10 or 15, the chestnuts were plentiful.

    In 1961 or “62, he planted 3 Chestnut trees above our house. (I guess they were Chinese or Japanese) but anyway the squirrels love ’em and they’re over 30 or 40 feet tall now.

    I told Tipper about them and her, the Deer Hunter and the Girls came to check ’em out. She took one to Don, it was his Birthday, where we all met him and his family for a nice cookout. …Ken

    • Reply
      b. Ruth
      February 8, 2018 at 7:14 pm

      My Dad planted two Chestnuts here on his property in Tennessee…He had hoped for a similar taste like the American Chestnut tree of old…After a few years they bloomed and had Chestnuts…He was delighted…After drying a bit he cracked open the Chestnuts…only to be disappointed. “It’s been many a year but that is not the same taste as I remember gathering up in toe sacks back in NC”, he said…A few years later he cut one of them down as he got tired of running over the burs with the lawn mower…
      b. Ruth

  • Reply
    February 8, 2018 at 12:01 pm

    The American Chestnut Foundation in Bennington Vermont is working to develop a blight resistant American Chestnut tree. A few years ago, several native chestnut trees were found in New Hampshire. Im sure more info can be found if you google them.
    My Dad grew up in Waynesville, born in 1918. He told many stories of hunting chestnuts in the woods. He said he would walk carrying a sack to fill with chestnuts. Dont know where he got them but we had several chestnut trees on our land in Lenoir. They spread quickly. We always had boiled chestnuts in the fall. Here in Vt. we can buy a limited amount each fall from the trees in NH. They cost up to $8 a pound but so worth it.

  • Reply
    February 8, 2018 at 11:54 am

    Sadly, I have never tasted a chestnut. I doubt I have ever seen a chestnut tree. I am sure none grew in my home town in Iowa. I do remember a woman who decided to render acorns from burr oak trees edible. I don’t remember what all she did to them, but believe it included boiling. They were never tasty to me.
    The line in the song, “chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” always seemed warm and romantic. I hope the trees make a comeback.

  • Reply
    February 8, 2018 at 11:45 am

    I remember, when I was only a sprout, climbing the ridge between us and Licklog and playing in an old chestnut stump that stood almost at the top. I said “played in it” not “on it.” It had to have been 12 to 15 feet in diameter and maybe more. A ring of wood perhaps 6 to 10 inches thick. There was a slit on one side just big enough for young tads to wiggle through. The inside was completely charred from a fire or perhaps many fires which probably aided in its preservation. It’s interior walls stood about 20 feet high. A splintered palisade. The vestiges of a frontier fort in the imaginative minds of youth.
    The interior floor was a waist deep carpet of leaves, none from a chestnut of course, but many from the chestnut oak whose foliage is memorial to the glory of the departed monarch. Protected there from the winds that roar across the ridgeline, this year’s abscission merely applied itself to that of many prior generations.
    The blackness of the charcoal interior seemed to attract sunlight, accumulate its warmth and radiate it out in the bitterest part of winter whenever the kids came to play. The interior also liked to hug children and leave goodly amounts of itself upon their clothing not realizing the fury it fomented upon their return to their maternal home.
    As time passed the entrance to this secret chamber seemed to shrink so as to prevent the passage of older, less imaginative minds and maturing bodies. As the adolescents were weaned no new litter of sucklings seemed to appear to replace them. But it was a secret place after all, to be spoken of only in the presence of one’s contemporaries.
    I will never be able to that coerce this old worn down body into climbing that rockface to again visit with one of my fondest memories. I wouldn’t try if I could for fear that I would discover in its place just an old chestnut snag or nothing at all. But it is still there! It will always be there! Just the way I left it!

  • Reply
    Wanda Devers
    February 8, 2018 at 11:17 am

    So sad. Mama used to tell us about roaming the woods and gathering nuts to crack and eat in front of the fire in winter. I don’t remember her ever saying they got chestnuts though.

  • Reply
    February 8, 2018 at 10:15 am

    My father spoke often of the mighty chestnut trees in Wythe County, VA and how devastated he was when the blight killed them. He was a carpenter on and off his whole life, and if he found a good chestnut board he was delighted to make it into something of beauty. When we bought our farm in 1986 the first thing he did was go over our old outbuildings and find the chestnut boards. I now have a small wall cupboard and small decorative boxes made from the old weathered boards. They are beautiful, and a reminder of times past.

  • Reply
    Dee Parks
    February 8, 2018 at 10:13 am

    I remember my daddy talking about the Chestnut Trees that were growing in MS when he was a young boy and how this disease came through and wiped them out. His expression was of sadness. Years later he hunted quail with his pointers and said you might come across a young Chestnut sprout but it would die from the disease. I have thought about that since and thought if one could make a sprout before it died back and then be able to sprout again perhaps it can be obtaining a resistance in its DNA so that some day a sprout will grow into a tree. Might only be wishful thinking – but maybe. I know I felt sad when I heard about our Ash Trees being killed by a disease. The Ash trees I remember formed a canopy over my street in the little town I knew as a child.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    February 8, 2018 at 9:34 am

    There is still hope. As Vann Helms notes, the work goes on. The ACF is up to, I believe, the third generation of crosses and have test plantings widely scattered in the Appalachians, including on state land, national forest and university property. The search for surviving American chestnut in the wild to diversify the genetics goes on. Seedlings have not yet been produced in great enough numbers to be available to the general public but the numbers are going up.

    The time is not yet but one possiblity might be for agri-business to re-establish commercial orchards. If that became possible and a fraction of sales were returned to ACF for further development, the corner might be turned.

    The entire effort is a case study in ecological restoration, much as longleaf pine is on the Coastal Plain. Re-establishing the tree alone is the biggest piece but it doesn’t end there. Lord willing we will live to see chestnut on its way back.

  • Reply
    February 8, 2018 at 9:14 am

    My cousin found a bag of chestnuts at a specialty store several years ago. She bought them, but was only to find out the difference between them and the ones she remembers as a child. She said they didn’t look or taste like the chestnuts she remembers eating. I don’t know how long the chestnuts have been gone, but I don’t recall ever eating any and have never seen the trees that remained. I’m looking forward to hearing about the visit to the ridge behind your house.
    It looks like Ash will be the next tree to become just a memory.

  • Reply
    Gayle Larson
    February 8, 2018 at 8:31 am

    Our home in Pennsylvania had solid chestnut doors. There were arches between rooms, mantels over the fireplace and bookcases all made from chestnut. They were beautiful. I also remember vendors with pushcarts selling roasted chestnuts at holiday time. I can still remember that smell. So sad we have lost such a great tree.

  • Reply
    a.w. griff
    February 8, 2018 at 8:13 am

    I still find many chestnut sprouts, but they always blight. The biggest stump I ever saw was over 3 ft. dia. I would have loved to have seen those wonderful trees.

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    February 8, 2018 at 8:02 am

    Tipper–The chestnut was almost a staff of life for mountain folks prior to the blight arriving in the area in the late 1920s and early 1930s (it made its way southward from New York in a measurable fashion year by year). Not only did they eat and sell the nuts, as John Parris notes. The nuts were important in fattening free-range hogs in the fall prior to killing time, the trees were a commercial crop in forms including acid wood and timber, they furnished ideal material for the split rail fences common at the time, and many a mountain barn and outhouse was built of rough sawn chestnut wood. Of course today wormy chestnut is highly prized.
    My Grandpa Joe was a hickory tough old fellow not much given to emotion, but any time he brought up the subject of the mighty chestnut’s demise there would be a catch in his voice and moisture in his eyes. He remembered the trees that fondly and loved to talk of some of them being so tall that squirrels feeding in the uppermost limbs were too far away for his shotgun to have any impact on them.
    I’ve used his memories and a goodly amount of research on my own to write a number of chestnut-related stories over the years.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    February 8, 2018 at 7:59 am

    I remember the stories of the chestnut trees here in the mountains.
    when I was young you still heard stories and saw the huge white skeletons through out the mountains. It’s sad to lose a whole species, especially one that provided food and money!

  • Reply
    Vann Helms
    February 8, 2018 at 7:47 am

    The American Chestnut Foundation just happens to be based in Asheville, and three years ago they helped me to identify a Chestnut tree that I found growing deep in the woods near Otter Creek north of Lake Lure.

    They told me last year that the tree I found was a Chinese Chestnut, but that it was still rare to find one growing in the wild. The Foundation is involved in many growth areas where disease resistant American Chestnut trees are growing , and reproducing very well. That’s encouraging. The day when giant trees will once again cover our mountain ridges are still centuries away, but at least there is light at the end of the tunnel. After all, when George Vanderbilt hired Frederick Law Olmstead to create the forest around Biltmore, the trees he planted were nothing more than saplings, but driving through Biltmore today is a celebration of giant Oaks, Poplars, Hickorys, Cypress, Ash, and Maple.

  • Reply
    Sheryl PaulI
    February 8, 2018 at 6:15 am

    It is sad, most devastation of local plants are those brought in from elsewhere. Chestnut trees are just one of many.

  • Reply
    February 8, 2018 at 5:29 am

    Yep, I’ve heard my Grandparents tell of the chestnut trees, it’s a shame kinda like what the pine beetle has done to the pine trees here, they took 5 acres of pines and put all most everyone on the ground over the years behind the house we use to live in, you could here them in the late evening eating away at the inner bark of the trees setting on the back porch.

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