ROVIN' AND RAVIN' WITH MIKE
ROVIN' AND RAVIN' WITH MIKE
Presented by Michael Segers, Brought to you by Peanut.org
This time out, we aren’t welcoming a guest to the R&R corporate offices. Instead, Jean Mitchell is inviting us to her little house (ahem) in the Georgia mountains. Retired after teaching science for twenty-eight years, Jean still lives near Plant City, Florida, in the rural area where she grew up. She and her husband of thirty-two years make “retreats” (as she explains) to their special place in Georgia, as well as to the Galapagos Islands to see the animals and to Switzerland to see the glaciers... when she's not caring for a sick gator.
A Little Old Georgia Shack
Made of American Chestnut
People might think that I should
refer to our house in north Georgia as a “rustic cabin,” but that
would not quite do it justice. We bought an old mountain house in 1976 as a
“retreat.” Well, our “retreats” usually consist of painting, scrubbing,
sawing, wiring, jacking up, sanding, hammering and on and on. We joke that we
have to go back to Florida to rest after we’ve been here.
Despite all its flaws, there is an aspect of our old house which makes it
very special. It was built sixty-four years ago of American
chestnut (Castanea dentata), a tree that was already being threatened
with extinction because of an imported organism for which our trees had little
Discovering that the house was built of chestnut was a complete surprise
to us for two reasons.
First, we weren’t allowed into the house before we bought it (the
realtor was afraid it might fall down on us). Second, even though we scraped the
grime off the windows and peered in, all we could see tacked to the walls was
linoleum (in a pattern of huge red, black or white diamonds) and jute carpet
padding nailed right to the walls. There was even a refrigerator box, flattened
out and nailed on one wall.
It was only after we had stripped these rather curious coverings from the
walls that we discovered the chestnut planks underneath. Over the years we have
tried to keep as much of the chestnut exposed as possible. Early on I found the
best way to reveal the beauty of the wood was to grind it down with a round wire
brush attached to a power drill.
After removing layers of kitchen grease and wood smoke which had
accumulated since 1936, I uncovered walls that were made of thick, vertical
planks that varied from 8 inches in width to almost two feet in width. Once the
outer layer was removed the wood proved to be a rough-hewn dark-honey color on
which the marks of the old sawmill blade still show.
Another surprise occurred when we realized that this house has no
“normal” framing in the walls, just vertical planks attached to the floor
and ceiling. The house sits on a sill of hand-hewn locust logs that rests on
stumps or piles of rocks. Some parts of the house are a little closer to the
ground than they were when it was first built, but there is a certain charm to
watching the dog drop his ball and watch it roll to the other end of the room.
Casey can play fetch all by himself.
Knowing that this house is built of a tree that was once a very important
canopy tree of Eastern forests, I became interested in learning more about the
American chestnut. I found two resources on the Internet, but even better, I was
fortunate that we have a friend who grew up in these mountains and who was one
of the people that actually helped timber the American chestnut. The following
information is from an interview I had with Joe Anderson, of Hiawassee, Georgia,
about the American chestnut of north Georgia.
The first thing I asked was, where had the chestnut that is in our house
come from? I was delighted to find that it had apparently been timbered from the
forestry land above our property. It seems there was a small sawmill in one of
the hollows near here and among other types of trees, the chestnut, which was
for the most part dead or dying by 1936, was being sawed into local lumber. Once
I learned that the chestnut had been timbered near our land I was sure, when I
found a huge, old stump of a chestnut near the house, that this could be one of
the trees that some of
the really big planks were cut from.!
What follows is the story Joe told me about timbering chestnut trees
during the early part of the century. It starts with Joe’s father, Grady
Anderson, harvesting chestnut for about sixteen years, from 1937 through 1953.
Helping Grady were his sons: Joe, R. L., Coy, Brownie and Emmet Anderson.
After the chestnut blight struck, Joe said it was easy to spot the dead
chestnuts even from a long distance. In his words “they looked like tall white
towers” on the mountains. The trees tended to grow on the north sides of the
mountains in hollows where moisture was more likely to collect. They must have
been impressive to look at, even from a distance, since many were at least a
hundred feet tall and so large in diameter that their sides had to be notched by
an axe before a six-foot crosscut saw could cut through them.
Although the chestnut had many uses outside of the Georgia mountains, one
of its primary uses in the mountains was for fire wood, and the chestnuts
themselves provided food to fatten both hogs and cattle. The chestnuts that fell
and were used with livestock were referred to as
“sweet mast.” In fact, the meat from an animal fattened this way was
referred to as “sweet mast meat.”
These windfall chestnuts were also a valuable resource for wildlife which
abounded in the Georgia mountains at that time. Sometimes, there was enough of a
surplus that the chestnuts were gathered and taken to Gainesville, Georgia and
then shipped out to more populated areas as a human delicacy. This harvesting of
the nuts was another way that the native chestnut provided a cash crop for
people of the area.
In order to timber the dead chestnut, men had to apply for a
“harvesting permit” which allowed each contractor to work in a specified
area of the forestry land. The Andersons harvested from the Scataway, Corbin and
Swallow’s Creek area in northeastern Georgia. Generally, the contracts were
only given to one or two men in each small community.
Not only did these contracts benefit the lumberman but it also benefited
the Forestry Service both by supplying a fee from the permits and by providing
an inexpensive way to perhaps slow the spread of the blight by getting rid of
the dead and diseased trees.
The process of getting the trees cut and then down the mountains was very
labor intensive and undoubtedly fairly dangerous. It is an indication of the
austerity of the time that even with all the labor involved, a cord of chestnut
sold for only five dollars and on a good day perhaps two and a half cords could
be sawed; yielding twelve dollars in pay. Consider that each cord required two
days to produce. After being cut, the logs had to be hauled down the slopes to a
flat area that was referred to as the “landing”. On the first day they were
hauled to the landing and on the second day they were hand sawn into cords. From
there the wood was trucked to a railroad siding in Hayesville, North Carolina.
From there it would be shipped to a pulp mill in Canton, North Carolina.
At the pulp mill the chestnut was turned into what was called “acid wood or
pulp wood” which was later used to make paper
In 1937 when Grady Anderson first began timbering chestnut, he hauled
logs with a yoke of oxen, named Buck and Red. After more than sixty years, Joe
still remembers watching his father carve a double yoke out of yellow poplar for
the team. The only tools he used were a drawknife and a crosscut saw to whittle
its basic shape. In order to bend it into the double arches needed for the yoke,
the wood first had to be soaked in a stream for several days until it was
Joe’s father had begun using a pair of Clydesdales by the time Joe
started working for him. At the age of ten, Joe’s job was to drive the horse
team that dragged the logs down the slopes.
Considering the size of the logs, five to six feet in diameter, the horse
teams had to be massive.
On this team, each horse weighed between 1700 and 1800 pounds. It is hard
to imagine a ten year old being in charge of all that mass but Joe managed. In
fact, he would ride the traces of the harness back up the mountain after they
had hauled a log down to the landing. At times, Joe even rode the trees down the
mountain, straddling or standing on the massive logs as they were towed down the
By the early fifties most of the trees had finally fallen or been cut
down, and the chestnut lumber industry came to a standstill. As a testimony to
the persistence of this species the American Chestnut is still alive but can no
longer reach its former glory. Suckers still periodically sprout from old root
systems, and they will live for a few years until they are no longer able to
resist the fungus that brought this magnificent tree down. So the cycle
has told us that he knows where there is an American Chestnut that is at least
two and a half feet in diameter. On our next trip we hope to see this
As a member of the Eastern forest, the American chestnut was a giant but
remember what can happen to giants. David and Goliath come to mind immediately,
and ironically, there is a certain parallel between the two stories. The chestnut
blight fungus, a tiny foreign organism, and David’s pebble were both seemingly
insignificant, but they both brought the giants down. There is one important
difference between the two stories though.
Our American chestnut keeps trying to get back up, with help from a lot
of friends, such as those at the
American Chestnut Foundation
who are trying to bring this giant back from the edge of extinction.
Thanks, Jean. (Mike here.) It occurs to me that after a couple of articles on endangered animals (the black bear and the indigo snake), this article on an endangered plant links us, through a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (himself a rather endangered poet lately), to an endangered occupation:
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
a spreading chestnut-tree
village smithy stands;
smith, a mighty man is he,
large and sinewy hands;
the muscles of his brawny arms
strong as iron bands.
hair is crisp, and black, and long,
face is like the tan;
brow is wet with honest sweat,
earns whate'er he can,
looks the whole world in the face,
he owes not any man.
in, week out, from morn till night,
can hear his bellows blow;
can hear him swing his heavy sledge,
measured beat and slow,
a sexton ringing the village bell,
the evening sun is low.
children coming home from school
in at the open door;
love to see the flaming forge,
hear the bellows roar,
catch the burning sparks that fly
chaff from a threshing-floor.
goes on Sunday to the church,
sits among his boys;
hears the parson pray and preach,
hears his daughter's voice,
in the village choir,
it makes his heart rejoice.
sounds to him like her mother's voice,
needs must think of her once more,
in the grave she lies;
with his hard, rough hand he wipes
tear out of his eyes.
through life he goes;
Each morning sees some task begun,
evening sees it close;
attempted, something done,
earned a night's repose.
thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
the lesson thou hast taught!
at the flaming forge of life
fortunes must be wrought;
on its sounding anvil shaped
burning deed and thought.
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