When I was a little girl I lived with my mother and father and three sisters in a big brick farmhouse in south central Pennsylvania. The house was made of brick and American chestnut, harvested from the great chestnut forests of the East Coast. In 1904, when the house was built, 1 in every 4 trees on the East Coast was chestnut. But later that same year, the chestnut blight was introduced and decimated the forests. By 1950, only a handful of chestnuts remained. 4 billion were wiped out by the blight.
All words about the American chestnut are now but an elegy for it. This once mighty tree, one of the grandest features of our sylva, has gone down like a slaughtered army before a foreign fungus disease, the Chestnut blight. In the youth of a man not yet old, native chestnut was still to be seen in glorious array, from the upper slopes of Mount Mitchell, the great forest below waving with creamy white Chestnut blossoms in the crowns of the ancient trees, so that it looked like a sea with white combers plowing across its surface. Gone forever is that day; gone is one of our most valuable timber trees, gone the beauty of its shade, the spectacle of its enormous trunks sometimes ten to twelve feet in diameter. And gone the harvest of the nuts that stuffed our Thanksgiving turkey or warmed our hearts and fingers at the vendor’s street corner. Donald Culross Peattie, 1948
Today the house is for sale. I copied some pictures into this post so you can tour it with me. I interspersed the pictures with the story of the glorious American chestnut. As Susan Freinkel writes, “How astonishing to think that a ‘perfect tree’ could dominate so much of the continent, suffer utter collapse in the space of a human lifetime, and then slip from historical memory as if it had never existed.”
We had a wide front porch and swing that creaked.
Windows wrapped around low and broad, you could slide them open and see the rope pulleys on the inside. I straddled a window ledge and read books in the breeze.
Or you could lay on the roof under the branches of the fir trees in our front yard. My sisters sunbathed on the roof. I poured trashcans full of water on unsuspecting guests walking to the front door. I was that kind of kid.
The attic had dormer windows, slanting ceilings and a cedar closet. My dad waged war against the sloppy habits of his daughters by taking off our bathroom doors if we did not clean our rooms. If we still didn’t clean, he would take our toilet seat.
In the basement was a root cellar with a giant wooden door that said 1904 in a brass plate. It was at least 5 inches thick and sealed a stone chamber that stayed cool all the time. I liked to pretend my sister was Fortunato and I was Montresor and we were going to the wine cellar to sample the Amontillado, a’la Edgar Allan Poe’s story.
Behind the house, there are storm cellar doors leading to the basement. We don’t have a basement or a storm doors. My boys love to imagine a tornado coming and having to hide in the cellar. When we visit Pennsylvania we always find a house with storm doors and take the dark stairs to the cellar. I tell them scary stories and ask them to find sticks to put through the handles to keep the doors from flying off when the wind surges. ;)
Our backyard had a springhouse, we called it the Pump House. On hot summer days, I read books on the cold floor. I can still feel that coolness as I type this post 30 years later.
The yard was lined with evergreens. Our backyard touched the Butler’s backyard. Mr. Butler played the bagpipes. Sometimes you would find my stepdad sitting on stump out back smoking a pipe and calling “Play Scotland the Brave” to Mr. Butler when he started droning.
When my family bought the farm house, everything was painted orange. The orange covered the pocket doors and window frames and molding. Our family peeled the paint from all the wood using heat guns to bubble up the paint and a paint scraper.
To restore the wood to it’s true glory, my father took each door off the frame. He mounted them on sawhorses in the living room (where the grand piano is) and stripped the paint with smelly paint thinner. He scrubbed the ridges with chemical soaked rags before polishing them with a glossy varnish. He could tell you exactly how many doors and windows we had because he stripped and finished them all. It brings back memories to see his hard work 20 years later in these pictures.
The orange paint bubbled up and you could peel off ribbons if you were savvy about how you directed the heat bubble, expanding it to walk up the wood and then follow with your scraper, peeling the orange paint like ribbons the width of the scraper. I spent hours doing this, likely my parents spent weeks.
The chestnut tree was called the Redwood of the East. This is a map of the chestnut forest range on the East Coast in 1914. When settlers arrived in Pennsylvania they said the trees were so thick, a squirrel could walk to the Mississippi without putting it’s feet on the ground.
Our dining room had pocket doors made of five panel chestnut and a built in china closet in the corner. The pocket doors are recessed in the frame, but if you reach inside you can slide the doors out and close off the dining room from the living room.
When we go home to Pennsylvania in the summer we knock on the door and ask for a tour. I’ve taken Brady once and my husband once, but Max hasn’t been yet.
Donald Culross Peattie writes beautifully about the natural world. If you like trees, add this book to your collection.
Pennsylvania is the prettiest place in the world if you like the four seasons.
The leaves turn red, orange and gold in the fall. We have beautiful white winters. In spring, crocuses come up from the frosty ground, robins chirp and in a few weeks after that first crocus, the trees are covered in blossoms. In the summer we stay up late, catch fire flies and wade in creeks.
There are creeks and shade trees and ferns and mossy rocks in Pennsylvania. Forgive me for romanticizing it, but the ground is not soft here in the desert, the leaves on the trees are like slivers compared to the broad glossy leaves in Pennsylvania. I hope you enjoyed a little trip down memory lane with me and found some new books to read.
To follow the story of the American Chestnut, join the American Chestnut Foundation. Or buy my old house. I wish I could!
Note: Which of these books am I reading first? Susan Freinkel’s. The chestnut is a tree of the rural poor-especially of Appalachians, whose history is oral and bound to disappear unless passed down or recorded. And this, the recording of the mountain people’s stories, is one of the things that Freinkel does best….She conveys the deep emotional loss and financial hardship suffered by those living in the hills and hollers of Appalachia due to the decimation of their beloved chestnuts…These people were bereft at the loss of their forests and mourned the passing of particular trees like the death of a family member. Said one, “Man, I had the awfulest feeling about that as a child to look back yonder and see those trees dying. I thought the whole world was going to die.” Freinkel found these people eager to talk, seemingly grateful that someone, after all these years, wanted to know how they felt about losing their chestnuts.