The American Chestnut Tree
Chestnut Trees grow very tall and thick, mostly, however, in mountainous regions and high land. Its wood is very lasting, and its fruit exceptionally sweet. — William Byrd (1737)
Here at Parkway Brewing, a number of our tap handles are carved by local artist and woodworker Genesis Chapman from salvaged wood of the nearly-extinct American chestnut.
The story of the American chestnut, the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway are interconnected. The American chestnut (Castanea dentata) was once the dominant and most important tree in the forests of the Appalachian Mountains. Indeed, one of every four trees in the Appalachians was once an American chestnut. It could grow to an amazing size and diameter, up to 100 feet tall and 14 feet around. The American chestnut was once a source of timber, lodging, housing, fuel, income and food for generations of Native Americans and the first settlers who pioneered the
Blue Ridge Mountains. It was an amazingly light, fast growing and versatile wood. It was so high in tannic acid that its pulp and bark were harvested for use in leather tanneries. The tree’s nuts were a great source of protein and nourishment for wildlife and people alike. According to Richard C. Davis (1970), author of The Man Who Moved a Mountain, “One mother who never bothered with a husband used to say, ‘A grove of chestnuts is a better provider than any man—easier to have around, too.’”
(p. 5, Philadelphia: Fortress Press).
It was not logging or overuse, however, that proved the undoing of this mighty tree. Its sister tree, the Chinese chestnut, introduced to North America around 1900, carried a fungus (Diaporthe parasitica) that caused a blight for which the American chestnut had no immunity. This “chestnut blight” caused cankers to grow on the outer skin of the bark, killing an American chestnut within a few years. By the 1930s, the blight swept through the entire Appalachian mountain range, leaving only ghostly forests of dead trees. Because of the high tannins, however, the wood of an American chestnut proved incredibly rot-resistant. To this day, there remain fallen logs and stumps from over 100 years ago that can still be used.
It was during the chestnut blight, around 1935, that President Roosevelt formed the Works Progress Administration (“WPA”). The Blue Ridge Parkway was a large WPA program and sought to build a road that now stretches 469 miles from the Great Smoky Mountains to Shenandoah National Park. The iconic split rail fence bordering the road along much of the Blue Ridge Parkway is made from the wood of American chestnuts.
It is this connection to the American chestnut and the Blue Ridge Parkway that inspired us here at Parkway Brewing to make our tap handles out of recycled and reclaimed American chestnut. All of our tap handles are salvaged from the fallen barns, sheds and fences that once dotted Bent Mountain. To learn more about the American chestnut tree and efforts to restore the species to the Mountains go to THE AMERICAN CHESTNUT FOUNDATION or to VIRGINIA TECH .