The Last American Chestnut Tree
My great grandparents emigrated to the U.S. from Italy around the late 1800s or early 1900s. Looking for a better life in the country, they saw potential in a small railroad town in central Pennsylvania. The town held a lot of promise. Advertised as a “Resort Town in the Mountains”, the town had a population of over 4,000 people, beautiful mountain scenery, hunting and fishing for the sportsman, plenty of shops and businesses, and was situated along a winding river. The main employer for the town was the Pennsylvania Railroad, a business that was booming at the time with both passenger and coal trains. The town was also a hub for railroad repair.
With nothing more than the clothes on their backs, a few dollars in their pocket, and a handful of skills, my great grandparents settled down and started a family. Eventually my great grandparents sent word to other relatives that this was a booming town where one could make a living, and so other relatives joined them. Years passed, their children grew up, married, and had children of their own; all making a life in this remote, mountain town.
By the time I was born, my great grandparents were long deceased and my grandparents were running a small hotel and restaurant that catered to both locals and out of town visitors. By this time, the town population had long ago peaked and the railroad business was on the decline. Automobiles replaced passenger trains and the railroad was no longer an employer. Nevertheless, the town remained a tourist attraction for those seeking to get away from city life and as one of the only restaurants in town; my grandfather’s business did well. As there was little opportunity for work elsewhere, and as small families are wont to do, almost all of my relatives helped to run the business. My grandfather ran the bar, my grandmother and aunts cooked, my mother and her cousins waitressed.
With most of the relatives working the business, it was only practical that they lived near one another. My grandparents and their children lived in the upstairs of the restaurant, my great aunt and uncle built a house behind the restaurant, another aunt built a house next to it, and eventually my parents would build a house further up and over the hill.
It was a joy to grow up surrounded by relatives. I had cousins the same age and there was no shortage of playmates. We would take turns playing at each other’s houses and roam the woods together, building forts. Adult relatives all took part raising us kids. After playing outside all morning, baking “sand pies” in “brick ovens” or playing on dirt hills; we would go knocking on the door of an aunt who we knew always had homemade pizzelle or biscotti cookies. An afternoon playing in a tree fort would leave us starving and we would head to an uncle’s who would feed us meatballs, then load our pockets with candy bars and send us on our way. It was like trick-or-treating all year round, which can be devious because every relative wanted to spoil us, and we knew it and took advantage of it.
Central to all the houses and the restaurant was a giant American chestnut tree. Thick of trunk and well over 60 feet in height, it immortalized the strength and vitality of our close-knit family. My grandfather built a small fire pit behind it that was used to burn trash and sometimes to roast marshmallows or hot dogs, but never at the same time. Fold-out lawn chairs were placed under the chestnut tree to sit and watch the fire burn or just to escape the summer sun. My dad, who was an electrician, built a small shop in front of the tree; a place to store supplies that he would use on jobs or to sell to townies. Many times I would play under the tree while waiting for dad while he was busy in the shop.
When the nuts fell in the autumn, all of us cousins would gather to crack open the spiky burrs with our shoes and harvest the brown chestnuts inside. The burrs had a small crease in them and the trick was to get your shoes on either side of the crease and to use your weight to tear it open, all without getting a spike in your foot. Which almost always happened anyway. The award went to the person who found a burr with more than one chestnut. A very lucky kid sometimes found a burr with as many as three nuts; although the third nut was almost always the runt and we would argue if it actually “counted” as a nut.
Chestnuts were always a treat to eat and we looked forward to them every year. The chestnut itself is a pale yellow nut that is wrapped in a brown, papery membrane and surrounded by a brown, rubbery shell. The shell is lined inside with a velvet-like substance.
Some people took pains to roast them by carving an X in the brown shell and placing them in the oven or over a fire. Once they were done, they had to be peeled while they were still hot, almost always burning your fingers. The nut inside was always warm and slightly toasted. These were good but were a pain to make; or rather it was a pain to get an adult to make for us.
Most people like to eat chestnuts boiled. They would throw the entire nut in a pot and boil it until the nut-meat was mush, not unlike boiled peanuts are today. It was common for people to sell them this way at local festivals. Whether they truly enjoyed them this way or were just lazy, I don’t know but this was my least favorite way to eat chestnuts.
My favorite way, was to eat them raw, right out of the burr. I would chew a small hole in the brown skin which would be my starting place, then peel the shell off with my fingers. I would then eat the yellow nut, brown paper membrane and all. It was sweet and crunchy with a slightly starchy texture. I loved them and always had a pocket-full as long as the tree was producing.
The chestnut tree remained central to our life. When Halloween came around, all us cousins would meet at the chestnut tree to go trick-or-treating. We gathered at the tree, went to all the relatives’ houses first where they “oohed” and “awed” our costumes and tried to guess who was who. Then we walked the half-mile or so to other houses in the area. In winter, we went sled riding on the hill that rose behind the tree. Starting at the top, we would sled down to the tree. Rinse and repeat. In the spring, we would meet at the tree and go play down by the stream. In the heat of the summer, we would play hide-and-seek around the tree. Year after year, we played under or around that old chestnut tree, took comfort in the shade, and ate the fruit it bore.
Then one day, the tree was gone.
I walked over the hill to my cousins and nothing was left but a stump. Like the disease that eventually killed it, the tree was reduced to a stump that was a blight to the hillside. A hideous scar. A wound to not only nature, but my heart. I asked my mother “why” and the only answer I got was that it was already dead.
Soon after, a family feud over property rights resulted in my dad’s shop being torn down. It was replaced by a motel. My uncle’s house behind the restaurant was leveled and turned into a parking lot. My aunt’s house next door was sold and razed as well. Older relatives all passed away and their children moved away. I moved away. The restaurant, like the town and the people in it, and the tree that grew behind it, eventually died.
Sometimes in the fall, when the leaves change and I start seeing stores carrying imported European chestnuts, I am still reminded of that old American chestnut tree, the life and family it represented, and the prophecy it foretold.