Tucked away in Warrens, Wis., sits a rare, untouched stand of American chestnut trees. The cherished trees stand as a reminder of days long past – a time when a blight had yet to pose an existential threat. Unfortunately, as was likely inevitable with the passage of time, the previously untouched trees have begun succumbing to the scourge. While the trees cannot be saved, their owner hopes that their wood can provide craftsmen a unique opportunity to work with sought-after raw materials.
“We grew up with the trees. It was my parents’ farm, and they owned 80 acres. Older trees were already here when the land was purchased around 1961. All the trees in the whole neighborhood came from the original two trees that were in our neighbor’s yard. From there, they spread throughout the wood lots all around. In total, it is about 800-1,000 acres of continuous woods.” says property owner, Wayne Helming.
Helming explains that prior to the blight, at the turn of the 20th century,
more than 4 billion American chestnut trees flourished in the eastern United States. The trees had numerous beneficial qualities, including
providing wood products and food for humans, livestock, and wildlife. Then, around 1904, the deadly fungus struck. By 1950, the American chestnut essentially was eliminated as a forest canopy tree.
“When we were kids, they were just trees; we didn’t even know what they
were. Finally, we identified they were chestnut trees around the mid-1970s.
From little seedlings to trees that were 120 feet tall, there were thousands. The neighbor’s fire killed one of the trees and we were able to count the rings. We determined that the trees were planted there around 1890.”
For Helming, looking after the trees has long been a part of his family’s life.
“To protect our trees, for a long time, we did not tell anyone about what we had. Due to the blight, our understanding was the fewer people we had coming and going, the less chance the blight would come here. I’d look after and watch the trees, sometimes moving nuts around in different places in the woods so that more would grow.”
Helming says he valued the American chestnut for both the wildlife the trees attract, as well as how wonderful it is for woodworking. The wood is
easily shaped with tools, glues well, and finishes nicely. It has moderate shrinkage and minimal warping when drying.
“My entire house, from cabinets to woodwork – everything is done in American Chestnut. Later on, as I got into hunting, I learned the trees were the best wildlife trees due to their annual nut crop. Because of this, I have always been hopeful that our stand of American chestnut might be somehow spared from the illness that has devastated other areas.”
Unfortunately, Helming’s fears were finally realized when he discovered evidence of the blight on his trees.
“In the last 10 years, we’ve found the blight. I first saw it in 2009. In the last
three years, it began accelerating, and unfortunately, our trees are now dying. At this point, I don’t know what else to do but try to make the best of an unfortunate situation.”
To do this, Helming has begun to inquire about a potential market for the American chestnut logs on his property.
“My hope is that I can find a market for them. On the low end, I think there is 15,000 board feet of lumber to harvest now, with up to another 30,000 board feet in the fairly near future, looking at how quickly the trees are dying. I’d just hate to see the logs get sold and used for railroad ties. In the right hands, I really think this would be valuable lumber for veneer,” Helming says. “These trees have given so much to myself and my family. I’ve looked after them for so long in life, I feel like it’s my duty to do what I can to ensure that, in their death, they can still bring some of their beauty and joy to others.”