GUEST COLUMN: Letter from Dogwood

David Black

As my local radio station reminded me this morning, it’s nutting time. The Virginia Department of Forestry folks put out their annual call for acorns of various types, which they will use to start seedlings. My own sidewalk dares me to step on it barefooted—Legos cannot do more damage to a bare sole than a new-fallen acorn.

One of my childhood chores was gathering acorns to feed the hogs. We had a couple of oaks in our yard, but the best nuts were heavy on the ground at Wesley Chapel Church, about a quarter-mile away. These fell from a grove of magnificent oaks, chestnut oaks as best I can remember, and were large, between an inch and a quarter to an inch and a half long. I recall driving there in the old red Chevy with a couple of 5-gallon buckets and filling them in no time. The hogs loved them.

That appetite for acorns should be no surprise to you if you know a little colonial history. Our pioneer ancestors turned out their pigs in the spring to forage the forests for abundant acorns and chestnuts, and then rounded them up in the late fall for slaughter. If you are really country, you know this forage food as “mast,” a word of proud Anglo-Saxon heritage.

Even then, in the 1950s, I had no chestnuts to gather. Sad—by then the great American chestnut trees were virtually extinct—a fact my sawmilling dad lamented frequently. The saying was that a squirrel could travel from Maine to Georgia along chestnut limbs and never touch the ground, they were that plentiful. The wood was strong and almost rot-proof and even today, one can occasionally salvage good chestnut boards from derelict barns.

The nuts were good human food, too, and people often gathered them for home and for market. As I write this, I am looking at an order dated November 11, 1915, for 1,000 pounds of chestnuts. The order was placed by L.G. Perkins of L.G. Perkins & Brother (General Merchandise, Flour, Corn, Oats, Mill Feed, Bran, Hay, Salt, Etc.) of Mineral, Virginia. It is in reply to a letter from one C.P. Deane. 

The postmark indicates that Mr. Deane lived in the Kinderhook area of Madison and Greene counties. Apparently that mountainous area was well-supplied with chestnuts, and Mr. Deane had written Mr. Perkins with an offer to supply such chestnuts as he would buy.

I can imagine that Perkins & Brother were likely going to sell them to a big-city market, possibly Richmond, possibly somewhere else the local trains ran. I can also imagine hardworking mountain kids gathering bucketsful for hours, and happy to get a few pennies for their work.

David Black lives in Louisa County.

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