Saturday, December 27, 2014

Chestnuts and Chestnuting in Washington DC 100 years ago when there were still a few Chestnuts

Chestnuts and Chestnuting.

The Sunday Evening Star. 27 December 1914. Washington, D.C.[1]

            The Rambler recently wrote of two famous chestnut trees— or the stumps of two famous chestnut trees— in the environs of Washington.  One of these was the chestnut tree in the home grounds of Conway Robinson,[2] called the Vineyard, under which [Senator] Daniel Webster and pious John Agg[3] of Rock Creek Church where want to indulge in toddies, and the other was the chestnut tree on the banks of the Anacostia river, beneath whose spreading branches John Howard Payne[4] and George W. Talbert of Chichester used to drink juleps.  These reflections in chestnut trees bring to Rambler's memory some very pleasant thoughts on the chestnut season now some weeks gone.  It is well understood that the lure of the chestnut is widely felt and has called many persons into the woods.  There is fascination which a large number of men and women cannot resist, or will not resist, not so much in the chestnut as in chestnuting.  They like to scratch among the fallen leaves for the rich, brown, velvet-smooth and fuzzy nuts, or pry them out of their spike-armed and satin-lined chambers, and one chestnut found is to these persons of greater value and sweeter flavor than half a pint bought at the corner stand. 

            On the walk which the great Washington family of wanderlusters made to the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain the Rambler noted an incident which illustrates what has gone before.  It was a long and dusty road from Dickerson {Montgomery County, Maryland] to the base of the mountain, and the "hikers," as they have come generally to be called, were strung out for a mile.  You're the base of the mountain, on its southerly side, is a crossroads with a store and house called Mount Ephraim.  A little beyond that point and off the left of the road, in a copse of chestnut trees, a young girl was hunting, and finding, chestnuts.  She was about 12 or 13 years old.  Her hair, in two bright blonde braids, was hanging down her back.  She carried her big straw hat under one arm and with her free hand rustled among the leaves on the ground.  Her big cat was brimful of chestnuts.

            The Rambler trying to say something about the fun of hunting chestnuts, and the young lady asked him to have some.  An invitation of that kind is not to be resisted and she gave him a handful, and then another, and proceeded to fill one of his coat pockets out of the bounteous store from the old straw hat.
            "What is your name?" The Rambler asked.
            "Oh! it is a hard name and you won't be able to say it," she said in very clear, clean–cut English, but with an accent not of this land.
            "German?" guessed the Rambler.    
            "No," said the little maid, with a trace of indignation in her tone.  "I am Dutch.  I was born in Amsterdam [The Netherlands].  My name is Henrica du Fries."

            That is, the name sounded very much like "Henrica du Fries."  Just then one of the Washington women came along.  She was tired and sunburnt and her tailored skirt with yellow with dust and her shirtwaist, which was so fresh that morning, was no longer fresh.

            "Little girl, may I have some chestnuts?"  she asked, and her tone indicated that she was prepared for a refusal.  But little Henrica came forward with a smile and that big straw hat full of chestnuts and was going to give the strange lady as many chestnuts as she wanted.  Then the strange lady said, in a voice that had grown 20 years younger in a minute:
            "Oh, little girl. I don't want to take your chestnuts, but if you will just let me come in there and help you to find some and find one for myself I will be so glad."

            The child laughed and the woman, laughed, gayly, and climbed through the old fence separating the dusty road from the chestnut trees, and was soon scratching among the leaves and giving out exultant little exclamations when she found the chestnut.

            The Rambler set up on the top rail of the fence, and with satisfaction cracked and choose the chestnuts which he had not found, and in course of half an hour he saw the incident of the woman and the chestnuts repeated, with sundry modifications, half a dozen times.  So he reasoned it out that it was not the chestnuts these men and women wanted, but the fund of finding them, and that they wanted to hunt for them because it brought back were freshened up some pleasant memories of their childhood days.

            A few days later the Rambler was passing over one of the [    ] and sequestered paths of Rock Creek Park, far away from the tracks used by those very ordinary mortals who ride in motor cars.  In the woods a few feet out the past a horse was tethered. He was hitched to a sapling by his bridle rein and the stirrups were thrown across the saddle.  Down among the dry, brown leaves stooped a grave and reverend seignior.  He is a federal judge and everybody who reads this would instantly recognize the name.  He had tied up his horse (which by the way, is a very free and clear footed jumper) and was groping in the leaves for chestnuts, and nibbling the sweetmeat with great satisfaction when he found one.   The Rambler tied up "Nancy" to a tree and fell to chestnuting with the judge. And as they scratched for the nuts the Rambler said:
            "Judge, you know Pat Joyce, the superintendent of this part, would have apoplexy and turn in a right call if he came on us poaching in these woods."[5]
            "Let him have apoplexy, but if you hear him coming we will make our escape," said the judge.  After getting a pocket full of chestnuts the judge and the Rambler moved on through the paths of the woods, and for several miles talked about chestnuts and horses.  Neither Congress nor the administration was mentioned once.

            Not long after this incident the Rambler was passing along that high part of the park on the backbone of land between Rock creek and Broad branch          , up near the jumping field. There are some chinquapin bushes and chestnut trees up there, but, of course, the chinquapins had been stolen several weeks before.  Squatting on the ground was a general in active service, perhaps the best-known general in the city, and who rides one of the best sorrel thoroughbreds that go over the brush hurdles, the bars and that turf–topped stone wall in Rock Creek Park.  His wife was sitting by him. They had a knotted handkerchief full of chestnuts which they had abstracted from this national preserve; and chicken sandwiches.  Their automobile, one of those large,closed-in affairs with a mechanician [sic] and a footman in livery, was standing by the roadside about 200 yards away. 
            "Have some chestnuts?"  Said the general.
            The Rambler told him that he had already stolen so many out of Pat Joyce's woods that he felt a little ashamed of himself, but that he would take a sandwich if there was one left.  And there was.
            "Chestnuting is great fun," said the general with the smiling approval of his wife.  "It's just like being children all over again."

            The blight[6] and the ax have destroyed thousands of chestnut trees throughout the eastern states, but the trees that survive or an extraordinarily large crop last season. It has been a great season for apples and chestnuts.  Europe supplied many tons of chestnuts to the United States each year, but the supply has been visibly diminished by the war and Americans are eating native chestnuts just as sweet but not so large as the European variety. The European chestnuts, Castanea sativa is variously called the "French" chestnut, the "Italian" chestnut and the "Spanish" chestnut.   In England they call it the "sweet chestnuts."   It is native to the mountain forests in the temperate regions of western Asia, Europe and North Africa and has been an important article of food with the people of those regions since recorded history began. With them it is not a tidbit to be merrily munched as with us, but a food of which meals are made. This chestnut is grown to some extent also in the United States. It was introduced into this country  by Irenie du Pont at Wilmington Del., in 1803,[7] and there is a record that the French chestnut was grafted on a native chestnut tree by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello in 1773. The native chestnut is formally known as Castanea Americana [Castanea dentata (Marshall) Borkh.], and in some American chestnut grows it has been improved by grafting from selected forms. There is another chestnut grown in the United States which was introduced from Japan into New York State in 1876.[8]   

[1] Transcribed by John Peter Thompson, 27 December 2014.

[2] "Conway Robinson, jurist, legal scholar, and historian. Having practiced law in Richmond, Robinson was a reporter in the Virginia court of appeals in 1842-1844. In 1846-1849, he took part in revision of the civil and criminal code of Virginia, and in 1852 he was elected to represent Richmond in the House of Delegates. In 1860 he moved to the Vineyard, his estate near Washington, D.C. He chaired the executive committee of the Virginia Historical Society. Conway Robinson was author of many works on law and history, including An Account of discoveries in the West until 1519 (1848), The Principles and practice of courts of justice in England and United States (1874) and History of the High Court of Chancery and other institutions of England (1882)". [accessed on 27 December 2014 from the website at:].

see also: Conway Robinson Author(s): John Selden; Source: The Virginia Law Register, Vol. 1, No. 9 (Jan., 1896), pp. 631-646; Published by: Virginia Law Review; Stable URL: .

[3] George W. Riggs Jr. was 29 years old when he bought the farm of a bankrupt family friend,reporter John Agg, who had accumulated nearly $14,000 in debt and in March 1842, he petitioned for protection under a new federal bankruptcy law. Among his assets were a “Farm near Rock Creek Church containing about fifty acres” which had been known as “Wheat Yard Heights” and “Evesham Lodge.” [accessed 27 December 2014 at  William Degges, the man who built “Lincoln’s Cottage” November 2010.]

[4]  John Howard Payne was born in East Hampton, Long Island, NY on June 9, 1791. n June of 1813, Payne went to England and was the first American actor to invade the British stage. A contemporary noted of Payne’s appearance: "Nature bestowed upon him a countenance of no common order, and though there was a roundness and fairness which but faintly express strong turbulent emotions or display the furious passions, these defects were supplied by an eye which glowed with animation and intelligence. A more extraordinary mixture of softness and intelligence were never associated in a human countenance, and his face was a true index of his heart."

While living in London and Paris, Payne began writing dramas. He also contributed to several operas, in particular, produced by Sir Henry Bishop entitled Clari, the Maid of Milan. This opera included the Payne’s composition “Home, Sweet Home”, written in 1822 and first sung in Covent Garden, England in 1823. After the popularity of the song spread throughout the world and Bishop claimed that in editing the song for Clari he created new music for Payne’s lyrics. This was recognized both popularly and officially and Payne never did receive royalties for his contribution to the song. [access from John Howard Payne. at the website:]

"Home, Sweet Home!" (1823) — A Victorian parlour song sung by Derek B. Scott:
[5]  The park remained under the Board of Control until 1918, when Congress made it and its Piney Branch Parkway adjunct part of the park system of the District of Columbia. On September 16 of that year the park was transferred to the jurisdiction of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, which had managed the District park system since 1867. Its officer in charge, Col. Clarence S. Ridley, reported to the Army chief of engineers. [11] Grabill, attached to the office of the District engineer commissioner, was separated from the park, but his staff on the ground stayed. It was headed by Patrick Joyce, who had been appointed foreman in 1910, and then included three skilled laborers, a wagon boss, and nine unskilled hands. [An Administrative History-The Park Managers. accessed at].

[6]  "Before the turn of the century, the eastern half of the United States was dominated by the American chestnut. Because it could grow rapidly and attain huge sizes, the tree was often the outstanding visual feature in both urban and rural landscapes. The wood was used wherever strength and rot-resistance was needed. In colonial America, chestnut was a preferred species for log cabins, especially the bottom rot-prone foundation logs. Later posts, poles, flooring, and railroad ties were all made from chestnut lumber. The edible nut was also a significant contributor to the rural economy. Hogs and cattle were often fattened for market by allowing them to forage in chestnut-dominated forests. Chestnut ripening coincided with the Thanksgiving-Christmas holiday season, and turn-of-the-century newspaper articles often showed train cars filled to overflowing with chestnuts rolling into major cities to be sold fresh or roasted. The American chestnut was truly a heritage tree.

All of this began to change at or slightly before the turn of the century with the introduction of Cryphonectria parasitica, the causal agent of chestnut blight. This disease reduced the American chestnut from its position as the dominant tree species in the eastern forest to little more than an early-succession-stage shrub." [Background on American chestnut and chestnut blight. accessed at].

[7]  It would be neither safe nor advisable to attempt to give the exact date at which seedlings or nuts of the European chestnut or Spanish Chestnut as it was popularly called were first planted in American soil. Certain it is however that the introduction took place nearly a century ago and that imported trees have been bearing fruit in this country for over fifty years. It was in the region around Philadelphia Pa Wilmington Del and Trenton NJ that the first general introduction took place and from here has occurred the eventual dissemination of the different varieties to other arts of the country.

The initial introduction of foreign nuts was not as would be expected the work of horticulturists who wished to propagate them for economic purposes but the result of efforts made by wealthy individuals to secure rare and interesting trees adapted fo r planting on their new world estates. To the French "Marrons" is accorded the credit of being among the first to introduce the European chestnut. Irenee Dupont the founder of the now famous powder mills bearing his name was a recipient as early as 1802 of chestnut seed and young trees from France. Most of the seed failed to grow but records show that a few trees became established in his garden and flourished for years no doubt serving as a center of distribution for the surrounding country.
[accessed from .Ernest Albert Sterling. 1905. Chestnut culture in northeastern United States. J.B. Lyon co.]

[8] The blight fungus disease was first observed in the U.S. killing American chestnuts (Castanea dentata) in 1904. It has been widely accepted since that humans brought the disease to the US from Asia on imported chestnut trees. The first sighting of the fungus was at the Bronx Zoo, New York City. From there, the disease spread like fire throughout the eastern states, and across the entire natural range of the American chestnut. By the 1920s, the disease had even reached southern Ontario, and by the 1930s, the entire stock of American chestnuts was infected, with most of them dying. By 1940, over three and a half billion American chestnuts had been lost to the fungus. In less than four decades, a dominant American tree species had been converted to a threatened species.  [accessed from Chestnut Blight Fungus (Cryphonectria parasitica)].