Just a century ago, you could find specimens of the magnificent American chestnut (Castanea dentata) practically everywhere in the eastern part of this nation. It thrived in farmyards, town squares, and forests from southern Maine to northern Mississippi, Alabama, and into Arkansas.
These mighty trees stood 60' - 100' tall, with trunks that could measure 10' - 12' in diameter. Because the American chestnut first branched horizontally from its trunk, then fanned out with ascending branches, it was much-loved for shade.
The beginning of the end for this magnificent species came in 1904, when trees at the New York Zoological Park were stricken with a fungus disease that originated in Asia. Spread by wind-borne spores, the blight moved rapidly. Not quite as fast as a forest fire, but equally devastating it moved through New Jersey and into Pennsylvania s great chestnut stands, then on west. By the late 1930s the noble American chestnut was wiped out. Although the tree could send out sprouts from its stump and did after fire or logging they only lived for a short time before also succumbing to the blight.
People might remember the chestnut for its tasty nuts, but in its day the tree had lots of commercial uses. Its wood resembled oak. Though coarser, lighter, and weaker, chestnut better resisted wood-destroying fungi, which made it a natural for fence posts and railway ties. Chestnut also was made into furniture, interior trim, packing cases, and crates. Tannic acid, for tanning leather, was extracted from the bark and wood.
Illustration: Jim Steveson