May 1, 2009

The Chestnut Man...

Jim and Caroline Walker Shelton's family
Standing by a Chestnut Tree, Circa 1920, Tremont Falls, TN

According to Wikipedia, "The American Chestnut (Castanea dentata) is a large, deciduous tree of the beech family native to eastern North America. Before the species was devastated by the chestnut blight, a fungal disease, it was one of the most important forest trees throughout its range. There are now few if any mature specimens of the tree, except where it was planted in blight-free regions distant from its original range." To give us an idea of the magnitude of loss caused by the blight, the author continues, "It is estimated that the total number of chestnut trees in eastern North America was over three billion, and that 25 percent of the trees in the Appalachian Mountains were American Chestnut. The number of large surviving American Chestnut trees over 60 cm (24 inches) in diameter within the tree's former range is probably fewer than 100." And this incredible loss of timber all occurred in about thirty years, beginning in 1904 after the damaging fungus was brought in on some imported Chinese trees.

A few years ago I was visiting my good friend and fellow luthier Keith Young. He showed me a couple of instruments he had made from what he called "wormy chestnut." "Wormy" chestnut refers to a defective grade of wood that has insect damage, having been sawn from long-dead blight-killed trees. Even this kind of Chestnut is difficult to find, although I have bought a few individual boards on eBay.  With its tiny worm hole traces, it is a very beautiful wood for either furniture or musical instruments.

As Monty Love and I were on our way to Merlefest this past weekend, we were near the town of Sugar Grove, NC, when we saw a small sign at the end of a driveway, "Wormy Chestnut for Sale." We noted a couple of landmarks and decided to stop there on our return trip. So it was that on Sunday afternoon we pulled into the driveway of Mr. Bill Harmon, who says he is known around those parts as "The Chestnut Man." And it's no wonder!

American Chestnut
Mr. Harmon took us on a tour of his lumber collection. There was a mountain of reclaimed chestnut, wormy and otherwise, from barns and cabins that he has salvaged over many, many years. He has boards and logs stored inside a couple of very large barns as well as out in the open. For a fellow who has paid as much as $60 for a single board on eBay, you can only imagine the sensory overload I was experiencing! And then there were the other varieties -- black walnut, aromatic eastern cedar, black cherry, poplar. Everywhere he took us there was another treasure.

And he was a real gentleman. He related a heartwarming story about Doc Watson's service to the small churches in the area. Doc hails from Deep Gap, just a few miles down the road.

I told Mr. Harmon that I was looking for a few boards with no nail holes that I could resaw to make dulcimers from. He informed us he had some boards that had been cut by a lumber mill in the 1940's and never sold! I bought a ten foot long board with gorgeous grain. Mr. Harmon cut it into lengths that I could fit into my truck. We thanked him and left, but we shall return...

A Galax-style Wormy Chestnut Dulcimer
Made by Ben Seymour of Tryon, NC

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