Enthusiasts work to restore the American Chestnut

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(Host) The Vermont Farm Show which opened today in Barre is an opportunity to see what’s new in farming and to celebrate the agricultural life in Vermont.

Even though he’s retired from farming, 70-year-old Everett Demeritt of Craftsbury still attends the show.

In fact Demeritt’s memories of his first farm show in 1954 are still vivid.

(Demeritt) “And I had just bought a new 430 McCullough chain saw and the McCullough representative, he and I had an extremely extended visit. I was 16 and a half years old and he thought I knew quite a lot about chain saws and I think I did at that time.”

(Host) One of the new displays at this year’s farm show is dedicated to bringing back a tree that once dominated the eastern forest.

As VPR’s Steve Zind reports, the return of the American Chestnut has been a long time coming.

(Gulick) “Good morning. Do you know anything about chestnuts? Want to get interested?”

(Zind) Terry Gulick has the enthusiasm of a new convert as points to the long saw toothed leaves and the prickly seed pods displayed on a table at the Barre Auditorium.

Gulick is a member of the new Vermont chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation dedicated to the return of a tree that once covered millions of acres of eastern forest from Georgia to Vermont.

There are still a few surviving mature American Chestnuts, including a handsome specimen in Central Vermont that’s the poster tree of the farm show display.

(Gulick) “This is the Berlin tree. That is a survivor. It’s now twenty five inches DBH. Do you know what that means? Diameter breast height.”

(Zind) The chestnuts that appear at supermarkets every Christmas? Those are imported.

The heyday of the American Chestnut was well over by the time Mel Torme wrote that memorable lyric about chestnuts roasting on an open fire. In the early 1900s a Chinese variety brought to New York brought with it a fast-spreading blight that virtually wiped out the American tree.

It’s been a long time since Chestnut trees were a common sight and it’s probably indelicate to ask someone today if they remember them.

(Curtiss) “No, I don’t I’m not that old! (laughs) Maybe I look it. No, I’m only 70. You’d have to be pretty old.”

(Zind) Ron Curtiss of Albany, Vermont says he’s got a few small chestnut trees at home that he started from seed. He hopes they’ll grow as big as the Chestnuts of the past.

(Schaberg) “It was a glorious tree.”

(Zind) Paul Schaberg, is a research plant physiologist with the U.S. Forest Service.

(Schaberg) “It could grow ten or twelve feet in diameter, over a hundred feet tall. It produced chestnuts by the bushel full that were great for humans and animals.”

(Zind) Schaberg is part of a Vermont team working to bring back the American Chestnut. They’re crossing surviving trees with just enough of the genetic characteristics of the blight resistant Chinese variety.

Researchers are always looking for mature trees in Vermont as potential breeding stock – so they’re happy when someone like Dave Lillie of Springfield turns up.

(Lillie) “We have about six live chestnut trees down there and we’ve been looking for someone to find some interest in them.”

(Zind) Researchers hope to have a disease resistant American chestnut in the next few years. In the meantime seedlings from surviving trees are available through the American Chestnut Society.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind at the farm show in Barre.

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