The Family of James and Caroline Shelton pose by a dead American chestnut tree in Tremont Falls, Tenn., circa 1920. Courtesy of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Library.

When my brothers and I were little we had a “play-house” inside a HUGE rotted out stump. The tree had fallen long ago, but the shell of the stump remained and it was big enough for all three of us to get inside. It was cool and mossy and taller than I was.

The stump was in the woods below the pond and behind the pig barn. It felt like the end of the earth when I was five and six. Of course, Mom probably could see us from the kitchen window, but still, it seemed far away.

I don’t know for certain, but I like to think it was the last remains of an American Chestnut tree. These were wondrous trees in Appalachia, growing to heights of 100 feet. The wood was strong, easy to work, and rot-resistant making it ideal for building cabins, fence posts, and so on. The nuts were delicious and stored well making them a great source of food for people as well as animals. And the trees themselves were lovely to look upon.

Cryphonectria parasitica, a fungus accidentally imported from Asia, was first detected in New York in 1904. By 1950 mature chestnut trees were a thing of the past.

Today, the American Chestnut Foundation is working to restore the tree to the American landscape. They’re working to cross the American chestnut with the blight resistant Chinese Chestnut to develop a species that can survive. They’re also working to enhance individual genes in the American Chestnut to increase its blight resistance.

Hopefully, the day will come when children are once again enjoying these mighty giants of the Appalachian Forest.