LookBack12.16

The late Charlie Lawson of Hartsville was proud of these two porch rocking chairs with bark seats that he made of solid black walnut wood. He made rocking chairs as a hobby, selling some and giving others to friends!

As we noted in last week’s article, the pioneer knew which trees in the forest were good for making log cabins, which were good for making furniture and which ones were good for warming one’s self by the fireplace!

Such knowledge didn’t come by happenstance.

Even primitive cavemen knew which woods could be shaped into the long handles of a spear, or bent into shape for a bow, or could be turned into a hollow log canoe.

The first settlers who arrived on the shores of New England were introduced to a vast forest full of trees both familiar and unfamiliar. In Europe there were mighty oak trees and in the New World, there were also oak trees. But the New World had developed its own unique types of oak.

The New World also had trees that were unfamiliar to the settlers.

It didn’t take long for them to catch on, through trial and error and also some suggestions from the Native Americans who had been living in the forest for over 10,000 years.

By the time the first white men arrived in Middle Tennessee, they knew their woods.

There is more to a tree than its wood! Some nut trees were worth keeping when clearing the land. And trees were also valued for what their presence indicated. For example, a sycamore tree in a large field indicated deep soil with plenty of water because they like their roots wet!

But the most valuable tree on the frontier was the black walnut. It too was a nut tree, but it was much more than that.

Black walnut is a hard wood, which means that it is a slow-growing tree that builds up a heavy, dense wood. A soft wood is a tree that grows fast and has a lighter-in-weight wood, which is less dense and easier to break in a strong wind.

Hard wood trees like the walnut, the cherry and the maple, are used for fine furniture. The colonists were exporting walnut lumber back to their native England by the early 1600s.

Because it was plentiful back then it was also used for making fence rails, as the wood is water resistant.

In a log rolling, like we mentioned last week, it wasn’t uncommon for a pioneer to burn walnut logs just to get rid of them. And my grandfather once purchased a small farm in Mt. Juliet that had a very old smokehouse on it, made entirely of walnut logs!

If you have an old rifle, the gun stock is likely made of black walnut.

A book on native American trees says this, “no other wood has less jar or recoil; it never warps or shrinks; it is light in proportion to its strength, never splinters and, no matter how long it is carried in the hand, will not irritate the palm.”

Since a black walnut tree can grow to great heights, as much as 150 feet tall, and grows straight, a log from one can be cut and sold for a high price to a furniture maker.

In the past, a pioneer would make a baby cradle or a rocking chair out of solid walnut. But today, thanks to improvements in the lumber industry, a black walnut log can be cut into a very thin veneer as thin as one twenty-eighth of an inch and used to mask a cheaper wood.

That is why a large walnut tree can be worth as much as $20,000!

My grandfather sold every log of that old smokehouse for top dollar, with each one going to a furniture maker in Nashville.

Even today when a piece of forest is cut down for its timber, the black walnut trees will be singled out and taken down with care — almost as if they were made of money itself.

Now about those black walnuts that fall to the ground every fall. They too are a gold mine for the cook.

A Christmas tradition in many families is a Black Walnut Cake!

The large, green-skinned nuts are a pain to work with as the green will stain your hands and clothes. In the old days, people would spread their walnuts over the gravel road in front of their house and let people drive over them, gradually working the green outer covering off.

The actual nutshell, when you get to it, has a nut that is not as large as the fruit of the English walnut but has a much stronger flavor. Mixed into the cake mix or used as a garnish on top, it is a popular nut over the holidays.

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