hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News December 2022/ January 2023


A 19th century fall pastime: gathering chestnuts

Maury Thompson


The vision of chestnuts roasting on an open fire in December could be squelched if Jack Frost nipped at one’s nose in September.

“We have good promise of a fine crop of chestnuts,” the Fort Ann correspondent of The Granville Sentinel reported on Sept. 22, 1876. “Frost holding off is favorable for large nuts with rich meats.”
A week later, the frost had held off, and optimism prevailed.

“Chestnut burrs are expected to burst with a broad grin within a fortnight,” the Sentinel reported.
“The Christmas Song,” the holiday tune about chestnuts roasting on an open fire, was written in 1945 and appeals to nostalgia. But the song doesn’t capture the full 19th century experience in which many area residents ventured into the woods to gather chestnuts.

“Almost time to get up chestnutting parties,” The Commercial Advertiser of Sandy Hill, now Hudson Falls, reported on Sept. 29, 1880. “Chestnuts are said to be plentiful this year, as well as butternuts and walnuts.”

Charles Cool, who would become the first mayor of Glens Falls, and his wife joined about a half-dozen other prominent residents in the fall of 1886 on a chestnut-gathering social excursion to a forest in Queensbury, in the vicinity of what is now the Glens Falls watershed land.

“Leaving Glens Falls between nine and ten o’clock, they were carried thither in West’s cariole [small carriage], going by way of Gurney’s Lane and returning by way of Miller’s Hill, reaching home between five and six o’clock,” The Morning Star reported on Oct. 9, 1886. “They made coffee and ate dinner in the woods, and, in addition to bringing back an abundance of nuts, report a most enjoyable trip.”

Chestnut gathering was no respecter of age or income. Young and old, poor and rich alike were beckoned into the woods to reap the harvest that nature sowed.

“Chestnut gathers are numerous,” the Morning Star reported on Oct. 15, 1888. “A party from the village visited West Mountain on Saturday and brought home a goodly supply of the brown-coated nuts.”

Philanthropist Henry Crandall and his wife and local school superintendent Sherman Williams were among “a number of older ones” that chaperoned the fourth annual Glens Falls Union School children’s chestnut gathering excursion to the woods above the Big Boom in Queensbury on Oct 20, 1888. The happy group traveled in a four-horse wagon.

“The party numbered thirty-three in all,” the Star reported two days later. “They had a royal good time and brought back lots of chestnuts.”

Crandall and Williams would later co-found Crandall Public Library, with Williams providing the ideas and Crandall the finances.

“W.H. Hunt carried a four-horse load of young people to the reservoir Saturday for a chestnut hunt,” the Star reported on Sept. 26, 1887.

Dry goods merchant B.B. Fowler and his wife were among “a jolly party” of Glens Falls adults that enjoyed a chestnut gathering excursion to the Marion House hotel at Lake George on Oct. 22, 1888, transported in a tally-ho wagon, the Morning Star reported.

“The young people of the Presbyterian Church enjoyed a chestnutting party in Ransom’s Woods yesterday afternoon,” the newspaper reported on Oct. 9, 1889.

There were some who felt it inappropriate to gather chestnuts on the Christian Sabbath.
“All day long yesterday the street cars were heavily laden with passengers going from this place to Glens Falls, and many of those who should have been in church were gathering chestnuts” the Morning Star’s Sandy Hill correspondent wrote on Nov. 2, 1886.

Some people bought their chestnuts at local grocery markets.
On Oct. 23, 1884, the Star reported that chestnuts were selling in Glens Falls at a retail price of $3 a bushel — the equivalent of $91.23 in today’s dollars.

Chestnut prices, then, as now, were based on supply and demand, with prices higher in years with frost damage or blight.

So on Oct. 11, 1887, in a year when the Star reported that “chestnuts are plenty in this vicinity,” the paper reported the average retail price was $2 a bushel, the equivalent of $62.74 today.
By the early 20th century, a fungal disease accidentally imported from Asia began to wipe out American chestnut trees from local forests. Mature chestnut trees, which by some estimates had at one time accounted for 25 percent of the trees in the Appalachian range, had all but vanished by the 1950s, though researchers are still attempting to develop disease-resistant varieties.
Today, chestnuts in the United States are primarily grown on large tree farms using Asian or European varieties that are resistant to the blight. China and Korea are the largest suppliers of chestnuts.

Still, the United States has major exports to Panama, South Africa, the Netherlands, Hong Kong and Canada, according to Selina Wamuci, an agricultural export service provider. Michigan is now the largest supplier of chestnuts of any state.


Maury Thompson was a reporter for The Post-Star of Glens Falls for 21 years before retiring in 2017. He now is a freelance writer focusing on the history of politics, labor and media in the region.