The Historian: Black Walnuts: History and Lore

Each year the Goschenhoppen Folk Festival, held in August, carries a different theme. These topics range from “wood” or “iron” to “lard” or “the garden.” A few years back the theme was “black walnuts on the farm.”

Black walnut shells are a common presence in Native American archeological sites throughout the east and mid-west and so have been harvested for thousands of years.

Goschenhoppen charter-member the late “Abe” Roan wrote a monograph on black walnuts for the festival newspaper Goschenhoppen Intelligencer from which I will quote liberally: “Early colonists soon discovered the eastern black walnut, juglaris nigra, a native to North America. The great dimension of the trees made it a conspicuous marker of the fertility of the land. When Pennsylvania German settlers were looking for land, they picked areas where they found walnuts growing. This concept remained a factor of land selection through the Midwest and up into Ontario, Canada, wherever Pennsylvania Germans resettled.

“The black walnut tree is a timber producer which has few peers in the local Pennsylvania Dutch folk culture. It seems that it was the preferred wood by local cabinetmakers during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It’s interesting that early local furniture of black walnut is often painted in barn red paint made of red iron oxide…. Museums of Pennsylvania Dutch life abound with examples of walnut pewter dressers (a hutch), kitchen dressers (a Dutch Cupboard), stretcher base and “farmers” dining tables and primitive German plank chairs (called a ‘Bauerschtul’---farmer’s chair).” Of course, many of these pieces were also left unpainted, just oiled, so the beauty of the walnut wood is exposed.

Walnut lore:

An old almanac in the Goschenhoppen Folklife Library contains a woodcut showing a farm boy with a baseball-bat size club whacking away at a walnut tree. The late Thomas R. Brendle records the practice of waking-up young fruit and nut trees that are reluctant to start bearing by beating them with club. The folk practice dictates that the trees were to be beaten on New Year’s Day in the morning without speaking. A current arborist write that this is not complete nonsense. Apparently if a young apple tree, for example, has reached the age when it should start to bear and it just doesn’t flower, during the winter when it is dormant a beating with a padded club and a vigorous twisting of the limbs traumatizes and shocks the tree into its normal cycle.

Black walnut trees were encouraged to grow near farm houses by the Dutchmen as there was a folk belief that they “attracted lightening” and so spared the house being struck. This author can attest that this idea seems to be true as our huge walnut trees were repeatedly hit but the nearby farm house, never.

When the walnuts fall from the trees in August they are encased in tennis ball size, tough, green shells. Anyone familiar with walnuts knows not to try to remove this shell. It leaves an intractable brown stain on hands and clothing. Green walnuts need to be spread out to dry in some secluded roofed location for a few months. The green shells dry up and are easily removed by treading on them. One might assume that a permanent brown dye could be made from walnut hulls to dye cloth, but no record or reference to such practice exists in the Goschenhoppen or the Swamp, New Hanover, region. Roan notes that: “This may be due to the fact that in all Pennsylvania Dutch communities locally produced homespun linen was dye-treated by a professional dyer in the community. Perhaps in the Southern mountains, New England or the Anglo Mid-west the walnut was used for dye, but no evidence exists for local usage.”

Cracking them to get the nut-meat is a challenge. You can’t hit them so that they fall into halves as you can with hickory nuts. The black walnut is not to be confused with the easily cracked English walnut which is much more available in the marketplace. Commercially grown and having a very thin shell, English walnuts are preferred by most people for out-of-hand eating. The black walnut shell is extremely hard and can only be breached with a hammer. Too, it’s best done outdoors as the shells tend to “sprits” fragments in all directions when struck. In fact, ground black walnut shells are so hard they are used as the grit for sand blasting delicate stone and metal art works to clean them. Too, there’s an internal shell structure which means only small pieces of the nut-meat can be extracted and with some difficulty. What makes it all worthwhile is the exquisite black walnut flavor, unlike any other.

Again quoting Roan: “The black walnut is sweet and oily, but stronger in taste [than English walnuts]. Some say ‘richer’ others say it’s ‘coarser.’ ” According to food historian Waverly Root the black walnut retains more of its flavor when baked….”

Of walnut cookie recipes there is no end; however The Old Goshenhoppen Cookbook lists what appears to be a Pennsylvania Dutch version of pecan pie called “walnut pie: one large cup walnuts, three-quarters cup molasses, one small cup of water, one tablespoon flour, one egg, and three-quarters cup of sugar. Crush the nuts with a rolling pin and combine. This makes four small pies.” The pie dishes used locally were small, shallow, red ware about six inches wide and used in the free standing bake ovens and, later, wood fired ranges.

Walnuts were everywhere.

Townspeople could simply walk out of town and gather walnuts along the roadside. General stores sold shelled walnuts, yet old estate inventories and auction advertisements seldom list “X bags of shelled walnuts.” Only walnut boards seem to be listed on auction broadsides and in newspaper advertisements. Perhaps walnuts, shelled, were so common that they had no real commercial value in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Yet by the twentieth century rural stores sold as many pounds of shelled walnuts as they could take in trade. Roan remembers getting his mail at the Salford Station general store in the 1960’s and observing quart berry boxes full of shelled walnuts reposing on the counter and obviously for sale.

MARCH HISTORICAL SOCIETY EVENTS

All programs are free and open to the public.

Limerick: Monday, March 10, 7:30 p.m. at the Township Building. “Covered Bridges.” Bill Brunner of Spring-Ford Historical Society will share and discuss his many pictures of covered bridges.

Pottstown: Monday, March 17, 7:00 p.m. at the society building, 568 East High Street. Robert Evans, local train enthusiast, will speak on “The Golden Age of Passenger Trains.”

Goschenhoppen Historians: Thursday, March 20, 7:30 p.m. Redmen’s Hall, Green Lane. The Rev. Bob Gerhart will present “Letters to Barbara,” a what might have been presentation portraying the life and times of farmer and pastor Christian Clemmer from the Butter Valley.

New Hanover: Wednesday, March 26, 7:00 p.m. at the New Hanover Township Building (note, not the schoolhouse). Local researcher and author Bob Wood will present “The Trip Over,” an illustrated narrative of the six month ordeal endured by 18th century German immigrants when the cast off their homeland and headed for Pennsylvania.

Also of interest: at Studio B, 39A East Phil. Ave., Boyertown

Friday, March 7, 7:00-8:00 p.m. Author Erik Ammon will share his writing journey—“From Being Lost to Found…” He will talk about how developing ideas for stories, setting goals both short and long term, and his thoughts on self publishing.

Friday, March 14, 7:00-8:00 p.m. Jane Ammon, photographer. In order to honor her adopted daughter’s story, in January 2012, Jane Ammon photographed “The Clothes She Came To Us In.” Subsequently, she photographed over 20 children who were internationally adopted with the clothes they came in. Her story, their stories, and the photos will be the subject of her forthcoming book.

The Historian is produced by the New Hanover Township Historical Society. Call Robert Wood 610-326-4165 with comments and story ideas.