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Newton orthodontist aims to preserve an American classic

Newton orthodontist aims to preserve an American classic

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When I heard that Ron Sain was on a quest to revive the American chestnut, I was intrigued. Ron agreed to share his story, and off I went to meet with him.

First, let me introduce Ron. For me, he’s the friendly orthodontist who put braces on my son’s teeth a couple of decades ago. Ron’s retired from 34 years (1973-2007) of straightening teeth in Newton and Conover, but orthodontics remains one of his interests as does flying. Ron has his pilot’s license. He also enjoys woodworking and has restored a number of cabins, among other projects.

He’s a bluebird enthusiast, cares for several animals on his 32-acre spread in Newton, and, as stated, is working to return the American chestnut to the landscape.

“My friends call me Ronnie Chestnut,” said Ron, whose interest in the tree took root when he and his wife Karen moved into their Newton home in 1975. “It had a lot of wormy chestnut wood paneling — still does,” Ron described. When the couple wanted to renovate and add wormy chestnut cabinets, they had to look “long and hard to find virgin lumber,” Ron continued. They found some at a Burke County lumber company. The wood had come from West Virginia.

“Then it became a ‘man thang,’” said Ron jokingly. “I was on a mission to find more for building projects. I was fascinated to learn about the loss of the native American chestnut tree.” He said he heard rumors about American chestnut devotees, scientists, and botanists who “had the goal of reintroducing the extinct American chestnut to its original habitat.”

I wondered how a person goes about reintroducing something that’s extinct. “This is a miracle,” Ron explained.

Ron described the once flourishing chestnut trees as growing to 8 to 10 feet in diameter and 100 feet tall. “Hard wood that is very acidic and resistant to decay,” said Ron. “The original habitat was from southern Maine to northern Georgia.” The Eastern forest was dense with American chestnuts. Ron shared a quote he said likely came from an early explorer: “A squirrel could leave Maine and travel to Florida without ever touching the ground.”

“The chestnut was crucial to the success of the first Europeans who settled on the frontier because before they could clear land for corn and crops, they could eat the chestnuts.” Ron said settlers ground the nuts into flour. They also fed the nuts to their hogs. Furthermore, wildlife — deer, turkeys, bears — ate chestnuts.

The pioneers built their cabins and fences out of the rot-resistant wood.

Decades later, it would take only 50 years for “the greatest ecological disaster since the ice age,” as Ron put it, to wipe out 4 billion American chestnuts. A blight, a fungus, was inadvertently brought to the U.S. when chestnut trees from Asia were transported here for the purpose of replacing the huge American chestnuts that had been felled in urban areas because their root systems were breaking up paved roads and house foundations. The Asian chestnuts carried the fungus, which didn’t hurt them but infected the American chestnuts.

“By 1930,” said Ron, “all American chestnuts east of the Mississippi were dead. The loss was devastating to Appalachian families who used chestnuts as a cash crop to send to the Northeast on the new vehicles they called trains.”

Through research and reading about a Greensboro botanist’s interest in the American chestnut, Ron learned about a diseased grove in Michigan — sick but still bearing nuts. The grove came from a Union soldier returning home with a pocketful of chestnuts. Ron also found out about a disease-free copse in Oregon, the result of pioneers traveling on the Oregon Trail. “[The botanist] performed back-cross breeding with disease-free Asian trees to produce a 90% hybrid disease-free American chestnut,” said Ron.

Ron wanted some American chestnut nuts, so he could plant them. “To get three nuts 20 years ago,” explained Ron, “I’d have had to join the American Chestnut Foundation. The fee was $500.” He waited until 2008 when he could buy baby trees from a farm in Florida. They were $32 each. Ron bought 20 and planted them on his Newton property. All survived. He got his first crop in 2017— four nuts.

Ron planted the four and has been repeating the process of harvesting and planting ever since, selectively choosing the biggest nuts for sowing. “Only about 25% of the nuts germinate,” he stated.

In 2020, Ron collected 8 gallons of nuts. He said he keeps them cool in the refrigerator until January. Then he puts them in plastic bags with peat moss and returns them to the fridge until they have little sprouts. Ron calls this his “secret.” “The cold is essential to germination,” he explained.

Then, Ron plants the germinated nuts in large plastic pots. At one year of age, they go into the ground.

Besides planting on his own land, Ron’s established trees along the driveway of his son Jason Sain’s Newton acreage. Jason practices dentistry in Newton, by the way. And while I’m talking about Ron’s relatives, his son-in-law is an orthodontist, and his grandson is newly graduated from dental school. Ron said his goal is to live long enough to drive along his son’s driveway “under a tunnel of overhanging chestnut branches.” I saw the trees. They’re tall and thriving.

Ron’s been branching out lately: A few weeks ago, he planted 200 nuts in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Crossnore/Linville Falls area. Makes you think of Johnny Appleseed, doesn’t it? Hence, the Ronnie Chestnut moniker. Ron has a bunch of grandkids. He said he’s got one who’s interested in his granddad’s American chestnut work. Ron’s hoping he’ll take on the mantle of re-establishing American chestnuts in eastern U.S.

Isn’t it wonderful that humans have such diverse interests and ambitions?

Thank you, Ronnie Chestnut!

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This column is written by John Hood, a Carolina Journal columnist and author of the forthcoming novel "Mountain Folk," a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution.

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