Concord College Professor Brings Appalachian History Back With the American Chestnut
Athens, W.Va. - When Concord College chemistry professor Dr. John Rush Elkins was a young boy back in the forties, a typical weekend found the Beckley native at his grandmother’s home in Cool Ridge, W.Va.
“Every weekend the kids and grandkids would visit,” Elkins said, explaining that his grandmother’s home was filled with family and extended family on those weekend visits. The young Elkins would listen to the grownups talk about life in Appalachia, and one story they were telling in the 1940’s concerned the disappearance of the American chestnut tree.
This past June, sixty years after those weekends spent at his grandmother’s house, Dr. John Rush Elkins was one of five Mountaineers inducted into the West Virginia Agriculture and Forestry Hall of Fame for his efforts to restore the American chestnut tree to Appalachia.
Elkins explained that until the 1930’s, every fourth tree in West Virginia forests was an American chestnut. At the beginning of the century, the chestnut ruled Appalachia majestically, growing up to 150 feet in height and having a circumference of 15 feet. The tree also contributed to the livelihoods of Appalachian farmers, providing a highly prized cash crop. But in the early 1900’s, an exotic “blight disease” introduced from Asia began attacking the American chestnut.
Eating its way through Appalachia, the blight reached West Virginia in the 1930’s, at the same time the Great Depression was wreaking financial havoc throughout the United States. Chestnut trees died by the billions (99 percent of the American chestnuts were destroyed by the Oriental blight) and farmers were hit economically when the chestnuts no longer constituted a reliable source of income.
Elkins, who grew up hearing stories about the American chestnut, spent his professional career since the early seventies developing ways of preserving and reviving the American chestnut by fighting the blight and its effects on forests.
Elkins and others researchers (Elkins refuses to accept credit for the project, citing instead the work of other researchers, such as the late J. Bruce Given and Al Dietz, as well as Virginia Tech professor Gary Griffin) create seeds through pollination from older American chestnuts that have survived the blight, and carry the resistance into new trees.
Much of the effort to restore Appalachian forests with the American chestnuts is on the part of the American Chestnut Cooperators’ Foundation (ACCF), a nonprofit organization of which Elkins is president that is dedicated to restoring the American chestnut.
The ACCF identifies the blight-resistant trees and their seeds are harvested each year. The group also distributes seedlings of blight-resistant trees to various groups, which plant the seedlings.
Elkins’ work with the American chestnut tree has been detailed in National Geographic magazine. Elkins says that his induction into the West Virginia Agriculture and Forestry Hall of Fame is an honor for him.
“I’m grateful to Ike Southern, who nominated me for induction,” said Elkins, adding that Concord College alumnus and Athens resident Southern had played an important role in the ACCF, as had various others at both Concord College and Virginia Tech.
The American Chestnut Cooperators Foundation plans to harvest the nuts of blight-resistant trees in Athens, W.Va., behind Witherspoon Park, on October 3 at 2:00 p.m. For more information, contact Elkins at 1-304-384-5297 or visit the ACCF website at http://www.ppws.vt.edu/griffin/accf.html.
Photo: John Rush Elkins
Photo: Concord College alumnus Gilbert “Gene” Bailey, John Rush Elkins, Concord College alumnus Ira “Ike” Southern
Concord College Notes: The Communication Arts Department produces the college’s student newspaper, radio programming and television programming. The department also produces theatrical and musical productions. It is organized similar to today’s modern corporation with the students completing projects under both student and faculty supervision. This gives students real-world experience that focuses on accountability and responsibility.
Jessica Shifflett, an intern in the marketing/public relations department, wrote this press release. Her hometown is Oak Hill, W.Va. She is majoring in Communication Arts with an emphasis in Broadcasting and Journalism. Her anticipated graduation date is August 2001.