Monday, October 27, 2008

The Black Walnut Trail


Black walnut trees grow in a row along the hospital lawn. They are the last trees to get their leaves in the spring and the first to lose them in the autumn. The grounds keepers are busy this month cleaning up the leaves and fallen walnuts which litter the grass and driveway. At the turn of the 20th century this was a farm on the edge of the Grand River. In 1911 the Berlin Sanatorium Association purchased about 15 acres of land including a large stone house from Benjamin Shantz and work began on a new TB sanatorium.


It is no surprise that many black walnut trees are on this property. I walk down the south edge of the property toward the river during my lunch break and pass a large decaying building that is no longer used by the hospital. Walnut trees grow in the flood plain to a certain point and then I find willows closer to the river's edge.

After the American Revolution and into the 19th century, many people moved north to Upper Canada. Some were Empire Loyalists and other groups like the German Mennonites also came to settle in this region. They were not British loyalists but as pacifists, felt they would be less likely to be conscripted for military service in the British colony. Some came just for new land and improved economic possibilities.

The long journey from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania was undertaken by horse-drawn Conestoga wagon. The settlers travelled along the Susquehanna River, over the Allegheny Mountains, crossing into Canada at the Niagara River, traversing the large Beverly Swamp above the escarpment and journeying north along the Grand River valley to the area now known as Waterloo Region.

Historian G. Elmore Reamon chronicled this migration and settlement of Upper Canada in his book The Trail of the Black Walnut. Here is a quote from this book.

"It has been said that the Germans in selecting their land in Upper Canada followed the trail of the black walnut. Because this tree grows best in limestone soil and because this was the kind of soil the Germans preferred, the black walnut tree made the selection easy...the land that grew the tallest trees must be the best land."

Of course the land had to be cleared of trees before crops could be planted. The abundance of black walnut trees in this area also provided for the establishment of lucrative furniture businesses. The large trees are all gone but younger trees are still plentiful.


Long ago the Shantz family chose this property for their farm because the trees promised good soil. And each black walnut tree growing now is a reminder of the natural and social heritage of our community.

17 comments:

  1. I am enjoying this Black Walnut series. The trees are beautiful and the wood does make lovely furniture, but I imagine your groundspeople do have to put a lot of effort in keeping up with them in the fall.

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  2. This is a fascinating historical account. I've never seen a walnut tree and do not know if they grow in our province. You have sparked my interest though and that is something I shall have to check on. Your photos show beautiful grounds there.

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  3. What a wonderful story Ruth. Just look for the black walnut trees. Seems so simple.

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  4. Loved your squirrel making off with the nuts--they're irresistible, I'm sure (the nuts, not the squirrels!)

    For years I would store them by the back door, nly to see all my hard work disappear little by little each day. I now have smartened up and keep them better secured. Such a golden harvest!

    Black walnut--a tree I have learned to love!

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  5. Walnut trees are very messy and many people curse at them. I wonder if they know what an important part they played in our history. I am fascinated with the story of how the settlers came to be. The old tree provided many things for the them from food, heat to house furnishings. Thanks for making me appreciate the old walnut tree just a little more.

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  6. We had black walnut trees in the yard of the house where I grew up. Our elderly neighbor used to dry them and spend all winter cracking the shells and saving the walnuts for his wife's baking. I never acquired a taste for them and I remember the distinctive smell of the green covering on those nuts.

    I did not know the history of these trees, but the town where I grew up had a lot of German settlers, so I'm wondering now if this is where all the black walnut trees in the community came from?

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  7. I guess Shantz is a common name in those parts. A friend at university was one; he was from Ayr.

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  8. I never knew about the Black Walnut Trail. Very interesting. What lovely grounds for the hospital.

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  9. The history content of this post was so interesting.....and I love the black walnut tree......

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  10. I always think it is interesting to find the reasons for people moving to certain locations throughout history. Thanks for sharing this piece.

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  11. Me too, I enjoyed the history lesson. I don't think I've seen a black walnut tree either.
    How nice to walk down to the water on your lunch break. I used to work in a hospital (as a medical secretary) years ago and couldn't wait until lunch to go for a nice walk - down by the lake.

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  12. I love natural histories: how culture is reflected in nature, and vice versa. There is definitely more to the picture than meets the eye.

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  13. A very interesting piece of history from your side of the world. Thanks so much for sharing it with us.

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  14. A co-worker is bringing me a black walnut tree! I can't wait!

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  15. Thanks to all who took the time to comment. I like digging up little known history items like this. AC- Shantz is a very common Mennonite name in this region. They were among the original settlers from PA.

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  16. I should know part of my own history as some settlers stopped here in the Buffalo region and stayed....

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