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.