Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

Down on the (Riehl) Farm, Evergreen Heights, with Erwin A. Thompson–chestnut history in America; the rise and fall of the cut flower business

Pop working in garden

When my father read at the Alton, Illinois library this Spring, someone in the audience asked him, "Did you work the farm during the years you were at Union Electric?"

My father responded as follows:

We worked it, but not as a working farm. Evergreen Heights was founded by my grandfather E. A. Riehl, at one time considered one of the eight great horticulturalists in the world. He created new varieties of chestnuts and found a way to make our hill land pay by shipping peonies out on Decoration Day (now Memorial Day) for the graves, and asparagus, nuts, and evergreens.

In 1925 when Grandpa Riehl died, I was 10 and my Aunt Mim took over to run the place.

When I came home from the service, my wife and little daughter Julia lived here, but I couldn't make it pay financially. That time had gone. The day I had to go work in town broke my heart, but that's what I had to do. That's the short answer.

Now, for a little history, and a longer answer that will give you the context to properly understand the answer to this question by following the history of the property and of our country.

The native American chestnut was at one time all over the Eastern states. It had a wonderful flavor, but was very small and not practical for cooking.

The Italian chestnut was quite large, but the flavor was almost nothing. Mr. Riehl decided to cross the two varieties, and hope for a nut that would have the flavor of the native and the size of the Italian. In this he was quite successful. He propagated the new varieties, and we sold the young trees out of our nursery. He also planted the trees all over the surrounding hills which were our pasture.

Two other things, historical facts, entered into this story, and eventually wrote the end of it.

The native chestnut trees contacted a disease that was called "blight" for lack of a better name. In due time, all of the native trees in the East died. This left many people with a wonderful memory of these delicious little nuts.

In the meantime, near the busy manufacturing center of Cleveland, Ohio, their developed a community of immigrants from Europe, who were familiar with the large, Italian chestnut.

We shipped our nuts both to New York and to Cleveland, and you'd better not get the two mixed up! The New York people would not even buy the large nuts, remembering the Italian ones almost without flavor. The Cleveland people ignored the little sized nuts as being
completely uninteresting.

My Grandfather had considered that he was fairly safe from the ravages of the blight, but eventually it caught up with us in the nineteen thirties. By nineteen-forty, our nut trees were all dead.

The cut flower business, launched initially by the proclamation of Memorial day with the tradition of decorating graves, helped see us through the Great Depression. BUT, progress caught up with us in the form of the plastic flowers that did not wilt! Gradually our varieties became obsolete, as newer ones were introduced. Our fields had been decimated by the war years. We were just about out of the flower business when I went to town to work. It broke my heart, but really, there was no other sensible choice.

We still had a couple of patches of alfalfa and three cows, but that was no where something to make a living on. Our fields were too small and too hilly to grow the traditional crops like corn and wheat. The United States Government had taken our bottom land by Eminent Domain in order to control all of the river banks along the Mississippi when they built U.S. Dam #26, at Alton, Illinois. Our farming days were over.

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3 Responses »

  1. Hello to Erwin and Janet,
    When I reunited with my father's family in 1983, I learned many things that Mom's estrangement from them after my father's death in WWII had denied me. One is that the house in Warton, NJ where my aunt & uncle lived had been built early in the 20th century of American Chestnut! Aunt Helen and my cousin Peg still live there in a lovely house with a unique history. Thank you for telling your tales. Did your grandfather know or correspond with Luther Burbank who was so prolific here in Santa Rosa?

  2. Janet, nice post! I enjoyed that especially, spending so much
    time in my garden of late.

  3. I agree, nice post. I always enjoy the posts about Uncle Erwin. Family connection, you know.

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