Johnson Family hosts planting of the American Chestnut Tree
Planting of the American Chestnut Tree
Half Mile Shoals, Cahaba River, Bibb Co., AL
15 March 2011
(See the
enlarged photos with identifying cations.)

On 15 March 2011, Wylie Pierson Johnson (Uncle Wylie) and several other Johnson Family members hosted a demonstration planting of the American Chestnut at Half Mile Shoals, Uncle Wylie’s property on the Cahaba River in Bibb Co.. The planting was arranged by Tim Albritton, (Timothy Paul Albritton), himself a state forester. Tim is the son of Rev. Walter Matthew, Jr. (also present at the planting) and Louise Eudene (“Dean”) Albritton and grandson of Walter Matthew and Caroline Johnson Albritton (Uncle Walter and Aunt Caroline). Other family members present were Uncle Wylie’s son Wylie Benjamin (“Ben”) Johnson, grandsons Edward Seth (“Ted”) Atkinson and Spencer Henry Johnson (Ben’s son) and great-grandson Timothy Graham Ryan.
An educational program was presented to all about the greatly endangered American chestnut tree by Mr. Mac Phillippi, President of the Alabama Chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF). In a message to the Chapter’s Board of Directors, Phillippi later wrote, “I know there will be future plantings that will reach more people but I don't think I'll ever enjoy planting chestnuts as much as I did with Mr. Johnson [Uncle Wylie] and the people in the attached photos." See the enlarged photos with identifying captions. Phillippi further commented, "In one of the photos [see Chestnut Planting Photo #2] you’ll see a man in a cap with a white beard and suspenders.  That’s retired forester, Dan James, telling everyone about the American chestnut.  He’s a great story teller and I wish I could carry him with me to all these events.”

Tim Albritton encouraged Mac Phillipi to write an article about the history and endangered status of the American chestnut tree. Mr. Phillipi’s article is reprinted here below.

Thank you Tim for arranging this planting event. And thank you, Uncle Wylie, for hosting the event at your property. And not least of all, thank you, Johnson men, for participating in this and helping to nurture new chestnuts. Every few are vitally important to the survival and propagation of this national botanical treasure.


On March 15, 2011 a small group gathered in Bibb County to perform a seemingly insignificant task. This event was attended by several state foresters, a representative of a little known non-profit organization called the American Chestnut Foundation, the 92 year old land owner, Wylie Johnson, and members of his immediate family. After some brief remarks, 2 small trees were planted. After adding mulch and deer protection the group departed leaving the seedlings to settle into the new surroundings.

The trees planted were American chestnuts and are the result of 28 years of breeding effort by the American Chestnut Foundation to produce chestnut trees capable of surviving an attack of a blight that eliminated this important species from the Eastern United States. The planting was undertaken because Mr. Johnson remembers the American chestnut and wanted to be a part of a larger effort now underway to correct a mistake that resulted in what is perhaps the greatest ecological disaster to ever hit the North American Continent.

The American chestnut grew to what would seem today an impossible size. These fast-growing trees could live approximately 600 years and attain diameters greater than 10 feet and heights greater than 100 feet. It was by far the largest mast producer within its range and affected the region’s carrying capacity for species far beyond those which directly consumed the nut. Not so long ago, the chestnut comprised 1 in 4 of the hardwoods in its natural range. The dominance of this tree was such that the chestnut blooms of summer made the Appalachian hills appear to be covered with snow. The tree grew tall and straight, yielding wood that was rot-resistant, strong, lightweight and easily worked. Often called the Redwood of the East, the chestnut occupied a position of unmatched ecological and commercial value. And we lost it.

The problem was first discovered in New York City in 1904. A fungus, Cryphonectria parasitica, commonly referred to as chestnut blight, had been introduced from Asia with the importation of Chinese chestnut trees for which the American tree had no resistance. The blight stormed through the eastern United States at a rate of up to 50 miles per year. Wildlife populations plummeted. Within 50 years the blight had spread throughout the chestnut native range causing the ecological extinction of the American chestnut. From Canada to Alabama, from the Ohio Valley to the Atlantic Ocean, over 4 billion trees were killed, leaving only the ghostlike stands of ashen trunks as a reminder of what was lost.

Today, the chestnut lives only as a few isolated remnants of mature trees and much more commonly as living roots that continue to produce sprouts for a while until inevitably destroyed by the blight. This ability to sprout has retained the chestnut’s presence in the eastern forest, but what was once a dominant over-story tree has been reduced to an occasional understory shrub.

In 1983, the American Chestnut Foundation, a private, nonprofit organization, was established with the singular purpose of restoring the American chestnut. A founding member, Dr. Charles Burnham, utilizing his background in the backcross breeding method in the production of hybrid grain crops, sought to save the American chestnut by crossing the American tree with the Chinese chestnut and selectively backcrossing with additional American stock to produce a tree that is in all discernable respects an American chestnut but with the required genetics to resist and survive an attack of the blight. In each generation, most of the resulting offspring had to be destroyed. Only those young trees displaying blight resistance and full American character could be used to move forward. The goal was to get through 6 generations of backcrossing to attain a tree that is 15/16 American while fully retaining the blight resistance of the Chinese tree.

For the past several years test plantings of these advanced trees have been performed in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service on public forest land. Some of these still rare trees have been set aside for demonstration plantings such as that done with Wylie Johnson. Only time will tell if these trees will have the ability to grow into the giants remembered mostly in old photographs from another era. There is, however, a hope. If Wylie one day is able to relive the boyhood pleasure of eating homegrown chestnuts we will have crossed a threshold on the way to the restoration of the American chestnut.

An obvious question is “What can I do?” You can learn more and stay abreast of developments by visiting the American Chestnut Foundation website at The most effective way you can contribute now is to become a TACF member which you can do online at the above website or by contacting the national headquarters at: The American Chestnut Foundation, 160 Zillicoa Street, Suite D, Ashville, N.C. 28801, (828)281-0047.