Before a blight fungus devastated American chestnut trees in the 1900s, some say the hillsides in Pennsylvania looked snow-covered even after winter.
“Somewhere I read that you would swear in the spring in Pennsylvania in this area before the blight hit, that it was snowing in the springtime when all the chestnuts were in bloom,” said Barth Getto, 53, of New Hampshire.
Getto and his brother, Bob Getto, 56, of Cincinnati are planting blight-resistant Dunstan chestnuts throughout their 84-acre Two Mile Run Road property, in an effort to bring the majestic look back to Ligonier Valley.
“That’s what we need to get back to right there,” Getto said. “That’s what would draw tourists.”
The Getto brothers grew up in Jeannette, but seldom did a summer pass when they didn’t go to their grandfather’s Two Mile Run Road cabin in Ligonier Township. It was built in 1950.
“It predated us, so it was never a question of, ‘Are you going to Ligonier for the weekend?’” Barth Getto said. “You were here. It was just automatic.”
Their uncle first built a cabin in 1935 on a neighboring property, which their cousin now owns.
Barth Getto, president of business services company BizUnite, and Bob Getto, president and CEO of apparel manufacturer Fechheimer Brothers Co., love to escape to the property.
“I don’t really think about work when I’m here,” Bob Getto said.
“Our children really love it, too,” he said. “They are spread from New York City to New Hampshire, and I have a daughter in Seattle, but they all like coming here.”
Last spring, the brothers, who are avid hunters and fishermen, purchased the property, which is protected by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. They have entered it into the Westmoreland Conservation District forestry stewardship program.
“I have always been intrigued by chestnuts and just the story of them,” Barth Getto said. “When we bought this property, I started reading about all the good things they can do for the wildlife, and it just seemed like — what the heck? We got the land, we’re hunters, why not?”
Thus far, the brothers have planted 13 trees from Chestnut Hill Outdoors, which are bred specifically to fend off blight. Each plant runs between $20 and $30, and they attract deer and wildlife.
The brothers are working with the American Chestnut Foundation to make sure they take all the proper steps with their planting endeavor. The foundation’s mission is to restore American chestnut trees in the eastern part of the country.
Sara Fitzsimmons, regional science coordinator for the foundation, said about 25 percent of Pennsylvania forests were made up of chestnut trees before the blight. They were referred to as a “cradle-to-the-grave tree” since they were used for building cradles and coffins, she said, adding that their timber and nuts were vital to both the economy and ecology.
“The reason the settlers loved the trees is because you could build a house and barn out of one chestnut tree,” Barth Getto said.
The largest known tree, Fitzsimmons said, was 15 feet in diameter in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Fitzsimmons said the onset of the blight was attributed to an imported Japanese chestnut that contained the fungus. By 1920, all the chestnut trees in Pennsylvania were either dead or dying, she said.
Pennsylvania tried to stop the infection, Fitzsimmons said. The Pennsylvania Blight Commission researched the infection extensively from 1912 to 1914, for which the state allocated $240,000. The American Chestnut Foundation, founded in 1983 by plant scientists, runs a chestnut-breeding program to develop blight-resistant trees and has a research farm in Virginia.
Fitzsimmons said several families in Westmoreland County are collaborating with the foundation to bring chestnut trees back to the region.
“Private cooperators are innovative,” she said. “They’re never afraid to try something new and different.”
The Gettos’ ultimate goals focus on preserving their land: “To have only native Pennsylvania species, to have unbelievable wildlife habitat for hunting and recreation, and just to bring it back to what it looked like in 1904 before the blight hit,” Barth Getto said.
“To have enough chestnuts that it looks like it did back in the day,” he said.
Nicole Chynoweth is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2862 or firstname.lastname@example.org.