By Bob Hill
George Gibbs said what he wanted to do was help reestablish the American chestnut tree in its former native range – beginning with Kentucky.
He said it during a conversation with Christen Boone, then director of external relations for 21st Century Parks, at a fundraising cocktail party held at a friend’s house a few years ago.
Although Gibbs had a long and distinguished career in forestry and wildlife management with the U.S. Forest Service – including being instrumental in the establishment of three wilderness areas in our national forests – he had then never seen a viable American chestnut tree other than root sprouts that rarely reach enough maturity to bear seed.
But given his background he was very interested in the tree; it’s once glory and sad demise. He knew it had once reigned supreme over 200 million acres of eastern American woodlands from Maine to Virginia to Ohio to Mississippi, then reaching out in one vast forested finger through central Kentucky and up into Indiana.
He knew some of the trees had reached 100 feet in height and 10 feet in diameter, their nuts providing an immense supply of food for humans and wildlife; deer, turkey, squirrels, bears and even the passenger pigeon. The tree had been a valuable source for tannin, furniture and building lumber, ageless flooring and split-rail fences.
The trees in flower had been an immense perfume factory; their catkins a great showy white; their immense presence an annual gathering place for families seeking chestnuts to roast on an open fire, the custom of the day.
Gibbs, 78, knew an estimated three to four billion trees had covered our mountains slopes before the lumber industry and an airborne bark fungus accidentally introduced into North America in the early 1900s wiped out virtually all of them.
The fungus – (Cryphonectria parasitica) or the Chinese chestnut blight – ravaged the trees up into the 1940s, leaving only a few trees or pockets of trees across that entire 200 million acres.
For years Gibbs had been interested in the American chestnut tree. He cut out and saved articles about it from the “Society of American Foresters,” “American Forestry Association and” “Southern Living.”
The opportunity to do something about their restoration was both unexpected and welcome: A discussion at a cocktail party.
“I had saved those articles,” he said, “and then I mentioned something like that to Christen at the party… And the next thing I know here was a proposal.”
That proposal – to which George Gibbs and his wife, Betty, would pledge to support – was formally labeled “Proposal for Establishment of American Chestnut Groves in the 21st Century Parks.” It would lead to the establishment of one “George and Betty Gibbs Chestnut Grove” in the Beckley Creek section of the park – and plans for two more – although their implementation has proven as difficult and complicated as any such ventures across the country in recent years.
This Kentucky restoration of chestnut of trees is only another chapter in a long Gibbs family history of American military and community service.
His great-grandfather was a doctor. His grandfather, George Sabin Gibbs Jr., was a three-star general in the U. S. Signal Corp.
“My memory of his claim to fame,” said Gibbs, “was that he did the wig-wag flags announcing the victory by the U.S. forces in the battle of the Philippines.
“I also am aware that he reportedly laid the first telephone lines across Alaska…somewhere about 400 miles of telephone line, and they did it by dogsled.”
Gibb’s father, Robert H. Gibbs, was captain of a naval destroyer in the North Atlantic during World War II, and two of his uncles were in the military, including one being a two-star general in the Signal Corp. Gibbs has kept many of their medals, papers and mementos and a complete photo history of his father’s Naval career. He retired as a Rear Admiral and became a professor at Texas A&M University teaching thermodynamics in the engineering department.
Gibbs was born in 1934 at Annapolis, MD., while his father was teaching at the U.S. Naval Academy. He began delivering papers at eight years old and never stopped working. He graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington where he was a company captain in the high school cadet corps.
He then got an appointment to nearby Georgetown University where he went into the Air Force ROTC program and became sergeant of its drill team.
“I enjoyed Georgetown,” he said. “All during high school and college I took up canoeing. There were two very competitive boat clubs underneath Key Bridge at Georgetown. While training I paddled 26 miles a day on the Potomac River and on the C&O Canal.”
During that period Gibbs paddled in one, two and four-man boats, and became good enough in the two-man doubled-bladed kayak to qualify for the Olympics in Helsinki, Finland.
“We had beaten everything in North America,” he said. “We would have qualified. But I chose to stay and finish college when my partner elected not to compete.”
“I think back and played “what if,” but I don’t really have any regrets about it. I get to talk to my grandson about his athletic career and what hard work would mean for him.”
Gibbs credits his interest in forestry and wildlife to an older brother, Robert H. Gibbs Jr., who graduated from Cornell University with a Ph.D. at age 21, went on to a career studying fish, birds and amphibians, and became a curator at the Smithsonian Institution.
But Gibb’s specific move into a career in forestry his sophomore year at Georgetown came as even a surprise to him.
“I just happened to go down to North Carolina State when they dedicated the forestry building in honor of my grandfather. I got interested in forestry and applied to West Virginia, Penn State and North Carolina State and got accepted by all three.”
He chose North Carolina State because the school would transfer all his Georgetown credits – and graduated in 1957 with a major in forestry management and minor in wildlife management.
That June he married his first wife, Mary Matthews Gibbs, who died of cancer in 1994. He began his career that summer at the 160,000-acre Croatan National Forest on the coast of North Carolina. His starting salary was $3,210 a year.
In January, 1958, he was drafted into a two-year stint in the Army, where, during the Cold War, he was recruited into the Army’s Counterintelligence Corps at the Presidio of San Francisco.
His work was primarily working on security clearances for military personnel who applied for a classified position. Upon completion of his two-year tour of duty he was offered another assignment but did not want to take it.
“I was told that if you’ll extend your time for six months we’ll send you to Laos and Cambodia and you can be part of an advance team setting up a base in that country.
“I just knew that I was ready to come back home, be a civilian and go to work for the forest service.”
His work took him all over the country. That began as a junior forester of the 387,000-acre Wakulla Ranger District at the Apalachicola National Forest in Florida where he did everything from marking timber for sale to improving stands with an axe.
While there, he helped establish two scenic areas to give them additional protection from road construction and timber harvest. One was the 300-acre Morrison Hammock Scenic Area, a patch of high ground hardwood trees in the middle of a pine forest.
The other was the Bradwell Bay Scenic Area, an eight-acre pocket of virgin slash pine in the middle of a wet swampy area of about 200 acres.
“It was 92 feet to the first limb,” Gibbs said of one of the trees, “and it had never been worked for turpentine.”
He went from Florida to the more than one-million-acre North Carolina National Forest at Asheville, N.C. where he became the fire control and wildlife assistant staff officer, and along the way helped establish a biological management area for the protection of native brook trout.
“I lived in a little place called “Bent Creek,” which was a residential subdivision built around a log lodge and a lake.
“When it came time to hunt I’d take my 30-30 and walk out the back door and head for the mountains.”
His other forestry jobs were in Mississippi and Alabama working in range and wildlife management where he added grazing and livestock to his credentials.
“I got very much involved in coordinating environmental concerns between my various resources and publics, which led to my final job as Land Use Planning Staff Officer and environmental coordinator for the National Forests of Alabama.”
That job included four National Forests covering some 644,000 acres. He retired in 1984 with 30 years of service, able to look back on a career that had given him great pleasure and satisfaction:
“I loved every minute of it. I’m a leg forester. I was the guy on the ground, much of the time alone, some of the time supervising crews, sometimes fighting fire, doing whatever the Forest Service asked me to do.
“Our responsibilities were managing the multiple use of the national forest; wood, water, wildlife, grazing and recreation.”
He dealt with a heart attack just about the time he retired, but quickly moved on: “I started playing tennis and end up coaching a tennis team.”
He also gave advice as an unpaid consultant to land owners wanting to protect and preserve their property, and became active in civic organizations, including the Kiwanis Club, in Montgomery, Alabama.
He began dating his present wife, Betty, and they married in 1996. She had a house in Louisville. He had a house in Montgomery. They finally sold both houses and bought a beautiful, stone historic home off if Lightfoot Road built in 1920 by Col. Frank B. Thompson, chairman and president of the Glenmore Distillery Company.
Designed by Frederic Morgan and named “Creggan,” a Gaelic word for “rocky hill,” the house rose above a large sloping lot that George and Betty Gibbs soon began to redesign and landscape with trees, shrubs and perennials flowers – a favorite of Betty.
They restored the home’s gardens, changed the lawn and leaf-removal maintenance to reduce soil erosion at the lower end of the property, added new trees – and began appearing on garden tours.
One of those trees was a Chinese chestnut tree – a tree resistant to the blight that killed the American chestnut. Then came the cocktail party conversation about the American chestnuts trees.
Then George read the Susan Freinkel book “The Birth, Death and Restoration of the American Chestnut” – a Christmas present from Betty.
“I was so turned on by that,” he said, “I was ready to be a part of that effort to see that the chestnut got reestablished throughout the Appalachians, and that’s still a goal.”
In keeping with that promise Gibbs attended the recent American Chestnut Foundation meeting in Asheville, N. C., to learn more about the restoration program. He added eight more chestnut trees in his yard, a mix of seedlings from his Chinese tree and two from the restoration project.
He was honored in 2010 by Huntingdon College in Montgomery, AL., where 25 chestnut trees donated by the American Chestnut Foundation were planted in his honor. Gibb’s first wife had played tennis at the school and coached the women’s tennis team. He had endowed scholarships at the school in honor of her, and their son, who was killed in an automobile accident.
“I want the American chestnut to come back just because it has superior qualities to the Chinese,” he said, “ and I would like to see that in North Carolina, Kentucky and Alabama because that’s my primary association.”
That’s also long been a goal of The American Chestnut Foundation, which in 1983 began a complex program to breed genetically diverse blight-resistant trees by crossing and back-crossing the surviving American chestnut trees with the Chinese chestnut – which over the centuries had developed a natural immunization to the blight.
The breeding process involves successfully breeding an American chestnut with a Chinese, a small less grand tree but with resistance, and crossing it back with the American to rid it of Chinese genes. The result is literally a tree that’s 15/16th American and 1/16th Chinese. The process can take as long at 25 years.
It was a process made all the more difficult along some areas of The Parklands of Floyds Fork because much of its soil is poorly-drained limestone and clay and the chestnut prefers rich, well-drained, slightly acidic soils with more sand and granite. Even with that, chestnuts are also susceptible to another foreign soil-borne fungus, Ambrosia beetles and chestnut gall wasps.
Gibbs joined with The Parklands Park Director Scott Martin, Chief of Operations Gary Rzepecki, naturalist Michael Gaige and Anne Bobigan of the American Chestnut Foundation’s Kentucky chapter to implement the chestnut restoration program in the park.
The initial goal was to create three permanent American chestnut groves consisting of eight to twelve mature trees – whose flowers and nuts would eventually lead to greater natural proliferation and many visits from awe-struck park guests.
The groves would be a mix of pure American chestnuts – which would eventually die of blight but hopefully produce more breeding flowers and chestnuts before they did – and what were called 15/16th hybrids, a mostly American tree selected for blight-resistance produced in previous cross-breeding programs with the Chinese chestnut.
Each grove would also initially have to be surrounded with tall fence to prevent deer damage.
A first planting at Beckley Creek Park site just off Shelbyville Road was not successful; the chestnuts rotted in the too wet soil, which had been amended with pine needles.
Gary Rzepecki said the site was then excavated to a depth of three feet and landscape fabric and corrugated drainage pipe was installed.
Crushed granite was installed on top of the fabric, and then 60 tons of stone were trucked in from an Eastern Kentucky quarry to increase the acidity. A 70-percent mix of sand and compost was added on top of that.
“This system has improved drainage dramatically,” he said.
The second planting included sixteen native chestnuts dug up from the Daniel Boone Nation Forest – where the trees continue to spout up and eventually die – and about 20 of the 15/16th American/Chinese hybrids.
“All the chestnuts are sleeping and they seem okay,” Rzepecki said the winter of 2012-2013. “Hopefully by spring time we’ll have a lot of growth.”
Michael Gaige and Anne Bobigan had selected a second potential chestnut grove site in the Turkey Run area of the park, but the 10 direct seeded nuts didn’t establish, possibly due to the heat and drought that year or because of the fungal phytophthora in high clay soil.
Bobigan, a retired doctor, did furnish proof that chestnut groves might again grow in the Louisville area; she led a tour to another planting site in the Jefferson Forest off Blevins Gap Road.
Near the top of a gradual slope, just below a long line of trees, was a recently planted chestnut grove fully protected by tall electric fence. She said there are three such groves in the region, the most successful at Meade’s Landing in Oldham County where about 190 chestnut trees – many from Kentucky – have grown eighteen to twenty-four-feet tall in five years after direct-seeding in 2008
“This grove has 22 trees,” she said, pointing over the electric fence. “We may get a dozen to survive long term.”
She envisions – or at least hopes – a time will come when that chestnut grove will spread naturally up the slope, and then families will come see it and go “chestnutting” – gathering in the bounty and taking it home to roast and eat.
If that happens, she said, it will be because George Gibbs, who played a large role in it by planting chestnut trees in his wide yard while leading others to get involved.
“When I started with this project,” Bobigan said. “I couldn’t get people very interested because they had no experience of chestnuts.
“What George did was make it important to people to make the chestnut visible and tangible again so people can understand it, miss it and value it.
“Because 21st Century Parks was going to do it, other parks systems, like the Louisville Metro Park system, also could be persuaded to try it.
“He’s had an impact much wider than just 21st Century Parks. All the Kentucky Forestry and plant breeders and volunteers are delighted for this opportunity to educate the public through his generous support of a restoration effort.”
Former Louisville-Courier columnist Bob Hill is a historian for The Parklands of Floyds Fork. He travels Floyds Fork writing of the people, the places and the history of the stream within the 20-mile park system - all of which is to be preserved in the Filson Historical Society. Some of Hill's stories appear in A Landscape and its Legacy, the commemorative book for The Parklands of Floyds Fork project. Hill has also compiled a Floyds Fork “Places & Faces” presentation that adds imagery to the words.
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