Chestnut Season: A child’s fascination turns into a family adventure

October 2016 Posted in Community, People
Paul'la Allen and her daughter, Julie enjoy working on their chestnut farm

Paul’la Allen and her daughter, Julie enjoy working on their chestnut farm

By Kristine Thomas

Growing up, some kids are fascinated by airplanes, sharks or sports. Others perhaps, books, dolls or bikes.

Not Paul’la Allen.

She was irresistibly drawn to chestnuts.

Her childhood home was in the southwest hills of Portland, near a dairy. And in the field where the cows grazed were two large chestnut trees.

Even as the cows nudged her, she would gather chestnuts. She recalls filling two paper bags with chestnuts and bringing them home to her mother.

“My mother had no idea what to do with them,” she said, adding her mother was a former fashion model raising four kids. Paul’la was the youngest.

Determined to learn about chestnuts, she asked Mrs. Raz, who owned the dairy and later donated some of her land for what is now Custer Park in Portland. Mrs. Raz, Paul’la explained, told her how to cook and store chestnuts.

“Once I tasted a chestnut, that was it for me,” Paul’la said, adding she thinks chestnuts have the flavor of a sweet potato and recommends them with a little butter, salt and pepper.


Knowing the produce manager at John’s Marketplace in Multnomah Village, Paul’la walked almost a mile from her home to the store, pulling a little red wagon with two paper bags of chestnuts. She was 7 years old.

“He offered to give me $5 a sack,” Paul’la, 64, said. “In 1959, that would have been big bucks.”

Recruiting three neighborhood friends, they picked three more bags, returned to the store and split the profits.

Shadow Mountain Ranch
The Allens invite community members to pick chestnuts at the farm.
U-Pick hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. or until sold out for the day. U-pick is $2.50 a pound.
The season is only two weeks long.  Contact for directions and crop status at 503-873-7946 or

The owners of Shadow Mountain Ranch Chestnuts in the Silver Falls foothills, the Allens sell their nuts for $2.50 a pound. Estimating a paper bag could hold about 50 pounds of chestnuts, that equals $125 a bag.

When they met their financial goals and looked at retiring, Jack asked Paul’la what she wanted to do next.

Recalling the fond memories she had of riding horses at Silver Falls State Park, she told Jack to wanted to buy land in the area and plant chestnut trees.

The first time they saw what is now their home, the former Christmas tree farm had a 20-foot high blackberry bush, slimy green moss growing on the ground and not a hint of any bugs, weeds or birds.

Wielding a machete, Jack, now 78, chopped away at the blackberry bush while Paul’la chatted with the real estate agent. When he returned, he whispered in his wife’s ear the offer they should make on the property.

She made the offer, it was accepted, and she later learned her husband had spied timber on the property. That was harvested and the proceeds used to purchase more land. Now they own 34 acres with about six in as a chestnut orchard with about 105 trees per acre.

Back when they were considering the pros and cons of planting chestnuts, Jack said his dad shared with him that an acre of chestnuts and hazelnuts were about the same in poundage. What differed, Jack said, was that at the time they were looking, hazelnuts sold for 48 cents a pound and chestnuts were $2 a pound. The trio, along with Paul’la’s parents, planted all the trees themselves.

“People think when we call Jack ‘The Digger,’ it’s because of his days working at his funeral home,” Paul’la said.

Instead, she said, Jack got the name because he was the one operating the machine to dig the holes for the trees. The chestnuts they planted in their orchard were collected from Washington to California. They also traveled to France, Italy, Spain and Yugoslavia to learn about chestnuts.

“We found a lot of nuts to plant traveling around the countryside,” Jack said. “Once when we were on our way to Reno going 75 mph when we spotted a chestnut tree and turned around to look at it and pick up its nuts.”

They have gathered chestnuts from pioneer cemeteries and historic homes, including the Settlemier house in Woodburn, always asking permission before gathering the nuts. Their orchard includes European, Chinese, Japanese and American chestnut trees. They know of less than a dozen chestnut farms in Oregon.

Because their trees are not grafted, “Mother Nature predicts the crop you get with chestnuts,” Paul’la said. “One year a tree will produce, the next year it won’t.”

It takes a frost for the porcupine burrs enclosing the chestnut to pop open, Paul’la said. Sometimes harvest happens as early as September, but normally it’s in October.

Once the burrs fall to the ground there is a window of about two weeks to harvest the nuts. If the nuts haven’t been dislodged, they step on the burr to open it. Paul’la said she and Julie can gather a couple “hundred pounds in an afternoon,” with the nuts varying in size from a marble to a ping-pong ball.

Their property is now a haven for wildlife, including deer, elk, rabbits, birds and squirrels, Paul’la said they all like to eat the nuts. Even their dog, Cocoa. Locally, they sell their chestnuts to Roth’s Fresh Market in Silverton and the produce market in Mulino. They invite people to U-pick chestnuts, adding they enjoy seeing families walking in the orchard and spending time together. “For the children, it’s like an Easter egg hunt,” Paul’la said.

After stressful careers, the chestnut orchard is a place of peace and quiet for Jack and Paul’la. And when naming their ranch, Jack made sure “nut” wasn’t in the title. It became “Shadow Mountain Ranch” because, Jack joked, he didn’t want to live on a “nut farm.”

Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.