Old-world goodies – Silverton Hills farm raises, preserves chestnut trees

June 2022 Posted in Gardening, Outdoor Life

By Brenna Wiegand

Paul’la Allen used to accompany her husband Jack to the cemeteries where he conducted graveside services.

Paul’la Allen in her chestnut orchard atop the Silverton Hills. She and her husband, Jack, founded Shadow Mountain Ranch Chestnuts in 1989.

Paul’la Allen in her chestnut orchard atop the Silverton Hills. She and her husband, Jack, founded Shadow Mountain Ranch Chestnuts in 1989.

Jack Allen, a mortician and owner of Pearson-Allen-Caldwell Funeral Home in Portland, traveled around to small community cemeteries where headstones go back hundreds of years.

Paul’la and young daughter Julie were never bored on these trips.

“While Jack was doing the services, I was teaching Julie her ABCs off the tombstones,” Paul’la said. “There were chestnut trees in all of these old cemeteries, and when they were in season, I was always sticking them in my pocket.”

She came across more trees in the old parks around Portland. Though they tend to average 50 to 75 feet,
the majestic chestnut tree can attain heights of 80 to 100 feet. 

When she and Jack purchased their retirement property near Silver Falls State Park in 1989, Paul’la dreamed of planting a chestnut orchard. They started researching and revisiting their old haunts, pocketing chestnuts to be sown directly into the soil, and the orchard began to take shape.

Why chestnuts, you ask? It goes back to when Paul’la was a girl of seven.

“I walked through the neighbor’s pasture on my way to school and would have to push cows out of my way to get through,” she said. “Then one morning they didn’t meet me; I looked around and spotted them clear across the pasture under these tall trees.”

Upon further investigation she saw they were eating these “brown nut things” she’d never seen before.

The girl grabbed a handful and rushed over to knock at her neighbor’s door, concerned that the cows could be poisoning themselves.

Instead, her Swiss neighbor made Paul’la late for school as she introduced the girl to the world of chestnuts. Paul’la was fascinated.

Paul’la and Jack Allen’s great-grandson Carson reaps a handful of ripe chestnuts.

Paul’la and Jack Allen’s great-grandson Carson reaps a handful of ripe chestnuts.

“She taught me all about chestnuts; how to cook them and what they’re good for and all sorts of things,” she said. “I found out how much people love chestnuts and so I became enterprising and took some to a little grocery store in Multnomah Village.

“The owner told me he’d buy all the chestnuts I could gather,” she said, “I went back under those trees every year and picked up grocery bags full and rolled that wagon about a mile to the store.”

Five dollars a bag was nothing to sneeze at in 1959, when a popsicle was just a nickel. Soon she had enlisted her friends in the enterprise.

“For several years I was the ‘chestnut girl,’” she said. 

Thirty years later, the Allens dubbed their “little slice of heaven” Shadow Mountain Ranch Chestnuts and continued collecting from parts far and near.

Many trees in the orchard came from those belonging to the original Settlemier orchard in Woodburn. Jesse Settlemier founded the city of Woodburn in 1871. 

Today, Shadow Mountain Ranch’s 700-tree orchard includes European, Chinese, Japanese and American chestnuts, sold solely to u-pick customers.

Their unusual product brings a unique clientele to the orchard each year.

“We have Asian clients, people from the Middle East and a lot of Europeans,” Paul’la said. “People driving by see our little sandwich board sign out on Silver Falls Highway, and once they find us, they become extremely loyal clients.

“They all want something different,” she said. “A lot of the Asian clients like a smaller chestnut for their mooncakes, fancy little square cakes with a whole chestnut inside, as part of their celebrations.”

European customers seek out large chestnuts that they roast atop their woodstoves.

“Everybody has a story to tell you – it’s just amazing,” Paul’la said. “Many people from the Middle East drive down from Portland and Vancouver every year, and we have people vacationing here from Europe who come and pick. They’ve never seen anything like this.”

It’s like people are homesick for the chestnut.

Seven or eight vans full of people from the Korean church in Portland show up after Sunday services and sing as they pick. One couple has shown up the past five years or so. The man sits out in the orchard, strumming his guitar and singing while his lady friend and her friends pick up nuts.

“It’s so wild and so beautiful,” Paul’la said, “We are the only country our size with the ability to grow chestnuts that doesn’t; when I was in Europe, chestnuts were everywhere.

“Chestnuts are starch, and they are sweet,” she said. “You can substitute them for potatoes or grind them into flour for pancakes and crepes and all kinds of things.

“The most expensive French candy in the world is made with chestnut flour,” she added.

Early America relied on the chestnut tree. Jack notes that, as chestnut wood is nearly impervious to rot, most log cabins on the East Coast were built of the stuff.

“They used the chestnut tree in furniture a lot until the blight hit in 1906 and killed all the chestnut trees up to the Rocky Mountains,” he said.

Through a string of circumstances, the Allens have been able to pay homage to this fine hardwood in the building of their home.

An owner of the Woodburn property where the Allens had previously gathered chestnuts called one day to offer them wood from some huge chestnut trees that, through age and wind, had finally succumbed.

“We hired a truck to go and pick up this huge chunk of tree and take it to the mill where it was dried and made into boards,” Jack said. “We ended up making all our kitchen cabinetry from it.”

Now many of the chestnut trees they frequented 30 years ago – those old cemeteries and parks – are gone.

“We’ve got chestnuts out here in the orchard from many trees that no longer exist because they mowed them down to put in developments,” Jack said.

“The trees the cows were eating from in 1959 aren’t around anymore, but their babies are out in our orchard,” he said. “We’ve got a dozen of them, so in a way we went around saving trees.”

Shadow Mountain Ranch

19052 Coyote Ridge Way NE, Silverton

Chestnut harvest usually falls around the third week of October. Once a frost drops the nuts to the ground, Shadow Mountain Ranch Chestnuts is open 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. daily for u-pick during the two-week season.

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