Chinquapin Barrels & The Cooper

Chinquapin Barrels & Cooper

Historic Uses Of Castanea ozarkensis

by A.J. Hendershott  |  August 2021

Advertisement for chinquapin stave

WANTED: good 39-inch White Oak and Chinquapin stave bolts at our mill on Highway 19 at the Dent and Shannon County line. National Distillers.”  Houston Herald, August 16, 1956. 

I read these words and paused. I have painstakingly researched numerous historic uses of the Ozark chinquapin tree for years and thought I had a good handle on its former uses. I knew the Ozark chinquapin wood was used for posts fences, shingles, dye stuff, musical instruments, furniture, medicine and a tannic acid source for tanning leather. But this was new to me.

The words printed in the Houston, Missouri newspaper were clear, chinquapin wood was a source of casks. Casks like wooden buckets, and tubs were crafted by coopers. To understand the richness of this use for our struggling tree, it helps to learn a bit about the craft of coopering. It will also explain what a stave bolt is and help you appreciate how valuable a watertight cask is.

The Nearly Lost Art of Coopering

Coopers were once a vital part of this country, because anything that was shipped or stored was likely in a cask of some size. Distillers used a cask size known as a barrel which was originally a unit of measure. Today, the word barrel is synonymous with any cylinder-shaped cask with a bulge in the middle. They were one of the toughest and most dependable items a cooper could make.

Not everything a cooper made was challenging though and there were three categories of cooperage that are worth noting.

Slack Cooperage: The first category was known as slack or dry cooperage. The word slack infers the product is not tight enough to hold water. According to master cooper James Gaster in his book Coopered Wooden Bucket, “Dry cooperage centered around building casks and buckets that did not need to hold liquid. These containers were the forerunner of the modern cardboard box, transporting goods such as apples, nails and grain. This form of coopering required the least amount of skill and the lowest quality of wood. “The unsplit wood trunk would be considered the bolt. The wood was split or cut from a bolt of wood into almost board like staves.”

According to Harry Schenawolf in his January 21, 2019 blog , Coopers Had the Colonists Over a Barrel: 18th Century Barrel & Cask Production in America,  “Coopers did use the American chestnut in the colonies for slack cooperage,” In his blog he notes, “As the name implies these barrels held dried good: rice, flour, corn meal, wheat, thrashed grains, salt, nails, fruits vegetables etc. Though often made of oak and chestnut because the intended pressure of dried goods was not as intense as liquids, they were also made of softer wood like yellow pine.”

Tight Cooperage: Tight or wet cooperage was at the other end of the spectrum. Gaster described this as requiring the greatest amount of skill and the highest quality of wood. The skill requirement was mandated because the staves had to be fitted together perfectly, which was a challenge as the diameter of the cask changed from small on one end bulging in the middle and then small again. This is the type of cooperage a wine or whisky producer would use to age and store their spirits.

White Cooperage: Once more we look to Gaster to explain this third and last type of cooperage, “White coopering centers around the wooden bucket and similar items.” By similar items he means, piggins (a bucket with one long stave the serves a handle), butter churns, dippers, tankards (a type of mug) pitchers, and even dippers and canteens.

Gaster explains that white coopering, “. . . gets its name from the fact that these items were used to transport and store milk, sugar, and flour. It was considered the intermediate form of coopering because it required enough skill to make an item watertight but did not generally require one to know how to bend the staves as required in wet coopering.” He also adds, “it is the oldest form of cooperage and did not require premium quality wood as does wet coopering.”

Chestnut Barrels

The notion of making a barrel or bucket from Ozark chinquapin wood, and for that matter any member of the genus Castanea was completely foreign to me. As I was about to learn, it was not a new idea. I found a number of references to chestnut wood being used for staves and for hoop poles. Hoop poles were binders for coopered items. I will share more about that later in this article.

Because chestnut and chinquapin wood have so many similarities that it is valuable to learn about the historic uses of all the Castanea species in order to get a full understanding of the potential that the Ozark chinquapin holds. Using chestnut wood for coopering casks occurred for the longest time in Europe where the European chestnut (Castanea sativa) which was used for both stave and hoop pole production. The most important feature of Castanea wood, as it pertains to cask use, is the presence of tyloses in the wood.

Tyloses are a type of cell growth that appear in the vessels of some trees. They effectively block the phloem vessels rendering them impervious to water. Consider this something like a chunk of strawberry getting stuck in your drinking straw that prevents you from consuming more of your favorite milkshake. Plants that have a lot of tyloses tend to be very watertight. Wood from trees like white oaks, black locusts, black walnuts, and of course the chestnuts and chinquapins tend to be great for uses where you can’t have liquid leaking or passing through the wood.

Today, chestnut barrels, sourced from European chestnut are still made over in Italy, France, and Spain, and available for purchase. I ran across a recent study refenced by the International Enological Codex of the International Organization of Vine and Wine (IOV for short) who sets standards for grape related products like wine, table grapes and raisins.

In this study published in Food Chemistry in 2012, they tested and compared the properties of European oak and chestnut barrels along with the affect on the alcohol aged inside of them. This project revealed differing levels of tannin and other compounds between oak and chestnut barrels, which in turn can influence the flavor of a spirit aged in the cask. They also found that while watertight, chestnut wood can allow transport of oxygen through the wood which speeds up the oxidation process.

In the IOV report they note, “Therefore the use of chestnut wood can contribute to improve the sustainability of the ageing process, enhancing the quality of the aged wine spirits in a shorter period and with lower cost.” They also indicated chestnut barrels may not be the best choice for long term storage for that same reason. They also would not be ideal for cider aging where the presence of Oxygen is not desired. But the chestnut barrels are approved for wine aging in Europe.

When the first coopers arrived in North America around the mid-1600s they adapted their trade to the availability of the wood in the colonies. American chestnut (Castanea dentata) had comparable properties to its cousin in Europe as far as barrels were concerned. Just like their kin, the wood was watertight but not quite as strong as the oak. So, it was useful for certain types tight and slack cooperage, and would have been used for white cooperage as well.

The 1930 book Wood, Lumber and Timbers by Philip Hayward lists chestnut wood along with ash, basswood, birch, cottonwood, red gum (sweet gum) and white oak as woods used for tight coopering.

At one time the chestnut was so common it was a choice coopering material just out of convenience for slack and tight cooperage.

Illustrating that point, the Concord Enterprise newspaper in Massachusetts reported on September 18, 1907, “Arthur Whitcomb was making barrels with chestnut staves in the old overall shop . . .” 

The American chestnut was formerly used for coopering and still could be today, if it weren’t for the Chinese chestnut blight (Cryphonectria parasitica) that cripples chestnuts and chinquapins all across their native range in North America.

Hoop Poles

Chinquapin hoop pole advertisement from Virginia

Here’s another advertisement that surprised me. In fact, I had to look this one up to even know what this was a solicitation for. As it turns out they were asking for wood of the Allegheny chinquapin bush (Castanea pumila) for a different use in barrel making.

“TIMBER WANTED — . . . the hoop poles, four feet long, of birch or chinquapin.” Richmond Dispatch. Richmond Virginia. July 25, 1854.

Merriam Webster’s dictionary describes a hoop pole as: “a straight slender length of green sapling wood usually of hickory or white oak that was formerly used as stock for barrel hoops.” In this instance birch and chinquapin were used to make the barrel hoops. Regional variation occurred depending on what worked well and was abundant. In Virginia the Allegheny chinquapin and birch was what they wanted. It is likely other areas used the chinquapin bush for hoop poles for cask work and for white and dry cooperage.

Appalachian settlers were a resilient group who learned from one another how to use their native plants. Tips and tricks of the trade would have spread among coopers through their training guilds and apprentices. This includes what species were appropriate for hooping.

Harry Schenawolf in his 2019 blog Coopers Had the Colonists Over a Barrel gives us just a little more insight on wooden barrel hooping.

“For centuries hoops to hold the barrel and casks tightly together was of both wood and metal. Even after the 1800s when the use of metal replaced most wooden hoops. Hogsheads, smaller buckets or ‘piggins’ and the casks for exported dry goods. Hickory, harder than oak which was the chosen wood for staves, was often used to bind the sides together. Saplings were split in half and bent while green, cut to size, then held together by cutting notches at either end.”

While this didn’t reference chinquapins the discussion of hoop pole requirements gives us some insight on the properties of the wood of the Allegheny chinquapin.

Using wooden hoops to bind a coopered item goes way back in time. It was very common across Europe and North America and as Schenawolf mentioned, metal eventually replaced these hoops on most items except where iron was a hazard or hard to come by. An example where wooden hoops were preferred would be gunpowder casks. Iron wasn’t ideal due to its potential to throw a spark if struck by another barrel or another iron object. So, hoops made of wood, copper or brass were select for gun powder storage. It makes me wonder how many gunpowder casks would have had Allegheny chinquapin hoops. Since the Ozark chinquapin was uncommonly growing across the Appalachians, I wonder if a few weren’t made of Ozark chinquapin. click HERE to learn more about Ozark chinquapin occurrence east of the Mississippi.

Regarding wooden hoops for cooperage where metal might have been in limited supply, the deep Ozarks didn’t get access to railways until the late 1800s. So, iron supplies were transported along the smaller rivers or wagon. Therefore, iron had a limited supply and was widely used and reused. In contrast, wood was plentiful and used for myriad of products. Thus, wooden hoop poles were still used for many dry and white coopering products. It is possible that the Ozark chinquapin would have been used for barrel hoops, but documentation is difficult to obtain. At this point reasonable assumptions would likely suffice. In the Ozarks, I would assume that if chinquapins were used for this function that people would select sprouts coppicing from a stump, because of their long growth without any limbs.

Pulling It All Together

Now that I have learned about chestnut casks it was time to revisit the newspaper solicitation asking for white oak and chinquapin bolts in the Missouri Ozarks. Because this was a distillery of alcoholic spirits that wanted the wood, the intended use can reasonably be assumed to be tight cooperage barrels. The trees grew large enough to serve this purpose to make bolts. This is insightful because it indicates that the Ozark chinquapin wood does indeed share characteristics with chestnut wood in terms of water tightness and workability. It also tells us that Ozark chinquapin trees were common enough in the Missouri Ozarks to make it worthwhile to solicit its harvest. Furthermore, the fact that the Ozark chinquapin was used to make barrels means it was also likely used for white and slack coopered items.

A lot has been forgotten about our forests. It’s no longer common knowledge what used to live in the wood–much less what purposes they can serve to man and wildlife alike. In this article I have looked directly and indirectly at ways a cooper might have used our beloved Ozark chinquapin tree’s wood. I find historic uses of trees fascinating. They point to value in that is intrinsic and doesn’t change even if our uses have ebbed. As far as I am concerned the Ozark Chinquapin has value just because it exists. But this also points to potential uses in the future. Once the chinquapins are restored to our landscape, free of the life strangling effects of the blight, could again be used to age spirits or make a bucket or butter churn in the hands of some hobbyist. It wouldn’t be responsible to do so now, but one day . . . we could.

Gun powder cask