The End of Currants

The East coast of the New World from the Cape Fear in North Carolina to the 45th parallel into Canada was originally known as Virginia, named by Sir Walter Raleigh most likely in honor of Queen Elizabeth I. She was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and died unmarried in 1603 having been celebrated as the Virgin Queen. In the early 1600s, Captain George Weymouth explored the area of “Virginia,” known today as Maine, for the Crown. His mission was to discover and catalogue the natural riches of the “New World.”. He recorded the many flowers, wild vines and trees growing in that area and a multitude of berries including Currants. He was especially taken by a particular coniferous tree. He described in his log:

“A firre-tree out of which issueth Turpentine in so maruellous plenty, and so sweet, as our Chirurgeon and other affirmed they never saw so good in England. We pulled off much Gumme congealed on the outside barke, which smelled like Frankincense. This would be a great benefit for making Tarre and Pitch.”
– Maine Historical Society.

The tree which captured his adoration was Pinus strobus, the Eastern White Pine which was the tallest and most abundant tree in the Northeastern part of the country with some specimens reaching 265’. To put this into perspective, the tallest Redwoods are about 365’. It quickly became the most important tree for the early colonists as the straight trunks could be easily cut and used to construct log cabins, barns, wagons, furniture and used in ship building. The considerable amount of pitch was used to make tar for seaming between wooden joints and the turpentine was a key ingredient in paints and varnishes. The major economic value, however, lie in the remarkable length of the mast wood which could be in excess of 120’. This, combined with the lightness of the lumber and the plethora of supply, made this tree an extraordinarily valuable export commodity. Sailing ships were, of course, the mode of travel, commerce and war at that time and the size of the mast dictated the size of the ship. Larger masts meant bigger, faster ships. About this time, the main wood used for single stick masts in Britain, Spain, France and Holland was Baltic fir and over harvesting had made large trees scarce. The solution to this major dilemma for England was found in Weymouth’s reports. The White Pine quickly became known as the Mast Pineand was the kernel for some of the first large scale commerce in the

The abundance of this tree was hard to describe so with ignorance of the finite nature of all resources, enormous swathes of white pine forests were cleared for its timber, to make room for agriculture and of course, the mast wood export market. By the end of the 17th century, the Crown was beginning to have difficulty getting orders regularly filled for masts because of the competition for the wood with the colonialists so the Crown decreed that all white pines of a certain size belonged to the Monarchy. In 1691 a new charter was issued by the reigning monarchs, William and Mary. Among other regulations, the Charter contained what became known as The Mast Clause:

“Wee doe hereby reserve to Us Our Heires and Successors all Trees of the Diameter of Twenty Four Inches and upwards of Twelve Inches from the ground growing upon any soyle or Tract of Land within Our said Province or Territory not heretofore granted to any private persons And Wee doe restrains and forbid all persons whatsoever from felling cutting or destroying any such Trees without the Royall Lycence of Us Our Heires and Successors first had and obteyned upon penalty of Forfeiting One Hundred Poinds sterling unto Ous Our Heires and Successors for every such Tree soe felled cut or destroyed without such Lycence had and obteyned in that behalfe any thing in.”

This not only meant that the burgeoning population could not cut the pines for homes, barns and furniture without the “difficult to obtain” license but they also couldn’t legally clear fields for agriculture and settlements. The White Pine became the embodiment of the colonialists quest for freedom. White pines and English domination were the subject of many community discussions. It just added to the angst caused by unfair taxation. It was omnipresent on everyone’s mind  One of the very first coins struck by those colonists who were eager to separate from the English economy was the Pine Tree Shilling. The conflict escalated and the divide deepened over the next several decades and eventually erupted into the Pine Tree Riot of 1772. In 1775, a rag tag militia of colonial soldiers carried a flag depicting a White Pine tree as a symbol of freedom at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Although they lost that battle, the revolutionists, under the Pine Tree flag, inflicted serious damage on the well trained and well equipped British army. They went on to win the war the following year creating a new country no longer under the rule of the Crown and the new Americans went back to clear cutting the White Pine.

Demand for Eastern White Pine lumber steadily increased during the 1800s and improvements in logging methods and equipment accelerated the deforestation of the once vast expanses of white pines. For the first time people started to think about reforestation but most nursery operations were not interested in propagating the low value pine seedlings and this is where the trouble really begins. German, French and Dutch nurseries could produce seedlings at prices substantially lower than those in America so millions of white pine seeds were sent to Europe and millions of white pine seedlings were sent back virtually all of which were infected with a fungus now called White Pine Blister Rust.

It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the disease was identified and studies determined that fungus needed two different hosts to complete its cycle, white pines and the botanical family of Ribes; Currants and Gooseberries. The disease mostly affected the young white pines, which, of course, was the focus of the reforestation project, so in 1911, it was decided that the newly imported white pines were significantly more important than the indigenous currants and Congress passed a law banning commercial cultivation of Currants and Gooseberries and that was the death knell for currants in America. The ban was transferred to states’ jurisdiction in the 60s and remained in place until I was able to convince the powers that be in New York State of a better way of growing currants and was successful in getting the State ban overturned in 2003.

Cheers from the Currant Farm,