Research Report #56 — Wood as a Shawangunk Resource

For many years scientists and naturalists have been studying and observing the flora and fauna of the Shawangunk Ridge. Foremost among them was Daniel Smiley, for whom Mohonk Preserve’s Daniel Smiley Research Center is named. Dan wrote numerous reports summarizing his observations on various topics. This regularly occurring series will feature some of these reports; some hold tremendous scientific value today and just await an interested researcher to follow up, others showcase a quirky sense of humor or highlight an oddity of nature.

Read the Report: Wood as a Shawangunk Resource. June 1987. Daniel Smiley.

A Note from Paul C. Huth, Director of Research Emeritus:

Over the years as Dan Smiley and I were working together on a wide variety of research projects, we were particularly interested in land use and vegetational history. Much of the Shawangunk land use over the last 300 years had to do with the impactful and extensive harvest of forest products. This included tree cutting for tanbark harvest, extensive forest cutting for the production of charcoal, and coppice-managed forest for hoop pole cutting and manufacture. Local harvest of timber for saw-milling produced building lumber, starting as early as 1799 with the Roosa Mill in the Coxing Clove. Wood was cut annually from woodlots for heating and cooking, and wood from many different tree species was applied to various domestic uses. It was the vital basic resource for Shawangunk subsistence farm and family life.

As early as the 1930’s, Dan Smiley, with his interest in the natural and cultural history of the Shawangunks, and his growing business responsibilities, began documenting aspects of the relationship of the Mohonk Mountain House to the land. I often heard Dan say, tongue in cheek, that parts of his life had two important relationships to his family ancestors. One was that he, like them, was as a perpetual Quaker recorder, with the compulsion to write things down, sometimes knowing why and sometimes not. The other was the effort to not throw anything ‘important’ or ‘usable’ away! Today, we recognize that we are the beneficiaries of those two great life long compulsions of Dan, in the extensive records and collections of the Mohonk Preserve’s Daniel Smiley Research Center (DSRC) and the Mohonk Mountain House Archives and Barn Museum.

In 1952, Dan took the opportunity, “with the help of John Yeaple, (Mohonk) head carpenter at the time,” to document the “Woods Used in (the) Mohonk House.” For this 1987 Historical/Cultural Note, Dan referred back to that summary, as well as extensive cultural history and land use records from the DSRC and the Mohonk Archives, to document the “lumber used in Mohonk House,” “wood products and their uses at Mohonk,” and “wood exported” from Mohonk land.

Dan’s research revealed that building at Mohonk, for the most part, did not use locally produced lumber. In large part this was because of “a balance of factors of the moment, such as a) availability of kinds of trees in the forests owned by Mohonk at the time; b) off-season building time; c) construction needs, quality and quality; and d) costs.” The little locally available timber trees that might have been sourced from the Mohonk forest land would have required “harvesting, sawing, seasoning for a year...and hauling…for final milling.” One report from a sawer in the Trapps area reported that by the mid-1880’s, “the timber (was) about exhausted.” Thus, the lumber used in Mohonk building was purchased externally.

Due to the major death of American Chestnut in the Shawangunks in the years 1912 and 1913, from a rapidly spreading non-native pathogenic fungus, a sawmill was purchased “around 1919” and set up at Mohonk “in order to utilize the Chestnut logs being cut each winter.” Dan noted, “Wood too small for logs was cut to four-foot cordwood and became power plant fuel.” Chestnut pole wood was historically used in Mohonk summerhouses and was used extensively in a diversity of other outside applications because of its ease in splitting and for its tannin content and resulting decay resistance. The old Long Shed at the Mohonk Sawmill collapsed under a heavy winter snow load in February 2001.

As Dan assembled the table of “Wood Products and Their Uses at Mohonk,” the importance and applications of different species of wood became apparent. Many of these were recalled by Dan from first hand and life long experience on the mountain. Dan used terms for items long out of use, like “Elm bolts,” “Tight cooperage,” “Slack cooperage,” “Mow poles,” “Sink drainboards,” “Bakeshop peels,” “Laundry Wash-wheel,” “Sled Runners,” “Stone Boats,” “Temples for Building Construction,” “Bullwhip,” “bullpoint,” and “Fellies.” Dan also showed where Mohonk exported wood for outside applications, including, from other historical research, hardwood saplings cut for barrel hoops, hemlock and oak tanbark (“peeled here and sold”), cordwood for use in kilns in the production of Rosendale Cement and for brickyards in New Paltz and Kingston, fireplace wood “for export to Paris (and) for retail sale in New York City,” hickory for “Shad Net Poles,” and tupelo for “Tugboat Fenders, before discarded automobile tires came into use.”

In the last 30 years since Dan researched and wrote this report, some things have changed and some have stayed the same. For example, wood for horse stall planking has changed from Elm to Black Locust. For posts, rails, and summerhouses, American Chestnut has been replaced by Red Cedar and Black Locust. Outside exposed planking has included chemically “pressure treated wood,” use of the tropical Trumpet Tree wood called “ipe,” and now some applications for longevity, has moved to textured plastic.

One of the special additions to the Daniel Smiley Research Center collection that I had the privilege to add, and which would have pleased Dan, was the 1995 donation by Dr. James M. Schaefer of the rare 16 volume “Encyclopedia of American Woods,” by Romeyn B. Hough. This, in honor of Jim’s parents Lois and Vincent J. Schaefer. Vince, a noted chemist and atmospheric scientist, was a founder and director of the Atmospheric Sciences Research Center at the State University of New York at Albany, was a Mohonk Preserve Board Member, and served for nearly 20 years on the Preserve’s Research Committee. He was a good friend and field companion. Lois and Vince generously established the annual college-level Schaefer Summer Internship program in Conservation Science at the Preserve in recognition of the life work and philosophy of Daniel Smiley. Romeyn Hough was a contemporary of Gifford Pinchot, and was “probably the most important forester in the country in the late 1800s. He influenced many decisions about conserving habitat using ecosystem principles long before these terms became popular.” This massive scientific and pristine reference set provides three actual mounted thin wood slices of “385 species of American trees,” including a radial, a tangential, and transverse slice of wood. Accompanying the 16 wood section volumes are an additional 8 volumes with a description of each species, including detailed historical accounts, species growth and identifying characteristics, uses, and individual wood properties, written by Dr. E. S. Harrar, Professor of Wood Technology and Dean of the Duke University School of Forestry.

Read the Report: Wood as a Shawangunk Resource. June 1987. Daniel Smiley.



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