Witnessing a Quiet Return to Their Former Glory
"Here at last!" the early Ohio
settler proclaims to his wife and children, as he hitches his yoke of oxen to a sturdy
sycamore tree. From under the seat of his wagon, an iron axe emerges and rhythmic chopping
breaks the stillness of the wilderness. "Kindlin' for the fire, logs for a cabin and
a clearing for the garden get to work son!" he exclaims. As oaks and hickories,
beech, maple and tulip begin falling to the earth like moths eating holes in a blanket,
the settlers create a patchwork of clearings among the forested hillsides that once
stretched undisturbed for hundreds of miles in every direction.
So dense was the forest surrounding the little clearing of the
pioneer homesteads, that instead of attempting to fell each tree with axe or saw, many
trees were girdled with an axe. A tree was girdled by cutting a shallow groove around the
entire circumference of the trunk where the "living" wood is found. When the
dead trees were weakened enough, they were often downed by a wind storm. The downed trees
could be cut for firewood or burned in great bonfires. In such a manner, vast tracts of
woodland in Ohio were cleared quickly and conveniently for farmland.
The swath of the axe (and the saw) continued to widen across the
landscape as the threat of hostile Indians was removed and settlers poured into the Ohio
country. Sawmills were built along rivers and streams to supply the lumber needs of
growing cities and towns. The industrial age also took its toll on the forest as trees
were felled to make charcoal used to fuel the iron furnaces that were once crucial to the
economy of southeastern Ohio. Within several generations, early Ohioans had removed, on
average, roughly eight of every ten trees from the Ohio landscape.
Gone were the dark forests that harbored hostile Indians, wolves and bears that once
lurked outside the frontier homesteads. A new Ohio emerged one that resembled the pastured
hillsides of Scotland and Ireland, from which many of the first immigrants originally
came. Finely crafted log homes and barns, largely built by German immigrants, stood as
weathered, gray monuments to the ancient forests from which they were hewn.
For nearly a hundred years, the newly created croplands prospered the descendants of
the early settlers, providing oats and wheat for the mill, corn for feeding hogs (and
making whiskey) and hay for feeding cattle. Then, beginning at the turn of the century,
the prosperity of many of the farms throughout much of southeastern Ohio began to decline.
The great stone furnaces of a once-thriving iron industry became cold and silent amid the
desolate landscape their hunger for fuel had created. Families loaded their wagons for
roads that led west to fertile bottom lands and broad flat plains that were friendlier to
the plow and the plowman than the rugged foothills of the Appalachians.
It wasn't long before weeds and brush began appearing on abandoned farms in many rural
areas of Ohio. Pioneer species of trees instead of pioneers began to reestablish their
claim to land that was more suitable for trees than row crops. Tall, stately eastern red
cedars marched onto the open fields like silent green sentinels. Hawthorns, sweet gums and
aspen were among the first to join the invasion of old, abandoned farmlands. The spread of
some, such as the hawthorn and cedar, was aided by birds which ate their fruits. Other trees took advantage of the wind and water to carry their
seeds or nuts from the fence row and woodlot, the river bank and ridge top that
served as scattered outposts amid the barren farmlands. These remnant woodlots slowly
regained the territory they once lost to the axe and the plow. The tide of the battle
began to turn in favor of the forest once again. Soon the open fields of weeds and grasses
were gone, replaced by scrub woods composed of small trees and shrubs that thrived in
sunny conditions. Then the larger, more shade-tolerant species of trees began to establish
their dominance in the young wood lots, shading out the shorter, smaller tree species
which had preceeded them. Within a hundred years, the beech-maple, oak-hickory and other
"climax" forest associations were once again firmly reestablished on many of
their ancestral homelands, along with walnut, cherry, ash and tulip.
Visitors to our state parks can witness many of these giants of the forest and the
variety of shrubs and wildflowers beneath their forest canopy, appearing much the same
today as they did to the early settlers when Ohio was the western frontier. Missing from
the mountainous regions are the once-common stands of American chestnut, eradicated by a
blight in the early 1900's, and all but gone from the lowland forests are the American
elm, killed by Dutch elm disease that arrived shortly thereafter. Otherwise, there has
probably been little change in the species diversity of the "second-growth"
forests that have replaced the virgin forests that preceeded them nearly two centuries
The natural reforestation that has occured throughout much of the state is a testament
to the remarkable reproductive capabilities of our forest species and the underlying
abundance of Ohio's soil and water resources. Time heals all wounds or so they say. Thank
God, some of our forests are back to stay.
Interpretive Services Section Manager