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Celebrate Earth Day this year by reading Bob Tjaden and Walt Gabel’s recently published book on the history of forestry in Delaware.
Let’s celebrate the Earth by bathing in the beauty of Delaware trees.
Bob Tjaden published Beneath the Canopy: A Historical View of Forestry in Delaware last spring, just as the pandemic started closing everything down.
He co-wrote the book with Walt Gabel, who was his predecessor and mentor with the Delaware forestry service. Gabel and Tjaden first discussed writing the book in 1996. It wasn’t until Gabel passed away in 2016 that Tjaden really started working on the book in earnest.
The book is laid out in sections based on topics because Tjaden wanted to make sure people got the story but also could use it as a reference.
“I wasn’t sure how I would be able to pull all of this information and all of this history together, so I set it up by topic, so that if you were just interested in learning about charcoal, then you could just flip to the section on that. Or you could flip through and read a chapter on holly,” Tjaden says.
We sat down with Tjaden to learn about the book and the history of forestry in Delaware.
You mention the section on holly, why is holly important to the state of Delaware?
The state tree of Delaware is the holly tree. In the early 1900s to 1930s, Delaware was shipping holly wreaths worldwide. Milton was the center of the holly industry. In 1932, there were over 100 million holly wreaths made in small, family factories, some of which were just in the backyards of people’s houses. A lot of farm families would do this for extra income. They were making maybe 5 cents a wreath, but it was a tradition. Delaware was so important and was shipping so many wreaths that the Pennsylvania Railroad sent a train down to load up all these holly wreaths for distribution in Pennsylvania and up to New York. They called it the Holly Express.
One of the big draws for the book is a large number of historic images. Tell us about these photos.
Many of the images were taken in the early to mid-1900s. Walt was hired in the 1950s and was given access to his predecessor’s photo files. William Taber, his predecessor, was the first state forester in Delaware. I have documented everything that went on in Delaware forestry at the time with one of those big box cameras that you used to get under the hood to take photos. And he had thousands of images and plates. Walt and I knew about the collection and really wanted to do something with all these photos.
The thing that we both felt was that Delaware forestry and the trees and forests of Delaware, no one has ever written a book about it. We wanted to document the history and show how important Delaware forests have been both to the state and to the nation. Walt and I both had a passion for history and for Delaware’s forests.
Related: Explore Delaware’s Campgrounds, State Parks and Natural Attractions
Talk about your process in writing the book.
The foresting industry in many ways is leaving Delaware and the US as it moves overseas. So, the people who had a lot of this information were moving out of state or passing away, and documents were being lost. We wanted to pull a lot of this together before it disappeared.
I went to the National Archives and talked to some people about how to proceed with a task like this. They suggested I look at it as an oral history project. I had the photos from William Taber but I wanted to go out and talk to the families in the industry and see what documents and photos they had. They suggested I do something similar to oral histories done with veterans.
Basically, you have a set of questions that you go and interview people. I would record them and capture it on video. They would sign a release allowing it to be used in archives and in the book. That was the best thing I ever did. I interviewed 17 different families. It was priceless. All that digital video is going to Delaware Archives.
Have you always had a passion for trees and nature?
I would say yes. I was raised in New Castle and my family had a farm on the Delaware River near Buttonwood and I would do a lot of hunting and fishing. I just always had a passion for wildlife and nature. I was an apprentice to be a taxidermist during high school so I did that as well. When the Vietnam War came along, I was drafted and enlisted in the Navy. When I came back I decided to use the GI Bill to study wildlife management. I went to the University of Maine. There were very few jobs in wildlife management, so I took on forestry, so I got a dual degree.
After I got my degree, I had opportunities nationwide but I really wanted to come back to my home state. I wanted to be near my family but also serve the natural resources of the state. My first job was game warden at DNREC Division of Fishing and Wildlife until I met Walt and he hired me as a forester.
I took a short leave of absence to go to Duke and got a master’s degree in forest economics. If it weren’t for Walt, I wouldn’t have been able to do that.
You list Walt as a co-author, tell us about your memories of him.
Walt was like a super historian and editor. I always had a red pen. He would review all of our management plans and he was notorious for his red pen edits of him. When I was first working with him and he would take me around the state, he was always telling me stories. He would show me trees he planted that were now being harvested for pulp and paper.
When was the forestry department started in Delaware?
The Delaware Federation of Women’s Clubs was very instrumental in establishing the forestry department back in 1927. They put a lot of pressure on the governor to establish the department. We were having a lot of forest fires at the time for a host of reasons. It was destroying a lot of forests and not many trees were being replanted. The Women’s Clubs wanted to bring someone in to manage and protect our state’s forests. Without them, the forestry department would not have been established as early as it was. They even donated the Owens Track in Greenwood to help the department get started.
What are some unique stories that you learned about in the course of writing the book?
The history of the forests is the history of the state. There are several items that are very notable. Most people do not know we had six paper mills in the state just on White Clay Creek and Christina River. One of the earliest sawmills was the Gilpin sawmill, which Thomas Gilpin who had a sawmill on the Brandywine, invented and patented the first continuous roll of the paper machine. That machine and that patent are still used today by major paper companies. When paper is being made and goes through the rollers, Thomas Gilpin of Delaware invented that machine and revolutionized the industry.
One other story, if you have had blue claw crabs, you might get them in wooden bushel baskets. Dr. JH Marvel of Laurel, a former governor, designed and patented the machine to make the wooden baskets. At the time, packing material was a challenge because a lot of fruits and vegetables were sent on trains to market. Delaware was an innovator with Dr. Marvel to create these baskets which allowed fruits and vegetables to be shipped.
During World War II, you may have seen the Japanese surrender and the treaty being signed on the USS Missouri. The paper used for the treaty was actually made at the Curtis Paper Company on White Clay Creek in Newark. They were contracted to manufacture the paper that was used for the treaty.
What changes have you seen in Delaware when it comes to forestry?
There have been so many changes over the years–mostly that we no longer have any paper mills in the state. We maybe have eight sawmills in the state when we used to have 80. In Sussex County, as I drive around–the county I worked in the most as a field forester–planted millions of trees and now a lot of those trees are gone and replaced by developments. That’s not unique to Delaware though, it is something we see nationwide.
Bob Tjaden was with the forestry department in Delaware for about 13 years. He later went to work for the University of Maryland at College Park where he got his Ph.D. in environmental policy and served as a professor.
Beneath the Canopy is available at local bookstores: Browseabout Books in Rehoboth, Biblion in Lewes, Bethany Books, Delaware Shop in Dover, Barnes and Noble; or online on Amazon.
Cost: $25.99 soft cover; $36.99 hard cover