Thursday, December 4, 2008

Tan Oak

Range of the tan oak. Mostly a tree of the pacific coast of north-western California.

These are a few photos of the Tan Oak. Most of them will enlarge if you click on them. The Tan oak is a tall slender tree that grows to great heights. The tree grows on a single trunk, similar to a fir tree. It usually grows with a slight lean to it, and it is one of the tallest oaks trees. It is an evergreen tree, and does not lose all of it’s leaves at the same time. The tree sometimes grows as large as six foot through at the base, but its average diameter is around one and one half foot.

The tree was valuable back in the late 18th and early 20th Century because of it’s importance to the leather industry. The tree has more than twice the tannic acid of any other tree.
The leather industry, mostly located in the Sacramento Valley, caused a large demand for the tall and stately tan oak. The tan bark is where the tannic acid is stored by the tree, so to harvest the acid all one had to do is peel the bark off of the tree. The tan bark was at first hauled by mule to the coast and shipped by “Dog Hole Schooner” to the bay area.

Dog Hole Schooners were small ships that could sail in and out of small ports along the coast. They would sail straight in toward the shore, then they would send two men in a row boat to attach a line to the anchorage, which was usually an exposed rock offshore. Once the line was attached, the ship would simply swing around and come to rest off the breaker line. The bark was loaded by overhead cables. Once the ship was loaded. They would simply set their sails and sail away. Many times the rowboat crew didn’t get the line to the anchorage in time, and the poor small ship would sail right on into the rocks along the shoreline. Most of the sailors were Scandinavian and they were called the Scandahoovian navy.

Stockton soon became the center of the leather industry because the small Schooners could sail to Stockton to unload. The reason that the leather factories were in Stockton was because that’s where the cattle were. It was easier to bring the tannic acid the leather than the other way around. The tanned hides were then transported from there.

At about the turn of the 19th century the Wagner Leather corporation scouted out a port to land their ships more safely. They decided to build a wharf at Shelter Cove. To further simplify their growing company they decided to build a Tannic Acid extraction factory in Briceland. They went about buying up Tan Oak Forests. They ended up buying over 7,000 acres of Tan Oak forest land.

The larger Tan Oak trees were fallen to the ground, and the bark was peeled. The bark was then dried in the summer heat right where it was peeled. The smaller trees were “creamed” which meant that they didn’t even fall them. They just took the bark that they could reach, and left the rest that was to far up, right on the tree. It was considered to be too small of an amount to bother with. Then the dried bark was skidded on sleds or strapped on a mule and hauled to a landing wher it was loaded on huge wagon loads and hauled into Briceland to go through the tannic acid extraction process.

Now, I know that you are probably thinking that it was a terrible waste to cut a tree and just leave it lay in the woods to rot. You’re right, get over it! Things were a lot different back then than they are today, they did what they had to do to survive.

The good thing about the Tan Oak is that, just like a Redwood tree, it regenerates from sprouts from it’s root system and it readily replaces the forest with many more healthy young tan Oaks. The Tan oak has a tendency to take over if it is allowed. A good example of a Tan Oak takeover is from the Finley Creek fire in 1972. The fire burned from Ettersburg to Shelter Cove in one night. It burned over ten thousand acres and was one of the hottest fires that we have seen on the north coast. The fire killed the fir trees and other small trees, and they had to be replanted. The Tan Oak sprouted from their own roots and beat out most of the other trees. The other trees are just now catching up. So the Tan Oak makes a great “Nurse tree” it provides shade and protection for the Douglas fir. That won’t do as well when exposed to the hot sun.

The tan oak makes beautiful lumber, but it is unstable in larger board sizes, so it make great Parquet Flooring and other small-piece wood products. Sadly the mighty Tan Oak is one of the major trees to be killed by Sudden Oak Death. Massive die-offs are happening as you read this. I hope that they are wise enough to harvest some of the die-off for energy production, by chipping it for co-generation plants. It is my hope that some trees will be found to be resistant, and we will have a healthy forest again.

Again, as with every oak tree that ever existed, it is said to be one of the favorite acorn trees of the Indian people. The fact is, that it has a bitter nut and takes much leaching to get the acids out of it. But, that is the beauty of the Tan Oak acorn, it doesn’t rot because of its high acid content. It has a hard shell, so it is somewhat bug resistant, and it lasts under the tree longer. So the Indians used it when they had a hard time finding other acorns, which was most of the time. So, it appeared that the Tan Oak was their favorite nut. When they probably simply thought of it as being better than starvation.

I have many logging stories to tell about the Tan Oak. Too many to tell here. But, it was a much hated tree because of it’s “Tan Oak Dust”, which is a combination of pollen and the fuzz off the fuzzy leaves. It can darn near choke you to death. If your think that a respirator would solve the problem, you’ve simply have not worked in the woods when it was 100 plus degrees and there was no fresh air.

I take questions!

In researching why they stopped using Tan Oak extract to tan leather; I thought that I would find that a cheap synthetic tannin was developed, but apparently they simply ran out of cheap and easy to get tan bark. In the late Nineteen-twenties they started running out of available tan bark in the quantities that they needed. The Wagner Leather Company requested that Humboldt county build a road down Redwood Creek to access the new highway 101 that was being built north and south, with the hope that they could truck in the still abundant supply of Tan Oak that was growing inland. The County said no, and the Wagner Leather works closed their factory and switched to other means of tanning their leather. After that the road was built


ross sherburn said...

ernie,you refreshed my memory real good about tan oak,thanks!

Anonymous said...

Tan Oak.....God, I hate that species. When I was a piss fir willy for a couple of seasons, we used to have to climb up and down cut blocks inspecting the plantings of years earlier. Usually the competing species was tan oak. Now, if you've ever crawled around in tan oak brush, you'll know of the dust/pollen it produces. Wow, am I allergic to it. By noon, my eyes would be running, my nose would be blowing snot like a bull and I'd be sneezing like a hit and miss engine. (Hows that for a visual)

Ok course, we also used to be involved in brush clearing contracts and would have to cut and burn the tan oak.

Um, I no longer work for the willys, possibly because of tan oak.

Ernie Branscomb said...

Anybody that loves Tan Oak simply hasn't had to work in it. The higher up the tree, the dustier it gets. You can imagine logging in it where the fallers were trying to fall trees between it. The dust would fly. It’s more than an allergen, it’s an irritant. Heck, bugs can’t even live in it, that’s why they used it to cure cow hides. It wasn’t for the pretty color. It was to stop the putrefaction process. After all, nobody likes to smell like a dead cow.

Kym said...

Ernie, you do the best posts!

I'm not that fond of live tan oak (although I would miss it if it all dies due to disease) but it makes the most beautiful flooring. My parents have such striking floors that people always fall in love with.

Someday, I'm going to have floors out of tan oak.

ben said...

Redwood Forest Foundation (RFFI) is looking for ideas on how to remove tanoak and have the trees pay for the removal. They have 50,000 acres from Piercy/Legget to the coast. Any ideas?

Dave Kirby said...

Some years back I hauled a lot of Tan Oak firewood to a family camp out in Kings Canyon. We used it to heat a large pot for washing dishes. Before that I had used a lot of it in wood stoves but that was really the first time I was exposed to Tan Oak smoke. I had not realized how acrid the smoke was. It was like tear gas. I remember a CDF captain telling me that crews fighting Tan Oak fire would sometimes have their eyes swell shut if they got too much exposure.

ben said...

OK, Ernie, Here's an Indian story... My version of one gathered by Gladys Nomland in "Sinkyone Notes". There was an Indian old timer named Jack Woodman (He had the Woodman name from an unsavory fellow named George Woodman down Laytonville way) originally from Bull Creek. Jack was given a 160 acre Indian Allotment up near Perry Meadows on Elk Ridge. Woodman told Ms Nomland that he often walked on Elk Ridge at night. He said that one night he came upon the Creator (Nagaitcho the Night Walker) who was walking the ridge to see what was happening in the World he had made. He came up to Woodman and said that someone had killed all his people and skinned them and left them laying about everywhere. Nagaitcho was talking about the Tanoak trees. He said that he was going to destroy the World as the ones in it did not know how to behave. Woodman begged the Creator not to do it. He said tha the ones who cut the Tanoak did not know what they were doing and that killing everyone would be a terrible thing for the innocent ones. Nagaitcho said he was probably right and that he would wait a while.
Now I probably don't have this quite right but I'm too lazy to look it up and quote it verbatum. I'm pretty close. When you look at the color of the chopped Tanoak trunk in your photo, it looks like flesh and reminded me of this story.

Ernie Branscomb said...

Thanks Ben.
The sap that runs out of an injured Tan Oak looks eerily like blood. To the Indian people it must have seemed like murder to them. The Tan Oak acorn was not their favorite acorn, but it was the one that they could always fall back on when times were tough, because it was high in acid, preserved well, and it was abundant.

I feel some of the same loss that they must have felt when the things that I treasure about this canyon are disrespected. You have lived here long enough to know what I mean, and share in my loss.

In the past, I have though that we would always have the Tan Oak, but now with it being so susceptible to “Sudden Oak Death” it has me concerned about what direction that we should take. I feel that we should be seeking out Tan Oak trees that may be resistant to the disease, and breed for that resistance. But, it wouldn’t be our native Tan Oak, would it? It would be like breeding one race of people to another, to prevent race based diseases. Did you notice how P.C. I made that statement?

Anonymous said...

i live on the yurok reservation and honastly we dont think of tan oak acorns as better than starvation. acorn bread and soup is something we love to make and eat.

Unknown said...

For more on the history of the tanoak, check out this good book by Frederica Bowcutt: The Tanoak Tree: an environmental history.

Through much of the 20th century, the USFS waged war against tan oak to grow more valuable conifers instead, but it's a tree that really wants to be where it lives and serves many purposes, cultural, ecological, and for wood. Long history of indigenous management of tan oak through fire for acorns --and perhaps some of those ideas and practices could help to manage SOD.

Ernie Branscomb said...

Thanks for the comment "unknown". I miss the history that we once shared here before Facebook and sometimes vile anonymous comments. But, I know from personal experience that most people are truly good and caring people.