Meet George Corsan of lslington, Ont. What he does to nut trees is news to nut experts from Washington to Moscow
THERE are those who feel there is considerable justice in George Hebden Conan’s close association with nuts. This opinion is well known to Mr. Corean. If he cares, it certainly doesn’t cause much of a ruffle on the calm of his 88 years of living. He is a man who has lived broadly—from spending $2,225,000 of someone else’s money to accepting a gift of six swans from King George V—and he would rather create a new nut than be prime minister.
Home to him is a converted barn on his 25-acre Echo Valley nut farm, a few miles northwest of Toronto. There, newcomers he ushered personally into nutdom share the sunshine and rain with nuts developed up through the centuries since the one Christ knew in Hie native tongue as egoz— the walnut, first nut known to man. Mr. Corean has owned Echo Valley since 1911, worked it full time as a nut farm since 1933— and has made it pay.
To see him at work, striding through his lush valley in heavy boots, shaggy knee breeches and worn shirts and sweaters, you would not recognize him for what he is-an internationally known horticulturist. His mail is from Washington and Moscow, Holland and Hungary—news of new nuts, queries about his experiences with old ones. He is a nature scientist, and his main laboratory is the rolling woodland of Echo Valley, where grow 16 kinds of nuts in 400 varieties. One nut, in six varieties, is his own creation, a cross between the Japanese heartnut and the native Canadian butternut. From it eventually may come his main fame. For nuts which can’t stand the Canadian climate he has 15 acres in Florida.
We spent much of ray several visits to his Echo
Valley home lounging and talking in front of his great log-burning fireplace while he worked at shucking hazelnuts from two or three bushel baskets at his feet. Mr. Corsan’s leathery, weather-lined face is bright and mobile, just like his wit. It is not possible to describe him or his age by conventional standards. Some people when describing an old man who retains his faculties say he is bright and alert. Both go for Mr Corean, but there is something else too. He isn’t like a very old man at all. He is well-read, still reads a lot. He knows the news intimately, and his political views are fresh, with the light cynicism of a cosmopolite. His speech is robust, expressive.
He has the physical power of a man in his 40’s or 50’s. He saws his own fire logs, mainly from fallen trees on his own land. One day when we were walking through his valley we found in our path a 12-inch log, eight feet long. Without effort he slung it to his shoulder and stalked off ahead of me up the steep, green hill to his home. The best possible description of him is to say he is a healthy man, without mentioning his age at all.
Visitors to Echo Valley number in the hundreds every fine summer Sunday or holiday. Most are Americans, because the United States has many nut growers and Canada only a few. But all want to know the why and how of his nut farming. He tells them.
Yet his formal education in tree culture is slight. His informal education—70-odd years of interested reading and practical experience—is almost overwhelming. Mr. Corean was born in Lockport, N.Y., son of a banker and great-grandson of an Italian named Corsani who went to Scotland to paint frescoes and stayed to marry a Mackay. He attended high school in Hamilton, Ont., then enrolled in the St. Louis, Mo., Hygienic College for Physicians and Surgeons, where Bernarr MacFadden was a classmate. In his fourth year he was bitten by a copperhead snake and recovered only after hospital authorities had summoned an undertaker. His health was so bad for years after that he never returned to school.
He had all kinds of jobs from then on, from head gardener at a sanatorium to swimming instructor for the International YMCA. But all the time he was reading everything he could find on fruit culture, forestry and bird life.
The Tale of the Royal Swans
HE WAS travelling along an Islington road one day in 1911 when he happened across an auction, bid on impulse and bought Echo Valley for about $7,500, with a down payment (hold your hats, realestate men) of $100. He made it into a bird sanctuary at first. His flocks of wild geese became famous with bird lovers on this continent, and by some means he can’t explain even now, someone in England heard about him and told the King. In 1921 King George sent him six swans. In this connection Mr. Corean has an odd bit of philosophy.
“Never let King George or any other king ever send you any swans, young man,” he told me. “It makes the neighbors jealous. There was quite a to-do when they arrived, people taking pictures for the newspapers and so on, and I heard one of my neighbors say: ‘Why should the King send that old fool
six swans?’ They’ve never forgiven me.”
He never was able to ^ive his full time to the bird sanctuary, however, because his swimming job took him on frequent trips deep into the United States But from his earnings he finally paid off the debt against his land.
In 1926 the break came that moved his hobby of studying nature into a business. He was visiting Dr. John H. Kellogg’s sanatorium in Battle Creek, Mich. A senator who had been scheduled to speak to patients failed to turn up, and Mr. Corean was asked to fill in. He was tired of talking about swimming, so he lectured on birds and trees, mentioning often Jack Miner’s bird sanctuary at Kingsville, Ont. Dr. Kellogg’s brother, W. K. Kellogg, the breakfast food man, came up after the speech and asked how to get to Kingsville. Corean told him. A few weeks later he got a letter from Mr. Kellogg, asking: “Could
you build a bird sanctuary for me?”
They chose Wintergreen Lake, Michigan, as the site, and in the next few years spent $2% millions on it. Then Mr. Kellogg decided to turn it over to the Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science, and Mr. Corean Continued on page 52
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accepted an invitation from the mayor of Whittier, California, to build a bird sanctuary there.
The money grant to build the sanctuary had to go to a vote of taxpayers. By the time they got around to voting, Mr. Corsan had spent $30,000 of his own. The vote needed a two-thirds majority to repay him, and failed by 12 votes.
“The mayor and the people who brought me out there felt very badly about it,” he says, “but that didn’t get my money back.”
He was out of a job, but he was only 75 years old. He thought of Echo Valley, and within a few weeks he was a nut farmer. There was no house on his property. The barn had to do. He put in the basement himself, had someone convert the balance into a two-story dwelling. It is very comfortable, but an autumn visitor needs a certain facility of footwork to avoid stepping into baskets of nuts, grapes, tomatoes and other produce.
This year has been a failure for nut farming, just as for many types of fruit. Mr. Corsan estimates his crop at only about a quarter of normal. Still, his income from nut sales alone will be more than $ 1,000. With sales of seed on top of that (sometimes one nut for seed will bring 25 cents) and sales of nut trees (up to $5 each), he will make a comfortable income. For a man of 88 years, helped only by a housekeeper, you will agree that isn’t bad.
Mr. Corsan has great faith in a Canadian nut culture, which has developed rapidly in the last few years. When the war cut off nuts from Europe, we began buying from the United States—then realized they were grown in a climate much like our own. Hundreds of acres have been turned over to nut production—mainly in British Columbia and Ontario. This increased acreage won’t show much in production figures for another few years, because nut trees don’t produce for three to six years after planting. But the increase is on its way.
Nut production in Canada before the war was so small that no government kept track of it. Things have changed so much that British Columbia is surveying nut acreages there this year (no figures yet available), and W. H. Robertson, provincial horticulturist in B.C.,says that nut farming ultimately will be important enough to warrant its own spot in B. C.’s agricultural statistics. Mr. Corsan is sure it could be just as successful any place else in Canada where there is a reasonably mild climate.
Great variety is possible too. At Echo Valley there are 81 kinds of English walnuts, 40 of black walnuts, 30 of hickories, 29 of European filberts, 12 of «Japanese heartnuts, two of hazelnuts, four of Japanese walnuts, butter-
nuts, chestnuts (including the Chinese sweet variety), beechnuts, chinquapins, pine nuts, gingkos, northern pecans and hicans (a cross between pecans and hickories).
Mr. Corsan especially prizes six varieties of the hybrid he developed by crossing the Japanese heartnut and the butternut. The hybrid tastes like a butternut, but is larger, with a thinner shell and firmer texture. It produces every year, and comes in clusters of from four to eleven, many more than the butternut. Even the great spreading tree is superior. While a butternut sheds its leaves usually in September, the hybrid will hold on for six or seven weeks longer. He thinks it will grow as far north as Ottawa, producing nuts about six years after planting from seed.
Mr. Corsan believes Canadian nut culture need not suffer a setback when Europe resumes exports, but concedes that it may. A fair estimate of the value of the Canadian retail nut business in 1944 would be $20 millions, with most of the nuts imported, so there is plenty of room for Canadian expansion. Nuts cannot be produced as cheaply in Canada as in Italy and Spain, for instance, but ours taste better. European growers must pick their nuts before they are ripe, and kiln-dry them for shipment. Canadian growers can allow their nuts to drop from the trees (the true test of ripeness) and still have plenty of time to gather them and get them to market for the main nut season, Christmas.
Mr. Corsan tells of a buyer from a large department store, who told him once that his price for filberts—about 25 cents a pound then—was too high when they could be brought in from Europe for eight cents a pound. He gave the buyer some of his filberts to taste. The buyer bought the entire crop, at the Corsan price.
Filberts for Profit
Mr. Corsan thinks any farmer in eastern Canada who isn’t growing filberts is missing a few hundred dollars of income each year—and for something that could be only incidental to the main business of running a farm. He has proved that filberts can be grown easily in southern Ontario, filberts which compare well with any in the world, and says that a filbert hedge planted along a farm lane would yield several barrels of nuts a year. At current prices of about 50 cents a pound, each barrel (roughly 120 pounds) would be worth $60. There is practically no work involved either— a little pruning in early summer, then only cursory attention until the nuts drop to the ground for gathering late in September.
He says anyone planting a filbert orchard should space the trees about 12 feet apart in rows which also should be 12 feet apart. For a hedge the trees should be planted no less than four feet apart. Pigs or sheep help the trees develop.
High-grade seed nuts cost up to
25 cents apiece, and nut trees $2 to $5. depending on their maturity. But an entire filbert orchard could be developed in time from one tree by using the “layering” system. It is this: Instead of pruning new shoots as they appear, bend each one a few inches into a shallow trough in the ground and allow the end of the shoot to emerge above the ground after you have filled the trough with soil. In a year the part underground will develop its own roots. Then the end growing from the original tree can be cut and the new growth removed and replanted. In three or four years it will be producing nuts. In five years you could have dozens of filbert trees from the original seed— and each would produce the same quality as the original. When you wish the filbert trees to produce, the layering system must be stopped and all new shoots pruned off as they appear. You mustn’t let your filberts spread into bushes.
Walnuts are easy to grow in Canada. The popular English walnut should be planted on'ground with good drainage, but Mr. Corsan gets around that by grafting English walnuts to the hardy black walnut, which will grow almost anywhere. This gives an odd topheavy effect to many of his English walnut trees, which have thicker trunks than those of the black walnut. When the tree is fully grown the black walnut section reaches about three or four feet off the ground, then the trunk expands sharply (and changes color) into the English walnut.
The search for the perfect nut for this climate is always in the top drawer of Mr. Corsan’s mind. In 1934 he took the advice of another Ontario nut culturist, Rev. Paul C. Crath, and sent to Russia for a ton of English walnuts of a variety grown with success in the Carpathian Mountains. About one quarter of the ton was sold in the United States. The remainder stayed in Canada as seed and was distributed to anyone interested. As expected, this variety took extremely well to this climate, which is similar to that in the section of the Ukraine from which it came.
As in other branches of agriculture, the best produce naturally is used for seed. Mr. Corsan has parlayed this process into filberts as big as small walnuts, walnuts as big as small oranges, and a hickory nut—a cross between the shellbark and shagbark hickory—that has more meat than a large walnut and retains hickory’s superior taste.
If Mr. Corsan were starting all over again, he says he would plant much of his land in black walnuts, because they take admirably to grafting. Then he would concentrate on six other types of nut: English walnut, Superior black walnut (better than the ordinary, rather oily, variety); butternut, Japanese walnut, Japanese heartnut, and his own butternut-heartnut hybrid. Where these six nut trees could not grow he would graft them to black walnut shoots. A black walnut will grow
almost anywhere just by tamping it into the ground. Many of this country’s black walnuts were planted by squirrels.
Mr. Corsan doesn’t advise growing hazelnuts for profit—they take too much work. They must be plucked when ripe, and shucked, and the return is not high enough for the work involved. He told me this while he was shucking hazelnuts by his fire, and 1 noticed that in most clusters he left a nut or two. I thought perhaps he had missed them, and pointed them out. He told me there was nothing in .them, that they hadn’t been fertilized, and that if he picked them it would just make someone annoyed later on to crack a nut and find it empty. It seemed slightly farfetched that he should know, without looking, which nuts contained kernels and which didn’t. I opened several he had left and none of them had kernels. I asked him how he knew.
“Just by the feel,” he replied.
How to Live to 88
Mr. Corsan possibly has more personal interest in nuts than most growers, because nut meat is the only meat he will eat. Not only is he a vegetarian, but he believes meat, eggs and any kind of dairy produce to be harmful. Except for a small amount of butter, he never touches any of it. He never eats white bread. His favorite is a black rye, which is delivered to him three times weekly. He drinks mainly fruit juices, never tea or coffee, and doesn’t use tobacco or alcohol.
His housekeeper was said by her doctor to be about to die, after five major operations, when she came to work for him five years ago. She lives on his diet and feels fine. She makes excellent pumpkin pies, using neither eggs nor milk. They live almost entirely on the produce of Echo Valley, and supplement the income from nuts by selling grape juice from an arbor-type entrance to his home from the road, 75 yards away.
Mr. Corsan has married four times, fathered eight children—five boys and two girls by his first wife, who died in 1930, and a daughter by his second wife. Six of the children are living. One, Hebden Harold Corsan, is a thriving nut farmer in Hillsdale, Mich. A divorce ended his second marriage in the early thirties, an annulment his third in the late thirties. He is estranged from his fourth wife.
Possibly the greatest tribute to his character is that the children of Islington don’t steal his nuts or damage his trees. He lets them swim all summer in the creek which runs through his valley, and in return they respect his property. But although he gets along fine with small boys, he’s death on squirrels and woodpeckers. Squirrels steal his nuts and woodpeckers damage his trees. A .22calibre rifle is his main insurance against them, but it’s been a long, running battle, and it’s still on.
His Florida acres, which he bought in 1939, are about 15 miles south of Miami. He goes down every winter to give his nuts there a few months personal attention and see how his year-round overseer is getting along. His farm is about a mile inland from the ocean, and frostless, of course. He grows macademia nuts (which are little-known, but once jumped to $2.75 a pound when a movie columnist reported that a star of the time ate them for breakfast); cashews, which are not a nut at all but an excrescence on the cashew apple; pistachios, and lichee nuts (in heavy demand by Chinese restaurants).
There is only one tree named after
Mr. Corsan, a tree he developed from seed by crossing a Chinese walnut (brought back by a missionary friend) and an English walnut. It was named for him by the United States Department of Agriculture. Head of the nut division there is C. A. Reed, who visits Echo Valley occasionally for a day or so, and takes a great interest in the Corsan experiments.
These experiments, practically unrecognized in Canada, get world-wide publicity from the United States Agriculture Department. News of the Corsan hybrids resulted in many requests for more information and one, for seed, from the U. S. S. R. Institute of Plant Surgery of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences. The Russians want two
pecks for seed, and will get them. In return they’ve offered some filberts from Latvia.
There are six varieties of this hybrid, but only three have been named so far—for Senator Claude Pepper, because of his kind words for Canada and Britain during the war; for Andy Clark, because George Corsan likes his homely philosophies in his weekly radio program of Ontario rural news; and for Dr. David Fairchild of Miami, Fla., because Corsan considers him to be the greatest gardener in the world. The three unnamed varieties will remain so, he says, until someone else comes along worthy of the honor. It is something to consider. If you try hard enough you, too, may become a nut