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Current River Natural Area

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Published on: May. 2, 2005

Last revision: Nov. 17, 2010

Thunder rumbles in the distance as dusk approaches. A Native American woman studies the rapidly growing clouds. She senses that cold rain and high winds will soon break the drought that lasted throughout summer.

She returns to camp and tells others in her tribe. The approaching storm will rain down acorns as well as water. The next day, they will gather them as a part of their winter food supply.

Some of the trees that sustained Native Americans are still around to nurture us at a secluded and pristine place called the Current River Natural Area. White oaks nearly 400 years old reign over the area.

There's a story about how these ancient oaks in this rough heart of the Ozarks escaped the logger's saw. The area was part of a large acreage in the Current River Hills assembled over the course of several decades by the Pioneer Cooperage Company of St. Louis.

New York-based National Distillers Products Corporation acquired Pioneer Cooperage in 1947. The company wanted to use the oaks to replenish its stock of white oak for barrels. White oak imparts color, aroma and smooth, mellow flavor to fine whiskies.

Two Pioneer Cooperage foresters, Ed Woods and Charlie Kirk, transferred to National Distillers with the land. Their goal was to persuade their new bosses to manage the forests for a continuous yield of white oak. To help their cause, they even invited one of the most influential foresters in America, Yale emeritus professor H.H. Chapman, to tour the forest. Chapman pronounced the area's oak reproduction as “nothing short of spectacular.”

Realizing that the ancient trees had economic, scientific and spiritual value, National Distillers abandoned its plans for four of six intended stave mills. Instead, the company tried to capitalize on its conservation consciousness along with its fine whiskies. One of its slogans was “90,000 Acres of Natural Beauty ... and Barrel Staves, Too.”

In 1953, The Society of American Foresters began negotiations with National Distillers to protect 10 acres containing a grove of virgin, old-growth white oaks under a natural area program the society started in 1947.

The negotiations broke down, however, when the cooperage department head at National Distillers died unexpectedly, and other officials decided to liquidate the white oak. Woods and Kirk, still employed by the company, were dismayed.

Kirk was helping to fight a fire on the Conservation Department's Peck Ranch area one night in late 1953 when he ran into Leo Drey of St.

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