1907 forestry experiment still growing strong in Pocahontas
BARTOW, W.Va. -- With sweeping views of mountains on one side of W.Va. 28 and the East Fork of the Greenbrier River winding its way through pastures and fields on the other, it's easy to miss a roadside U.S. Forest Service sign marking the site of one of the nation's first tree plantations.
A little-used trail leading from a tiny pull-off area near the sign provides access to the Rothkugel Plantation, an early experiment in industrial logging reforestation begun in 1907.
The plantation came into being after Philadelphia lumberman George F. Craig sought forest management advice from close friend Gifford Pinchot for a 13,000-acre tract of Pocahontas County land he had bought and began logging. Pinchot, one of the nation's first professional foresters, had been named the first chief of the newly created U.S. Forest Service in 1905.
Pinchot, widely known as the father of American forestry, suggested that Craig hire Austrian-born forester Max Rothkugel to work with him on the project. Rothkugel had just completed a 14-month project for which he had been hired, on Pinchot's recommendation, to help a South Carolina firm control fire and more efficiently manage a vast pine logging operation on land that would later become the Marion National Forest.
In Pocahontas County, Rothkugel, who had studied forestry in Europe and at Cornell University's fledgling forestry school, began looking for a way to demonstrate the benefits of reforestation on cut and burned-over land.
After burning slash from a slope about two miles east of Bartow that had been clear-cut one year earlier, the pipe-smoking Austrian forester led a work crew carrying rakes and pockets full of Norway spruce and European larch seeds imported from his homeland to what would become the Rothkugel Plantation.
Since a previous attempt at reforestation by broadcasting seeds on a 20-acre clear-cut tract had failed, thanks in large part to seed-eating birds and squirrels, Rothkugel tried a different approach on the site near Bartow. Here, he had his work crew rake out 2-square-foot patches, or "spots" of soil, placed about 6 feet apart. In each patch, about 100 seeds were planted, with many of them eventually taking root. Strips of thorny black locust were placed throughout the 150-acre plantation to discourage browsing cattle and sheep.
"One man can plant, on an average, only about 150 to 200 seedlings a day, or about one-eighth of an acre a day, while a man can put in about one acre of seed spots in a day," Rothkugel wrote in a scholarly journal article about the West Virginia reforestation project. "It is by far the cheapest satisfactory method of reforestation."
Rothkugel also recommended that West Virginia lumber companies make use of smaller, portable sawmills to avoid high infrastructure costs, like railroad construction, associated with the larger mills. In areas where stands of spruce were being clear-cut, he recommended sparing an adequate number of hardwood "seed trees," like cherry, ash and poplar, to allow for natural reforestation.
Rothkugel left the employ of George F. Craig & Sons within a year after his hillside plantation was seeded. A fire swept through the plantation a few years later, damaging much of it, but by 1922, larch in the tract had grown to a height of 18 feet. Cones were collected by nurserymen to produce seed and new planting stock.
"From 1933 forward to 1941, the Rothkugel Plantation, as it had become known, was the scene of frequent visits by silviculturally minded foresters," wrote Hume C. Frayer, former assistant superintendent of the Monongahela National Forest, in a booklet commemorating the 50th anniversary of the forest.
"Of prime interest was the release of the foreign tree species and the locust from competition by the less desirable native trees," Frayer wrote. "Results were recorded in minute detail. As viewed now, the work of Max Rothkugel at that time had become a field laboratory for the development of native forestry skills."
Rothkugel's 150-acre experiment was the first commercial tree plantation in West Virginia, and one of the first in the nation.
Not long after leaving his job in Pocahontas County, Rothkugel joined the Forest Service and, by 1911, was working in the Pacific Northwest. There, Rothkugel was known to take month-long solo hikes into the woods, carrying only a knapsack containing a blanket, tarp, 10 pounds of cheese and a generous supply of "long, black, rat-tailed shaped cigars he imported by the thousand from Germany," according to Frayer.
In 1913, Pinchot sent Rothkugel to South America to help several countries establish forestry programs of their own.
When World War I broke out, Rothkugel returned to the United States "because of his Austrian ancestry, which made him unacceptable in the South American countries," Frayer wrote. He settled in New York, where "it was rumored that he established a tango dancing academy."
Rothkugel also became one of the first do-it-yourself dance instruction authors, publishing a work titled, "Dancing Charts for Self-Instruction," which included a fold-out groundsheet marked with footsteps, in 1918.
Today, some Norway spruce in the Rothkugel Plantation tower more than 130 feet over the rocky ground, while many larch exceed 100 feet in height.
A trail passing through the plantation leads to the top of Smoke Camp Knob and the site of a former fire lookout tower. An improved trail with interpretive signs is planned for the site.
The Rothkugel Plantation is part of a 9,965-acre tract that Craig sold to the Forest Service in the 1920s, becoming one of the first parcels of land in the Monongahela National Forest. It is located along W.Va. 28, about two miles east of Durbin and about one-half mile northeast of W.Va. 28's intersection with U.S. 250.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at email@example.com or 304-348-5169.