Operation Black Walnut, Euna Mae’s Amazing Enterprise
Euna Mae Trolinger was amazing when it came to stretching a dollar. It was often joked that she could squeeze a nickel until the buffalo farted. (For grandchildren who don’t understand this, in those days nickels had buffaloes and Indians on them instead of Thomas Jefferson.) To this day none of us have figured out how she raised four kids on a minimum wage salary, bought a home, cared for her aging mother and an invalid husband and still left a sizable fortune when she parted this world.
In spite of being relatively poor, the family always managed to take Florida vacations on the beach. With a year’s planning in advance and with money continuously being saved to pay the costs, she had come up with a various ingenious schemes whereby the entire family could earn and pay for such vacations by saving and working together as a team during the year. We all received a regular report describing how close we were to our goal. One of her most ingenious schemes for producing the required funds was accomplished by the team working for a month during the spring, harvesting and selling black walnuts growing wild in the middle Tennessee countryside. Most people were not interested in harvesting walnuts because it was so messy and such hard work; walnuts eventually fell to the ground and if not eaten by hogs or squirrels, rotted and went back into the soil.
When God created the walnut he seems to have designed it to punish whomever attempts to collect and eat it. To begin with, the meat of the walnut is housed inside an almost indestructible, spiked, hardwood sphere about an inch and a half in diameter. Surrounding this wood sphere is a second, pulpy sphere about two inches in diameter with a hard, leather-like, green surface. To harvest walnuts you shake them from the tree, pick them up from the ground, strip off the outer shell and dry the inner part before they are eatable or sellable to a wholesale dealer.
The green pulpy stuff is loaded with a liquid stain that looks almost transparent until it dries at first to a bright yellow color on the skin, and then turns black in about a day. It cannot be washed off and it permanently stains anything it touches. Getting the meat from a black walnut is so much harder than getting it from an English walnut, that the price of black walnut meat was very expensive (probably still is). But, oh, you won’t get any argument that it is far more delicious than it’s English cousin, especially on ice cream and in pies.
We would drive around the county roads, staking out the walnut trees growing in the wild, ready to harvest, sometimes asking permission, especially if the tree was in sight of a home. Most people cheered us on. We would load them in baskets and dump them in the trunk of the car. Mother would hold up her apron and load them in the resulting pouch, walking to the car to unload. I think she carried about as much as the rest of us put together.
During our first harvest we removed the outer hull by smashing it with a hammer and peeling it off, a tedious, difficult, messy task. There was little risk in breaking the inner shell, since it was much more robust. When you hit a green walnut with a hammer, stain sprays the entire surrounding area, and we all wound up with stained faces, hands, and clothes that stayed that way for weeks. Even then, the inner and outer spheres do not easily separate, so it was best to let them lie in the sun for a few weeks until they had turned dark and begun to dry out. We would then lay the hulled inner spheres in the sun for a few days until they were dry and then cart them off to the dealer.
In the beginning part of the season he paid us about 4 dollars per hundred pounds, which was about two bushels of walnuts. For us this was big money and we could see our vacation on the horizon. Then a problem arose. Removing the outer hull took so much time, we could harvest much faster than we could prepare them for market. We tried a number of procedures to speed this up such as laying them in the drive way and running a car back and forth across them. Nothing really worked outstandingly well and we were still stuck with the bottleneck in the process.
As the season moved on the price came down and down to below 1 dollar per hundred pounds. Looking back, I can imagine that we spent about eight man-hours to make a hundred pounds of walnuts, so our earning power went down fast. At some point we simply kept them, cracked them open, picked out the meat and ate it ourselves. The wooden shell would protect the inner meat for the rest of the year. We may have been the poorest family in the country with a copious supply of black walnut meats.
Daddy rarely went with us on walnut hunts; however, he did contribute his part. Seeing the serious problem we were having with the outer hull removal, he devised an interesting invention that eventually made the process infinitely more automated. He constructed a trough that was just the width of one of his truck tires and about six feet long. He jacked up his truck, slid the trough under one of the rear tires, leaving a gap of about 1.5 inches (the diameter of the inner sphere) between the tire and the bottom of the trough. Then he started the engine causing the rear wheel to spin in the trough. In his first trial run he rolled a walnut down the trough under the spinning tire. The walnut, upon reaching the tire, was snatched under the tire, which ripped the outer hull from the inner, and flung the entire mess all over the neighborhood. Seeing the walnut and the hull flying separately through the air we all cheered. A several minute operation had been shortened to a fraction of a second.
At that point he recognized the need for a backdrop to terminate the flying walnuts, so he moved his truck to where the flying walnuts and hulls would smash against the garage wall about twenty feet away, where a pile of pulpy mess mixed with walnuts would form. Soon we were feeding the walnuts into the trough by the hands full. It was like a machine gun, “whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, BAM, BAM, BAM, as the hard walnuts slammed against the garage wall.
Neighbors within hearing range came running from all around to see the show, much like a fireworks display. Many of the inner walnuts would be completely separated and could be simply picked out of the mess. Others needed a little more work, but this greatly speeded up the process. A few of the neighbors were so intrigued they hung around and helped with the operation. Everyone wanted to try his hand at feeding the walnuts into the trough. This allowed us to harvest and process hundreds of pounds of walnuts, sell them at a premium, and pay for the bulk of our Florida vacations with about a month’s teamwork.