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Ash Nelson's walnut link: a long row of roadside trees marked the milestones of this man's life.

Ash Nelson's Walnut Link

Along a five-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 6 in eastern Iowa are 37 walnut trees. Most are ailing and stunted, but a few stand sound and tall, remnants of a splendid walnut row that once linked the towns of Wilton and Durant.

Their planting was the work of Ashton T. Nelson, whose loyalties embraced the two towns despite their history of antipathy born of old jealousy over placement of a railroad station.

Ashton Nelson was born in Durant in 1867. His grandfather, Mathew Brown, had been an area pioneer who came west from New York to settle in 1851, the year the Sioux relinquished their claim to "Iowaland." Young Ash developed an interest in woodcarving, and walmut from his grandfather's farm became his favorite carving material. Pieces of his work still exist as treasured heirlooms.

When Nelson's school days were over, he found work in the Durant hardware store owned by Hans Brauch. A few years later he apprenticed to a Wilton tinsmith. As the tin shop expanded to include a hardware store, Nelson's involvement with the business expanded as well. It became apparent that his future lay in Wilton, but his heart had remained in Durant, in the hands of his former employer's pretty daughter, Lena Brauch.

During Nelson's courtship of Lena, he negotiated the five miles between the two towns on a high-wheeled bicycle he had purchased for $3. At best, riding a high-wheeler down what was then an ungraded country road presented real challenge. In spite of wagon ruts and mud and snappish farm dogs, Nelson apparently found time for contemplation on his nocturnal rides. It's believed that during this time the idea of creating a symbolic link between the two towns began to take shape.

Eventually he was able to buy the Wilton hardware store, and three years later he married his Lena. They settled down in Wilton to raise two sons and two daughters, and in time Ash became one of the community's leading citizens.

He purchased a block-long lot at the west edge of Wilton and developed a large garden. He also started a long double row of walnut trees, presumably from nuts gathered in nearby woods. These were to become stock for his highway planting project. At the time of his retirement in 1929, he had more than the 550 trees he needed for planting at 50-foot intervals along the five-mile stretch of highway between Wilton and Durant.

The project received poignant new impetus in December of 1929 when his elder son, aviation pioneer Thomas Perry Nelson, was killed in a plane crash.

Perry, as he was called, had been a daredevil who as a schoolboy had torn up back roads on a home-made propeller-driven wind buggy; dropped out of college to join the fledgling Army Air Service; and, with Air Cadet buddies Philip Love and Charles Lindbergh, launched air-mail service between St. Louis and Chicago. Perry also tested radio equipment that made blind flying possible, and made air-express history when he raced newspapers recounting the Tunney-Dempsey fight from New York to Chicago so the story could be hawked in the Loop the next morning.

Perry's plane went down on a mail run between New York and Cleveland on December 2, 1929. For the grieving father in Iowa, the walnut-tree planting took on new meaning. It would be in part a memorial to Perry.

Nelson consulted Iowa highway officials for guidelines on tree placement, and for permission to stake the trees to protect them from highway mower damage.

As his project progressed, he would rise early each morning and go to his garden to dig the trees he had selected for that day's planting. Once he had them loaded into his old car, he would tie drums of water to the running boards and head down the highway to dig planting holes and to set the trees and stakes.

He had planted about 300 trees when a grass fire destroyed about 30 of them. Nelson dug up the charred remains and replaced them with sturdy new stock.

In 1935, when the tree row was nearly finished, he learned that he had cancer. He agreed to surgery, and after the operation he was back on the highway, planting the last of the trees, replacing those that had become damaged or failed to take hold, and pruning to encourage uniform growth.

Nelson died in 1937 at the age of 69, leaving for posterity his tribute to two towns and to his son.

But with his death there was no one to tend the trees, and the ravages of nature and an uncaring posterity began. The first break in the row came just a few years after his death when some high-school students drove a car down the row and destroyed about 50 trees. Later many trees fell before the wide-swath mowers of the highway crews. Some of the trees are said to have been cut down by landowners who wanted full sun for rowcrops or unbroken lawn. Lightning, wind, disease, and insects took their toll, as did fires from sparks thrown by coal-fired engines that churned along the railroad tracks across the highway, or from cigarettes tossed by passing motorists.

Today the only clear remnant of Ash Nelson's memorial is a row of seven trees not far from the Wilton city limits.

Sometimes in the autumn when the leaves fall, revealing clusters of nuts, the trees will attract attention. For the most part, though, they are scarcely noticed, except by those who know their story and who remember the man whose joy and sorrow found expression in a tangible link between the two towns that were linked in his heart.
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Article Details
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Author:Lillge, Iva
Publication:American Forests
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 1, 1990
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