Nick DeLong clears smaller trees growing too close to larger, harvest-quality trees on ground owned by Blackburn College. Photos by Chris Young.
Walnut trees are Blackburn College’s investment in the future
The State Journal-Register
CARLINVILLE — When he was a poor, prospective student with only $35 in his pocket, Marvin Mahan got a helping hand from a sympathetic college president who saw his potential.
Now, 70 years later, Mahan is paying back the college in his Carlinville hometown with contributions that will benefit the school today — and far into the future.
Mahan, 90, a chemist who later pursued other business ventures, gave Blackburn College (about 40 miles southwest of Springfield) $1 million in seed money to build a new science building that opened in 2008 and now bears his name.
And he’s given them something else he hopes will grow in value: walnut trees.
It’s an unconventional idea that has taken decades to take root.
If the college raised black walnut trees — valued for furniture making and especially veneer — Mahan figured the payoff could continue indefinitely if the trees were properly managed and cut at the right time.
“A walnut tree, when I was a kid, was worth $50 to $100,” Mahan says. “Today the price could be $2,500, $3,000, depending upon its condition. When these trees (owned by the college) are ready to be cut, they will be worth $15,000 apiece at least.
“That’s nothing more than inflation,” he says. “This can turn out to be one of the better investments for Blackburn College.”
Not everyone was enamored with the idea, but not everyone thought Mahan was nuts, either.
Jim Bray, chairman of the biology department, says after Mahan made the donation for the science building, he learned about the walnut tree project.
“This guy wants to plant a bunch of walnut trees,” Bray recalls being told. “I said, ‘Well, why don’t we?’”
The college established a plantation of about 2.6 acres planted with 1,000 black walnut trees.
“At that point Marvin got my phone number,” Bray says with a laugh. A college official told Bray that Mahan “is not someone who gets into something small.”
And Mahan was thinking bigger than the 2.6-acre plantation — like 100 times bigger.
“He wanted to plant 100,000 walnut trees as a gift for the future,” Bray says. “That was five years ago.”
Mahan had an idea to plant the trees on 400 non-tillable acres of a farm the college owned south of town. The only hang-up was the family that donated the farm to the college 50 years ago wanted to keep growing crops there, and got the college to agree to a century-long lease.
“I asked the president’s approval,” Mahan says. “I asked, ‘Do you mind if I go talk to the guy who has the 100-year lease — Gene Atkins?’
“I called him up from New Jersey and said, ‘Mr. Atkins, what I would like to do is plant walnut trees on the non-tillable ground.’
“And he said, ‘Go ahead.’”
So Mahan’s walnut forestry program sprouted without the need for the college to spend additional money on land.
Work program spans generations
When Mahan first enrolled at Blackburn in the late 1930s, it was primarily a two-year teachers college. Today, it is a four-year college with majors including sciences, business and the performing arts.
One thing hasn’t changed since Mahan was a student: Blackburn students work a couple of hours each day to help the college and earn some of their tuition.
Because Mahan didn’t have any money and was an orphan when he was looking for a place to enroll, the college president gave him additional duties.
“My grades were pretty good, and (Dr. William Hudson) said, ‘You can come,’” Mahan says.
“So I said, ‘That’s fine Dr. Hudson, but I only have $35.’”
Hudson, Mahan said, responded with, “‘It’s a good thing you didn’t tell me that first. So, you’ll have to do some more work.’
“I was his go-fer, his houseboy, and I took care of his dogs,” Mahan says. “I did a little of everything. But the main thing was I got to talk to him — every day. And he was a goldmine. He had good life experiences.”
South of Carlinville, current students are doing some extra work, too.
On a recent hot summer day in the walnut grove, they cleared brush, cut down undesirable trees and planted new ones in their place. That means Mahan’s dream of a creating a renewable source of income for the college is finally getting off the ground.
Bray says woods were cut about 50 years ago, and some trees that have been growing since then are getting close to the age when they can be harvested.
It’s hard work that hopefully will pay big dividends both for the students and for the college in future years.
“I just hope in 10 years there is a nice group of walnut trees that I had some part in taking care of,” says Vick Davis, who spent one day clearing brush with a weed trimmer outfitted with a metal blade.
Davis is back at Blackburn College for a teacher certification program. He wants to teach art and Spanish.
Davis has a son, 12, and a daughter, 3. In 10 years, they may be old enough to appreciate what is going on and to become the next generation of forest stewards.
“I’d like to bring my kids here someday,” he says.
Nick DeLong is a self-described “super senior” in his fifth year at Blackburn.
He has been cutting up smaller trees, especially those that are not growing straight enough to be considered good for timber.
“It will be really cool,” he says. “I’m looking forward to seeing it in a few years, especially the walnut plantation on campus. It has a good seven-year head start on this.”
DeLong says forestry work comes with a dose of poison ivy, snakes, mosquitoes, spiders, ticks and other thorny inconveniences.
Sophomore Rachel Hart just shrugs it off.
“I live out in the country, so I’m used to it,” she says. “My family owns a bucket truck and we used to cut down trees every weekend.”
Blackburn college students Rachel Hart, Vick Davis and Nick DeLong.
A lifetime of innovation
Mahan graduated from Blackburn in 1940 and went on to study chemistry at the University of Illinois.
He graduated from the U of I in 1943 and went to work for Standard Oil in New Jersey, where he still lives today.
“What we went to work on was synthetic rubber,” he says. “It was a great time to work on synthetic rubber. The war was on. Budgets were unlimited. And we did some excellent work.”
Finding the formula for synthetic rubber meant going against the grain — actually looking at a normal chemical reaction in reverse.
“In organic chemistry, the speed of a chemical reaction doubles for every 10-degree rise in temperature,” he says.
Managing a common chemical reaction was part of standard operating procedure for creating oil out of petroleum.
“We wondered what would happen if we ran this reaction at -72 degrees using dry ice and slowing the reaction to about 16 to 18 hours,” Mahan says. “But surprisingly, we didn’t get an oil; we got a long-chain polymer that looked like rubber.”
Natural rubber inner tubes breathe and hold air only for about a week. They had to be pumped up regularly. Synthetic rubber inner tubes only had to be pumped up a couple of times a year.
“That’s what I spent my time on during the war,” he says. “After the war, I became a technical representative for the chemical division of Exxon-Mobil.”
He stayed for about five years before resigning to start his own company. During his career, Mahan built office buildings and entered into numerous projects — he estimates at least 50 during his lifetime. He even operated a stone quarry.
“I figured Mother Nature won’t make any more stone and it will get more valuable,” he says.
He visited Blackburn regularly over the years, coming back for homecoming activities. Over time, he realized the science building needed updating.
“I had seen the science building and I was ashamed of it,” he says. “It looked like it did when I went to school. They still had Bunsen burners. I didn’t think you could find a Bunsen burner in a laboratory anymore.
“I began to make some money, and Blackburn was good to me,” Mahan says. “It was a chance to pay them back, so to speak, but they have been slow learners.”
Mahan says convincing the college that sustainable forestry was a good investment for the future took years.
Dan Schmoker of Springfield, a board member of the Illinois chapter of the Walnut Council, says people willing to take the long view are rare.
“In our society, businesses look forward to the next quarter,” he says. “Forestry is definitely not quarterly unless you are thinking in quarters of centuries.”
What few people learn in college, Mahan says, is what happens to money over time.
“How many money management classes did you take in college? None? I thought so,” he says. “We train people to go out and get a job, but we don’t teach them what to do with the money they earn.”
Mahan may not be here to see what his walnut trees are worth in 50-60 years, but he has faith this will be the best investment Blackburn College has ever made.
“I’m a firm believer in inflation.”
Chris Young can be reached at 788-1528.